How Did Jim Henson Die? Inside The Heartbreaking Death Of The Muppets Creator

Published May 28, 2024

Jim Henson was just 53 years old when he died on May 16, 1990, just days after coming down with a severe bacterial infection.

Jim Henson Death

Photo 12/Alamy Stock PhotoJim Henson, surrounded by the Muppets.

Jim Henson was a revolutionary puppeteer, filmmaker, and actor, best known for creating the Muppets. His career spanned over 30 years, during which he would create iconic characters like Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Cookie Monster. Tragically, Jim Henson’s death at the age of 53 brought a sudden, shocking end to his life’s story.

1990 would have been a big year for Henson. He was in the process of negotiating with the head of Disney about potentially selling the Muppets. But unfortunately, Jim Henson would never be able to complete the deal to his satisfaction — because he died on May 16, 1990.

For several days in May, Henson was suffering from what he thought was a bad cold. But on the 14th, he realized just how serious his condition was. He soon began coughing up blood, and his family members took him to New York Hospital in Manhattan. There, doctors realized that Henson’s “cold” was actually a severe strep infection. Though he was given antibiotics to kill the harmful bacteria in his system, it was sadly too late.

Ultimately, Jim Henson’s cause of death was toxic shock syndrome, which emerged due to the bacterial infection of Streptococcus pyogenes. Perhaps most tragic, the doctor who tried to save him said that he could have survived his illness if he had arrived at the hospital just half a day earlier.

Jim Henson’s Early Life And Career

Jim Henson's Sam And Friends

Photo 12/Alamy Stock PhotoJim Henson on the set of Sam and Friends with an early version of Kermit the Frog in 1955.

Jim Henson was born on September 24, 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi, to Betty Marcella and Paul Ransom Henson. He grew up as a Christian Scientist, a sect of Christianity in which many followers heavily emphasize the power of prayer over medical treatment when they become ill.

(This part of Henson’s upbringing later led to rumors that his initial refusal to go to the hospital when he was sick was due to his Christian Science roots. But an article published by the Toledo Blade shortly after Jim Henson’s death pointed out that he had stopped being a Christian Scientist by the mid-1970s, and so that wouldn’t cause him to avoid treatment.)

Jim Henson first began working in puppetry when he was in high school. After graduation, he attended college at the University of Maryland, College Park. Henson initially majored in studio art, but he would ultimately graduate with a degree in home economics. During this time, Henson became even more interested in working with puppets. He also met his future wife, Jane Nebel, during a puppetry course. In the meantime, more experienced puppeteers soon noticed Henson’s great potential.

When he was just a freshman in college, he was asked to create a five-minute puppet show called Sam and Friends for WRC-TV. Though the show was short, it would help pave the way for Henson’s future success with the Muppets — and it even included an early version of Kermit the Frog.

The Historic Creation Of The Muppets

Wilkins And Wontkins

Wikimedia CommonsWilkins and Wontkins, two of Jim Henson’s early Muppets that were featured in coffee commercials.

As Jim Henson would later reveal in an interview, he came up with the term “Muppets” long before the creation of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. He even came up with it before his show Sam and Friends.

“It was really just a term we made up,” Henson said. “For a long time I would tell people it was a combination of marionettes and puppets but, basically, it was really just a word that we coined.”

Though the main character of Sam and Friends was Sam, a bald-headed, humanoid creature, the more enduring characters would be some of his friends — including some early versions of Muppets like Kermit.

Despite Sam and Friends’ success, however, Henson spent most of the late 1950s and early 1960s doing commercial work and behind-the-scenes work on shows. Still, Henson never gave up on his Muppets.

In fact, some of Henson’s most successful commercial work was for Wilkins Coffee (and later, other coffee companies). In these ads, two Muppets named Wilkins and Wontkins engaged in short skits to promote coffee.

About 179 commercials featuring Wilkins and Wontkins were made in total, and the characters had proven to be a hit. But before long, Henson was looking to make something else — something that lasted longer than the length of a television commercial. So, in 1963, he and his wife moved to New York City to further expand his recently created Muppets, Inc.

It was here where Henson would create his most iconic characters, thanks in part to writer Jerry Juhl and puppeteer Frank Oz, both of whom helped develop the Muppets, especially after Jane Henson shifted her focus to being a mother. Oz in particular became a close work partner to Henson, and the two would soon portray Muppet duos like Bert and Ernie.

Jim Henson's Cause Of Death

GL Archive/Alamy Stock PhotoAs the Muppets creator, Jim Henson developed countless characters that would remain beloved years after his death.

The team would eventually expand, but in the early days, it was a small operation. Oz, in an interview with IGN, described the environment as playful, but noted that those early days were “the hardest work I’ve ever done.”

