Jim Henson, who was born in Mississippi, and educated at University of Maryland, College Park, was one of the most widely known puppeteers in history. Jim Henson created Sam and Friends as a freshman in College Park. After suffering struggles with programs that he created, he eventually was selected to participate in Sesame Street. During this time, he also participated in the comedy series Saturday Night Live. The success of Sesame Street spawned The Muppet Show, which featured Muppets created by Henson. Jim Henson also co-created with Michael Jacobs the television show Dinosaurs during his final years. In 1992, he posthumously received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey, and on June 16, 2011, he posthumously received the Disney Legends Award.
Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, the younger of two boys. His parents were Betty Marcella (née Brown) and Paul Ransom Henson, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was raised as a Christian Scientist and spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, moving with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, DC, in the late 1940s.He later 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.
In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking 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 B.S. 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 Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson's most famous character: Kermit the Frog.
In the show, he began experimenting with techniques that would change the way puppetry had been used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera. Believing that television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity," Jim Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were made of carved wood. A marionette's arms are manipulated by strings, but Henson used rods to move his Muppets' arms, allowing greater control of expression. Additionally, Jim Henson wanted the Muppet characters to "speak" more creatively than was possible for previous puppets – which had seemed to have random mouth movements – so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue.
When Jim Henson began work on Sam and Friends, he asked fellow University of Maryland freshman Jane Nebel to assist him. The show was a financial success, but after graduating from college, Jim began to have doubts about going into a career as a puppeteer. He wandered off to Europe for several months, where he was inspired by European puppeteers who look on their work as an art form. Upon Jim Henson's return to the United States, he and Jane began dating. They were married in 1959 and had five children, Lisa (b. 1960), Cheryl (b. 1961), Brian (b. 1962), John (b. 1965), and Heather (b. 1970).