One of this fall's most eagerly anticipated movies is 'The Muppets.' The November 23 release marks the return of the funny, fuzzy fauna to the big screen after a 12-year absence.
The story, co-written by actor/screenwriter/fan Jason Segel, sees Segel, Amy Adams and a new Muppet named Walter play 'Muppet Show' fans who stumble across a plot by oil baron Chris Cooper to raze the dilapidated old Muppet Theater and drill for crude on the property. The Muppet fans decide to save the theater by mounting a stage-show fundraiser, but to do that, they need to reunite Kermit and the gang, who have scattered to the four winds.
In real life, it's also a story of fans saving the Muppets from obscurity. "This is the first Muppet production of any size that is really being spearheaded by fans instead of hard-core Muppet professionals," said Lisa Henson, Jim Henson's daughter and chief executive of the Henson Company, in a New York Times interview in April.
But it's not the only Muppet feature to run into obstacles during production - or to wink at those obstacles in the finished product. In their six previous features, from 1979's 'The Muppet Movie' to 1999's 'Muppets in Space,' the furry troupe was notorious for breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the action (usually, in the form of snide asides by the Muppets' in-house peanut gallery, Statler and Waldorf). Below is a list of some of those funny or quirky behind-the-scenes shenanigans, deleted scenes (including an awesome blues duet by Kermit and Rowlf) and some unexpected legal trouble that you may not have known about. Like a Muppet movie, this list is full of surprise cameos, from the likes of Bob Marley, Queen, the makers of Spam, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
1. One famous cameo, in 'The Muppet Movie,' was venerable ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, along with wooden sidekick Charlie McCarthy. Bergen died shortly after completing his scene, and the film was dedicated to him.
2. Deleted scenes included several of Statler and Waldorf offering their usual insulting commentary on what we've just watched. Also deleted: a verse of Kermit and Rowlf's duet 'I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along' that producers deemed too risqué for kids. (Though the song is performed intact on the soundtrack album.)
3. The movie's theme song, 'The Rainbow Connection,' earned an Oscar nomination for composers Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher. Kermit the Frog's performance of the tune rose to No. 25 on the Billboard singles chart in 1979. A couple years later, Kermit performed it on 'The Muppet Show' in a duet with Debbie Harry. It's been covered many times, by artists as varied as the Carpenters, Vera Lynn, Less Than Jake, Vonda Shepard, Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Sarah McLachlan, Jason Mraz, Jane Monheit, and Weezer.
4. In the film, Kermit sings the song and plays the banjo while seated on a log in a swamp. To perform the number, Jim Henson had to work underwater. He squeezed himself into a metal container equipped with an air hose, a rubber sleeve for his hand to manipulate Kermit and a monitor to see his performance. The scene took five days to shoot.
6. Miss Piggy, true to her diva self, has 10 costume changes in 'The Muppet Movie.'
7. The studio mogul who signs the Muppets to the "standard rich and famous contract," Lew Lord (Orson Welles), is a reference to Lord Lew Grade, the British media mogul who greenlit 'The Muppet Show' for production in England after American networks turned it down. Grade was also a producer of 'The Muppet Movie.'
9. The sequence at the end of 'The Great Muppet Caper' that shows multiple Muppets riding bicycles was a response to the incredulous reaction many critics had to the scene in the first movie where Kermit rides a bike. The puppeteers were flummoxed that this relatively easy feat impressed people more than such tricky stunts as Kermit performing 'The Rainbow Connection' in the middle of a swamp, Fozzie driving a real car, or 250 Muppets moving about at once during the final scene. Still, 'Caper's impressive looking bike sequence was pretty easy to do; it just required all the bikes to be hooked together and pulled across the frame by an oversized tricycle peddled by the off-screen Brian Henson, Jim's 18-year-old son.
10. 1984's 'The Muppets Take Manhattan' spawned the Muppet Babies, toddler versions of familiar Muppets, who were spun off into their own animated Saturday morning TV series (1984-92).
