Miss Piggy is reclining gracefully on a sofa, picking Kermit-green pistachios out of a crystal goblet, and intoning “He loves me . . . he loves me not.” It’s all part of a TV commercial designed to promote both Wonderful® Pistachios (slogan: “Get Crackin’”) and the new Disney release, Muppets Most Wanted. Which means a Jim Henson creation is back where it all started, in the wonderful world of advertising.
Jim Henson was astonishingly young when he started earning a good living by creating wacky commercial messages for a local brand, Wilkins Coffee. The brand-new medium of television proved to be immensely hospitable to a tall, lanky fellow in his early twenties with an offbeat sense of humor, an inexhaustible work ethic, and a trunkful of what he called “muppets.” It was not that Jim aspired at first to be a great puppet master. Puppetry was one of the many tricks he had up his capacious sleeves as he sought to live a life that was creative, constructive, and fun.
I learned a vast amount about Jim Henson from a best-selling new book by my friend and colleague, Brian Jay Jones. His Jim Henson: The Biography has the advantage of loving input from Henson’s ex-wife and five children, all of whom had been close Henson collaborators in the course of his varied career. Though Jim was not the easiest of spouses, he was clearly an exemplary father, and his sense of kinship with children everywhere contributed hugely to his success. Still, he by no means wanted to be remembered solely as a entertainer for the small-fry set. Throughout his relatively brief life (he died at 53), his artistic ambitions never quit.
Case in point: in 1965, not yet 30, he stepped away from puppetry to write, produce, direct, and star in a short experimental film. The full implications of “Time Piece” (see below) cannot be pinned down, but Henson brilliantly uses percussion, animation, montage, and other audio-visual tricks to capture -- in nine brief but potent minutes -- a sense of a man succumbing to the pressures of a life that’s rapidly ticking away. It’s definitely not for the kiddies, and there’s not a Muppet in sight. “Time Piece” was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Live-Action Short. He didn’t win, but eventually a long slew of Emmys would grace his mantel.
Jim Henson never shrank from a technological challenge, nor from an artistic one. It had not occurred to me before reading this book that puppeteers like Henson, who work with their hands inside their characters, are always faced with the need to stay out of sight. When you’re six foot three, this isn’t easy—especially when, as in the opening of The Muppet Movie, Kermit the Frog is perched on a log in the middle of a swamp. To achieve the first impression of a banjo-playing Kermit surrounded by water, Jim squeezed himself into a cramped diving bell in a studio backlot tank, then manipulated his character from underwater. (In The Great Muppet Caper, Henson and his team topped themselves with a Miss Piggy-starring water ballet.)
I return to “Time Piece” because it captures something fundamental in Jim’s nature -- a feeling that life is short. The words of poet Andrew Marvell probably resonated with Jim: “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” His brother died young, and he himself seemed to need to live fast and cram in many projects at once. But when he died in 1990, from a sudden but devastating illness, it’s amazing how much he’d accomplished.
Brian Jay Jones will be one of my three panelists on Saturday, May 17 at the conference held by BIO –the Biographers International Organization – on the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts. We’ll be discussing “Getting the Family on Board,” a subject about which Brian knows a great deal. The public is cordially invited.