Creator of the Muppets, and the leading force behind their long creative run, Henson brought an engaging cast of characters, innovative ideas, and a pitch-perfect sense of timing and humor to many millions of people. He is also widely acknowledged for the ongoing vision of faith, friendship, love of magic, and unconditional love which informed nearly all of his work.
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 such as The Tonight Show and Hollywood Squares, with particularly memorable appearances by Kermit and Miss Piggy on 60 Minutes and Cookie Monster on Martha Stewart Living. 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.
In 1963 Henson 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). At that time Henson's long-time partner Frank Oz also came on board with the new company.
In 1968, Joan Ganz Cooney and the team at the Children's Television Workshop began work on Sesame Street, a visionary 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 separated from the realistic segments on the street, but after a poor screen test in Philadelphia, the show was revamped to integrate the two and place much greater emphasis on Henson's work.
Sesame Street was a notable success, giving Henson enough popularity in the television industry to create The Muppet Show. Created inititially for British television after American networks showed no interest, the show featured Kermit as host, and a variety of other memorable characters including Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear. A vaudeville-style variety show aimed at a family audience, the show was a sensation in the United Kingdom and soon elsewhere in the world.
His puppets have been especially beloved by children, but a good deal of adult interest lay behind the comedy. Even in the pre-school aimed Sesame Street, there were often references aimed at adults. 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, although the official line is that Jim Henson hadn't seen the movie before naming the puppets. 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.
The Muppet 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:
Henson also continued creating children's programs -- Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies -- and new prime-time ventures such as the mythology-oriented The Storyteller and Muppet Show successor Muppets Tonight. The Jim Henson company continues to produce new series and specials for PBS and market televsision. Henson also founded the Jim Henson Creature Shop to create creatures for outside productions.
The Jim Henson Company has continued on after his death. His son Brian Henson is currently 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.
The Creature Shop has created special creatures and characters for a large number of other films and series (most currently the science fiction production Farscape), and is considered one of the most advanced and well respected creators of film creatures.