The common perception of Jim Henson is that he was Kermit The Frog, the steadying presence amid the whirling chaos that resulted from any attempt to bridge the world inside his head with our own. But the truth is that Henson was just as likely to be the cause of that chaos, whether chafing against the impression that his creations were “just kids’ stuff” or nearly bankrupting his investors during the troubled development of an ambitious, all-puppet fantasy film. Distilling the many sides of their subject into a definitive representation is the greatest challenge facing any biographer; fortunately, Brian Jay Jones has been given plenty of time and space to do so with Jim Henson: The Biography.
The creative force behind The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth did a tremendous amount of living for someone who died in his mid-50s. On that count alone Brian Jay Jones’ book earns its 600-page heft—as portrayed in the words of Jones and his sources, Henson’s perpetual sense of momentum could’ve generated enough anecdotes to fill a volume three times that length. But the book’s comprehensiveness is also a function of Jones’ onus as biographer: For a pop-culture figure who had as tremendous an impact as Henson did, such a penetrating look at his life is long overdue. Much has been written about Henson—during his life and after—but nothing with the same sense of authority and access as Jim Henson: The Biography. Clearly, Jones didn’t want to leave anything out.
And yet, something will inevitably go missing: After all, Jones didn’t have direct access to his subject, who was never the most forthcoming interview subject in the first place. The author acknowledges, with much gratitude, the full cooperation of Henson’s family and collaborators—some of whom, like his wife Jane Henson and long-time Muppet performer Jerry Nelson, have since passed—and that’s something of an understatement. Without these people or the resources of The Jim Henson Company, there is no Jim Henson: The Biography. The results are a lively team effort worthy of the subject himself: Many voices guided by a confident conductor, archival materials seamlessly blended with primary sources. The story takes some time to get going, but becomes compulsively readable by the time Jones starts chronicling early Muppet works that now only exist in the memories of people like Frank Oz, or in the remembrances left behind by Nelson, Jane Henson, or Henson’s go-to writing partner, Jerry Juhl.
Jones’ prose is reportorial but evocative, verging only on purple in passages like the opening description of the Mississippi lowlands of Henson’s youth, which glides over the landscape like the opening shots of The Muppet Movie. In straight-forward, chronological fashion, Jim Henson lays out the story of the man’s life: Inheriting an artistic temperament from beloved grandmother “Dear”; a childhood fascination with television that would lead him to the studios of NBC affiliate WRC in Washington, D.C.; meeting Jane in a puppetry class at the University of Maryland; nearly two decades of struggling to carve out a TV niche before the 1976 arrival of The Muppet Show. Jones allows the events and quotes form a portrait of Henson, with minimal editorializing—though one later chapter steps down from its observational perch to dispel rumors that Henson’s Christian Science upbringing delayed treatment of the bacterial infection that killed him.
If anything holds up a book-length examination like Jim Henson, it’s that Henson’s wild imagination aside, the man conducted himself as a hard-working, mild-mannered guy. Perhaps he worked a bit too much, but in the recollections Jones assembles, almost none contain a bad word about his subject. It could border on hagiography, were it not so easy to believe. Henson was a genuinely good person who wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it, and he did so by building a miniature media empire that, by remaining financially sound, was able to put the quality and purity of its artistic vision first. Of the roles Henson plays throughout the book, boss is the most fascinating. A shrewd businessman and watchful protector of his creations, the Henson of Jones’ book also suffers from tunnel vision, his devotion to one project over another sometimes causing rifts between his employees. It seems his one fault as a manager of people was his utter geniality: One standout anecdote finds Henson entering a meeting with the ostensible purpose of firing performer Richard Hunt, a session that instead ends in a warm bear hug.
For all its comprehensiveness, Jim Henson: The Biography can only go so deep into certain corners of Henson’s work. But full histories of Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live (not to mention the essential, sadly out-of-print Muppet Show making-of Of Muppets And Men) exist to detail how those shows were effected by Henson; Jim Henson is about how Henson was affected by those shows. And though the author was given an unprecedented look into Henson’s private life, he still comes up with an incomplete picture of his marriage, which slides into separation in later chapters. And, thus, an individual who valued his privacy retains some elusiveness. That’s an important concession to be made by a profile of a performer, because Jim Henson was never just Kermit The Frog; that’s the kind of pigeonholing Jim Henson: The Biography avoids as well.