James Maury Henson
September 24, 1936 (
Greenville, Mississippi, U.S.
Cause of death
Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome
Puppeteer, film director, television producer, Musician
May 16, 1990, New York City, New York, United States
Jane Henson (m. 1959–1990)
Brian Henson, John Henson, Lisa Henson, Cheryl Henson, Heather Henson
Movies and TV shows
Jim henson mini biography
James Maury "Jim" Henson (September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990) was an American puppeteer, artist, cartoonist, inventor, screenwriter, and filmmaker who achieved international fame as the creator of the Muppets. Born in Greenville, Mississippi, and raised in Leland, Mississippi, and Hyattsville, Maryland, Henson began developing puppets while attending high school. While he was a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, he created Sam and Friends, a five-minute sketch-comedy puppet show that appeared on television. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in home economics, he produced coffee advertisements and developed some experimental films. Henson founded Muppets Inc. in 1958 (which would later become the Jim Henson Company).
- Jim henson mini biography
- Early life 19361961
- Television and Muppets 19611969
- Sesame Street 1969
- Expansion of audience 19701977
- Transition to the big screen 19791982
- Later life and death 19831990
- Muppet performance credits
Henson became famous in the 1960s when he joined the children's educational television program Sesame Street, and there helped develop characters for the series. He also appeared on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. In 1976, after scrapping plans for a Broadway show, he produced The Muppet Show. He won fame for his creations, particularly Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, and Ernie, and was involved with Sesame Street for over 20 years. Rowlf the Dog was a cast member on the Jimmy Dean Show in the early '60s. He also had frequent roles in Muppets films such as The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan, and created advanced puppets for projects like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. During the later years of his life, he also founded the Jim Henson Foundation and Jim Henson's Creature Shop. His involvement in two television programs—The Storyteller and The Jim Henson Hour—led to Emmy Award wins.
Henson died of toxic shock syndrome on May 16, 1990, at age 53, twenty hours after experiencing a medical emergency—an unexpected event that was widely lamented in the film and television industries. In the weeks after his death, he was celebrated in a wave of tributes. He was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, and as a Disney Legend in 2011.
Early life: 1936–1961
Born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24, 1936, James Maury Henson was the younger of two children of Paul Ransom Henson (1904–1994), an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his wife, Betty Marcella (née Brown; 1904–1972). He was raised as a Christian Scientist and spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, before moving with his family to University Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s. He later remembered the arrival of the family's first television as "the biggest event of his adolescence," having been heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom (on Kukla, Fran and Ollie) and Bil and Cora Baird.
Henson remained a Christian Scientist at least into his twenties when he would teach Sunday School, but fifteen years before he died, Henson wrote to a Christian Science church to inform them he was no longer a practicing member.
In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV), creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home economics, and he graduated in 1960 with a BS in home economics. As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners of Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson's most famous character: Kermit the Frog. Henson would remain at WRC for seven years, from 1954 to 1961.
In the show, he began experimenting with techniques that would change the way puppetry had been used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppet performer to work from off-camera. Believing television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity," Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were made of carved wood. A marionette's arms are manipulated by strings, but Henson used rods to move his Muppets' arms, allowing greater control of expression. Additionally, Henson wanted the Muppet characters to "speak" more creatively than was possible for previous puppets—which had seemed to have random mouth movements—so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue.
When Henson began work on Sam and Friends, he asked fellow University of Maryland sophomore Jane Nebel to assist him. The show was a financial success, but after graduating from college, Henson began to have doubts about going into a career performing with puppets. He spent several months in Europe, where he was inspired by European puppet performers, who looked on their work as an art form. Upon Henson's return to the United States, he and Jane began dating. They were married in 1959 and had five children, Lisa (b. 1960), Cheryl (b. 1961), Brian (b. 1963), John (b. 1965, d. 2014), and Heather (b. 1970).
