Answering the call

It was while Michael Frith was editor-in-chief of Random House’s Beginner Books series (where he worked closely with Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss) that he discovered his next-door neighbor was directing a new experimental show for Jim Henson that featured a giant yellow bird.

A professional illustrator, Frith began probing his neighbor about the show, which turned out to be “Sesame Street,” and the possibility of incorporating the show’s characters into books. After doing some sample drawings for a calendar, Frith was told he would have to meet with Henson for approval. Henson was so impressed with Frith that he asked him to come work for him.

“I sort of had the feeling with the books you could reach hundreds of thousands of kids, but with television you could reach millions,” Frith says.

Brian Henson, who now runs his late father’s company, believes he knows what so quickly attracted his father to Frith. “He has this incredible and wonderful imagination and incredible eye for detail, and, of course, as an illustrator, he’s one of the best in the world.”

Frith began designing characters for “Sesame Street,” “Tales from Muppetland,” “Saturday Night Live,” and the “Muppet Show” pilot, and suddenly was “seduced.”

Now exec VP of Jim Henson Prods., Frith has worked on numerous projects. He was credited as being the conceptual designer of the Emmy Award-and Ace Award-winning “Fraggle Rock,” the project he holds closest to his heart. He was executive producer of “Muppet Babies” and the CBS Christmas special “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” He also designed five calendars featuring Miss Piggy, a character he created, and currently heads Henson’s marketing department.

The 54-year-old Frith says he sometimes finds that with all his responsibilities, he can go weeks without picking up a pencil to draw a picture and can “sort of feel my blood coagulate and some part of my brain turn to porridge.” It’s then that a deadline will hit and the company will need a drawing for a character or an ad, and Frith will somehow make the time.

“It’s part of the human condition,” he says. “If we don’t do the thing we’re most meant to do, we kill our brain cells.”

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