John Paul Henson, son of The Muppets creator Jim Henson, passed away on Friday at the age of 48 from a sudden, massive heart attack. However, much like his more famous father, he leaves behind a lasting legacy for children of all ages.
Much of what Henson did was behind the scenes and his face is not as recognizable as his father’s, but his work is instantly recognizable to many who grew up enjoying The Muppets and Sesame Street.
Henson got his start early in life, appearing in the elder Henson’s Numerosity films. In this series of short films, which were made for Sesame Street, children were taught about numbers. Henson appeared as a child ringing 10 bells. In addition, he appeared in Bufferin’s film Memories playing the role of the narrator’s son.
In the late ’80s, Henson took over the puppetry for the ogre character of Sweetums when Richard Hunt was no longer able to. However, Hunt continued to voice the character until his death in 1992. Henson then took over, appearing in Muppet*Vision 3D. While Hunt performed the dialogue in the aforementioned movie, Henson took over in Muppet Treasure Island and other subsequent appearances of Sweetums. He performed the voice and puppetry for the character for the last time in 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Other performers have given life to character since that time.
Henson’s character of Sweetums has also made several live appearances, which included a 1992 Lincoln Center tribute to his father, MuppetFest in 2001 and the unveiling of Kermit the Frog’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002.
Other characters that the puppeteer performed include an appearance in the Creature Shop’s original Coca-Cola Polar Bear suit for a public relations tour.
In addition to his work in puppetry, Henson was also a skilled sculptor. Working together with John Kuhn in the 1980s, he built “The Great Hot Air Balloon” to decorate the spiral staircase at the headquarters for Jim Henson’s New York Workshop. The large wire, metal and wood sculpture began at the lobby continuing up to the fourth floor. It also included PVC figures of the Muppets. In addition, another of his sculptures, composed of metal with moving parts, graces the company’s current offices.
Henson was also a shareholder and board member of The Jim Henson Company.
The characters of The Muppets are still much beloved and have recently found renewed public interest thanks to a new film, Muppets Most Wanted, which opens March 21. There has also been a series of Super Bowl commercials with The Muppets featuring the Toyota Highlander.
In addition to the legacy of his work, Henson also leaves behind two daughters: Katrina, 15, and Sydney, 10. It has been reported that a private service will be held in his memory.
Like his father, Jim, John Paul Henson passed away at a young age. His father was only 53 when he died in 1990 from organ failure associated with bacterial pneumonia. The younger Henson continued to help run the company following his father’s death.
By Nancy Schimelpfening