It was a year ago this week that we lost the wonderful Jerry Nelson — and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a little something about him before the week was through.
I interviewed Jerry Nelson–the Muppet performer behind The Count, Gobo Fraggle, Snuffleupagus, Emmet Otter, and so many others–late in the process for Jim Henson — on February 29, 2012, when I was a little more than halfway through writing the book. That wasn’t intentional; the two of us had been e-mailing back and forth for nearly a year, but we were just having a really hard time making our schedules match up. We were finally able to line up our calendars–in person, no less–at the Jim Henson Legacy’s winter party in December 2011, where Karen Falk grabbed my arm and whispered, “Jerry’s here!” and steered me over to him. We spoke just a little bit at that time, but we both wrote down February 29 on our calendars as the date I would come up to Jerry’s home in Truro, Massachusetts, to interview him.
February 29 — a Wednesday — turned out to be one of those bitter cold winter days we do so well here in the Atlantic corridor, and as my plane flew into Boston from Baltimore, I was checking the weather forecast regularly. After arriving in Boston, I’d still have to drive down to the tip of Cape Cod, nearly two hours away, and I didn’t want a snowstorm forcing us to abort our meeting. Still, I had rented a large four-wheel drive SUV in case I needed to navigate snow and ice — if it did snow, I was going to get as close to Truro as I could get.
As it turned out, the weather for the drive down was fine, but it was snowing lightly as I pulled into the long driveway of Jerry’s quaint Cape Cod home a little before noon. I made my way down the path toward the house, and Jerry welcomed me inside in that warm voice all Muppets fans know so well.
Jerry wasn’t well — when I met him at the Legacy event, he was in a wheelchair, but that was mostly so it was easier to push around the oxygen tank that he needed to make breathing easier as he battled emphysema. Here at home, however, he had attached a long length of breathing tube to the oxygen tank, so he could walk around his home slowly, but freely, dragging sixty feet of tube behind him as he moved from room to room. He was proud of his house–he’d been there a long time–and for a while we swapped stories about the fun and headaches of maintaining old houses.
Eventually, however, we settled in the kitchen, seated on stools and facing each other across the kitchen counter. As Jerry made coffee and toasted bagels, we talked not only about Jim Henson, but Richard Hunt, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and so many others now long gone. He showed me photos of him and Jim at Disneyland, and unrolled a copy of “Floyd’s Lament”, a poem he had written shortly after Jim’s death. He talked openly about his daughter, Christine, who died of complications from cystic fibrosis, and of his own struggles with alcohol–and also, notably, of his pride in his contributions to Sesame Street and in a CD of his own music he had completed in 2009, Truro Daydreams. Through it all, Jerry was forthright and honest, taking his time to consider each question carefully, and answering thoughtfully. It couldn’t have been comfortable for him to talk for the four hours we spoke, and yet he gave me his time freely and without question. When I offered to wrap things up early out of concern he might be getting tired, he waved me off. No, no, he told me. “I want to talk about The Guys.”
As I wrapped things up and prepared to leave around four that afternoon, snow was starting to come down in big, thick flakes. I shook Jerry’s hand, thanked him for his time, and told him how happy I was that the weather hadn’t gotten in our way. He smiled and looked at the snow falling outside the window. “You’ll make it back to Boston okay,” he told me with the sureness of one who knows the local weather. “Thanks for letting me talk about Jim and The Guys.” As I walked back down the front path, he waved from the door. “Let me know when the book comes out,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it.”
We didn’t arrange a time to meet again–for I think Jerry somehow knew that was the last interview he would give. Six months later, Jerry Nelson died at age 78.
Jim Henson’s biography comes out in four weeks. While Jerry never got to read it, it wouldn’t be the book it is without him, and I’m so grateful for the time I had with him. Every morning, when I drink my coffee–out of a mug with The Count on it, no less–I always think of standing in his cozy kitchen, sipping coffee, eating bagels, and listening to Jerry Nelson talk all about The Guys as the snow drifted slowly down outside his Truro window.