In college, Henson, the daughter of “The Muppets” creator Jim Henson, achieved fame as the first female president of The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. She went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest and youngest movie moguls, the president of Columbia Pictures in 1993, a producer for her own firm, a former member of the University’s second-highest governing board, and one of the chief executives of her family’s business.
Her accomplishments came as no surprise to the pranksters who were her college peers. In interviews, friends recalled her as a “style maven” (the only member of the freshman class to wear high-heeled boots, according to sophomore year roommate Susan C. Morrison ’82) who always made her bed and took her responsibilities seriously. Repeatedly described as both whimsical and composed, Henson impressed classmates with her talent and creativity.
THE TADPOLE YEARS
Born on May 9, 1960, Henson grew up in Westchester County, NY, one of five children. She attended public high school and media reports say she developed her initial interest in the movies as a child sitting in on her father’s meetings.
“Anybody who spent a long time around Jim Henson would have become enchanted with the idea of storytelling and wonder,” says Jay N. Itzkowitz ’82, who met Henson early freshman year, and went on to work for her father as an in-house lawyer and scripts writer. “The guy was amazing. He was beyond an entertainer. He was a kind of storyteller in the old tradition who had an endless sense of invention.”
But aside from the lone Kermit poster adorning the walls of her freshman year room on the fourth floor of Weld Hall and a small Muppet locket, Henson wore her heritage lightly, blending into a class peppered with celebrity offspring, according to Suzanne E. Vine ’82, one of Henson’s six freshman year roommates in the fall of 1978.
Indeed, despite the influence of her father, Henson arrived at Harvard intending to become a math major, an idea she now describes as “delusional.” After a brief battle with linear algebra, she settled into folklore and mythology instead, ultimately writing an 86-page summa thesis entitled “Shield of Heracles: identity through crisis.”
“She was a big folk and myth person and a big classicist,” Greenberg recalls. “So she was an exotic beauty among a lot of weirdos. You can kind of see how folk and myth fit into the whole Lisa Henson zeitgeist.”
“She was the kind of person who doesn’t compartmentalize her life,” says Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature Gregory Nagy, who advised her thesis and remains a close personal friend. “In a sense everything was interconnected. Her creativity in the Lampoon was connected to her creativity as a student.”
QUEEN OF THE CASTLE
Elected to the Lampoon in 1979 after the recital of a “filthy limerick...that involved Muppets performing sexual acts” written by then-President Andrew S. Borowitz ’80, Henson went on to preside over some of the club’s most profitable and prolific years, as well as an interior redesign of its headquarters on 44 Bow Street, complete with handpicked tiles and dungeon gates from New York City. Its membership boasted writers who would later work for shows like “The Simpsons,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and “Seinfeld.”
“The Lampoon was...a group of people who thought that there was nothing that they could not do,” recalls Stephen L. Deschenes ’82, the business manager at the time, “Lisa’s leadership was part of that.”
Already familiar with the organization through family friends and former members Michael K. Frith ’63 and Christopher B. Cerf ’63, who worked on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” with Henson’s father, Henson signed on in the art department—impressing members with her accomplished pieces and fine-tuned sense of what was funny and what was not.
“I wasn’t as prepared academically as other students, but when I found out about the Lampoon I was uniquely well prepared for that,” Henson says. “That was a place where I had the leg up and also just felt like I immediately fit in.”
Her presidency, which won her a spread in the now-defunct Life Magazine and a spot on “The Today Show,” attracted media attention for its symbolism, but was hardly questioned within the club itself, though it had admitted its first female member just 10 years earlier.
“She was the obvious choice,” Itzkowitz, still a close personal friend, says.
“The Lampoon has always attracted a lot of bright and funny people who are not necessarily high functioning,” says Morisson, now an editor at The New Yorker. “Lisa was brilliant and funny and also highly competent and a great leader.”
“Lisa’s really fun; she has a ‘let’s put on a show’ kind of fun-inspiring charisma. I think people just naturally rally around her,” Morisson adds.
During the summer of 1982, Henson led the club in the production of a parody issue of Newsweek that sold 750,000 copies, according to Deschenes.
During college, from which she took a semester-long leave during her junior year, she also produced a series of shows, one of which was a dramatic reading of an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” The cast, which boasted a large contingent of ’Poonsters, performed in the basement of Adams House (where she lived and which had the reputation of being the “center of the sort of creative people,” according to Itzkowitz) to sold out shows and bongo drums. It will be restaged at this year’s reunion with almost the entire cast reprising their roles.
“That kind of characterizes Lisa’s ability as a producer to just pull together all of these disparate elements and unlikely talents and create something completely charming and original,” Morrison says.
HOLLYWOOD BY STORM
Henson started in Hollywood immediately after leaving Harvard, getting a job through Lampoon connections as an executive assistant under Lucy Fisher ’71, a producer at Warner Brothers. Before her interview, Henson flew out to Los Angeles and stayed with Lampoon friends Borowitz, then a writer for Warner Brothers, and Susan Stevenson-Borowitz ’81.
“She was just this cute coed coming out of college and very very quickly took Hollywood by storm,” recalls Stevenson-Borowitz. “I don’t think anyone was surprised by that.”
Henson rose through the ranks of Warner Brothers over the next decade— becoming vice president of production in 1986, a senior vice president of production in 1990, and finally receiving a promotion to executive vice president in 1991.
The early death of her father in 1990 due to pneumonia put Henson and her siblings in control of her father’s entertainment empire—now known as the Jim Henson Company—leaving her to juggle both the family business and her private career.
In 1993, Henson earned the title of the youngest studio head in Hollywood, after being named president of Columbia Pictures.
“When I was at Harvard and shortly after in my twenties...I always felt like my creative opinion mattered. That was a real blessing when I was younger because I was not intimidated about speaking up,” recalls Henson. “But as I became older I really had to learn to listen and temper that sense of entitlement.”
Henson stepped down from Columbia when her contract expired in 1996, during a period of industry-wide turmoil to start her own production company, Manifest Film Company, based at Sony. She is currently a co-CEO of the Jim Henson company, which the family bought back from its German owner in 2003 for $89 million.
Among the movies she has been involved with are “Little Women,” “Fly Away Home,” “Free Willy,” “Lethal Weapon,” and the “Batman” series.
Over the course of her career, Henson developed a reputation as a talent scout—claiming David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter films, among her finds.
“One thing about Lisa is that she’s kind of collected interesting and artistic friends over the years and has a really impressive circle of people who are leaders in popular culture,” Itzkowitz says.
Henson also served on the Board of Overseers from 1995-2001, accting as an advocate for the arts and working on a committee that studied the relationship between the American Repertory Theater and the undergraduate community.
ALL GROWN UP
Now a divorced mother of two, friends say that Henson’s life has achieved a balance that comes with growing up.
“When you get out of college and you’re an ambitious person like Lisa, you come out guns blazing,” Borowitz, who helped create “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” says. “A lot of what you’re thinking about is making your mark, being important.”
“It feels like now she has much more balance in her life. She has wonderful kids and a beautiful home, great job that’s interesting to her, and a nice boyfriend. She really is kind of having it all,” Borowitz says.
—Staff writer Natalie I. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.