How Secret Superhero Brian Henson Saved The Muppets and Christmas

Directing a movie is never easy, and directing a movie where the vast majority of stars are puppets is even tougher. Brian Henson’s first film as a director wasn’t just heavily Muppet-based, but was being filmed under extremely high stakes. The recent tragic death of his father had left the future of the Jim Henson Company in doubt, and millions of fans of the Muppet franchise feared for the future of their felt heroes. Thanks to the work of Secret Superhero Brian Henson, they needn’t have worried.

Muppet baby

Brian was born in 1963 in New York, the third of four children of Jim Henson and his wife, Jane. Jim was already working with television puppets at the time, and was known for producing the popular Sam and Friends show, a five minute segment that aired nightly on TV screens in Washington in the late 1950s. When Brian was born Jim was mainly involved in television commercials, but also appeared regularly on interview talk shows with his puppets, being interviewed by major figures such as Ed Sullivan, and enjoying a degree of fame as the leading American proponent of puppetry. In 1963 the family moved to New York to work on new projects and Jane, herself an accomplished puppeteer, quit performing to raise the kids. Jim hired Frank Oz, who would later voice Miss Piggy,  to replace her, and they set about making short films and refining their burgeoning cast of puppet characters. In 1969, he was asked to join the production of a new children’s entertainment show Sesame Street

How Secret Superhero Brian Henson Saved The Muppets and Christmas

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Directing a movie is never easy, and directing a movie where the vast majority of stars are puppets is even tougher. Brian Henson’s first film as a director wasn’t just heavily Muppet-based, but was being filmed under extremely high stakes. The recent tragic death of his father had left the future of the Jim Henson Company in doubt, and millions of fans of the Muppet franchise feared for the future of their felt heroes. Thanks to the work of Secret Superhero Brian Henson, they needn’t have worried.

Muppet baby

Brian was born in 1963 in New York, the third of four children of Jim Henson and his wife, Jane. Jim was already working with television puppets at the time, and was known for producing the popular Sam and Friends show, a five minute segment that aired nightly on TV screens in Washington in the late 1950s. When Brian was born Jim was mainly involved in television commercials, but also appeared regularly on interview talk shows with his puppets, being interviewed by major figures such as Ed Sullivan, and enjoying a degree of fame as the leading American proponent of puppetry. In 1963 the family moved to New York to work on new projects and Jane, herself an accomplished puppeteer, quit performing to raise the kids. Jim hired Frank Oz, who would later voice Miss Piggy,  to replace her, and they set about making short films and refining their burgeoning cast of puppet characters. In 1969, he was asked to join the production of a new children’s entertainment show Sesame Street

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Jim’s creations for Sesame Street - including the earliest appearances of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and roving reporter Kermit the Frog - were enormously popular, and his popularity soared even more when The Muppet Show first hit television screens in 1974. Brian described growing up amongst this world of puppets and creativity; his father was a workaholic and “for us to see our father, we would spend a lot of time hanging out in his studios and his workshop.” Jim was busy, but also included his children in the creative process, with the kids all encouraged to design Muppets of their own. Brian describes the first time he saw one of his creations - a penguin - on screen: “All of the kids in my family would make Muppets for fun. Some were terrible, and some my dad would go, ‘Oh, we’ll use this one!’ When Frank Oz used my penguin in one of ‘The Muppet Show’s’ musical numbers, I was so happy.”

A handshake deal

As Brian grew older, he followed in his father’s footsteps, and was even working on films alongside his father - such as 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper - during summer recess from high school, and his work on complicated scenes in 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan earned him a reputation as a technically gifted puppeteer with a knack for finding creative solutions to difficult problems. This reputation was cemented throughout the 1980s as he worked as a puppeteer and special effects specialist on numerous films including Return to Oz, Little Shop of Horrors, and most notably Labyrinth, in which he also played the voice of Hoggle. 

Then, tragically, Jim died following a short illness in 1990. He was just 53 years old, and the ownership of the Jim Henson Company passed into the hands of his children. It was an especially awkward time for the company as just prior to his death, Jim had entered into a handshake deal with Disney chairman Michael Eisner for a merger, where Disney would acquire the rights to all Muppet properties (except Sesame Street). As the new heads of the Jim Henson Company, Jim Henson’s four children found themselves being tasked with navigating a complex corporate maneuver worth over $100m. Brian was elected by his siblings to be the new head of the company, and set about trying to keep his father’s furry empire afloat. 

Tomorrow, you become a man of business!

At first, this did not seem like an enviable position to have. The proposed merger with Disney quickly fell apart, leading to acrimonious lawsuits. The Henson’s sued first, and when Disney countersued they issued a press release saying “there are tears in Mickey’s eyes today”. The lawsuits floundered, but the problem remained, and although the Jim Henson Company was in sound financial health Disney’s considerable clout had looked like being an important asset in the company’s future. Brian set about negotiating a new distribution deal with the company, and Disney were keen, but in return they wanted something from Brian; an hour long TV special he had been working on for ABC should instead be a fully fledged feature film, for Disney: The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Brian was only 28, and despite working as a puppeteer on numerous films he had never directed a movie before. This provided numerous challenges, including the need to work with celebrity stars. For Muppet Christmas Carol Henson had to approach Michael Caine, which he later recalled was an intimidating experience: “When I met Michael Caine to talk about playing Scrooge, one of the first things he said was: ‘I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.’ I said: ‘Yes, bang on!’ He was intimidating to start with, but he’s a delight.” 

Caine’s austere performance as Scrooge was a resounding success, but so was Henson’s performance as director. Caine later revealed that he was amazed to discover that Muppet Christmas Carol was Henson’s debut feature halfway through the shoot. Brian had not only stepped nimbly into his father’s shoes, but excelled in the process. His debut film helped cement the Muppet universe at a shaky time, and secure the future of the much loved puppets for decades to come. Disney came back with a new deal in 2004 to take ownership of the Muppets franchise, and the Jim Henson Company is now focused on other projects, such as 2022’s critically acclaimed Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Brian continues to work behind the scenes with his puppets, a Secret Superhero creating new worlds from sticks and string, and he shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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