Television and Muppets: 1961–1969
Despite the success of Sam and Friends, Henson spent much of the next two decades working in commercials, talk shows, and children's projects before being able to realize his dream of the Muppets as "entertainment for everybody". The popularity of his work on Sam and Friends in the late 1950s led to a series of guest appearances on network talk and variety shows. Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Program and The Ed Sullivan Show (although on his appearance on the September 11, 1966, episode of the show — released to DVD on 2011 as part of a collection of episodes featuring the Rolling Stones—Sullivan mis-introduced Henson as "Jim Newsom and his Puppets"). This first national television broadcast greatly increased exposure, which led to hundreds of commercial appearances by Henson characters throughout the sixties.
Among the most popular of Henson's commercials was a series for the local Wilkins Coffee company in Washington, D.C., in which his Muppets were able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might have been acceptable with human actors and would later find its way into many acts on The Muppet Show. In the first Wilkins ad, a Muppet named Wilkins is poised behind a cannon seen in profile. Another Muppet named Wontkins is in front of its barrel. Wilkins asks, "What do you think of Wilkins Coffee?" and Wontkins responds gruffly, "Never tasted it!" Wilkins fires the cannon and blows Wontkins away, then turns the cannon directly toward the viewer and ends the ad with, "Now, what do you think of Wilkins?" Henson later explained, "Till then, advertising agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh." The first seven-second commercial for Wilkins was an immediate hit and was syndicated and re-shot by Henson for local coffee companies across the United States; he ultimately produced more than 300 coffee ads. The same setup was used to pitch Kraml Milk in the Chicago area, Red Diamond coffee, several bread products, and even Faygo.
In 1963, Henson and his wife moved to New York City, where the newly formed Muppets, Inc., would reside for some time. Jane quit performing to raise their children. Henson hired writer Jerry Juhl in 1961 and puppet performer Frank Oz in 1963 to replace her. Henson later credited both with developing much of the humor and character of his Muppets. Henson and Oz developed a close friendship and a performing partnership that lasted 27 years; their teamwork is particularly evident in their portrayals of the characters of Bert and Ernie, Kermit and Miss Piggy, and Kermit and Fozzie Bear.
Henson's 1960s talk show appearances culminated when he devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog. Rowlf became the first Muppet to make regular appearances on a network show, The Jimmy Dean Show. Henson was so grateful for this break that he offered Jimmy Dean a 40% interest in his production company, but Dean declined, stating that Henson deserved all the rewards for his own work, a decision of conscience Dean never regretted. From 1963 to 1966, Henson began exploring film-making and produced a series of experimental films. His nine-minute experimental film, Time Piece, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1966. The year 1969 saw the production of The Cube, another Henson-produced experimental movie.
Also around this time, the first drafts of a live-action experimental movie script were written with Jerry Juhl, which would eventually become Henson's last unproduced full-length screenplay, Tale of Sand. The script remained in the Henson Company archives until the screenplay was adapted in the 2012 graphic novel Jim Henson's Tale of Sand.
Sesame Street: 1969
In 1969, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and her staff at the Children's Television Workshop, impressed by the quality and creativity of the Henson-led team, asked Henson and staff to work full-time on Sesame Street, a visionary children's program for public television. This union of talents would become legendary in television entertainment.
Part of the show was set aside for a series of funny, colorful, puppet characters living on the titular street. These included Grover, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird. Henson performed the characters of Ernie, game-show host Guy Smiley, and Kermit, who appeared as a roving television news reporter. It was around this time that a frill was added around Kermit's neck to make him more frog-like. The collar was functional as well: it covered the joint where the Muppet's neck and body met.
At first, Henson's Muppets appeared separately from the realistic segments on the Street, but after a poor test-screening in Philadelphia, the show was revamped to integrate the two, placing much greater emphasis on Henson's work. Though Henson would often downplay his role in Sesame Street’s success, Cooney frequently praised Jim's work and, in 1990, the Public Broadcasting Service called him "the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service." The success of Sesame Street also allowed Henson to stop producing commercials. He later remembered that "it was a pleasure to get out of that world".
In addition to creating and performing Muppet characters, Henson was involved in producing various shows and animation insets during the first two seasons. During the first, Henson produced a series of counting films for the numbers 1 through 10, which always ended with a baker (voiced by Henson) falling down the stairs while carrying the featured number of desserts. For seasons two to seven, Henson worked on a variety of inserts for the numbers 2 through 12, in a number of different styles, including film ("Dollhouse", "Number Three Ball Film"), stop-motion ("King of Eight", "Queen of Six"), cut-out animation ("Eleven Cheer"), and computer animation ("Nobody Counts To 10"). He also directed the original C Is For Cookie.
