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That's why in 1983 -- as greenmailers Saul Steinberg & Irwin Jacobs swooped in and threatened to break up Walt Disney Productions and sell it off for parts -- Henson suddenly pictured himself as the savior. The guy who could pick up the reins at Disney and lead the corporation back to glory. Jim reportedly envisioned bringing all his Muppeteer buddies on board with him, to help re-energize Walt Disney Productions' feeble film and television operations. He even saw a role in this enterprise for Bernie. Brillstein would supposedly be the guy who would use all of his Hollywood connections to get people like Belushi, Radner, Dan Ackroyd, Steve Martin, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to start making movies for the Mouse House.
The only problem with Henson's plan is that Jim got into the game a little too late. As Bernie began making discreet inquiries about the status of Walt Disney Productions, he learned that Roy Disney and Stanley Gold -- with the help of Texas billionaires, the Bass Brothers -- had already begun mounting a serious effort to get Ron Miller removed as head of the Disney corporation. Quickly realizing that the Disney, Gold & Bass team had some very deep pockets, Brillstein knew that there was just no way that he & Henson could ever line up enough cash to outbid these guys. Which is why -- sadly -- Bernie had to go back & tell Jim that this is one dream of his that Brillstein wouldn't be able to make come true.
Still, Bernie like the idea of a Henson / Disney pairing. Which is why -- sometime after Michael Eisner was installed as head of the Walt Disney Company in September 1984 -- Brillstein proposed a meeting between Jim Henson & Eisner to discuss a possible merger between the two family entertainment giants.
Michael -- who'd actually been a friend of Jim's for years at that point (While he was head of Children's Programming at ABC back in the early 1970s, Eisner put up the money that Jim needed to complete production of the first pilot for "The Muppet Show." Michael -- or so I've been told -- really loved the show that Henson had put together, a weird little half hour program called "Sex & Violence." But -- in the end -- Eisner just couldn't persuade the ABC network brass to allow a series based on that first Muppet TV show pilot to go into production as a series) -- quickly warmed to the idea. That's why -- a few weeks later -- Brillstein, Henson, Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg sat down in a private dining room at Chasen's restaurant to see if some sort of Disney / Muppet deal couldn't be worked out.
Unfortunately, about this time (Mid-1985), the Muppets weren't exactly what you'd call a hot property. The "Muppet Show" TV series had been off the air since 1981. And the Henson Company's most recent feature length project -- "The Muppets Take Manhattan" -- had just tanked at the box office. As a direct result of this film's failure, sales of Muppet merchandise were down significantly. So it was kind of understandable that -- while the new management team at Disney was seriously interested in acquiring the Muppets -- the Mouse wasn't all that eager to pay top dollar for Kermit & Co.
Another stumbling block to the deal was that -- should the Walt Disney Company actually acquire the Muppets -- that didn't mean that Mickey also got his mitts on the "Sesame Street" characters. You see, Ernie, Bert and the rest of their felt friends who appeared on the PBS kids program were only half owned by the Jim Henson Company. The other 50% share in the characters is owned the Children's Television Workshop, the production company that actually produces the "Sesame Street" television series.
If the "Sesame Street" characters had been thrown in as part of the deal, Disney probably would have gone for Henson's proposal back in 1985 in a heartbeat. But since all that Jim was offering was Miss Piggy & pals -- plus his creative services, of course -- Disney took a pass on Henson's proposal. At least for a couple of years.
(To learn more about this interesting moment in Disney history, I seriously suggest you pick up a copy of Brillstein's supremely entertaining biography. And it's not just the Disney & Henson stuff that makes "Where Did I Go Right?" worth reading. There's all sorts of great stories in here about lots of other big-time Hollywood movers and shakers. If you're looking for something juicy to read on the beach this summer, you really can't go wrong with "Where Did I Go Right?" )
Next Time ... With the opening of Disney / MGM Studios, Eisner suddenly realizes that he needs a lot more characters to people his theme park. So guess which puppeteer Michael places a phone call to?
- Part Two of this article
- May 24th Jim Hill column on the current potential Disney/Muppet acquisition
- July 12th Jim Hill column on the current potential Disney/Muppet acquisition
-- Jim Hill
Jim Hill can be reached using the Talkback form below or by emailing him at [email protected].
Jim Hill is this guy who lives 'way out in the woods of New Hampshire. (Hey, it's not like he wants to live there. But the Witness Protection Program has got rules, you know.) He has one beautiful daughter and three obnoxious cats. When he's not looking for real work, Jim writes about the Walt Disney Company and related matters for LaughingPlace.com, AmusementPark.com, "Orlando Weekly" and Digital Media FX.
The opinions expressed by Jim Hill, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the past decisions and future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
-- Posted August 2, 2001