From The TV IV
Jim Henson was a TV pioneer, innovator, and independent filmmaker, whose most famous creations are a group of puppets known as the Muppets.
Originally, Henson only began peforming puppets as a back door to get into the then-fledging TV industry. In 1955, while still in college, he created a 5-minute show called Sam and Friends, which aired just after the news for a local station in Washington, D.C. He directed nearly every show, and also performed many of the puppets, along with his future wife, Jane (Nebel) Henson. He also wrote many scripts for the show, although frequently the show would be a lip-synch to a popular song of the day, or to a comedy sketch from an album by Stan Freberg.
Though mainly a nameless lizard at this point, an early version of what would become Henson's most famous creation, Kermit the Frog, first appeared on this show.
Until Henson arrived on the scene, all televised puppet shows looked the same: that is, they were filmed standing in a traditional puppet stage. Henson realized that in TV, the camera is itself the stage, and the puppets didn't need to be bound by old-fashioned conventions. The puppets were suddenly free to move about on increasingly elaborate sets.
Henson also favored open-mouth puppets, which allowed for greater expressiveness and character than simple finger puppets (which were more the standard at the time - think Kukla from Kukla, Fran and Ollie). Later, Henson would add one more crucial innovation: he discovered that puppets could interact better with humans when the stages were "platformed up" so that the puppeteers could walk about in trenches around the human performers. Henson's innovations have become the standard for puppetry in all of television.
In 1969, the Children's Television Workshop created an educational show for preschoolers called Sesame Street, and asked Henson and company to provide puppets for the show. A number of memorable characters were created for the show, including Big Bird, Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Grover, The Count, and (later) Elmo. Sesame Street was a phenomenal critical and commercial success, and continues to run with new episodes to this day.
Despite Sesame's success, Henson was frustrated that the Muppets had been pigeonholed as a "children's act." He determined to create a prime-time puppet show that would appeal to adults and children. In 1976, he created The Muppet Show, which introduced viewers to such unforgettable creations as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and The Great Gonzo.
In 1983, Henson created Fraggle Rock for HBO, about a group of fanciful creatures that lived underground and just out of sight of humans. The goal of the show was to promote cultural understanding, by showing how different societies depend on each other to survive, and how they can get along despite their differences.
Henson's mind was always moving forward, and he created a pair of fantasy movies that had puppet creations that were significantly more advanced than anything he had done before. The two films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, were initially box-office failures, but have since grown cult followings, and helped pave the way for groundbreaking puppet and CGI effects in movies such as Babe and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Henson also created a number of other acclaimed but short-lived series, such as The Storyteller. He died unexpectedly in 1990 due to complications from a rare form of pneumonia. Today the Muppet characters (and their related shows and movies) are owned by the Walt Disney Company, while his son Brian runs his father's company, producing such projects as the popular sci-fi TV program Farscape.