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How Jim Henson Worked

The Blessing and Curse of 'Sesame Street'

Contrary to popular belief, Jim Henson wasn't a creator of "Sesame Street", but his Muppets were integral to the show's success. At first, Henson wasn't interested in participating in a children's show, but he was eventually persuaded to sign on by the lofty educational and humanitarian goals of The Children's Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop): "to use the medium of television as a tool to help children learn [source: Sesame Workshop]. During the first seven seasons, Henson also produced short segments for the show, in which he employed several different techniques: live-action film, traditional animation, stop-motion animation, Claymation and computer animation.

Around the time of the show's debut, Henson began producing a series of Muppet TV specials, which set the wheels in motion for a Muppet TV show. The problem was the typecasting that Henson had been afraid of when he signed up to work on "Sesame Street" -- the networks didn't know what to make of the characters and concepts, or of a puppet show that wasn't intended just for children [source: Plume].

Meanwhile, Henson had the opportunity to reach a new audience when his team performed sketches on "Saturday Night Live" during that show's first season, but ultimately, it didn't work. Although Henson appreciated what SNL creator Lorne Michaels was trying to achieve, the collaboration never quite got off the ground [source: Harris]. His wish to reach a wide audience finally came true when "The Muppet Show" began filming in the United Kingdom in 1976 and became a huge hit.

More than just a puppeteer, Henson was a "cultivator of talent" and "understood how to put the right talents together to form a powerhouse ensemble" [source: Stephens]. Steve Whitmire was 18 when he was hired to work on "The Muppet Show." In one incident, Whitmire was having trouble with his character, and they were running out of time. In an interview with Muppet Central, Whitmire says that while they could've just passed it off to a more experienced puppeteer, Henson "would not let me get off the horse." He adds "But it was so gentle [...] he was so patient and so slow. I remember that so well because that's the way he was" [source: MuppetCentral].

"The Muppet Show" spawned a successful film, and Henson ended the show in 1981 to focus on making movies. While he returned to his roots a bit with the Saturday morning cartoon "Muppet Babies" in 1984, he broke new TV ground with "Fraggle Rock," which explored serious themes such as prejudice and class structure within an allegorical world. Although he created the shows (and performed some minor Fraggles), Henson wasn't hugely involved in their day-to-day operations.

We may have already surprised you with some of the things that Jim Henson has done, but there's so much more. Did you know that Henson made experimental films? Read on to learn about some of his non-Muppet endeavors.