Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, was born in Mississippi in 1936, where his father worked as an agronomist. They were Christian Scientists. When Henson was eleven his father got a job in Washington, and the family moved to Maryland. In the summer of 1954, as Henson was about to enter university, he learned that a local TV station needed a puppeteer. Though he wasn't much interested in puppets, he was fascinated by TV, so he and a friend made some puppets and got the job. That gig didn't last long, but while Henson studied theater and art design in college, he had his own five-minute program, "Sam and Friends", which ran for six years. He worked during that time with fellow puppeteer Jane Nebel, who he married in 1959.
Unlike the hard-faced puppets of old, Henson's puppets had soft mobile visages - proto-Kermit, there from the beginning though not yet a frog, was cut from his mother's old coat - which could move in time with his voice. The arms on rods could gesticulate for further emphasis. The Muppets - perhaps a neologism born of the combination of puppet and marionette, perhaps just a cool word - were born.
The Muppets became so synonymous with Sesame Street that you might be forgiven for imagining that the show was Henson's idea, but actually the Children's Television Workshop hired him to add to their show. At first the idea was to have the two species - humans and muppets - in separate segments, but preschool test audiences voted hands up for the magical mixed bits which brought fantasy and reality together. Working with his longtime collaborator Frank Oz, the puppeteers brought many enduring favourites to the show; Henson's own characters on Sesame Street included Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Rowlf the dog, the Swedish Chef, Waldorf, and Link Hogthrob the space commander. In 1976 British impresario Lord (Lew) Grade gave Henson the chance he'd wanted for years: his own show. The amazingly successful Muppet Show ran until 1981, when Henson stopped it, not wanting it to become stale. The Muppets have made a number of movies, and Henson had other shows, and movies as well, but none did as well as the Muppet Show. In the late 1980s he began arrangements to merge his business with Disney, but the deal never went through because Henson died before it was finalized. His son, who took over the business after Henson's untimely death, called the merger off, but by 2004 the sale of the muppets to Disney was finalized.
Who was the man under the muppet? Henson, it seems, was shy, patient, and gentle. Though very tall - 6"3" - he was not given to pushing himself forward or expressing his views forcefully. Colleagues said if he liked something, he'd say it was lovely; if not, he'd confine himself to "Hmmm..." They also freely refer to him as a creative genius. In spite of his legendary shyness, he had a penchant for spending his money; he had flashy cars and a number of huge houses. He and his wife had five children, all now filmmakers, artists, designers, producers or puppeteers. Henson and Jane legally separated in 1986, after which Henson dated a series of women.
In 1990 Henson got a cold. His Christian Science upbringing had taught him not to seek medical treatment, but he no longer practiced the faith. However, his general humility, as well as the notion that a cough wasn't serious, dissuaded him from seeking medical help until it was too late. He died of streptococcus pneumonia at age 53. If he had sought treatment six or eight hours earlier, he might still be alive today. At his funeral, held in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Big Bird sang the song that Henson's alter-ego, Kermit, made famous: "It Isn't Easy Being Green".
Lots of this information came from a collection of articles which pay tribute to Jim Henson, at