11. 1992's 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' was the first Muppet film made after Jim Henson's death in 1990. (Steve Whitmire took over performing duties for Kermit and other Henson characters.) It was also the first released by Disney (and perhaps not coincidentally, the first not to use any Sesame Street characters, to which Disney didn't control the rights.) It also marked a change in artistic direction as the first Muppet feature based on a work of classic literature, the first in which the Muppets didn't play themselves, and the first where they were supporting players to human leads. (1996's 'Muppet Treasure Island' and the 2005 made-for-TV 'The Muppets' Wizard of Oz' followed in that vein.)
12. The story hews pretty closely to Dickens, but with some Muppet-friendly alterations. Fezziwig becomes Fozziwig. Jacob Marley becomes brothers so that Statler and Waldorf can play them; the second Marley's name is Robert, an apparent reference to reggae titan Bob Marley.
13. Near the end of the film, Scrooge (Michael Caine) and company go past a store called "Micklewhite's." Michael Caine's real name is Maurice Micklewhite.
14. 'Muppet Treasure Island' got the filmmakers in legal hot water with the makers of Spam. The Hormel Foods Corporation sued over a character named Spa'am, a wild boar who was a crude savage and the high priest of a tribe that worshiped Miss Piggy. Hormel objected to the association of its product's name with a villain who represented "evil in porcine form." Hormel lost both the suit and the appeal. As the appeals court wrote in its ruling, "One might think Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork."
15. 'Muppets From Space' was the first Muppet film not to feature a score of original songs. Instead, it made use of funk classics by The Commodores, James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, The O'Jays, The Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, and others.
16. After four decades, Frank Oz retired from Muppetry in 2001. (He said he wanted to spend more time on his other pursuits; he's well known as a comedy director and as the voice of Yoda in the 'Star Wars' saga.) For the last 10 years, his characters (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam the Eagle) have been performed by Eric Jacobson. Jacobson also took over Oz's 'Sesame Street' Muppets, including Bert, Grover, Guy Smiley, and (briefly) Cookie Monster. 'The Muppets' will be the first Muppet theatrical film without Oz.
17. Why has it been 12 years since the Muppets stormed the multiplex? Blame it on corporate infighting. After Henson's death, the Muppets' partnership with Disney (which had included the distribution of 'Christmas Carol' and 'Treasure Island') was supposed to lead to Disney's purchase of the company, but that fell through when German media company EM.TV made a better offer. When EM.TV fell into financial trouble, it sold the Muppets for a song back to the Henson family, which finally did sell them to Disney in 2004. Still, it took several more years of abortive efforts before a viable movie idea came along in the form of a pitch from Segel.
18. Not that the Muppets have been idle in the past 12 years. There have been numerous TV specials, a Disney World attraction, and a host of viral videos - most notably, a 2009 Muppet cover of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' that has been viewed 22 million times and which helped convince Disney that the venerable felt-and-foam hand puppets still have a fervent following in the digital era. Still, the Muppets themselves seem mostly happy about being back in movies. "Not only is it a big project but we get to be big on the screen," Kermit told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. "It's good for all of us except Piggy. She's not crazy about being any bigger."
19. 'The Muppets' is directed by James Bobin, director of HBO music spoof series 'Flight of the Conchords,' and Conchord Bret McKenzie composed four new songs for the film, which will also feature performances of such classic Muppet tunes as 'The Rainbow Connection' and "Mah-Na, Mah-Na.'
20. Like the previous films, this one is full of star cameos, including Alan Arkin, Jack Black, Emily Blunt, George Clooney, Billy Crystal, Zach Galifianakis, Ricky Gervais, Donald Glover, Kathy Griffin, Dave Grohl, Ed Helms, John Krasinski, Mila Kunis, Rico Rodriguez, Mickey Rooney, Kristen Schaal, Ben Stiller, Eric Stonestreet, Wanda Sykes, and Danny Trejo. One scene alone includes walk-ons by Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Judd Hirsch, and Selena Gomez. Also in that scene: politico James Carville. Which suggests that maybe this could have been the Muppet movie that finally gave Henry Kissinger his shot at big-screen fame.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.