For as long as he could remember, Mississippi born Jim Henson was a devoted fan of puppeteers and ventriloquists; his idols included Edgar Bergen, Burr Tillstrom and Bil and Cora Baird. While attending high school in Maryland (where his meteorologist father had been relocated), Henson was hired for the staff of the Washington, D.C. kiddy show Sam and His Friends. By the time he was a freshman at the University of Maryland, the lanky, goateed Henson was in charge of the TV show's puppets, with his future wife Jane Nebel as his assistant.
It was during the Washington years that Henson hit upon the concept of the Muppet: part marionette, part puppet. His most popular character was Kermit the Frog, whom Henson fashioned out of his mom's overcoat in 1959. TV commercial appearances by the Muppets led to guest stints on The Jack Paar Show, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and The Jimmy Dean Show. While Henson and his partner Frank Oz handled the voices for most of the characters, the ever-expanding Muppet cast required a retinue of willing (and quick-witted) assistants. Henson's first taste of movie-making was the Oscar-nominated 1965 short Timepiece, but at the time he preferred television to films. In 1969, the Muppets became a regular feature on the spectacularly popular PBS daily Sesame Street, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for Henson: his characters were now highly marketable, but he was being perceived as exclusively a "children's entertainer." As such, he lost a lot of adult-oriented assignments. This "kiddy" onus prevented ABC from picking up Henson's half-hour The Muppet Show in 1975, whereupon Henson offered the program to syndication. As a result, The Muppet Show became one of the biggest non-network hits in TV history, as well as a great international success. Capitalizing on the popularity of "star" muppets Kermit and Miss Piggy, Henson and his staff concocted the 1979 all-star feature film The Muppet Movie, which made scads of money. With 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, Henson made his feature film directorial debut; he would later direct Labyrinth (1986), and with Frank Oz, co-direct The Dark Crystal (1982). After many years of avoiding Saturday morning network TV, Henson collaborated with Marvel Studios on the weekly cartoon series Muppet Babies (1984), which added more Emmy awards to his already top-heavy trophy shelf; less successful was the 1986 animated version of Henson's HBO series Fraggle Rock. During the late '80s, Henson expanded his activities to designing "creatures" for other producer's projects, notably the 1990 movie blockbuster Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In May of 1990, Henson was poised to sell his Muppet empire to Disney Studios. Suddenly stricken with streptococcus pneumonia, Jim Henson checked himself into New York Hospital, where he died a few days later at the age of 53. The Muppet operation was taken over by Jim Henson's son Brian Henson.