Jim Henson can be credited with many accomplishments: he had the most profound influence on children of any entertainer of his time; he adapted the ancient art of puppetry to the most modern of mediums, television, transforming both; he created a TV show that was one of the most popular on earth. But Henson's greatest achievement was broader than any of these. Through his work, he helped sustain the qualities of fancifulness, warmth and consideration that have been so threatened by our coarse, cynical age.
Born in 1936, Henson grew up in the small town of Leland, Miss., where his father worked as an agronomist for the Federal Government. When Henson was in fifth grade, his father took a job in Washington, and the family moved to a suburb in Maryland. There, in high school, Henson became fascinated by television. "I loved the idea," he once said, "that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time." In the summer of 1954, just before he entered the University of Maryland, he learned that a local station needed someone to perform with puppets on a children's show. Henson wasn't particularly interested in puppets, but he did want to get into TV, so he and a friend made a couple--one was called Pierre the French Rat--and they were hired.
The job didn't last long, but within a few months, Henson was back on TV, puppeteering for another station, the local NBC affiliate. Soon he had his own five-minute program, called Sam and Friends. It aired live twice a day, once before the network news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and later preceding the Tonight show, which at that time starred Steve Allen. Remaining in college, where he studied art and theater design, Henson produced Sam and Friends for six years. Assisting him was a fellow student named Jane Nebel, whom he married in 1959.
Puppets have been around for thousands of years, but the proto-Muppets that began to appear on Sam and Friends were different. Kermit was there, looking and sounding much as he would later (until his death Henson always animated Kermit and provided his voice). Typical hand puppets have solid heads, but Kermit's face was soft and mobile, and he could move his mouth in synchronization with his speech; he could also gesticulate more facilely than a marionette, with rods moving his arms. For television, Henson realized, it was necessary to invent puppets that had "life and sensitivity." (Henson sometimes said Muppet was a combination of puppet and marionette, but it seems the word came to him and he liked it, and later thought up a derivation.)