Concurrently with the first years of Sesame Street, Henson directed Tales from Muppetland, a short series of TV movie specials: comic retellings of classic fairy tales, aimed at a young audience and hosted by Kermit the Frog. The series included Hey, Cinderella!, The Frog Prince, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.
Expansion of audience: 1970–1977
Concerned that the company was becoming typecast solely as a purveyor of children's entertainment, Henson, Oz, and his team targeted an adult audience with a series of sketches on the first season of the groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live. Eleven Land of Gorch sketches, aired between October 1975 and January 1976 [inclusive], with four additional appearances in March, April, May, and September [of 1976]. Henson recalled that "I saw what [creator Lorne Michaels] was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow, what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never gelled." The SNL writers never got comfortable writing for the characters, and frequently disparaged Henson's creations; one, Michael O'Donoghue, quipped, "I won't write for felt."
Around the time of Henson's characters' final appearances on SNL, he began developing two projects featuring the Muppets: a Broadway show and a weekly television series. In 1976, the series was initially rejected by the American networks who believed that Muppets would appeal to only a child audience. Then Henson pitched the show to British impresario Lew Grade to finance the show. The show would be shot in the United Kingdom and syndicated worldwide. That same year, he scrapped plans for his Broadway show and moved his creative team to England, where The Muppet Show began taping. The Muppet Show featured Kermit as host, and a variety of other memorable characters, notably Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear, along with other characters such as Animal. Kermit's role on The Muppet Show was often compared by his co-workers to Henson's role in Muppet Productions: a shy, gentle boss with "A whim of steel" who "[ran] things as firmly as it is possible to run an explosion in a mattress factory." Caroll Spinney, the puppet performer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, remembered that Henson "would never say he didn't like something. He would just go 'Hmm.' That was famous. And if he liked it, he would say, 'Lovely!' " Henson himself recognized Kermit as an alter-ego, though he thought that Kermit was bolder than he; he once said of the character, "He can say things I hold back."
In 1977, Henson produced the one-hour television special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas for HBO, which was based on the Russell Hoban story of the same name.
Transition to the big screen: 1979–1982
Three years after the start of The Muppet Show, the Muppets appeared in their first theatrical feature film The Muppet Movie. The movie was both a critical and financial success; it made US$65.2 million domestically and was at the time the 61st highest-grossing film ever made.
A song from the film, "The Rainbow Connection", sung by Henson as Kermit, hit number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. In 1981, a Henson-directed sequel, The Great Muppet Caper, followed, and Henson decided to end the still-popular Muppet Show to concentrate on making films. From time to time, the Muppet characters continued to appear in made-for-TV-movies and television specials.
In addition to his own puppetry projects, Henson aided others in their work. In 1979, he was asked by the producers of the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back to aid make-up artist Stuart Freeborn in the creation and articulation of enigmatic Jedi Master Yoda. Henson suggested to Star Wars creator George Lucas, himself a Muppets fan, that he use Frank Oz as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda. Oz voiced Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and each of the four subsequent Star Wars films. The naturalistic, lifelike Yoda became one of the most popular characters of the Star Wars franchise. Lucas even lobbied unsuccessfully to have Oz nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. Around that time, he began creating darker and more realistic fantasy films that did not feature the Muppets and displayed "a growing, brooding interest in mortality." With 1982's The Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Frank Oz and co-wrote, Henson said he was "trying to go toward a sense of realism—toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive [where] it's not so much a symbol of the thing, but you're trying to [present] the thing itself." To provide a visual style distinct from the Muppets, the puppets in The Dark Crystal were based on conceptual artwork by Brian Froud.
