Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990. It was a shock, as he was busy producing new projects with Disney and seemed generally at the top of his game. The infection that killed him could have been treated if he had gone to a hospital earlier. But Henson wasn't particularly fond of doctors, in part due to his Christian Science upbringing.
In the weeks after Henson's untimely death, several memorials were held, and by November, CBS aired a special tribute to Henson, complete with celebrity guest stars, various documentary bits on Henson's early career, and clips from many of his projects (Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal, Timepiece, and even his early commercial work).
The special also answered a key question the public had, following Henson's death: What would happen to Kermit? Simple: Steve Whitmire, a longtime Henson collaborator, would perform the character. Sure, Kermit's voice wasn't quite the same, but Kermit as a muppet would continue, and that was the important part. As the special says, "That's the way the boss would want it." Enjoy:
Trivia note: This also happens to be one of the last performances by puppeteer Richard Hunt, who performed Scooter and Beaker, among others. Hunt died in 1992.
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 directthe 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.
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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.
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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.
On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:
Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”
While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.
You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.