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UNFORGETTABLE GENIUS OF HENSON, DAVIS MAY BE IRREPLACEABLE

SHARE UNFORGETTABLE GENIUS OF HENSON, DAVIS MAY BE IRREPLACEABLE

Two show business industry giants passed away last week.

Though it makes the loss no less painful, the death of Sammy Davis Jr. was, more or less, expected, as he had been in ill health for some time and it was widely reported that he wouldn't be with us much longer.But the passing of Jim Henson was a real shock, a major blow to creative family entertainment in movies, television and every other entertainment media.

-HENSON WAS, OF COURSE, a major industry force in what is increasingly a less and less creative field. But Henson's creativity and imagination were boundless, both visually and verbally.

His cleverness went beyond the usual mildly inventive gag we're used to seeing. He developed humor out of universal situations, using everything from puns to slapstick to satire. And audiences loved it. All audiences.

While it's true most of his work was aimed directly at children, it was in the same way that cartoons in the '30s and '40s were aimed at children. Their outrageousness made children laugh, but also challenged kids and included many jokes that obviously went over their heads.

Thus, the range of Henson's audience went from the teeniest toddlers to the oldest grandparents. And he did it all with puppets. Or, more correctly, Muppets.

Not since Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy enthralled the nation had a creature of wood, fabric and/or plastic been so embraced by every audience stratum as when Henson began showing off Kermit and other characters on "Sesame Street," the "Tonight Show" and other TV variety programs back in the mid-'60s.

Henson eventually branched out into every area of entertainment, building a virtual empire. But he never lost sight of what he felt was a responsibility to his audience. In 1986 I had an opportunity to interview him for the Deseret News and he said, "We who are working in this area have an obligation to find ways to make a film exciting, to get the audience all stirred up without resorting to the kind of violence people often resort to. Violence works, but it requires creativity to get the excitement in other ways."

It's no wonder the Disney folks decided a marriage of the two mightiest family entertainment empires would be a match made in heaven. And now one wonders what will happen with that.

There's no question that the Muppets will go on, but there's also no question that Henson will be missed. He was the driving force, and no matter how well-trained his associates are it's hard to imagine that the Muppets will ever be quite the same again. (After the death of Walt Disney it took nearly 25 years for the studio to come up with an animated feature of the quality of "The Little Mermaid.")

Fortunately for generations to come, Henson left a great cache of Muppet material, including the films - "The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper," "The Muppets Take Manhattan," "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird" and fare designed for older kids, "The Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth" and the creatures Henson's workshop created for "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi," "Little Shop of Horrors" and, yes, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Not to mention all the TV and video programs.

Henson will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.

-I REMEMBER NOTICING Sammy Davis Jr. for the first time in "Ocean's 11." I was just 12 or so and thought what an amazingly energetic person he seemed to be. It also struck me as odd that he was the only black man in this movie.

As the years went by and other so-called "Rat Pack" pictures came and went - "Sergeants 3," "Robin and the Seven Hoods" - it seemed to me that his talent was not really being used to its fullest, and he always seemed more like a mascot than a full-fledged member in those pictures.

Except when he got to do a number.

When the camera stayed on him and he got to show his stuff, Davis literally blew the "bigger names" - Sinatra, Martin, etc. - off the screen.

A few years later I saw him perform his nightclub act. In person he was an incredible entertainer. And that experience made it all the more apparent to me that he could probably never really make a movie that showcased his amazing abilities in a way that would equal his stage presence.

Even his last film, "Tap," despite a good sequence or two for Davis, was a weak movie that didn't seem to know what to do with the best talent in the cast - Davis and the other aging hoofers.

Though there are some rentable tapes (see today's Video View column on E11) that give an idea of how great Davis was, the way to really appreciate his work was to see him on the performing stage.

If you missed that, you missed something.

There will never be another Sammy Davis Jr. He was a talent that comes along all too rarely and is all too often misused by Hollywood.

-WE SHOULD ALSO note the recent deaths of Charles Farrell and Susan Oliver.

Farrell, an actor whose work spanned from silent pictures, when he played athletic romantic leads, to a more fatherly image in the early days of television, was probably best-remembered as Janet Gaynor's love interest in the 1927 classic "Seventh Heaven" and as Gale Storm's widowed and often exasperated father in the '50s sitcom "My Little Margie."

Oliver was an actress on the Broadway stage in the '50s and made several movies in the late '50s and early '60s - "Up Periscope," "Looking for Love," "The Gene Krupa Story," "The Disorderly Orderly."

But she was probably more recognizable for her notable TV guest roles in key episodes of "The Fugitive" and "Star Trek" and as one of the "Peyton Place" ensemble.

She also became a respected director of "M*A*S*H" and "Trapper John, M.D." episodes.