On the night of August 23, friends and colleagues of beloved veteran Muppeteer Jerry Nelson posted the news on Facebook that Jerry had passed away. The news is not a complete surprise, as Jerry’s health had been declining in recent years. But when a man whose work has meant so much to so many people passes on, it’s impossible not to feel shock.
After starting his puppetry career with Bil Baird in the early 60s, Jerry was hired by Jim Henson to fill in for Frank Oz in the Muppet troupe when Frank got drafted. Jerry’s association with the Muppets lasted right up to the most recent seasons of Sesame Street, which means Jerry performed Muppets in six different decades. Even when he was unable to continue puppeteering, and he had stepped away from the Disney-owned Muppet franchise, he continued providing voices for an assortment of Sesame Muppets. It’s actually really difficult to think about new Sesame Street seasons being produced without him.
I don’t know how much coverage Jerry’s passing will warrant in the mainstream news, as he was never a household name like Jim or Frank. But everyone who has ever watched anything Muppets has enjoyed his work. If it were possible to add up the total screen time logged by every Muppet performer, I have a feeling Jerry would have the record. Not every performer can work on every project, for various reasons, but it sure seems like Jerry participated in everything, from The Muppet Show to Fraggle Rock to The Secret Life of Toys, plus tons of movies and specials and records and DVDs, and even an iPhone app.
With the exception of the Count, his characters were never quite as huge as the Kermits or Miss Piggys or Elmos of the world. But Muppet fans know how many terrific and lovable characters he played — Herry Monster, Biff, Floyd, Dr. Strangepork, Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, the Trash Heap — and Jerry was always the perfect guy for any one-shot character, be it a Whatnot, an Anything Muppet, a monster, a Frackle, or a shoddily constructed ventriloquist’s dummy. I imagine anyone who’s ever gone through the process of ascending from casual Muppet fan to major geek has had the experience of realizing just how many hundreds (thousands?) of characters Jerry played, and being amazed by it. (Just check out the “puppeteer credits” of his Muppet Wiki page for further proof.)
Jerry had the most perfect announcer voice a TV series could ask for, and it was put to good use on The Muppet Show, in “Pigs in Space,” “Veterinarian’s Hospital,” “Bear on Patrol,” and even Elmo’s World. As the years went on, and the Muppet universe went through all kinds of changes and adjustments, I always found it reassuring to hear Jerry as the announcer in new productions. It was a comforting bit of continuity and a connection to the heyday of the The Muppet Show. And again, he kept it up right up until the present, providing an announcer voice in The Muppets and at the “Jim Henson’s Musical World” concert at Carnegie Hall this year. I think this is probably going to sound corny, but I really mean it so I’m going to say it: If there’s a heaven, and I get there, I hope Jerry Nelson does my introduction.
Any discussion of Jerry Nelson’s talent would be incomplete without mentioning his gift for music. Has there ever been a better singer in the Muppet repertory company? Jerry’s characters sang country, blues, rock, zydeco, and polka, and they always sounded fantastic. I’m so glad Jerry got to release an album of his own songs… If you don’t own 2009’s Truro Daydreams, you really should. It’s full of fun and love and wisdom and, most importantly, wonderful songs by a man who had a lot of music in him.
All of the above adds up to the fact that Jerry Nelson is one of the greatest and most important figures in Muppet history. All of us who love the Muppets love Jerry dearly, and while he will be sorely missed, we’re very fortunate to have so much of his work to enjoy forever. Reading Jerry’s Muppet Wiki page just now, I came across an essay reproduced from the Jim Henson Legacy’s website, in which Jerry reflected on Sesame Street‘s 40th anniversary and his life as a Muppeteer. I think it’s worth excerpting this passage:
Chance, dumb luck or destiny? Who knows the controlling force that chooses where and how we find our lives manifest?
I can only say I have traveled through the breathtaking up and down melody of a lifetime that, I studied and trained for, wandered the paths of least resistance (following my water nature) to, and that I am either blessed and one of the luckiest bozos walking this planet or both.
Click here to read our three-part interview with Jerry Nelson from 2009. Click here to remember Jerry Nelson on the Tough Pigs forum.
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com