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The Death of Jim Henson

A frightening illness killed the beloved Muppet creator in 1990

Peter Pan isn't supposed to die. True, Jim Henson, who passed on seven years ago this week, was hardly a boy without a shadow. Yet the master of Muppetry never seemed of this earth, either. A towering 6'3'', Henson appeared to have access to farther horizons; the beard that hid teen acne scars gave him the air of a young Saint Nick. Above all, his gentleness — in art, business, and private life — bespoke a man for whom day-to-day matters were of less concern than the music he heard in his head.

The 53-year-old Henson was at the pinnacle of his career when he died, on May 16, 1990, of a severe strep infection that destroyed his lungs within days. At the time, PBS' award-winning Sesame Street, which featured such enduring Henson creations as Big Bird and Ernie, was seen in 80 countries. The Muppet Show, which aired in the U.S. from 1976 to 1981, had made the eternal courtship between diffident Kermit and ardent Miss Piggy world famous. And, months before his death, Henson had agreed to sell Henson Associates to Walt Disney Co. for an amount rumored to be close to $200 million. Not bad for a man who started out as puppeteer on a Washington, D.C., kiddie show and who once said, ''Puppetry is a good way of hiding.''

Ironically, such self-effacement may have contributed to his death. The weekend before, Henson seemed to be fighting a cold. To his daughter Cheryl's worried questions, he said, ''I'm just tired.'' ''Then,'' she later related, ''he said, 'Hi ho, Kermit the Frog here.' It was very unlike him.'' By Monday he had canceled a recording session; late that night, he began to cough up blood. By the time he agreed to be taken to New York Hospital, his organs were already shutting down. Throughout Tuesday, family and friends kept vigil; the next morning, after two cardiac arrests, Henson's heart finally stopped.

An appreciation in The New York Times led off with a simple ''What will happen now?'' And Disney answered, Nothing, pulling the plug on the deal in a contention that Jim Henson was his company. But Henson's son Brian sued the Mouse, leading the organization in a spirited continuation of his father's iconoclasm (the case was settled out of court). And Jim Henson's vision plays on: His benevolent spirit hovers over the Henson Creature Shop creations for such movies as Adventures of Pinocchio; whenever Ernie warbles undying devotion to his rubber duckie on Sesame Street; and throughout last year's Muppet movie escapade, Muppet Treasure Island, directed by Brian (another of his five children, Lisa, 36, is a former president of Columbia Pictures). ''He was one of the world's great positive thinkers,'' recalls his son today. ''In Hollywood, it's the bad guy who's usually more interesting. My father had the ability to make the good guy the more interesting, crazy, eccentric character.''


May 16, 1990

Moviegoers fell for Pretty Woman, and TV viewers giggled at America's Funniest Home Videos. Music lovers joined Janet Jackson on an ''Escapade,'' and George Will's Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball hit home with nonfiction fans.

Originally posted May 16, 1997 Published in issue #379 May 16, 1997 Order article reprints
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