Brian Henson was the third child of Jim and Jane Henson. As a child, he made several cameo appearances in Sesame Street segments, notably counting three peas, eight ping-pong balls, and various types of coins in the "Number Song Series." His first Sesame Street cameo, however, was in a film in which he and another boy play in the sand, pretending to be vehicles. As he got older, he built the very first Muppet Penguin puppet for an episode of The Muppet Show. During a summer break from high school, he assisted in the bicycle sequence from The Great Muppet Caper. He helped create and operate a special rigging device that was created to allow the Muppets to ride bicycles, since he was skilled in the use of marionette puppets. A few years later, he operated a marionette of Scooter riding a bicycle in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
“I was just a typical 17 year-old. I wanted a summer job, I didn't want to live at home, and I was very into being independent and living by my own means. Basically, my father suggested, "Maybe you want to go work at Sesame Place." My sister had a friend whose family owned a boarding house in Princeton, New Jersey – so that was why I really went to do it. I was basically helping kids who were crying on the rides and cleaning up bathrooms and smiling a lot with everybody else who ran Sesame Place. I think Sesame Place really wasn't part of an ambitious move – I was just a kid with a summer job. But I did meet people who I've continued to know all my life; who are all very successful in the film industry... Which is really kind of weird, that you'd go to this small town amusement park and be picking up cigarette butts with three other guys, and then 20 years later they're all big shots in the film industry.”
During the 1980s, Henson wanted to make a name for himself and find work without his father's help. He performed Jack Pumpkinhead in Return to Oz, operated special effects in Santa Claus: The Movie, and was a principal performer for the Audrey II puppet in Little Shop of Horrors, controlling mouth movement while others performed the lips and vines. In an 2013 interview, Henson discussed the difference between working on Return to Oz and working on a Muppet movie:
“It’s quite different, because you’re basically shooting a live-action movie, not a puppet movie. [Director] Walter Murch had a real shooting style that was very important to him. He’s a very careful, considered director. He really knew what he wanted. Whereas with a Muppet movie, you design how you’re going to shoot the movie around what puppets can do. This was different. We kind of had to figure out how to do every shot he wanted to do. We had five or six versions of every puppet, so the moment when Jack stands up full figure is actually a puppet made to complete that one motion. It was a different time when you could really take apart every shot and really build and prepare for every shot. Which is similar to the way post-production is approached together today, but pre-production never is anymore.”
Creature Shop involvement
In 1986, Brian Henson performed the voice and face movements of Hoggle in Labyrinth. He then performed the regular role of Dog on The StoryTeller and The StoryTeller: Greek Myths. He also performed occasionally on Dinosaurs.
“Once Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was firmly established in London after the end of Labyrinth production, everyone was eager to take advantage of the talent assembled. The shop had made the characters for the feature film Dream Child in 1984 and then in 1986, made a Koala for Qantas Airlines. Jim hoped to continue with these types of outside project as a way to keep everyone busy between Henson projects, but with the good response to The Storyteller pilot, it was clear there would be opportunities to continue with his own work in the UK. While the Creature Shop’s Henson work had, until that time, focused on feature films, several television projects were on the horizon and it was clear talent was needed for the eight additional Storyteller episodes, Greek Myths, Mother Goose Stories and The Ghost of Faffner Hall.
Brian Henson was chief puppeteer on Labyrinth, assisted by Kevin Clash. The two worked well together and had run a puppeteers workshop to cast the background puppeteers for the film. They knew a small group of performers but hoped to expand for the upcoming television productions. At that time, according to Brian, lots of performers listed “puppeteer” on their resumes, but their skills were really in the performance of animatronic creatures not hand-puppets. For the new television work planned, hand puppeteers were required. To identify people with potential and to develop a base of performers in London, Brian put out an open call. In response, hundreds of resumes poured in and were reviewed for the 1987 workshop. About 250 people were given auditions on the rehearsal stage upstairs at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. Brian and Kevin narrowed the group down to about forty to start training and then reduced the group to twenty. By the end of the two weeks, about ten performers had been chosen for screen tests. Brian reviewed the footage with Jim and from a group that included John Eccleston, Alistair Fullarton, Mike Quinn, Marcus Clarke and others, they chose performers for the various projects shooting in the UK.
Puppeteer workshops and training have a long history at Henson. In 1970, Jim held a workshop to expand his puppeteer roster going into the production of The Great Santa Claus Switch – there he found Fran Brill and Richard Hunt. Brian ran workshops for both Dinosaurs and Muppets Tonight. Jane Henson held informal training sessions regularly over the years. Henson puppeteers routinely travel abroad to train puppeteers for the international co-productions of Sesame Street. And Jim, when he could squeeze it into his schedule, was happy to share his craft with puppetry students. During the summer after the London workshop, Jim and Brian went to the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France and spent a couple weeks teaching young performers and sharing their insights.”
Henson Company involvement
In 1990, after the death of Jim Henson and the dissolution of the company's planned merger with The Walt Disney Company, Brian, along with his other siblings, took over operations of The Jim Henson Company.
In January 1991, at the age of 27, Brian was named President, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer of the Henson Company.
In 1995, the Henson Company created the Office of the President and longtime Henson executive Charles Rivkin became President and Chief Operating Officer, while Brian became President and Chief Executive Officer.
