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—and yet, that’s exactly what it was. Here are 10 things you might not have known about this 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 had 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. As the head of ITC Entertainment, he had 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. It was Jim Henson's feature directorial debut.
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, while another proposed A Froggy Day in London. Then Henson’s 19-year-old daughter, Lisa, 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.
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. Her 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 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. Because 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 then-teenaged 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 burned in a hot air balloon scene.
Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you probably didn’t notice this, but the end credits list 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. 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)," from the 1981 film Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli.
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, it was inspired by Kermit and Fozzie’s equally weird relationship in The Great Muppet Caper.
A version of this article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for 2022.