This weekend marked the thirtieth anniversary of the passing of pioneering filmmaker and puppeteer Jim Henson. In addition to creating The Muppets, The Fraggles, and tackling the movies Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Henson always remained a fan of fellow innovators; it's part of why he got along so well with Star Wars creator George Lucas. Henson, whose brother had died when he was a boy, passed away at age 53, and that's young enough to be tragic -- but also young enough that many of his contemporaries are still alive and working. This weekend, then, the "Muppet Guys" -- Frank Oz, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Baretta -- got together to celebrate Henson's life and share stories about him.
One such story was Oz's recollection about the time the pair saw The Exorcist together. Henson's Muppets were a perfect example of someone looking at puppets and seeing them differently from everyone else. That same skewed view apparently applied to William Friedkin's horror classic.
"He really hated tests," Oz told fans during a live Muppet Guys Talking panel. "And in the movie, when the girl is going through all these terrible tests at the hospital, he said to me, 'I'm not afraid of death, but I am of those tests!' And that's the truth."
Henson himself may have had a unique way of looking at the film's horror, but projects associated with Henson also lampooned it a bit. In a 1989 episode of Sesame Street -- a series Henson was instrumental in developing -- the director Birdnardo Birdolucci, visits Sesame Street, counted The Eggs-orcist among his many films. Shortly after Henson passed away, much of the plot of the Dinosaurs episode "Terrible Twos" is a spoof of The Exorcist. When Baby Sinclair goes through the "terrible twos" he turns into an emotional, bratty, raging monster with the ability to move objects across the room, spew steam from his mouth, turn his head around 180°, and speaks in a rough, gravelly voice. The Sinclairs ultimately recruit the help of The Babysitter who is tasked with returning their child to normal.
While funny, this story actually dovetails with one of the most persistent pieces of misinformation about Henson: that his Christian Science upbringing discouraged him from seeking medical treatment when he fell ill in 1990. Biographer Brian Jay Jones has quashed this particular rumor time and time again on social media, and during a recent podcast interview told me that there was no truth to it whatsoever.
Henson, Jones explained, was not a practicing Christian Scientist, and while he had been raised in that faith, he maintained a fairly liberal worldview and it was a small piece of his personal history, not a large part of his identity. As a fairly healthy person overall and a bit of a workaholic, Henson developed the pneumonia that would eventually take his life and didn't realize how serious it was, assuming it would pass and working through it until he finally couldn't anymore. Hours after a collapse at home, he was brought to the hospital, where he passed away.