After the sale to EM.TV in 2000, Brian became chairman until he resigned in 2002. One year later, he led his siblings in the re-acquisition of the Henson Company from EM.TV.
Brian Henson has produced many Henson series, and he directed select episodes of Mother Goose Stories, Dinosaurs, Muppets Tonight, and Farscape. He also directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island.
Brian Henson became one of the core Muppet performers starting with Muppets Tonight, where his roles included Sal Minella, Seymour the Elephant, Nigel the Director, and Dr. Phil van Neuter. In the Behind-the-scenes feature on the Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story DVD, Brian Henson refers to Bill Barretta as his "performing partner", and together they performed such duos as Seymour and Pepe, and Johnny Fiama and Sal. Barretta also normally performed the hands of Dr. Phil van Neuter, and in Episode 103 of Muppets Tonight, Henson's character Sal had a run-in with Barretta's Bobo the Bear, in which Sal was hurled from the building for continually referring to Bobo as "butt-head."
Although Dr. Phil van Neuter was occasionally used after Muppets Tonight, Henson's only character from that series that continued to appear regularly was Sal, who appeared in Muppets from Space, It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, The Muppets Wizard of Oz, and other productions through the late 2000s.
At the 2001 live show, The Muppet Show Live, Brian Henson finally took over one of his father's characters, the Newsman. In It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Henson took over two of Richard Hunt's characters, Scooter and Janice. Henson would perform these two characters again, along with the Newsman, in the video game Muppets Party Cruise.
In 1999, Brian Henson appeared in a series of introductions that were recorded especially for The Muppet Show reruns on the Odyssey Network. He also recorded audio commentary for the original DVD releases of The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, and he appeared in some features on the DVD releases Dinosaurs: The Complete First and Second Seasons and Dinosaurs: The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons (providing audio commentary on the latter).
Henson also directed Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars in 2004. He performed Augustus Pfiffle in Late Night Buffet with Augie and Del, a puppet-hosted, improvisational talk show, in which he has joined once again with Bill Barretta, who performed co-host Delbert Kastle. He is also involved with Puppet Up!. In 2007, Barretta and Henson wrote, produced, and directed LOGO's Tinseltown, and they performed the puppets of Bobby Vegan and Samson Knight. He also directed and is executive producer of Sid the Science Kid. Henson was the lead judge of the reality series Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge. He also directed the Henson Company puppet movie The Happytime Murders.
Muppet/Creature Shop puppeteering credits
- Muppet Characters: Dr. Phil van Neuter, Sal Minella, Seymour, Elvises, Nigel, Andy Pig (Muppet Classic Theater only), Scooter (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Muppets Party Cruise), Janice (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Muppets Party Cruise), Sheep (Muppet Classic Theater), The Newsman (The Muppet Show Live, Muppets Party Cruise), Whatnots (Muppets Tonight)
- The Muppet Movie: right-handing Fozzie Bear
- The Christmas Toy: Cruiser
- Labyrinth: Hoggle, Goblins
- The StoryTeller: Dog, Griffin ("The Luck Child")
- The Jim Henson Hour: Ultragorgon, Dog the Dinosaur
- The StoryTeller: Greek Myths: Dog
- Dinosaurs: Arthur Rizzic, Aubrey Molehill, Ethyl (body, seasons 1-2), Grapdelite, Art Nielsen
- 1993 Royal Variety Performance: Bossman
- D23 Expo 2011, performer in "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" (as character resembling Yorick)
- Late Night Buffet with Augie and Del: Augustus Pfiffle
- Puppet Up!
- That Puppet Game Show
- The Happytime Murders
- Mother Goose Stories
- The Muppet Christmas Carol
- "Kokomo" music video
- Muppet Treasure Island
- Muppets Tonight
- Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story
- MasterCard commercial
- Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars
- Nightmares & Dreamscapes ("Battleground")
- Frances (select episodes)
- The Skrumps ("Dance Without Feet" music video)
- Sid the Science Kid
- The Happytime Murders
- Muppet Classic Theater (1994) - Executive Producer
- Muppets on Wheels (1995) - Executive Producer
- Yes, I Can (1995) - Executive Producer
- Things That Fly (1996) - Executive Producer
- Aliens in the Family (1996) - Executive Producer
- Bear in the Big Blue House (1997) - Executive Producer
- The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) - Executive Producer
- That Puppet Game Show (2013) - Executive Producer
- Earth to Ned (2020) - Executive Producer
Awards & honors
- Won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing in a Children's Program for Mother Goose Stories
- Won the Scientific and Engineering Award for the development of the Henson Performance Control System (Shared with: Faz Fazakas, Dave Housman, Peter Miller, and John Stephenson)
- Won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program for: Muppets Tonight.
- Brian Henson on the Henson Alternative Wiki
- Brian Henson on the Henson Digital Puppetry Wiki
- IGN Interview
- Entertainment Weekly interview
- Jim Henson's Red Book (11/3/2011)
- Davis, Michael Street Gang, page 163
- Henson, Brian Brian Henson Introduction for Episode 304: Gilda Radner
- Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works. 1993.
- Jim's Red Book entry
- Plume, Ken.Interview with Ken Plume, August 2000
- Plume, Ken. Interview with Ken Plume, August 2000.
- D23 Web Extra: 23 Questions with Brian Henson
- Jim Henson's Red Book 5/1/1987 - 'Brian and Kevin doing 2 week workshop in London'