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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.


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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'
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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'
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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.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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