“The work was play,” Oz explained. “That’s what we learned from Jim. No matter what Jim did… he would make it exciting. He would make whatever work there was exciting and fun. He just would.”

Henson would, of course, go on to develop the now-iconic Sesame Street alongside Oz. The show, which debuted in 1969, was so successful that it allowed Henson and his team to finally stop relying on commercials as their biggest income stream — and it allowed Henson to aim even higher.

He would create The Muppet Show in 1976, which eventually led to The Muppet Movie in 1979, and countless spin-off films afterward.

Henson and Oz later went on to co-direct 1982’s The Dark Crystal. And Henson also directed the film Labyrinth in 1986, starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie. George Lucas served as the film’s executive producer.

Production Of Labyrinth

Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy Stock PhotoGeorge Lucas, David Bowie, and Jim Henson pictured during the production of Labyrinth, which was released just a few years before Jim Henson’s death.

The film, now a cult classic, was well received at the time, but it was also a commercial flop. In an interview with People Magazine in 1990, Jane Henson described the commercial failure of the film as “a real blow.”

“He couldn’t understand it,” she said. “He talked to [our son] Brian and said, ‘What did we do wrong?'”

A few years after that, Disney expressed a deep interest in Henson’s Muppet characters. Henson was in talks with Michael Eisner, then the head of Disney, to sell the Muppets — though Henson was determined not to sell Sesame Street, which Eisner also wanted. Unfortunately, those talks were ultimately cut short by Jim Henson’s sudden and shocking death.

Inside Jim Henson’s Tragic Death

Jim Henson first fell ill on May 4, 1990, the day of his last public appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. He complained of a sore throat, but he was confident that his “cold” would go away. Rather than resting, he spent time shopping for antiques, flew back to New York to work on the Disney deal, and even traveled to North Carolina to visit family members.

But the weekend before Jim Henson’s death, his daughter Cheryl had a feeling that his “cold” was something far more serious, according to Entertainment Weekly. As she became increasingly worried about his health, he insisted, “I’m just tired.” “Then,” she later remembered, “he said, ‘Hi ho, Kermit the Frog here.’ It was very unlike him.”

By that Monday, he had canceled a recording session, which was also very out of character for him. It was clear that he was far more sick than he was letting on, but he was still resistant of going to the doctor.

Jim Henson With His Muppets

Wikimedia CommonsJim Henson photographed with Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, two of his beloved characters.

Jim Henson and his wife Jane had separated by that point, but when she heard that their children were trying to take care of him, she paid him a visit.

“I never stay over,” she recalled. “I haven’t in years, but he asked me to stay.”

The situation grew more dire later that night, when Henson began to cough up blood. Soon after that, he finally agreed to be taken to New York Hospital.

Unfortunately, by that point, Henson’s body had already begun shutting down. X-rays showed pockets of infection in his lungs, which continued to spread as time went on. Before long, he was given anesthesia and put on a ventilator as doctors began pumping antibiotics into his body.

Death Of Jim Henson

Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy Stock PhotoMany were shocked to learn about Jim Henson’s death at age 53, especially when they learned the cause.

“It was when he was anesthetized that we waved goodbye to him. He didn’t say anything,” Jane remembered. “He waved a little.”

Hospital workers tried to treat Henson all throughout the day. But he eventually suffered two cardiac arrests, and on May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died. In the end, it was determined that a severe strep infection had destroyed his lungs in a matter of days. Toxic shock syndrome eventually set in — which was Jim Henson’s ultimate cause of death.

His family, friends, and fans were devastated to hear that he was gone — especially since he had appeared to be in decent health in previous months. Many were particularly unsettled to hear about Jim Henson’s specific cause of death, as most Americans were no longer worried about severe bacterial infections by the 1990s. It was a sobering reminder to many that it’s crucial to properly treat those illnesses as soon as possible. Still, many experts were stunned that the infection killed Henson with such swiftness.

Frank Oz would later speculate that stress in Henson’s professional life helped lead to his early demise. “The Disney deal is probably what killed Jim. It made him sick,” Oz said in an interview with The Guardian. (Disney would eventually buy the Muppets in 2004, but not Sesame Street.)

But despite Jim Henson’s untimely death, his legacy clearly lives on, and in the end, it seems that he achieved most of his biggest dreams. “I believe in taking a positive attitude toward the world,” he once wrote. “My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better than when I got here.”

After reading about Jim Henson’s tragic death, learn about how television star John Ritter died. Or, read about the death of Michael Clarke Duncan.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Harvey, Austin. "How Did Jim Henson Die? Inside The Heartbreaking Death Of The Muppets Creator.", May 28, 2024, Accessed June 21, 2024.