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Saved From Extinction

The following article is from the issue May 1991 issue of People Magazine.

With Dinosaurs, Brian Henson has given new life to the prehistoric beasts-and his late dad's company.

Too nerdy, too naive, too young, or so doubters whispered four months ago when control of Jim Henson Productions, the firm built by the late Muppetmeister, passed to the third of his five children, Brian. But though only 27 and Grover-gentle in person, Brian also possesses shrewd business sense; in recent weeks he has earned enough respect to impress even Meryl Sheep.
First came the April 26 Nielsen-popping premiere of Dinosaurs-the ABC sitcom about prehistoric lizards who behaved like B.C. Bundys-which Brian developed with the Walt Disney Co. The show not only won its time slot; it scored a phenomenal 71 share among the 2-11 set that the two companies target. On the heels of this success came the settlement of a licensing dispute, which grew out of buy-out talks that collapsed after Jim Henson's sudden death last May, at 53, of a strep infection. Days before both sides were to tell it to a federal judge, Disney publicly apologized to the Henson family for the misunderstanding, and Henson signed a deal that allows certain Muppet characters to star in a stage show and a 3-D movie at Disney theme parks.
"I'm very happy it's behind us," says Brian. "We are anything but a litigating company, so it was an awkward situation. But we had negotiated a separate contract on Dinosaurs, and both companies were careful to keep the lawsuit separate.
Brian attributes his composure to nurture. "We grew up in a very calm household, and our parents were good at helping us understand our priorities and live productive lives that don't drive us nuts." The L.A.-based Henson firm is now equally owned by siblings Lisa, a Warner Bros. movie executive; Cheryl, who oversees the Sesame Street partnership; John, a free-lance movie art director; Heather, a sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Brian. (Their mother, Jane, sold her share to Jim when the couple separated in 1986.)
"Brian has a hard act to follow," notes Duncan Kenworthy, a Hensonite since 1979 who is now vice president of production. "The pressures are greater on Brian than they were on Jim when he was 27."
Though Brian concedes that "things were very bad for a while" after his father's death and that the new job "scares me sometimes at night," he insists that "I don't feel like I'm wearing that mantle." Yet big sister Lisa says, "Everyone felt Brian were the natural heir-he was carrying forward the art of puppetry in both movies and television." Also, she observes, "Brian keeps his ears and eyes open for outside things that might make good collaborations."-like the smash Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for which Brian not only created the half-shell heroes but also directed the backup unit. "For the Henson company," says Lisa, "it was very good to be plugged into something very hip and new."
Born in Manhatten and raised in Bedford, N.Y., Brian was attracted early to his dad's craft because "It was so much fun. We were all hyperserious kids, but when we visited the set, it was obvious that they were having a good time. We'd be reading in the corner and look at our father and his friends goofing around. But we never had the Muppets at home. They were something we didn't touch-it was his business, and it didn't come home with him."
Brian made his professional debute at 17 on his father's 1981 film The Great Muppet Caper. "At work," he recalls, "everybody referred to the boss as 'Jim.' I did too-if people didn't know I was his son, I wasn't going to point it out. But when people start to respect you, you wonder, is it becasue you're Jim's son or becasue you're good at your job?" So, says Brian, "I get out of the company to develop my own reputation," working as principal puppeteer on Little Shop of Horrors and Return to Oz. Two years later, he says, "I came back into the company a little more comfortable with myself."
Another stabilizing influence in Brian's life: British fashion designer Ellis Flyte. They met in 1983 when Brian, a student at the University of Colorado, flew to Paris for the French premiere of his dad's The Dark Crystal. "Ellis was a costume designer on the film who was bringing a replacement reel for one that had been damaged," Brian recalls. "She got delayed at customs. My father went to the theater to appease the audience, leaving me to meet this woman. When she finally got to the hotel, I was totally enchanted. After the premiere, we spent the evening enjoying Paris-and then we didn't see each other for a year."
In 1984, having dropped out of college, Brian won a puppeteering gig on a movie shooting in England. He again met up with Flyte; the couple soon started living together in London, where Brain eventually became production head of Henson's British operations. After Jim death, he and Ellis settled in Los Angeles and, becasue "it just seemed like the right thing to do," were wed last November in the British Virgin Islands.
Until last week Brian was consumed with rushing out Dinosaurs while battling Disney. Now that the Mouse House has settled, he's free to focus on the new series. Citics carp that the blue-collar sitcom lacks a saving idiosyncrasy like Archie Bunker's yahoo bite or Fred Flintstone's yabba-dabba-doo whimsy. But if the younger Henson has truly been touched by the genius of the elder, no one would be wise to bet that he can't bring these big lizards to life.

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