Henson began developing puppets while attending high school. He created Sam and Friends while he was a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, a five-minute sketch-comedy puppet show that appeared on television. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in home economics, after which he produced coffee advertisements and developed some experimental films. He founded Muppets, Inc., in 1958, which became the Jim Henson Company.
Henson became famous in 1969 when he joined the children's educational television program Sesame Street where he helped to develop characters for the series. He also appeared on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. He produced The Muppet Show in 1976, after scrapping plans for a Broadway show. He won fame for his creations, particularly Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, and Ernie, and he was involved with Sesame Street for over 20 years. During the later years of his life, he also founded the Jim Henson Foundation and Jim Henson's Creature Shop. He won the Emmy Award twice for his involvement in The Storyteller and The Jim Henson Hour.
Henson died suddenly of toxic shock syndrome on May 16, 1990, at age 53, twenty hours after experiencing a medical emergency; an unexpected event that was widely lamented in the media and entertainment industry. In the weeks following his death, he was celebrated with a wave of tributes. He was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, and was selected to be one of the Disney Legends in 2011.
James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on September 24, 1936, the younger of two children of Paul Ransom Henson (1904–1994), an agronomist for the United States Department of Agriculture, and his wife Betty Marcella (née Brown, 1904–1992). He was raised as a Christian Scientist and spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, before moving with his family to University Park, Maryland in the late 1940s, near Washington, D.C. He remembered the arrival of the family's first television as "the biggest event of his adolescence," having been heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom on Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Bil and Cora Baird. He remained a Christian Scientist at least into his twenties when he would teach Sunday School, but he wrote to a Christian Science church in 1975 to inform them that he was no longer a practicing member.
Henson began working for WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in 1954 while attending Northwestern High School, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show. He enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park as a studio arts major upon graduation, thinking that he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated in 1960 with a BS in home economics. As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners of the Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson's most famous character Kermit the Frog. Henson remained at WRC from 1954 to 1961.