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SYFY WIRE The Muppets

Muppet performers share their memories of Jim Henson 30 years after his death

By Tara Bennett
Jim Henson

On the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s death, a few of his former colleagues, including Frank Oz (Grover), Dave Goelz (Boober Fraggle), Fran Brill (Prairie Dawn), and Bill Barretta (Pepe), did a live stream today to reminisce about their former boss. 

The stream activated through their Muppet Guys Talking documentary website actually went down because of the volume of people signed up to attend. But after a 45-minute delay, the conversation kicked off with each of the puppeteers introducing themselves. The moderator was the 2017 documentary producer, Victoria Labalme, who says they received more than 2200 questions from fans, which she then split up amongst the four performers. They then whittled down those batches to the questions asked today.

During the almost 90-minute livestream, the quartet gave detailed answer to about a dozen questions that revealed new stories and insights into Jim Henson’s work ethic, fears, temperament as a person, and boss, and his generous collaborative spirit and capacity to laugh. Here are some of the best things we learned:

There’s a lot of love for Jim’s character, Guy Smiley

When asked their favorite character performed by Henson, Guy Smiley, the amped up Sesame Street character who did weather reports and hosted game shows, ranked as an unexpected favorite. Barretta, Brill and Oz all called out the character. Brill explains, “You didn’t see Guy Smiley coming [from Jim]. By nature, [Jim] was rather quiet and reserved. And then when he was performing, he would slip into somebody completely different who was zany. I don’t know if he thought he would push himself to fulfill the character, or he just went nuts. With Guy Smiley, I was just tickled by him because he was so different from Jim in real life. And he had a tremendous amount of fun doing that character because he was so crazy and outrageous.” Goelz also cited Cantus from Fraggle Rock, and Oz added Dr. Teeth. 

Jim Henson was a collaborator first, and then a boss

When asked how someone like Jim could balance a vast company with such successful in the trenches collaboration, the foursome offered stories about how Henson made sure play was first regardless if it was a boardroom meeting, or on a soundstage. Goelz says, “If you saw Jim in a meeting with the publishing or licensing people, he was the same guy. He would be doodling and he would make funny remarks. He didn’t take the whole business process as seriously as you might expect. All of those businesspeople had great times in their meetings with him.”

Jim’s angry tell was silence

Fans seemed especially fascinated by the fact that Henson is universally lauded as a kind and compassionate leader, who didn’t get mean with anyone. While Oz, Brill and Goelz says they certainly saw him get annoyed, or unhappy with people, they all corroborate that he never got angry or screamed at anyone, ever. Oz says Henson would get deathly quiet if he was pushed towards something he didn’t agree with. And that Jim never swore. Brill says that long-time Muppet writer, Jerry Juhl, labeled Jim correctly as a “dreamer but determined,” and Goelz added that he had “Whims of Steel.”

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How would Piggy, Pepe, Gonzo and Prairie Dawn be faring in isolation?

Each perfomer had fun imagining where some of their feature characters would land in the COVID-19 quaratine. Baretta said lothario Pepe the Prawn would be, “Doing a lot of Zoom chats with as many of his girlfriends in one chat every day.” Oz said Miss Piggy would be speaking to as many publicists as possible and sharing as many photos of herself alone to them as possible. Along with trying to convince Kermit that she is fine and he can visit her. Goelz said, “Gonzo is on a survival mission in the forest with a salad fork.” And speaking to all of our inner Muppets, Brill said that Prairie Dawn would alternate between, “screaming and then telling people to be calm.”

Jim Henson’s thoughts were focused on making things

When asked about his creative process, Oz said that Henson never small talked about religion or politics. “It was always about the projects. Ideas would come up and then he’d throw them at us to discuss it. And when it got serious, he would choose the people to do it.”  Goelz said Henson had an optimism that always paid off. 

Jim’s inner circle of years-long collaborators were no fluke

Many of Henson’s collaborators stayed with him in some capacity until he passed away in 1990. Asked how he was able to land the best people so often, they all agreed that Henson had good instincts. But Oz clarified that some people didn’t work out, and when that happened, Jim had to fire them: “Jim hated confrontation and hated [firing people].” Goelz expanded that Henson was a curator and that people who didn’t stay were few and a mismatch. “He celebrated diversity and loved something about each of the people he brought in. We realized everybody contributed something that no one else can contribute.”

Henson changed every single one of them in a very specific way

Each of the four admitted that Henson, and his ethos, impacted them personally and professionally. Baretta never worked with Henson directly, but as someone who intended to be an actor only, the Henson style of performance let him know that working with the Muppets means you learn to open up and rely on others. Brill learned to be the performer that never screwed up so everyone would have to do takes again, by “focusing on the job and not what’s in my head.” Goelz says Henson gave him a greater sense of what was possible and was behind all the major changes in his life. Oz says starting to work with Henson at age 19 opened up his entire world. “For four years I didn’t do voices, I was just a puppeteer, but Jim forced me to do voices. And he pushed me to direct. I owe him so much.”

Jim had a huge sweet tooth

Despite Henson’s skinny figure that always remained lean, Oz shared that as the young kid who usually got the meals in the early years, Jim always looked forward to dessert. “He treated it like the Holy Grail of the meal.” Goelz added pecan pie was Henson’s particular temptation; “It made him taller.”

Neil Patrick Harris is a Fraggle Rock stan

Goelz who worked on Fraggle Rock with Henson as Boober Fraggle, amongst other characters, says he recently worked with Neil Patrick Harris on a project and found out the actor grew up with Fraggle Rock as a favorite. Goelz says the show was Henson’s bid to stop war. “The show was about harmony, interacting with other species and with the planet. It modeled conflict resolution.”

Henson loved to laugh above all else

Even when things didn’t turn out as he always wanted, Henson made sure to focus on the important things. Goelz remembers having lunch in Los Angeles with Jim when The Dark Crystal came out. He was down because the five-year production wasn’t received well, but at the end of the meal, as they were leaving, he said, “Dave, you know what my favorite thing is? When we laughed.” As an example, Goelz says even after long, 12-hour days when they had to record tracks for soundtracks late at night, “Frank or I would start to giggle and then everyone would go including Jim. We’d have to shut down for 20-mintes to get it together. And he loved that.”

What scared Jim about The Exorcist wasn’t what you might expect

Oz says on the anniversary of Jim’s death he remembered years ago when they were watching The Exorcist together, that Jim admitted he was never afraid of death. “He really hated tests. And in the movie, when the girl is going through all these terrible tests at the hospital, he said to me, ‘I’m not afraid of death, but I am of those tests!’ And that’s the truth.” 

At the end, Brill wished everyone well as quaratine continue and offered, “I feel like a lot good will come out of something horrible like this. I’m not sure what, it could be many things, but I feel something wonderful will come from all this sadness.” Oz added, “When you are working with somebody, you don’t really realize the value of the person because you are so busy working. Only years later did I recognize what a singular experience it was. So, just realize that it takes a long time to appreciate somebody, and we should appreciate them now too.”