Jane Nebel Henson dies at 78; partner with Jim Henson in Muppets

Jane Henson is shown with her husband, Jim Henson, and the cast of "Sam and Friends" in 1960.
Jane Henson is shown with her husband, Jim Henson, and the cast of “Sam and Friends” in 1960.
(Del Ankers / Associated Press)

Jane Nebel Henson knew Kermit before he was the Frog, saw the Cookie Monster before he lost his “fiendish” teeth and was around for the pre-diva days of Miss Piggy.

Henson, the wife and longtime artistic collaborator of legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson, died Tuesday at her home in Greenwich, Conn., after a long battle with cancer, the Jim Henson Co. announced. She was 78.

As the first partner to the famous Muppeteer, Henson was instrumental in the creation of the earliest characters in the brood of marionette-puppet hybrids. The initial crew of zany foam personalities included Kermit, who made his 1955 debut on the TV show “Sam and Friends” not as a frog, but as a green-hued lizard made from an old coat belonging to Jim’s mother.


“She was seminal to the whole creation of the Muppets,” Vincent Anthony, founder and executive director of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, told The Times on Wednesday. “Her legacy is a shared vision with Jim for what puppetry can be, and a shared love of the artistry itself.”

Though she took a less active role in creating the Muppet characters while raising five children and teaching art, Henson found a new role in encouraging young artists to pursue the craft. “It was her trademark to nurture artists, including Jim,” Anthony said.

“She was his sounding board,” daughter Cheryl Henson, who now serves as president of the Jim Henson Foundation, said Wednesday in an interview with The Times.

Jim Henson went on to create such iconic characters as the Cookie Monster (who lost his teeth and became less vicious when he moved to public television’s “Sesame Street”) Big Bird, and Bert and Ernie. As their family expanded, however, Jane Henson stepped out of the limelight.

“After we were married, I didn’t perform that much,” Henson told the Detroit Free Press in 1998; a sprawling crew of puppeteers and production assistants had replaced her. “But we had fun back when it was just the two of us.”

The Muppets evolved into a television show and later a series of movies and earned her husband multiple Emmy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Several of the original characters, including Kermit the Lizard, are now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think of it as historical. It’s my life,” she told the Associated Press in 2008. “When you watch ‘The Muppet Show,’ the humor is timeless.”

Although she often described herself as “mostly a full-time mother,” she was considered by many to be a major behind-the-scenes force during and after Jim’s career.

Once, at the height of success for “The Muppet Show,” Jim wanted to use all of his profits to fund the release of “Dark Crystal,” a fantasy film he directed. The movie, which had been stalled by producers who feared it would flop, was deeply important to him. Jane said yes.

“She was there for him. She really believed in him. She always encouraged him to follow his vision and to stand up for it,” Cheryl Henson said.

Jane Anne Nebel was born June 16, 1934, in Queens, N.Y. , the youngest of three children of Winifred Johnson Nebel and Adalbert Nebel, an astrologer who was better known as Dal Lee.

At the University of Maryland, she studied fine arts. In 1954, her senior year, she took a puppetry class and met a gangly, dark-haired freshman named Jim Henson. “I hardly knew puppetry existed,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 1998.

A year later, when he was offered a show that ran five minutes twice a day on local TV, he asked her to be his co-performer and creator. As his partner, she helped design the characters, sew the puppets, and performed with them on “Sam and Friends” and, as they gained popularity, on the top variety shows of their time. They married in 1959 and had five children, who have all maintained active roles in the company and its foundations.

The two separated in 1986, but Henson continued to be a driving force in maintaining her husband’s legacy, donating the original Kermit and nine of his more obscure buddies to the Smithsonian in 2010.

After Jim’s sudden death in 1990, she established the Jim Henson Legacy to conserve his works, and helped identify and mentor promising young puppeteers through his foundation.

“My mother had an extraordinary passion for puppetry as an art form, and particularly wanted to encourage others to pursue their own visions and their own styles,” Cheryl Henson said. “The puppetry community was always an extended family for all of us.”

In addition to Cheryl Henson, she is survived by daughters Lisa Henson and Heather Henson; sons Brian Henson and John Henson; her sister, Rita Nebel Jennings; her brother, Bret Nebel; and eight grandchildren.