The stars share their Muppet memories

Michael Caine and Bruce Forsyth are among the celebrities who have worked with Jim Henson's creations

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Michael Caine

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I do a lot of grown-up pictures, and my daughter, who was seven at the time, couldn’t see any of them, so I did The Muppet Christmas Carol and it was a joy. People who become puppeteers are far gentler souls than people who become actors.

There were only a couple of human actors, so I was working on my own with the puppeteers, and it was such a pleasant experience. Each one has a portable TV to watch their movements, and they were all under the floor with the puppets above.

In one scene I was being Scrooge and there were rats as the office clerks, and they kept mucking about until I looked round. They all had to stop at the same time and the discipline was amazing – and very funny.

I didn’t think of them as puppets, they become other actors. I was enchanted by the experience. (Michael Caine appeared in The Muppet Christmas Carol)

Leo Sayer

In the late 70s I appeared on the Johnny Carson show in the United States and I did a duet with Miss Piggy. We sang When I Need You, which was scary but fantastic.

After that, I was asked to appear on The Muppet Show and by then I had become friends with Jim Henson. Singing When I Need You up a tree, with a load of woodland animals, was really good fun.

I said to Frank Oz [the performer behind Miss Piggy] “I think you’re modelling her on Margaret Thatcher,” and he laughed and said, “Yip, could be”. (Leo Sayer appeared on The Muppet Show in 1978)

Bruce Forsyth

Being on The Muppets was one of the best things I’ve done. It was so professional – every little thing had been thought of, the scripts are marvellous, and they allowed me to sing, dance and tell jokes. I sang Let There Be Love with Miss Piggy at the piano and I did a bit with Fozzie Bear, telling jokes.

I also did a dance with this big bird. We had a wonderful bit where I was dancing and I didn’t know where the bird had gone. It came up behind me and put its neck between my legs. It was a great laugh, but they had to take it out.

Now, nobody would think anything of it, but then they were so strict and because it was for children, they thought it could look suggestive.

They had this wonderful way of making the Muppets as real as people. As I was leaving, somebody said, “Would you like to say goodbye to them?” and I said yes. They took me to this big room and they were all hanging up on hooks. It was quite eerie. (Bruce Forsyth appeared on The Muppet Show in 1976)

Cleo Laine

During rehearsals, or when you were there getting ready, you never talked to the people behind the character, they always remained in character. If you were working with Animal – we filmed a scene in the dressing room to go at the beginning of the show – it was Animal you had to talk to.

I can’t remember what we chatted about – just about what was going on, I think. It was strange between takes having small talk with Animal, but they were so wacky that you went along with it all.

There were moments of great hilarity and it was difficult not to laugh. They were all very funny: Swedish Chef was funny, and Kermit, of course.

I didn’t do much with Miss Piggy – I think she didn’t like other women so she avoided me. She wanted to be the diva – she didn’t want to share the attention. (Cleo Laine appeared on The Muppet Show in 1978)

Glenda Jackson

I always thought they were brilliant, but it wasn’t until I worked with them that I realised how amazing they were – the puppeteers were working the Muppets, while watching them on miniature screens at the same time. It was astounding.

I had read the script and I think I was the only person who ever appeared in the show who was a baddie right to the end – I was a pirate captain. My favourite part? I seem to remember being tied to a mast for a bit.

It’s hard to choose my favourite characters – obviously Kermit and Miss Piggy were the stars, but I loved the little mice. The most unreal people were the human beings. (Glenda Jackson was on The Muppet Show in 1980)

Steven Mackintosh

When I was young, The Muppets was everything – everybody loved the Muppets. It was one of those things you watched whenever it was on. To suddenly find myself on set with Michael Caine, Gonzo and Kermit was surreal. I remember being at the Christmas banquet at the end surrounded by donkeys and chickens and rats, and I think I might have had Miss Piggy near me and it was just the most fantastic moment.

There is an inherent humour in everything about the Muppets and it has filtered down to everything – you can trace it through to shows like The Simpsons. It’s effortless and cuts through boundaries between people. I was in stitches. If anything went vaguely wrong, everyone was falling about laughing.

It’s weird meeting the people behind each character because you do so easily think of them as real living beings. You really feel like at the end of the day’s filming, Kermit’s going to go “goodnight everyone” and get into his car. (Steven Mackintosh appeared in The Muppet Christmas Carol)

Kevin Bishop

I remember as a kid being addicted to Sesame Street, so to get a part in Muppet Treasure Island was brilliant – at that time, the excitement about a Muppet film was like it is now with Harry Potter.

I never found it difficult to act alongside them. Maybe, because I was a kid, I tapped into the fantasy of it. I could see how it worked – there were monitors on the floor for the Muppeteers to watch, and trenches in the set where they were, but I still felt like I was Jim Hawkins [the orphan boy who sets sail to find Treasure Island] and that was down to the skill of the performers.

It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever done and to top it off, they made a Muppet of me in my Treasure Island costume. It is brilliant. I still get it out at parties. (Kevin Bishop appeared in Muppet Treasure Island)

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 January 2012.