The Dark Crystal was a financial and critical success and, a year later, the Muppet-starring The Muppets Take Manhattan (directed by Frank Oz) did fair box-office business, grossing $25.5 million domestically and ranking as one of the top 40 films of 1984. However, 1986's Labyrinth, a Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed by himself, was considered (in part due to its cost) a commercial disappointment. Despite some positive reviews (The New York Times called it "a fabulous film"), the commercial failure of Labyrinth demoralized Henson to the point that son Brian Henson remembered the time of its release as being "the closest I've seen him to turning in on himself and getting quite depressed." The film later became a cult classic.
Henson and his wife separated the same year, although they remained close for the rest of his life. Jane later said that Jim was so involved with his work that he had very little time to spend with her or their children. All five of his children began working with Muppets at an early age, partly because, as Cheryl Henson remembered, "one of the best ways of being around him was to work with him."
Later life and death: 1983–1990
Though he was still engaged in creating children's television, such as the successful eighties shows Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies, Henson continued to explore darker, mature themes with the folk tale and mythology-oriented show The Storyteller (1988), which won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. The next year, Henson returned to television with The Jim Henson Hour, which mixed lighthearted Muppet fare with riskier material. The show was critically well received and won Henson another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program, but was canceled after 13 episodes due to low ratings. Henson blamed its failure on NBC's constant rescheduling.
In late 1989, Henson entered into negotiations to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company for almost $150 million, hoping that, with Disney handling business matters, he would "be able to spend a lot more of my time on the creative side of things." By 1990, he had completed production on a television special, The Muppets at Walt Disney World, and a Disney World (later Disney California Adventure Park as well) attraction, Muppet*Vision 3D, and was developing film ideas and a television series titled Muppet High.
In the late 1980s, Henson worked with illustrator / designer William Stout on a feature film starring animatronic dinosaurs with the working title of The Natural History Project. In 1991, news stories written around the premiere of The Jim Henson Company-produced Dinosaurs sitcom highlighted the show's connection to Henson. "Jim Henson dreamed up the show's basic concept about three years ago," said a New York Times article in April 1991.
'He wanted it to be a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it's a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style,' said [his son] Brian Henson. But until The Simpsons took off, said Alex Rockwell, a vice president of the Henson organization, 'people thought it was a crazy idea.'
A New Yorker article said that Henson continued to work on a dinosaur project (presumably the Dinosaurs concept) until the "last months of his life."
During the production of his 1990 projects, Henson traveled continuously. By late Spring, Henson began to experience recurring flu-like symptoms. On May 4, 1990, Henson appeared with Kermit on The Arsenio Hall Show, one of his last television appearances. At the time, he mentioned to his publicist that he was tired and had a sore throat, but felt that it would go away.
On May 12, 1990, Henson traveled to Ahoskie, North Carolina, with his daughter Cheryl, to visit his father and stepmother. They both returned to New York on May 13, and Henson canceled a Muppet recording session scheduled for May 14. That night, Henson's wife Jane, from whom he was separated, came to visit for the last time. Hours later, on May 15, Henson suffered a medical emergency; he was having trouble breathing and began coughing up blood. He suggested to his wife that he might be dying, but did not want to take time from his schedule to visit a hospital. Jane later stated that while Henson's Christian Science upbringing "affect[ed] his general thinking", it did not have any influence on his postponement of medical treatment, and still later told People magazine that his avoidance was likely due to his desire not to be a bother to anyone. His stepmother and others also denied rumors that Henson's Christian Science beliefs might have contributed to his death, as Henson had ceased practicing in his early 20s. Two hours later, Henson finally agreed to be taken by taxi to New York Hospital in New York City. After arriving there at 4:58 a.m. (EST), Henson stopped breathing and an X-ray revealed he had abscesses in his lungs. Henson was placed on a ventilator, but his condition deteriorated rapidly despite aggressive treatment with multiple antibiotics.
Following twenty hours in intensive care at New York Hospital, Henson died on May 16, 1990, at 1:21 a.m.; he was 53 years old. News of Henson's death spread quickly and fans from around the world responded with tributes and condolences. Many of Henson's co-stars and directors from Sesame Street, the Muppets and other works also shared their thoughts on Henson's death.
