Creator of the Muppets, and the leading force behind their long creative run, Henson brought an engaging cast of characters, and a pitch-perfect sense of timing and humor to many millions of people.
His puppets were especially beloved by children, but a good deal of adult interest lay behind the comedy. There were often adult references. Squabbling best pals Ernie and Bert recalled for adults the squabbling friends Ernie the taxidriver and Bert the cop in Frank Capra's 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life." The detective "Sherlock Hemlock" made gentle fun of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The chef Julia Grown-up was, of course, a takeoff on the chef Julia Child.
Born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1936, Henson moved with his family to Maryland, near Washington, DC in the late 1940s. In 1954, while still in high school, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show. The next year he created Sam and Friends, a five minute puppet show for WRC-TV. Sam and Friends were already recognizably muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson's signature character, Kermit the Frog. Already he was experimenting with the techniques that would change the way puppetry was used on television, notably using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera.
The success of Sam and Friends led to a series of guest appearances on network talk- and variety-shows. To this day, muppets appear as "guests" on shows as diverse as The Tonight Show and Martha Stewart Living (Track down and watch Cookie Monster's appearance on Martha Stewart Living if it's the last thing you do). Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including the Ed Sullivan Show, and his muppets had a regular segment on Saturday Night Live during its first season in 1975. The greatly increased exposure led to hundreds of commercial appearances (mostly for Wilkins Coffee) by Henson characters through the 1960s.
1963 was a busy year for Henson. He and his wife and fellow-puppeteer Jane moved to New York City, where the recently formed Muppets, Inc. would reside for some time. Henson devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog, the first muppet to make a regular appearance on a network show (The Jimmy Dean Show). And Henson's long-time partner Frank Oz also came on board with the new company.
From 1964-1968, Henson began experimenting with film-making, and produced a series of experimental films.
Around the same time, Joan Ganz Cooney began work on Sesame Street, an educational children's program for public television. Part of the show was set aside for a series of funny, colorful puppet characters living on the titular street. These included Oscar the Grouch, Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird. Kermit was also included. At first the puppetry was only a small part of Sesame Street, but after a poor screen test in Baltimore, the show was revamped to place much greater emphasis on Henson's work.
Sesame Street was a wild success, giving Henson enough leverage in the television industry to create The Muppet Show. Created for British television, the show featured Kermit once again as host, and a variety of other memorable characters including Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear. A variety show aimed at a family audience, and showing a fond admiration for the days of vaudeville, the show was a sensation in the United Kingdom and soon elsewhere in the world. The show ended after a few seasons, but the characters have appeared in a long series of movies beginning with 1979's The Muppet Movie and continuing with:
- The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
- The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
- Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
- Muppets From Space (1999)
Henson was also responsible for two non-Muppet Show related movies, 1982's high fantasy The Dark Crystal and the David Bowie-featuring Labyrinth from 1986.
He also continued creating children's programs -- Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies -- and more sophisticated fare -- the mythology-oriented The Storyteller.
Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990 due to pneumonia.
The Jim Henson Company has continued on after his death. His son Brian Henson is chairman. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the muppet puppeteering crew, has assumed the roles of the two most famous characters played by Henson, Kermit the Frog and Ernie.