Hunt bounded like a big puppy into his June 1970 Muppet audition, a voluble frenzy of restless energy. “Ask any of the originals what Richard was like at 19 or 20,” Hunt recalled laughingly. “Boing-boing-boing-boing. People would just sit there, their mouths open – what is this?” He wore his usual uniform of jeans and a button-down with rolled-up sleeves, his chin-length curls cowlicking out in all directions despite his best intentions. Hunt’s talent and sheer raw energy quickly caught the attention of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. “Richard stood out as an extraordinary uncontrolled spirit,” says Oz. “Jim and I saw that out of all the hundreds of people, he had something there.”
Hunt was pleased to discover that his private audition with Henson and Oz was basically a creative play session. “They threw a puppet at me and said sit down,” Hunt told his mother that evening. Henson’s approach was to act as if you were already collaborators, out to have a good time together. “He created an atmosphere of fun and foolishness intuiting that in order to create and feel free one had to feel ‘safe,’” says performer Fran Brill of her own audition. The comfortable setting helped Hunt relax and show off his talents as the three men put on puppets and brought them to life: reading and riffing off scripts, improvising voices, making their puppets breathe, move and behave, all the while eyeing the mirror to see how it would look onscreen. In contrast to Hunt’s boisterous energy, the lanky, bearded 33-year-old Henson spoke in a nearly inaudible voice, exuding a quiet, calm authority. “Jim and I were taking them through their paces,” says Oz. “We pretty much knew, without talking, who was right.”
What about Hunt was right? Ironically, being a puppeteer didn’t necessarily work in his favor. Before the Muppets, most puppetry on television merely incorporated the puppet stage and the performer hiding behind it. Henson exploded what could be done visually with puppets on television by using the camera itself as the stage, framing the shot and simply hiding his performers outside the frame. Henson’s other major innovation was to rig up monitors so the puppeteers could see and adjust their performance in real time. Yet many puppeteers who auditioned were simply too comfortable with their existing methods. “Most of the people who were winnowed were people who actually did puppets, because they were doing it the wrong way,” says Oz, who with Henson saw that while Hunt needed some technical training, he was remarkably adaptable, happy to abandon his cardboard stage for the new discipline of television, ferociously motivated to learn anything that might make for a better show.
Overall, it mattered that Hunt was a performer: by nature, by nurture and by trade. And it mattered that he was a collaborator, practiced at being part of an ensemble, contributing with an eye to elevating the whole team. His years in choruses, drama club and Elmwood had well prepared him for the wacky cooperation of the Muppets. He knew how to complete a scene, to hold his place without overshadowing. He could deliver his own punchline, but he could also set up a colleague for the laugh and play off that laugh, building up the sketch together.
Most importantly, Hunt’s comedic instincts were wonderfully compatible with the Muppets, as he had suspected back on the family room couch. “We knew right away we had the same sense of humor,” he told his mother that evening. “I think they liked me!” It was particularly important to Henson to find people who harmonized with the group, to assemble a team that worked together smoothly. Hunt shared in the Muppets’ particular comic sensibility, which Oz describes as “affectionate anarchy”: Nothing is out of bounds, from slapstick pratfalls to outright explosions, yet the humor never feels unkind.
But Hunt didn’t just fit in with the Muppet humor; he took it even further, bringing an edgy young energy to the troupe. “Jim was the one who created the irreverence,” says Oz. “But Richie intensified it.” Hunt’s spirit not only complemented but completed the Muppets, contributing exactly what they needed to launch themselves into success. “There are a couple of Jim’s greatest talents,” said Hunt. “He knew how to draw people to him. And once they came he knew how to pick the right ones. He would use their talents to his advantage. And to their own.” Hunt’s connection with the Muppets would change the face of the organization – and change his own life in ways he could hardly imagine.
All quotes from interviews with Jessica Max Stein except:
“He created an atmosphere of fun”: Fran Brill quoted in Jim Henson’s Red Book.
“There are a couple of Jim’s greatest talents”: Richard Hunt Archival Interview, Jim Henson Company Archives.