Jim Henson was a master puppeteer, whose incredible contributions to the entertainment world included creating the Muppets. His sudden death in 1990 sent shockwaves through Hollywood, leaving behind a lasting legacy and an incomparable body of work.

Inside Jim Henson’s Life and Career

Jim was born on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi. His interest in art and ventriloquism grew when he was a child before he took his puppets to the small screen at WTOP-TV.

While attending the University of Maryland, Jim landed the puppet show Sam and Friends on NBC affiliate WRC-TV. The show featured a prototype of Kermit the Frog. While working on the program, fellow student Jane Nebel assisted Jim, and they later fell in love and got married in 1959. They welcomed kids Lisa, Brian, John, Cheryl and Heather during their marriage.

Eventually, Jim’s puppets were featured on a number of programs and commercials. With the help of Don Sahlin and Frank Oz, Jim developed the Muppets character Rowlf the Dog, who regularly appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show. When the animator was enlisted to help create a family of colorful characters to headline Sesame Street, his imagination ran wild.

In addition to bringing characters like Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Bird Bird to life, Jim also directed The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and pioneered The Jim Henson Hour. His Muppets were featured in the The Land of Gorch skits on Saturday Night Live.

“My feeling about puppetry relates to stylization, simplicity, boiling down to — it’s a wonderful form and I really love it,” Jim once said. “But with The Dark Crystal, instead of puppetry we’re trying to go toward a sense of realism — toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive and we’re mixing up puppetry and all kinds of other techniques. It’s into the same bag as E.T. and Yoda, wherein you’re trying to create something that people will actually believe, but it’s not so much a symbol of the thing, but you’re trying to do the thing itself.”

In the last decade of his life, the Emmy winner worked on Fraggle Rock, The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years, The StoryTeller and much more. One of Jim’s last completed projects was The Muppets at Walt Disney World in 1990.

How Did Jim Henson Die?
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How Did Jim Henson Die?

On May 4, 1990, Jim appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show with Kermit the Frog in what would be his final TV appearance. Weeks later, he was rushed to the hospital after falling ill. He died on May 16, 1990, at age 53 from streptococcus pneumonia, a massive bacterial infection.

“Tragically, the acute infection had already progressed to such an extent that he had multiorgan failure: kidney failure, inability of the blood to clot, heart failure and shock,” the hospital said in a statement per The Los Angeles Times. “At this stage, (high-dose) antibiotics could not reverse the process.”

The Muppets icon’s children have continued to keep his legacy alive with The Jim Henson Company.

“He inspired people to realize their weird and wonderful ideas,” Jim’s son Brian told Closer in July 2018. “He came up with an original idea and presented it to the world, who embraced it because it’s sweet and positive.”