When Richard Hunt cold-called the Muppets, he was getting pretty desperate. He’d been out of high school for a year, stringing together a series of short-lived gigs. Most of his close friends were away at college. The Beatles had broken up. The world was changing rapidly, but Hunt was stuck in suburban New Jersey, reading about it all in the New York Times. Though bucolic Closter lay just across the George Washington Bridge from the city, New York seemed increasingly unreachable, as did Hunt’s dream of making it there as a performer.
Yet no one would know this from Hunt’s cheerfully determined demeanor, from his mischevious, gap-toothed grin as he lithely strolled down the Manhattan sidewalk, paused at the pay phone, dropped in his dime and dialed the number. “Hello, Henson Associates,” said the receptionist. “Hi,” Hunt said amiably. “I’m a puppeteer, can you use me?” He was just 18 years old.
“I had grown up watching the Muppets,” he later recalled. He had gone out of his way since elementary school to catch their intermittent appearances on variety and talk shows. “I’d drop anything to watch them. I thought they were weird.” But the puppet troupe really caught his eye on Sesame Street, just completing its pilot season to great national acclaim. Hunt recognized in the Muppets a kindred sense of zany creativity, a place where his irreverent comedy might be useful, especially as they found a more stable niche on television, and seemed poised for further expansion. “I thought, oh, this might be a good way to do something; I thought, ‘The Muppets are nuts!’… I felt I would fit right into that.”
Hunt called at just the right moment. Jim Henson was planning the Muppets’ first full-scale auditions for new performers, a sharp departure from his usual hiring practice of hand-picking candidates at puppetry conferences. Uncharacteristically, he advertised the auditions in Variety and rented a Greenwich Village loft to hold them from June 1-3, 1970.
Henson and Frank Oz noticed Hunt immediately amongst the crowds of hopefuls. Tall, loud and garrulous, with his curly hair standing out in all directions despite his best intentions, Hunt showed an incredible raw energy and talent. “Richard stood out as a great spirit,” says Oz. “Jim and I saw that out of all the hundreds of people, he had something there.” Hunt’s audition with Henson and Oz turned out to be a creative play session in which the men pulled puppets out of a trunk, tried out voices and traded punchlines. Hunt played right along, elatedly in his element. “They threw a puppet at me and said sit down,” Hunt told his mother excitedly that evening. “We knew right away we had the same sense of humor. And I think they liked me!”
His one brave move would change the rest of his life.
“I’d drop anything”, Muppet Show Press Kit, about 1976.
“Henson Associates”, confirmed by archivist at Henson archives.
“I’m a puppeteer”: Jane Hunt, interview with the author, November 2009.
“They threw a puppet,” Jane Hunt in Christopher Finch, Jim Henson: The Works (New York: Random House, 1993), 59.