As he mentioned, Nelson was often given the opportunity to perform the special characters that would show up for a self-contained sketch, or a character that was meant to be a one-shot, but grew in popularity – if not with the audience, then with the company. The blue goat-ish “Uncle Deadly” was one such character. Invented to be the “Phantom of The Muppet Show”, Uncle Deadly sounded like a Barrymore and wreaked havoc amongst the chaos for an early episode. Nelson had fun performing him, and as a result, the character popped up a few more times during the first season, most notably an episode featuring Vincent Price. But it was Floyd that was Nelson’s favorite, and a character that became a staple character throughout the series. “I love Floyd,” he says. “I love the band in all. I’m kind of a frustrated musician in a way, so for me that was the next best thing. To be in a band, even if it was a puppet band, it was very exciting to do that sort of thing. I’ve always loved different kinds of music. The band played different kinds of music over the course of the years, from classical to be-bop. So it was good. I liked that character because there’s a piece of me there, too. A lot of us tend to do that with our characters. It becomes a way to express some other kind of our nature.”
By 1980, the Muppets were everywhere. “The Muppet Show” was in full stride, and the company had already embarked on a big-screen franchise of the characters. “Fraggle Rock” was in the works (pitched to HBO by Henson as “the show that will end war”). Muppets were everywhere, and there were fans all over the world. “I think, maybe we had a vague idea (of the magic being produced). I remember one time, I was working on “Sesame Street” with Richard Hunt (“Statler”, “Janice”). Richard was always great with any visitors. We referred to him as ‘The Tour Guide’ in England. If anybody had come by, he would take them back stage and show them all the puppets on the rack, introduce them to the shop. He was very much into sharing that to people. I remember him saying, ‘do The Count for this kid’. And I went ‘grumble, groan, I’m busy’. But he insisted, ‘Just do it. You can’t imagine how much of an impact this is going to have on his life!’ So I did it, and I could see it in the young person’s eyes. They just lit up. And I realized that Richard was very right in his take on things. Because of (things like) that we had an inkling that the show was giving people a wonderful aside from the nasty reality of everyday. I don’t think I really fully realized that until I went on things like (popular website) Muppet Central and the big (Muppet Fest) convention last year. To see the response of all the people, I think I realized how much we had touched that many people.”
For five seasons, “The Muppet Show” gave viewers nearly thirty minutes of consistently quotable lines uttered by delightful characters. Virtually every moment of the shows is memorable in some way and nearly every fan quotes a favorite, before thinking a moment and deciding, ‘No, this one is my favorite. Or maybe this one.’ Nelson feels much the same way, only from his unique perspective beneath the stage.
“It is pretty much impossible to name a favorite moment, because there were so many moments like that. I guess the archtypical moment would be probably when we worked with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. This is for me. Because when I was a kid, I went to the movies to watch Roy Rogers westerns, that was very high on my list. If you had told me when I was a young movie-goer that I would someday work with these two people, I would have probably told you you were nuts. It was like the dream of your youth crashing into the reality of your adult world. There were a lot of those shows. When Senior Wences and Edgar Bergan came, when they did their bits on Sunday morning, we would just sit there like little kids. It was just magic! I’m sure we just responded that way to the performers, it was just dreams. Of course, Jim would also bring in new talent. Steve Martin, while not obscure, was relatively new. Certainly no star had been reached by that point.”
Jim Henson was the company’s guiding light, not just the founder of the company, but the man who brought them all together. Among his talents was his unerring judgment of character and capability. He inspired his co-workers to reach ever higher in their performances. “He played a character named ‘Cantus’ in “Fraggle Rock” (a leader of a team of minstrels who would inspire the Fraggles to create and find their hearts’ content). Of all the characters Jim played, that one is probably the closest to his persona. He was very much that. We didn’t call him ‘Fearless Leader’ for nothing.”
In 1990, Jim Henson passed away of complications from a viral infection. A little over a year later, Richard Hunt had joined him. “(Those years were) not easy at all. It was frustrating for many reasons because we loved Jim and Richard so much. They were such an integral part of the team. It was devastating because of that. And also because it seemed like we were rudderless for a while. We didn’t do anything aside from immediately doing a tribute to Jim. I was not overly pleased with what that was, in terms of what I thought it could have been. Also I think it was frustrating for all of us because we were all in such stride at that time, doing our best work. At a time when we were really hitting stride, there was nothing going on. It was frustrating to have that time going by and not being able to use it fully. It was understandable, obviously, and clear to everyone what was going on. But still frustrating.”

Posted on March 24, 2004 in Features by

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