At the time of Henson's death, doctor David Gelmont first announced that he died from Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterial infection that causes bacterial pneumonia. However, on May 29, Gelmont later confirmed that Henson's cause of death was organ failure resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (caused by Streptococcus pyogenes). S. pyogenes is the bacterial species that causes strep throat, scarlet fever, and rheumatic fever. It can also cause other infections.
On May 21, Henson's public memorial service was conducted in New York City at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Another was conducted on July 2 at St Paul's Cathedral in London. In accordance with Henson's letters, no one in attendance wore black, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band finished the service by performing "When the Saints Go Marching In". Harry Belafonte sang "Turn the World Around," a song he had debuted on The Muppet Show, as each member of the congregation waved, with a puppet performer's rod, an individual, brightly colored foam butterfly. Later, Big Bird, performed by Caroll Spinney, walked out onto the stage and sang Kermit the Frog's signature song, "Bein' Green".
In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour service, six of the core Muppet performers—Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, and Richard Hunt—sang, in their characters' voices, a medley of Jim Henson's favorite songs, eventually ending with a performance of "Just One Person" that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter. Henson employee Chris Barry writes that during each verse, "each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters." The funeral was later described by Life as "an epic and almost unbearably moving event." The image of a growing number of performers singing "Just One Person" was recreated for the 1990 television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson and inspired screenwriter Richard Curtis, who attended the London service, to write the growing-orchestra wedding scene of his 2003 film Love Actually.
The Jim Henson Company and the Jim Henson Foundation continued after his death, producing new series and specials. Jim Henson's Creature Shop, founded by Henson, also continues to build creatures for a large number of other films and series (e.g. the science-fiction production Farscape, the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the movie MirrorMask) and is considered one of the most advanced and well respected creators of film creatures. His son Brian and daughter Lisa are currently the co-chairs and co-CEOs of the company; his daughter Cheryl is the president of the foundation. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the Muppet puppeteering crew, assumed the roles of Kermit the Frog and Ernie, the most famous characters formerly played by Jim Henson. Whitmire also assumed the roles of Link Hogthrob, starting with the video game Muppet RaceMania, as well as The Muppet Newsman, starting in 2008, with Muppet.com viral online videos. However in 2017 Whitmire was fired from the Muppets Studio and as a result, Matt Vogel has taken over the role of Kermit. Muppeteer veteran Bill Barretta has taken over for Henson's fairly deeper voiced roles, such as the Swedish Chef, Mahna Mahna, Rowlf the Dog, and Dr. Teeth. Guy Smiley, in recent years, has been taken over by Eric Jacobson, and the role of Waldorf, in 1992, was assumed by Muppet performer veteran Dave Goelz. As of 2017, Ernie is now performed by puppeteer Peter Linz.
On February 17, 2004, it was announced that the non-Sesame Street/Fraggle Rock Muppets and the Bear in the Big Blue House properties had been sold by Henson's heirs to The Walt Disney Company (the Sesame Street characters are separately owned by Sesame Workshop, and the Fraggle Rock characters are still owned by The Jim Henson Company) . However, as a result, Sesame Workshop also lost the rights to Kermit the Frog, and thus he would not appear on new material on Sesame Street for some time. However, Sesame Workshop has since obtained permission from Disney to use Kermit, allowing him to make an appearance on the premiere of the show's 40th season on November 10, 2009. In addition, Sesame Workshop has made many of Kermit's previous segments on the show available for viewing on their YouTube account.
One of Henson's last projects is a show attraction in Walt Disney World and Disneyland featuring the Muppets, called Muppet*Vision 3D, which opened in 1991, shortly after his death.
The Jim Henson Company retains the Creature Shop, as well as the rest of its film and television library including Fraggle Rock (one of the few Muppet-related properties still owned by The Jim Henson Company), Farscape, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.
In 2010, it was announced that the first major biography of Henson, sanctioned by the family and the Jim Henson Legacy, was to be published. The biography by Brian Jay Jones was published on September 24, 2013, Henson's 77th birthday.
On February 14, 2014, Henson's son John died of a heart attack after playing in the snow with his daughter; he was 48 years old.
Muppet performance credits
The moving image collection of Jim Henson is held at the Academy Film Archive. The collection contains the film work of Jim Henson and the Jim Henson Company.