Everyone is in on the joke in The Great Muppet Caper, as is the Muppets’ custom, but no one more so than Charles Grodin. In the weeks since Grodin’s death on May 18, 2021, and the 40 years since the release of The Great Muppet Caper, what has become plain is that he might have been the best human actor in any of the Muppet films. (I will entertain an argument for Amy Adams, but no one else!) Game for anything, believably enamored with Miss Piggy, and thoroughly charming in his disloyalty, Grodin’s self-aware villainy is what elevates The Great Muppet Caper into joyous rewatchability.
In both the half-hour sketch comedy The Muppet Show, which ran for five seasons from 1976 to 1981, and the 1979 film The Muppet Movie, the first of eight theatrical releases, the Muppets were consistently self-referential and knowingly fourth-wall-breaking. Grumpy old men Statler and Waldorf directly told us they were in The Muppet Movie to heckle The Muppet Movie. Rock band leader Dr. Teeth read the movie’s screenplay while onscreen, knew what was coming next, and interrupted the proceedings to steer the plot in a different direction. And Kermit, so infatuated with Hollywood that he wanted to be a movie star, talks about his dream of starring in a movie, as he stars in The Muppet Movie. The meta! It was so much!
Two years later, The Great Muppet Caper hit theaters as a mish-mash of the newsroom, heist, and musical genres. First up is the song-and-dance number “Hey a Movie!”, during which Fozzie Bear, Kermit the Frog, and Gonzo the Great are introduced as journalists on assignment for The Daily Chronicle newspaper. After reporters Fozzie and Kermit and photographer Gonzo totally miss the chaos engulfing a city street, including the theft of priceless jewelry from fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), their editor Mike Tarkanian (a thoughtfully cast Jack Warden, given his work in All the President’s Men) fires them. Undeterred, Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo travel to the UK to try and figure out who stole Lady Holiday’s jewels. While there, Kermit falls for aspiring model Miss Piggy; she’s just been hired by Lady Holiday, accidentally assumes her identity during her first meeting with Kermit, and then catches the eye of Lady Holiday’s brother Nicky (Grodin), forming an unexpected love triangle.
A ne’er-do-well who burned through his inheritance and walks with the lazy, loose-limbed gait of someone used to having money, Nicky is obviously malevolent from the first moment he’s onscreen. He’s too jazzy with his body, moving his neck and head at one pace and his wriggling torso and legs at another, to be believably sincere. The goofiness is a front, of course, a way of distracting his sister Lady Holiday from his involvement in the jewelry theft and his ongoing crimes against her. But then Nicky sees Miss Piggy, and is transfixed. Who is this creature?
He swoops in to dance with her, abandoning his silly physicality and smoothly twirling her around. His laser focus never leaves her face. “You’re a very different-looking woman,” he says, which is not exactly the kindest pickup line. But Grodin utilizes his gloriously elastic expressions to convince us that his feelings are genuine. His eyes widen, befuddled and enthralled, when he sees Miss Piggy in a Marilyn Monroe-inspired pink outfit. His lips quirk upward into a half-smirk at Kermit, his romantic competition, when Miss Piggy introduces him as her “special friend.” And once he realizes Miss Piggy won’t return his feelings because of her involvement with Kermit, his face goes slackly contrite as he looks toward the sky in apology for framing the object of his affection. Grodin’s delivery of “Forgive me, Miss Piggy,” and the little sigh he breathes out after the line, are both weighted with tangible regret.
There are other widely known actors who show up in cameo roles—John Cleese and Peter Falk put in a scene each—but Grodin’s Nicky is the most memorable for the contrast he represents. He’s corrupt where the Muppets are pure; scheming where they’re sincere. The Muppets, and the actors who operated and voiced them, are the primary stars of the Muppet movies, and that doesn’t fundamentally change in The Great Muppet Caper. Frank Oz’s bewildered line deliveries cement that the continuously perplexed Fozzie Bear might be the worst investigative reporter in the world. Jim Henson, the man behind this all, imbues the endlessly patient Kermit the Frog with also endlessly gentle compassion.
And The Great Muppet Caper is Miss Piggy’s grand step forward into the limelight, with her Esther Williams-referencing underwater fantasy sequence. Kudos to the film’s production, art, stunt, and costume crews for pulling off this delightfully intricate scene, during which Oz’s Miss Piggy dives, swims, and flips, all in her full-length fuchsia lame opera gloves and strappy silver heels, while trying to decide between a relationship with Kermit and Nicky. As those characters’ heads appear in floating ovals on each side of Miss Piggy, her anguish is plain: Which man who adores her should she choose?
Perhaps this is a trick question, because while I do not mean to shade Kermit, I would also not blame Miss Piggy if she were to choose Nicky! A heel turn where Miss Piggy becomes a jewel thief alongside the performatively daft, secretly conniving Holiday heir would have been fun to watch indeed. And the key to that diversion would have been the magnetically charismatic Grodin, whose deep roster of disgruntled, amazed, and flummoxed facial expressions helped him stand his own against the Muppets.
The Great Muppet Caper debuted with a certain set of expectations. Some of them weren’t met. The Muppet Movie made more than $65 million at the box office on a $8 million budget; The Great Muppet Caper had nearly double the budget at $14 million, but only brought in about $31 million. None of the original songs in The Great Muppet Caper was as instantly iconic as Kermit’s whimsical, plaintive “Rainbow Connection,” or as beautifully melancholy as the lines, “Who said that every wish/Would be heard and answered?” But in the viral words of Black Twitter, Grodin always understood the assignment, and his performance as the devious-yet-besotted Nicky Holiday is the most human element of The Great Muppet Caper.
“The Great Muppet Caper” is currently streaming on Disney+.