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Master of Muppets: The 6 Most Iconic Characters Originated By Jim Henson

Jim Henson's finest.

By Kristy AndersonPublished about a month ago 5 min read
Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog.

Jim Henson Idea Man, a Ron Howard-directed documentary film chronicling the life of Jim Henson. Henson, who died in 1990 aged just 53, packed his all too short life with creative pursuits, including experimental filmmaking, puppet building, and animatronics. However, he is by far best known for his creation of the iconic Muppets.

During his lifetime, Henson performed quite a few Muppets himself. Let's take a look at a few of the most iconic Muppet characters originated by Jim Henson.

1. Kermit the Frog

The Muppet that eventually became the beloved Kermit the Frog was originally just another in the troupe of puppets Jim Henson used for his performances for WRC-TV, most notably in the sketch comedy series Sam and Friends. A puppet with little detail, he nevertheless became one of Henson's favorite due to his easily contortable face making it easy to portray expressions. Henson tried a few different species for the character before eventually settling on a frog, at which point his triangular collar was added and he was officially named Kermit.

Kermit became a regular feature during Henson's time working on Sesame Street, appearing in various skits. However, among die-hard Muppet fans Kermit is best remembered as the Director/Stage Manager on The Muppet Show, a long-suffering straight man attempting to rein in the chaos of his fellow Muppets. He has a similar role in most of the Muppet films, usually portrayed as the glue holding the group together.

Over time, friends believe Henson began pouring more of himself into Kermit, who remained one of his favourite characters to perform. He last appeared on TV with Kermit just twelve days before his death. The Muppet Studio briefly considered retiring Kermit, but it was ultimately decided that Henson would want the character to live on. Steve Whitmire performed Kermit between 1990 to 2017, while from 2017 onwards, he has been performed by Matt Vogel, who is also the main performer for Sesame Street's Big Bird.

2. Ernie

In the early years of Sesame Street, Henson often worked with regular scene partner Frank Oz as odd couple best friends Bert and Ernie. Henson performed as the playful but sometimes irresponsible Ernie, who often unintentionally causes stress and trouble to Oz's more straightlaced Bert.

Both then and in the present day, Ernie appears without Bert more often than the other way around, either in solo musical sequences, or skits with other characters. Henson's Ernie also often appeared alongside Oz as Grover, resulting in a slightly more chaotic pairing.

Jim Henson's original Ernie puppet is on display at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. The character is currently performed by Peter Linz, a one-time background Muppeteer now gaining prominence.

3. The Swedish Chef

For many fans, The Swedish Chef is one of the most popular second-string Muppets. Appearing mostly in a recurring The Muppet Show sketch parodying cooking shows, the Chef speaks in mock-Swedish gibberish as he tries to prepare an average dish in a very non-conventional fashion, sometimes using Sports equipment or even firearms. The sketches usually devolve into pure slapstick as the recipe inevitably goes wrong, or an animal he intended to cook outwits him.

The Swedish Chef is unique among the Muppets in requiring two puppeteers, and making use of one puppeteer's real hands, allowing the character to more easily interact with his props. Originally, Jim Henson performed the head, mouth, and gibberish speech of the character, with Frank Oz acting as the hands. Brian Henson, Jim's son, remembers him rehearsing the Chef's speech on car rides.

Currently, Bill Barretta performs Henson's former role as the Swedish Chef, with Peter Linz as the hands. The Barretta-Linz take on the Chef gained prominence in the 'Okey-Dokey Kookin' segment of Muppets Now!, which replicated the format of Henson's original sketches, with the addition of a celebrity guest.

4. Dr. Teeth

Dr. Teeth, originally performed by Henson, first appears in The Muppet Show pilot as the lead singer and keyboardist of the band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. He is the only member of the band who does not also perform in The Muppet Show's house orchestra, which does not require a keyboardist as Rowlf the dog plays piano.

Dr. Teeth and the rest of the band play a pivotal role in The Muppet Movie, arriving in their tour bus to rescue the other Muppets when they are trapped in the desert, after consulting the script Kermit and Fozzie Bear left behind with them earlier in the film. Henson claimed that Dr. Teeth was the most difficult of his characters to perform due to his gravelly voice.

After Henson's death, Dr. Teeth spent an extended period as a non-speaking cameo character, appearing only to play keyboard for Electric Mayhem, with Floyd and Janice alternating lead vocals. However, Bill Baretta eventually took up the character, who recently returned to the spotlight in Muppets Mayhem, a series focused exclusively on the band as they attempt to record an album.

5. Waldorf

Statler and Waldorf, a pair of seemingly rich, elderly friends, made their debut in The Muppet Show's pilot, and appeared in every episode thereafter, heckling the Muppet performers from their skybox. While most of the Muppets dismiss the pair as sour grapes and pay them little mind, their heckling is a common bone of contention for Fozzie Bear.

Henson originated the role of Waldorf, the mustached member of the duo. Puppeteering Waldorf required Henson to spend long periods squeezed into small spaces with Richard Hunt, Statler's original primary performer. Since Henson's death, Waldorf has been performed by Dave Goelz.

6. Rowlf the Dog

Originally created as a spokes-character for Purina Dog chow, Rowlf the Dog became one of the first Muppets to earn a regular network TV gig, appearing as Jimmy Dean's sidekick in 85 episodes of The Jimmy Dean Show, which aired from 1963 to 1966. Rowlf earned two thousand pieces of fan mail a week, and Henson was so grateful for the exposure that he offered Dean a forty percent stake in The Jim Henson Company, which Dean refused, seeing the attention as Henson's achievement.

Rowlf is perhaps the most laidback Muppet, often entirely unfazed by the chaos unfolding around him. He was one of the leads of the 'Veterinarian's Hospital' sketch, and was eventually given the role of The Muppet Show's House Pianist. He also appears as a pianist when Kermit first encounters him in The Muppet Movie, which presents an origin story of sorts for the characters.

Of all Jim Henson's characters, Rowlf was the one his friends and family believed to be closest to Jim's own personality. For this reason, Rowlf was the only character officially restes following Henson's death, as none of the other Muppeteers, all of whom were close with Henson, could yet face the thought of taking up a character that so embodied him.

After an acceptable six-year hiatus, the Muppet Studio allowed Bill Baretta, who joined after Henson's death, to revive Rowlf for the new series Muppets Tonight, which ran for two seasons. Though he had not known Henson as intimately as the longer-serving Muppeteers, Baretta was and is respectful of his role in the creation of the Muppets, performing Rowlf similarly to Henson, thus allowing him to live on through the character he created.

What a perfect way to honor a creative genius. Rest in Peace, Jim Henson. Your legacy is in safe hands.

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Kristy Anderson

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    Kristy AndersonWritten by Kristy Anderson

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