Jane Henson; partnered with husband to create Muppets

Jim and Jane Henson posed with the case of Sam and Friends in Washington in 1960.
Del Ankers/Jim Henson Co.
Jim and Jane Henson posed with the case of Sam and Friends in Washington in 1960.

NEW YORK — Jane Henson, the widow of and original collaborator with Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, died Tuesday at her home in Greenwich, Conn. She was 78.

The cause was cancer, said the Jim Henson Co., the production company owned by the couple’s five children.

She and her husband, who were legally separated in 1986, remained friends until his death in 1990 at 53 from untreated pneumonia.


The couple met in a puppetry class in 1954 at the University of Maryland, where they were fine arts students. The next year, when the NBC television affiliate in Washington invited Jim Henson to produce a series of five-minute segments, he asked his future wife to join him as a creator and performer.

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The puppet spots they assembled, which were shown twice daily as ‘‘Sam and Friends,’’ featured an early version of Kermit the Frog (known simply as Kermit, and more lizard than frog) and various other forebears of the Muppet troupe.

Mrs. Henson worked on ‘‘Sam and Friends’’ until it ended in 1961, though less actively after she and Jim Henson married in 1959. ‘‘When we started having babies, I always worked a little bit, but we very soon knew that we needed more people, and Jim had wanted to bring in other people, anyway,’’ she said in a CNN interview in 1999.

In her later role as unofficial talent scout and gatekeeper of Jim Henson’s enterprises, she was credited with hiring many of the puppeteers and writers involved in creating the Muppets, who made their debut as an ensemble in 1969 on ‘‘Sesame Street.’’

Jane Ann Nebel was born on June 16, 1934, in Queens, the youngest of three children of Winifred and Adalbert Nebel. Her father, an astrologer known professionally as Dal Lee, was the editor of the newsstand publications Astrology Guide and Your Personal Astrology.


When her children were older, she was active in entertainment projects like the arena shows ‘‘The Muppet Show on Tour’’ and ‘‘Sesame Street Live.’’ In 1982 she helped form the Jim Henson Foundation, which promotes puppetry.

She leaves her children, Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather Henson; seven grandchildren; a step-grandchild; a sister, Margareta Jennings; and a brother, Brereton Nebel.

Cheryl Henson, who is president of the Jim Henson Foundation, said her mother had provided ballast for her father’s creative freedom and was his artistic collaborator throughout their life. ‘‘She encouraged him to take risks,’’ she said, ‘‘always urged him not to compromise.’’

In the Henson family lexicon, she said, ‘‘We called her the ‘great maza shelaza’ of the Muppets.’’

Roughly translated, she added, that meant the mother of all Muppets.