10 Fun Facts About The Great Muppet Caper

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Miss Piggy is framed for thievery, it’s up to Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and their eccentric pals to clear her name in The Great Muppet Caper. Released in 1981, the madcap Muppet comedy was followed up the next year by Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. The latter film is often considered Henson's masterpiece, and the extraterrestrial fantasy is deservedly praised for having some of the most innovative puppetry ever caught on film. By comparison, The Great Muppet Caper is seldom recognized as a special effects tour de force—yet, that’s exactly what it was. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Oscar-nominated Muppet adventure.

1. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER AND THE DARK CRYSTAL WERE FILMED BACK-TO-BACK.

After The Muppet Movie hit theaters in 1979, Jim Henson wanted to shift gears and dive right into his most ambitious project yet. Three years earlier, he’d discovered the otherworldly sketches of artist Brian Froud. Together, the two men set out to adapt these into a somber, puppet-filled fantasy movie. But the idea was a tough sell. Despite the Muppets’ knack for edgy humor, audiences generally dismissed puppetry as children’s entertainment. Given its serious tone, this new project—dubbed The Dark Crystal—seemed like too much of a gamble for Paramount Pictures, which rejected Henson’s sales pitch. 

Enter Sir Lew Grade. The head of ITC entertainment, he’d been a financier behind both The Muppet Show and the original Muppet Movie. Late in 1979, he struck a deal with Henson. Grade promised to pour $13 million into The Dark Crystal on one condition: Henson had to make a sequel to The Muppet Movie first. The puppet master agreed.

Their plan was to shoot the films back-to-back. Fortunately, Henson had two workshops at his disposal—one in London and another in New York City—and was able to divide the puppet-building labor between the two. The Dark Crystal’s production HQ moved from the Big Apple to London. Meanwhile, the New York venue—where the puppets of Sesame Street were made—tended to most of The Great Muppet Caper’s needs.

2. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER WAS JIM HENSON'S FEATURE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.


John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images

Back in 1979, James Frawley had sat in the director’s chair for The Muppet Movie. But this time, Henson called his own number. After The Great Muppet Caper, Henson went on to direct the cult classic, Labyrinth. He also co-directed The Dark Crystal with his longtime collaborator Frank Oz.

3. REJECTED TITLES INCLUDED THE ROCKY MUPPET PICTURE SHOW AND A FROGGY DAY IN LONDON.

Although four writers worked on the script, none of them could coin a satisfying title. So Henson opened the matter up to his Muppet staffers by throwing a name-the-movie contest. One apparent Tim Curry fan suggested The Rocky Muppet Picture Show. Another proposed A Froggy Day in London. Then along came Henson’s 19-year-old daughter, Lisa, who pitched The Great Muppetcapade. Her dad tweaked this into The Great Muppet Caper and the rest is history.

4. DIANA RIGG SIGNED ON FOR THE MOVIE BECAUSE HER DAUGHTER LOVED MISS PIGGY.

Diana Rigg and Miss Piggy in 'The Great Muppet Caper'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Long before she was throwing shade like a boss as Game of Thrones’s Olenna Tyrell, Diana Rigg had made a name for herself on The Avengers, a British espionage drama. In The Great Muppet Caper, she plays Lady Holiday—an esteemed fashion designer who also happens to be Miss Piggy’s employer. Riggs leapt at the chance to work with this particular Muppet. After all, her four-year-old daughter, Rachel, was “passionately in love” with the character.

Riggs told The A.V. Club that when Rachel visited the set one day, she “burst into tears when she saw Miss Piggy.” “I think she was more frightened than anything,” Rigg explained. “Because Miss Piggy was huge. They had several Miss Piggys.”

5. THE SWIMMING POOL DANCE NUMBER WAS ESPECIALLY TOUGH TO FILM.

There were indeed “several Miss Piggys.” One scene alone called for nearly 40 interchangeable Piggy heads and seven bodies. We are referring, of course, to that grand, Esther Williams-style swimming number.

“It’s safe to say that no one else has ever done a sequence like this in any other film. At least not with a pig,” Henson said. In every sense of the word, it was a massive undertaking: A custom-made heated pool measuring 50 by 80 feet had to be built on a sound stage. Puppeteer Frank Oz prepped himself with “three days of scuba training.” (“I was under water for a week,” Oz said.) And on top of everything else, the scene called for special, water-resistant Piggy puppets. Unfortunately, these tended to rip easily, hence all the extra body parts.

6. THE DRAIN PIPE SCENE PUT HENSON’S PUPPETEERS IN A DANGEROUS SITUATION.

Pursued by angry dogs, over a dozen terrified Muppets scale a castle drainpipe near Caper’s climax. Executing this scene was no easy task for the puppeteers who performed in it. To lift these guys upwards in rapid succession, 11 tiny elevators had to be made. Since space was tight, each one had a small, wooden platform that was about the size of a dresser drawer. Every Muppet handler involved with the scene had to stand on one of these without bumping into any of his or her colleagues. The tiniest of malfunctions could’ve sent several people crashing to the ground, but fortunately the contraptions ran without a hitch.

7. BRIAN HENSON (JIM’S TEENAGE SON) WORKED ON THE CYCLING EFFECTS.

Wanting to top Kermit’s bike ride from the The Muppet Movie, the director decided that just about every non-human character in the cast would take up cycling for the sequel. In a song called “Couldn’t We Ride,” Kermit, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang happily pedal through London’s Battersea Park.

Effects artist Faz Fazakas oversaw this amazing display of movie magic. At his side stood Brian Henson, whose father asked him to help figure out the scene’s technical elements. It was a big moment for the younger Henson. A teenager back then, he’d never been given such a large behind-the-scenes project on one of his dad’s movies before. Guided by a love of physics, Brian met the challenge by devising a complex system of rods and marionette wires. Radio-controlled Muppet heads were also used.

8. A FOZZIE PUPPET WAS BADLY BURNED IN THE HOT AIR BALLOON SCENE.

Fozzie and Kermit in 'The Great Muppet Caper'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you probably didn’t notice this, but the end credits list one Amy van Gilder as a “Muppet Doctor.” There’s a story here: The Great Muppet Caper opens with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo flying in a hot air balloon. Then, the trio crash lands onto a busy street. For a certain bear, it was a rough experience. Part of the scene was filmed on location in New Mexico where, at one point, the Fozzie puppet was torched by a propane burner. Amy van Gilder—a veteran puppet maker—came to the rescue and fixed him up on-site. By the way, she and Jim Henson shared a cameo in the movie. At the fancy restaurant, they play the first couple Gonzo photographs.  

9. ONE SONG WAS NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR.

Joe Raposo, the songwriter and composer behind such beloved Muppet tunes as “Bein' Green,” composed eight new songs for The Great Muppet Caper. Among these was “The First Time It Happens,” a love song which earned a nomination for Best Original Song at the 1982 Academy Awards. It lost out to "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)."

10. THE MUPPETS REPURPOSED A JOKE FROM THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER.

Although one’s a frog and the other is clearly a bear, Kermit and Fozzie introduce themselves as identical twins in The Great Muppet Caper. No explanation is ever offered. Growing up, a young Jason Segel thought the gag was hysterically funny—so much so that he later recycled the joke for 2011’s The Muppets, which he co-wrote. This film sees Segel playing Gary, a human being whose brother, Walter, happens to be a Muppet. How’d that happen? The script doesn’t say. Anyway, Segel says that this was inspired by Kermit and Fozzie’s equally weird relationship in The Great Muppet Caper.

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

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iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

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