James Maury Henson was born September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi, the second son of Paul Ransom and Elizabeth Marcella Henson. He grew up in nearby Leland, where his father, an agronomist, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His childhood was a happy one, as he explored both his artistic interests and the local countryside, whether alone or with friends. One of his childhood friends, Kermit, would later inspire the name of Henson's most celebrated creation. When he was in fifth grade, his family returned to Maryland. Henson's first television appearance occurred while he was still in high school, performing puppets on a local Washington, D.C., Saturday morning program on WTOP-TV. While a freshman at the University of Maryland, he turned professional when a local NBC affiliate hired him to do a five-minute late-night show called "Sam and Friends." His first performing partner, Jane Nebel, would later become his wife.
In creating the "muppets"a combination of the words "marionette puppet"Henson rejected the painted wood appearance of most puppets of the period because they were not sufficiently expressive of emotion. Instead, he crafted his puppets, including an early version of "Kermit," who was not yet a frog, out of flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, giving them supple bodies and large mouths that allowed them to convey a wide range of emotions.
Success from the show proved the stepping stone for a series of commercials that brought him nationwide fame. Soon, he was making guest appearances on such national network programs as The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Show, and The Today Show. In 1961, as Muppets, Inc. grew, Jim and Jane brought on puppeteer and writer Jerry Juhl, who would become one of Jim's major collaborators.
The Hensons moved to New York in 1963 as his television appearances grew to include The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan, and The Jimmy Dean Show, and weekly appearances on The Today Show as well as commercials....
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