How Did Jim Henson Die? The Tragic Story Leading Up to the Muppets Creator's Death

Jim Henson died of toxic shock syndrome at 53 years old

<p>Hulton Archive/Getty</p> Jim Henson with some of the Muppet cast from

Hulton Archive/Getty

Jim Henson with some of the Muppet cast from 'Fraggie Rock', circa 1985.

Jim Henson’s sudden death rocked his family and friends.

The Muppets creator came down with what he thought was a bad cold in early May 1990, but within a couple of weeks, his illness escalated into a serious bacterial infection, ultimately leading to his death on May 16. He was 53 years old.

At the time, Henson was in the middle of a deal with Disney to sell the Muppets to the entertainment company. His friend and Muppets collaborator, Frank Oz, told The Guardian in August 2021 that he believed the stress from the deal contributed to his untimely illness.

“The Disney deal is probably what killed Jim. It made him sick,” he said.

Now, a Disney+ film, Jim Henson Idea Man, by Oscar winner Ron Howard delves into the life and death of the legendary creator.

"Jim had a kind of this internal sense that there wasn't going to be enough time, and whether that is because he lost an older brother who he loved very much early in his life and the fragility of life or innately knew that somehow he might not live to be an old man — who knows," Howard told PEOPLE ahead of the movie’s release.

So how did Jim Henson die? Here are all the details behind his sudden death and the legacy he left behind.

How did Jim Henson die?

<p>Bettmann</p> Jim Henson poses with his creation characters in The Muppets TV show.


Jim Henson poses with his creation characters in The Muppets TV show.

Henson died of toxic shock syndrome due to a bacterial infection. His symptoms started a couple of weeks before his death, around the time he made his last public appearance on May 4, 1990, on The Arsenio Hall Show. While taping, he already began to show signs of sickness, his publicist Arthur Novell told PEOPLE after his death.

"He admitted he was tired, that he had a sore throat, but he insisted it would go away,” he said.

True to his form, per his colleagues and family, Henson decided to push through his illness and continue about his life, visiting antique stores and flying to New York City to work on the Disney deal and Muppets projects.

A week later, on May 12, Henson and his daughter Cheryl decided to fly down to North Carolina to visit his father and stepmother in their rural town. However, the following morning, Henson struggled to get out of bed.

"Sunday morning he didn't want to get up," Barbara Henson, Henson’s stepmother, told PEOPLE.  "We thought, 'Oh he's tired. Let's let him sleep.' When Cheryl brought him over for lunch, he didn't feel like eating. He had the sniffles, and he looked tired. But this had been a busy few months for him lately, and we felt it was understandable."

Henson opted to take an earlier flight home that Sunday, but while he was at the airport, Cheryl noticed he looked more tired than usual. She asked if he was feeling alright, to which he replied, “I’m just tired,” followed by “Hi ho, Kermit the Frog here,” causing Cheryl to worry as this was out of his norm.

Back in N.Y.C., Henson canceled a Muppets recording the following day, which only grew Cheryl’s concern since he normally didn’t cancel unless he was truly sick.

By the evening, Cheryl and her brother Johnny came to visit Henson and his ex-wife, Jane, also came over. Henson even asked the latter to stay, which she hadn’t done in years. Around 2 a.m., she said he began coughing up blood, and she insisted that they go to the hospital, but Henson refused.

“He said, 'Just rub my back. Try to calm down my breathing.' At one point, he said, 'Maybe I'm dying,’ ” Jane told PEOPLE. “He did say that. But, you know, whenever you're sick, you say, 'God, I feel like I'm going to die.' "

Though Henson generally mistrusted doctors, Jane said, by 4 a.m., he agreed he was breathing too hard and needed to be hospitalized. By the time he was admitted, Henson’s body was already shutting down, and X-rays showed small pockets of infection.

Soon, the infection spread throughout his body, and at 8 a.m., he was anesthetized.

"He was still completely alert, but not comfortable," Jane said. "It was when he was anesthetized that we waved goodbye to him. He didn't say anything. He waved a little. They said we could see him in the intensive-care ward in a few hours."

However, that was the last time the family saw Henson conscious. At 1:21 a.m. the following night, Henson died of toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.

When did Jim Henson die?

Henson died on Wednesday, May 16, 1990, at 1:21 a.m. after two cardiac arrests. However, he was anesthetized earlier in the morning, and last spoke to his family early Tuesday.

Where did Jim Henson die?

<p>Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty</p> Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog, January 1984.

Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty

Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog, January 1984.

Though he didn’t permanently live in N.Y.C., Henson died at New York Presbyterian Hospital in the Washington Heights neighborhood of the city. He was admitted to the emergency room there less than 24 hours earlier.

How old was Jim Henson when he died?

The Muppets creator was 53 years old when he died. Though he was separated from his wife, she was by his side as well as four of their five children together.

What were Jim Henson’s last words?

<p>Nancy R. Schiff/Hulton Archive/Getty</p> Jim Henson in 1986.

Nancy R. Schiff/Hulton Archive/Getty

Jim Henson in 1986.

While Henson didn’t have any famous last words, he did leave the world with an important message shortly before his death. During his memorial service, Henson’s friend Richard Hunt revealed in his eulogy a message in a letter Henson wrote to his family and friends shortly before he died.

“Jim’s last words are most important: ‘Please watch out for each other,’ ” he said.

What was Jim Henson’s legacy?

<p>Ian Cook/Getty</p> Jim Henson at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire UK on August 20, 1980.

Ian Cook/Getty

Jim Henson at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire UK on August 20, 1980.

Apart from puppeteering and the Muppets, Henson left behind a legacy of other projects, influencing creators and children for decades to come.

In May 2024, Howard told PEOPLE that Henson’s inspiration from the “hippie revolution of the ‘60s” and counterculture played a large part in his work.

"You wouldn't recognize these influences, these side projects that we never even knew about that actually wound up having a huge impact on his aesthetic, his sensibility, and his understanding of what was possible," Howard said.

He added, "It's a shame that we lost him when we did because what he'd be doing with tech today would be very exciting, and he probably would've pushed that medium along in a way that we would recognize."

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