Jim Henson speaks very softly and manages a very big shtick: the world of modern puppetry, from the lovable characters who debuted on "Sesame Street" in 1969, to spin-off Muppet movies, the imaginative figures of "Fraggle Rock" and the more sophisticated creatures of the films "Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth."

Monday, NBC airs the first of four new "Storyteller" shows. While this episode never mentions Halloween, it's as appropriate as any ghost story -- and it doesn't have a scary ending.

As in the first episode, "Hans: My Hedgehog," which won the 1986-87 Emmy as Outstanding Children's Program, prime-time, John Hurt gets the title role as The Storyteller. The second entry again uses music video techniques, fast-paced cutting and varied camera angles to tell its story, "Fearnot," based on a medieval folktale. Anthony Minghella, who wrote "Hans: My Hedgehog," did "Fearnot" and is working on all four of the new "Storyteller" installments.

"Fearnot" is the story of a tailor's son (Reece Dinsdale), whose only talent is playing the fiddle under the window of his sweetheart. Losing patience with his son, his father gives Fearnot 50 shillings to "go off and learn something." Fearnot decides that he needs to learn what fear is. So into the world he goes with his fiddle and shillings, accompanied by Mr. McKay (Willie Ross), a tinker whose job is to look for something to frighten Fearnot.

Fearnot survives a slimy, sinister water creature who lures victims to their death in his pond, and Halfman, occupant of an abandoned castle who can split himself, do away with his visitor and take the victim's legs for his own. But the aptly-named Fearnot vanquishes all his assailants, and learns the meaning of fear only when he returns to find his beloved lifeless.

The monsters of "Fearnot" were produced in Jim Henson's Creature Shop in London, a part of Jim Henson Productions, which has already won a huge collection of international honors. Besides the 1986-87 Emmy for "The Storyteller," the company's "Muppet Babies" earned its third for Best Children's Series, daytime. A Henson special for ABC, "The Christmas Toy," also was nominated for Outstanding Children's Program.

Henson-generated records, tapes and books and now videos, featuring Big Bird and Ernie and Bert, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, continue to sell well almost two decades after American children first met them on Children's Television Workshop's "Sesame Street," where they still hang out on PBS stations. Indeed, some of the original viewers are buying them for their own youngsters.

Lately, under an arrangement with Marvel Productions, Henson has ventured into animation for two Saturday morning shows, "Fraggle Rock," which airs on NBC, and "Muppet Babies," into its fourth season on CBS.

In September, CBS reran a black-tie special, "The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years."

Not bad for a guy from Hyattsville (Northwestern High School, University of Maryland) who wanted to be an animator for Walt Disney, but ended up with five children of his own and father to hundreds of puppet creations.

Henson, still reed-thin at 50, got his start on television in the mid-'50s with a five-minute nightly show called "Sam and Friends" on WNBW (now WRC). "Sam" ran for eight years and won a local Emmy for Best Local Entertainment Program. He was a freshman at the University of Maryland when "Sam" began, and his assistant was a senior, Jane Nebel, whom he had met in a puppet-making class. Both were majoring in art; she went on to do graduate work at Catholic University. By the time Henson completed his degree, in 1960, Kermit the Frog was 3 years old and had appeared on the Steve Allen and Arthur Godfrey TV shows. In 1978, the university gave Henson an honorary doctorate of fine arts.

The puppeteers married three years after they began working together and remained in the area, doing "Sam" and commercials using his Muppet creatures. When his creations were booked on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Jimmy Dean Show" and other programs here and abroad, the Hensons left Washington. Today, they maintain homes in New York and London.

Henson was in London last month editing film for the "Fearnot" episode of "The Storyteller" series. "I think they're the best television shows ever made," he said. "John {Hurt} is The Storyteller in all of these shows, but each show has a different cast of characters, and each show has a number of creatures that we're building in our workshop over here.

"We're getting wonderful casts. Somehow the word got out that what we're doing is good and so we've got our pick of the best actors in England. We've got Bob Peck, who isn't especially known in America but is a big star in England ... I had such pleasure working with him. We're getting marvelous people who are doing bit parts for us. And the show I did has a whole bunch of two-foot devils," he chuckled softly.

Peck will turn up on a forthcoming "Storyteller" episode called "The Soldier and Death," playing the role of the soldier.

Henson served as executive producer for the series' pilot, "Hans: My Hedgehog," although producer Mark Shivas was in Pasadena to receive the Emmy for Jim Henson Productions. They shared credit with Minghella, who wrote the screenplay, and director Steve Barron, of whom Henson said: "He set the whole style. He's such a talented director. He mostly comes out of music video -- he's the guy who did the Michael Jackson music video {'Billie Jean'}." Barron also directed a feature film, "Electric Dreams," and did music videos with The Jam, Dire Straits, The Human League, a-ha and The Pretenders.

"We have two workshops which we've maintained," Henson continued. "The London creature shop built 'Dark Crystal' and 'Labyrinth'; the New York workshop does basically the Muppet characters, 'Fraggle,' 'Sesame Street.'"

The animated "Fraggle Rock" runs Saturday mornings on NBC, but will continue in its puppet form on Home Box Office through spring, Henson said.

"'Fraggle Rock' is a coproduction between us and Marvel," said Henson. "We've worked very closely with them on the scripts. Michael Frith, who is our head of design, is also one of the producers on the show.

"Taking it into animation, we find there are all kinds of things we can do as we're changing medium. Some things you can do with puppets that you can't do in animation, and some things work in animation that you can't do with puppets. There's sort of a trade-off. I've always loved animation, so it's fun for me to have a finger in each. Way back I wanted to be an animator for Disney."

On Dec. 16, all the Henson creatures from the shows geared to pre-schoolers are scheduled to appear in a one-hour Christmas season special on ABC.

Part of Henson's success appears to be keyed to the people around him. Frank Oz, who does the voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal among others, has been with him 24 years and is a vice-president of Jim Henson Productions. He calls his teamwork with Frith, head of design and a producer on "The Storyteller," "a close involvement," and adds that "{head writer} Jerry Juhl has been with me for many years."

Then there's his family. From the beginning, his wife-to-be helped operate the puppets he made. Jane Henson is "still very active in the administration," he said, but she gave up puppetry to rear their five children, all of whom now are in some form of show business.

"My oldest son, Brian, is a major performer here in London. He does the dog on 'The Storyteller,' and he was the second unit director here. Cheryl, who is my second daughter, was on the puppet-building site. My oldest daughter, Lisa, is a vice-president for Warner Bros. John, the second youngest, does some work with us in New York, performing some of the big characters we do, such as Sweet-ums." The youngest, Heather, 16, has "been in about three or four films so far," including a small part with Steve Martin in the movie version of "The Little Shop of Horrors." Henson said he didn't have a hand in the puppetry for "Little Shop," but said, "I was very close to some of the people in that production."

So Jim Henson never became an animator for the Walt Disney Studios. But perhaps it's just as well. It's safe to say that no matter how well-paid are the animators at Disney, multimillionaire Henson is presiding over a much larger empire now than he would have as one of a stable of Disney animators.

Then, of course, the world would not have met Miss Piggy's frog prince, Kermit, who helped found the fortune. Kermit may complain that it's not so easy being green, but for Henson, Kermit and all the creatures who followed have been good as gold.