While Jim Henson’s legacy will always be closely associated with his Muppet and Sesame Street creations, the late filmmaker’s talents had a reach that extended well beyond his felt-covered friends. Here’s a look at some of his lesser-known credits.
1. A COMIC STRIP
As a longtime fan of comic strips, the medium was a natural fit for a teenaged Henson to exercise his early creative impulses. Pierre the French Rat was a 16-panel sequential art piece that appeared in his high school yearbook. The title character was a hapless rodent who found himself wandering the hallways of Henson’s school before being blown outdoors by a trumpet. Beret-sporting Pierre soon became one of Henson’s earliest creations.
2. COFFEE ADS
In 1957, Henson was approached by nationally distributed Wilkins Coffee to create a series of extremely succinct ads. The company was only paying for 10 seconds of airtime, and two of them had to be a close-up of the product—that left Henson eight seconds to grab a viewer’s attention. With subtlety off the table, he had his two characters—Wilkins and Wontkins—engage in brief disagreements over their coffee preferences. When Wontkins refused a cup, he was blasted by a cannon. The commercials were enormously popular, and Henson was asked to do coffee spots for various companies through 1969.
3. THE WIZARD OF ID TV SERIES
Henson’s affection for comic strips led him into discussions with artist Johnny Hart, who wrote and drew the popular “Wizard of Id” with Brant Parker from 1964 to 1987. In 1968, Hart and Henson hatched plans for a television adaptation that would feature animated backgrounds and hand-operated characters. A pilot was shot, but by the time networks expressed interest, Henson had moved on to Sesame Street.
4. A NIGHTCLUB
Not all of Henson’s creations were meant to be filmed. In the 1960s, he began developing an idea for a multi-media nightclub that combined projection images of abstract animation and pre-recorded scenes with a lighted dance floor to create a highly immersive entertainment experience. Henson called it Cyclia and explored real estate options on both the East and West Coasts. But after four years of development, other, more tangible projects diverted Henson’s attention. Though he wound up shooting a lot of footage intended for the club, a Henson-designed party palace was never built.
5. A BREAKFAST CEREAL
In the 1980s, Henson decided to try his irreverent sense of humor on a new platform: the breakfast table. He developed a concept for a cereal “endorsed” by the Swedish Chef, the Muppet roster’s less-than-graceful gourmet. Henson and art director Michael Frith considered names like Stoopid Flakes before settling on Croonchy Stars. Post distributed the product beginning in late 1988: To promote it, the company offered a mail-order plush Chef doll, complete with rolling pin and spoon.
6. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
In a comic book or animated television show, it’s relatively easy to depict four adult-sized turtles that talk and perform martial arts; doing so in live-action format, however, required the expertise only Jim Henson and his Creature Shop could provide. For 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, New Line Cinema turned to Henson to design and operate the complex costumes. Two versions of each turtle were made: one for stunt work, and one with an animatronic face for dialogue. Henson would later say it was one of the more challenging jobs in his career. Thanks in large part to his craftsmanship, TMNT turned into a $135 million-grossing blockbuster.
ABC’s 1991-1994 sitcom about a family of anthropomorphic dinosaurs was originally developed by Henson in the late 1980s. When he died in 1990, his son, Brian, assumed production duties. Designers at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop used their founder’s innovative computerized system to control the animatronic dinosaurs’ complex facial expressions.
8. TALE OF SAND
One of Henson’s earliest efforts was a screenplay titled Tale of Sand; the story concerns a man who wakes up in a strange desert town and encounters a series of obstacles (both man and beast) in an attempt to escape. Written in the 1960s and never produced, Sand finally saw the light of day in 2012 when Archaia Entertainment adapted the original script into an award-winning graphic novel.
9. IBM COMPANY FILMS
In 1965, Henson accepted an offer from IBM executive David Lazer to produce a series of short films intended for internal company viewing. The “coffee break” reels were alternately funny—Rowlf playing with an electric guitar—and motivational in nature. Henson would implore employees to “think” while letting machines “work.” One entry had Henson’s earliest iteration of the Cookie Monster dealing with a chatty machine by devouring it. The shorts proved so successful that Henson and Lazer later distributed them to all kinds of corporate audiences.
10. TIME PIECE
One of Henson’s more experimental works, a nine-minute short film shot in 1965, featured a major star: Henson himself. The writer/director took the lead role in a story about a man who interprets the normalcy of his days as a series of increasingly surreal events. It must have been no small encouragement to the artist that the film was nominated for an Academy Award—the first of many acknowledgments of Jim Henson as a singular talent.
For more Henson magic, catch the world premiere of Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow on November 21 at 8/7c on Lifetime.