How did Jim Henson die? | The tragic death of The Muppets creator who died too soon

Jim Henson

At the time of Jim Henson’s death in 1990, the Muppets creator was at the height of his career. Well-known for his work on such TV shows as Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, the legendary puppeteer had also given us such movies as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

The StoryTeller and The Jim Henson Hour were two of his final projects before his untimely death at the age of 53. He had other films and TV shows in the works, including a TV series entitled Muppet High, but sadly, these never made it into the production stage. 

A new documentary celebrating Henson’s life and career is coming to Disney+ on May 31, 2024. Titled Jim Henson Idea Man, this is a celebration of the man who brought joy to many with his colourful cast of muppets and boundless creative energy.

Jim Henson’s death came as a massive shock to all who knew and loved him. It was a heartbreaking loss for his millions of fans too. 

In this article, we take a sombre look back into the past and ask the question: How did Jim Henson die?

How did Jim Henson die?

Jim Henson’s final TV appearance was on The Arsenio Hall Show on May 4, 1990. Shortly after, he disclosed to his publicist that he was tired and had a sore throat. He believed the problem would go away but a few days later, after cancelling a Muppet recording session because of his ill health, he was admitted into hospital with breathing difficulties. 

After admission to the emergency room at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, he stopped breathing and was rushed into the intensive care unit. He was placed on a ventilator and given antibiotics but his condition quickly worsened. At 1:21 am, on the 16th of May 1990, Jim Henson died at the age of 53.

So, what caused his death?

What Henson had thought was just a cold turned out to be a severe strep infection. This weakened his organs and eventually caused them to shut down. The doctor who tried to save him said that he could have been saved if he had attended hospital just a day or two earlier. But Henson, who was under the assumption that he was suffering a flu-like virus, didn’t want to take time off from his busy schedule to seek treatment. It wasn’t until he started to cough up blood that he realized his condition was serious. 

Henson’s official cause of death was toxic shock syndrome, the result of a bacterial infection of Streptococcus pyogenes.

Jim Henson’s letters and funeral

In 1986, Henson wrote two touching letters that were to be read after his death. 

The first letter, which he wrote to his children, reads: 

“First of all, don’t feel bad that I’m gone. While I will miss spending time with each of you, I’m sure it will be an interesting time for me and I look forward to seeing all of you when you come over. To each of you I send my love. If on this side of life I’m able to watch over and help you out, know that I will. If I can’t, I’m sure I can at least be waiting for you when you come over. This all may sound silly to you guys, but what the hell, I’m gone—and who can argue with me?

Life is meant to be fun, and joyous, and fulfilling. May each of yours be that—having each of you as a child of mine has certainly been one of the good things in my life. Know that I’ve always loved each of you with an eternal, bottomless love. A love that has nothing to do with each other, for I feel my love for each of you is total and all encompassing. Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.”

The second letter was intended for his friends and family, with his wishes for his funeral. 

“I’m not at all afraid of the thought of death and in many ways look forward to it with much curiosity and interest. I’m looking forward to meeting up with some of my friends who have gone on ahead of me and I will be waiting there to say hi to those of you who are still back there.

I suggest you first have a nice, friendly little service of some kind. It would be lovely if some of the people who sing would do a song or two, some of which should be quite happy and joyful. It would be nice if some of my close friends would say a few nice, happy words about how much we enjoyed doing this stuff together. Incidentally, I’d love to have a Dixieland band play at this function and end with a rousing version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’.

Have a wonderful time in life, everybody; it feels strange writing this kind of thing while I’m still alive, but it wouldn’t be easy to do after I go.”

Extracts from these letters were read out by Henson’s son Brian at the funeral.

The service began with the theme tune to Sesame Street and continued with a tribute from Big Bird and musical performances from some of the Muppets.

The funeral was exactly what Henson wanted – something that was “happy and joyful.” This couldn’t take away the heartbreak from those who loved him but at least his final goodbye was as warm and cheerful as he was. 

You can see footage of Jim Henson’s Memorial Service here. 


Read More: 10 Best Jim Henson Movies

What is your favourite memory of Jim Henson? Let us know in the comments below.

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