Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Jim Henson’s untimely death at age 53. Bill Prady, co-creator of “The Big Bang Theory” and exec producer of ABC’s new primetime comedy “The Muppets,” began his career at Jim Henson Co. Here he shares his memories of working with the innovative producer and puppeteer whose legacy lives on through the Muppets and other groundbreaking creations.
Those of us who’d flown in from out of town for the memorial were caught short. There were instructions for the service, one of which was a request that no one wear dark clothing. Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who would soon learn that he’d been chosen to take over the performance of Kermit, went and bought a white suit. He took it to the Muppet workshop on 67th Street and had them dye it green. That green.
We gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. People spoke. Big Bird sang. Harry Belafonte sang. All the puppeteers sang – they sat on stools with their puppets held above their heads, their mouths opening in sync with their characters.
All the puppeteers were there except Jim. Jim Henson was dead.
The Muppet offices were in a townhouse on East 69th Street. Not a lot of people worked there – maybe 60. It was a small place that housed a small company. If he was in town, you saw Jim every day. You saw him in the tiny elevator that rose past pictures of “Sesame Street” characters painted on the inside of the shaft between the second and third floor. You saw him in the big conference room with the ornate carved table (Jim loved carved wood) and the painting of Kermit as “Green Boy” (after Gainsborough).
Jim was tall. He was gentle. He sounded like Kermit when he talked. He was enthusiastic and filled with ideas. He was also an astonishing performer. There’s not much to the Kermit puppet — it’s practically a sock. But when it was on Jim’s hand, there was another creature in the room. And he was different from Jim. So was Rowlf the Dog and Dr. Teeth, and yet, they were all Jim.
There was a speed with which things happened with Jim. An idea, a meeting, a sketch on a legal pad became a puppet and then a screen test and then a series. Some things worked. Some things didn’t. You just tried again. Everything he did was rooted in both a big idea and a small idea. “Fraggle Rock” was about tiny silly creatures that lived on the other side of a hole in the wall. But it was also about the environment and interdependence and the notion that we all share the same planet and must care for it.
Jim was about detail. The edges of things. The small things. Look at the face of one of his puppets. The pupils of the eyes are slightly crossed. Because of that, when the puppet looks into camera, viewers feel it’s looking right at them. Jim looked right at you too. He wasn’t distracted. He wasn’t thinking about something else. He focused. He nodded. He thought. And every now and then you were rewarded with the most amazing three words: “Let’s try that.”
Jim giggled when he laughed. His sense of humor could be sly and wicked. He liked a well-crafted practical joke. There was a wonderful story about an elaborate prank played on a very reserved producer who was told by a straight-faced Jim that the Muppets were going to produce a series of health films that would require them to create talking human private parts. Apparently the meeting went on for half an hour before Jim finally “broke.”
The people who worked for Jim felt like family and he treated them like family. There were dinners and costume balls and parties on boats. When he moved to California, there were weekly croquet matches on his front lawn. Not gentle croquet — fierce competitive croquet. Croquet to the death.
I miss Jim every day. It is a cliché to say that the creative and talented never really die, but live on in their work. Jim, if anyone, comes closest to making that true.
I know this because I ran into Kermit the other day. He says to tell you that he’s doing just fine.
(Pictured: Bill Prady, far right, with Jim Henson, center, on Jan. 8, 1990, during the making of the “MuppetVision 3D” movie for Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in Florida)