‘You’ll never see Michael Caine blink’: An oral history of The Muppet Christmas Carol at 30

As the festive classic turns 30, Simon Bland talks to director Brian Henson, Gonzo performer Dave Goelz, young Scrooge Raymond Coulthard and many more about the creation and legacy of the joyous movie that saved the Muppets in their darkest hour

Sunday 11 December 2022 08:08 GMT
It’s just not Christmas until you’ve seen a frog in a top hat teach Michael Caine’s Scrooge the importance of empathy
It’s just not Christmas until you’ve seen a frog in a top hat teach Michael Caine’s Scrooge the importance of empathy (Disney)

There are Christmas movies, then there’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. In the years since its arrival in 1992, this surprisingly dedicated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ defining redemption story has emerged as a modern classic, dripping with nostalgia and indelibly linked to the childhood of a generation thanks to countless festive repeats. Full of memorable moments, beloved songs and that warm, fuzzy, festive feeling – for many, it’s just not Christmas until you’ve seen a frog in a top hat teach Michael Caine’s Scrooge the importance of empathy.

But beneath Kermit’s compassion and Ebeneezer’s humbugs lies an equally restorative tale of how Christmas saved the Muppets during their darkest hour. Reeling from the sudden death of Jim Henson, the company’s troupe of performers and its new de facto leader, Jim’s son Brian Henson, were left with a looming question: can this gang of frogs, bears, chickens – and whatever the heck Gonzo is – continue without their fearless leader? Combining all the humour, heartbreak and hope that made the Muppets so special, The Muppet Christmas Carol proved that Jim Henson’s work not only can continue without him – but it should. 

As this seasonal classic turns 30, on 11 December, we gathered some of its key players – including director Brian Henson, Gonzo performer Dave Goelz, young Scrooge Raymond Coulthard, Cousin Fred Steven Mackintosh and singer of the legendary missing song “The Love is Gone” (more on that later) Meredith Braun – to reflect on the creation and legacy of this Christmas gift that keeps on giving…

‘We were utterly shocked when Jim passed away – he was stronger than any of us’

Following Jim Henson’s sudden death on 16 May 1990 from severe pneumonia, the future of the Muppets was left in limbo. His son, Brian, gathered performers for an emergency meeting and discovered they’d like to continue what had become their life’s work – but the question remained: what next?

Brian Henson (Director): It was all very risky. Even my dad wasn’t sure what to do next with the Muppets. When he died, he was selling the company to Disney and his big thing was that he was going to do Muppet attractions at Disney World. He was getting very excited about that because I think he was unsure where to go next with the movies. They were tough because you’re trying to tell an original story but with each movie, it was getting a little bit tricky. How do you let these characters be fresh? You fall into ruts. 

Dave Goelz (Gonzo): We were utterly shocked when Jim passed away. He looked frail, he was thin and almost looked gaunt sometimes but he was stronger than any of us. He could outpace anybody and work harder than everybody else, so the idea that he could succumb to something was the furthest thing from our minds. We just couldn’t imagine it. Going forward, we collectively decided that we would try to see if we could keep doing this – and this was our first major project after that decision. 

Henson: To start, we were thinking we were going to parody A Christmas Carol. Frankly, we thought we had to follow the Muppet comedy formula where there are two jokes that’ll make people laugh out loud on every page of the script and the story is less important but there must be heartfelt moments. It was really Jerry [Juhl, writer] saying, "We can’t parody this. It’s too good. We just have to do it – and I think we can do it better than anyone."

Goelz: We felt an enormous bond and really wanted to do this film because of what it said about humanity. Luckily, Brian and his siblings were willing to go ahead and try – and I’m so glad we did.

Henson: Jerry loved Gonzo so much and at the time I was also a huge fan of Gonzo. I always felt there’s so much of Gonzo that we all want to know more about. Jerry loved Dickens’ prose so much and wanted to get Gonzo in a movie but couldn’t figure out where to put him, so he said, "Can we have Gonzo be Charles Dickens and use a ton of dialogue?" I think his script is around 98 per cent Dickens prose. Almost never does he veer from it. 98 per cent is probably too high… but it’s mostly Dickens’ prose. 

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Brian Henson at the Disney Legends Awards Ceremony in 2011 (Getty Images)

Goelz: Jerry and I became very good friends and he could see the changes that were happening to me as I grew and went through therapy. He’d always tried to work as unconsciously as he could so he just thought, “I really need that narrative prose in there and I don’t want to have a narrator… how could we inject it in a way that would work?” Somehow, he thought of Gonzo and then with Gonzo’s sidekick Rizzo [performed by Steve Whitmire], it worked beautifully.

Henson: It’s sort of a rule of thumb that you don’t ask a puppet character to be alone in scenes because you need a foil so we put Rizzo right there with Gonzo. That choice really guided so many decisions. Then it was like, “OK, we’re doing this for real with real commitment.” Nobody’s ever going to wink at the camera and say, “This is a movie, this isn’t real.” Kermit is going to be Bob Cratchit and nobody’s going to accidentally call him Kermit. Nobody’s going to wink at the camera and say, “Making movies is hard!” We’re just not going to do that.

Goelz: It was a great chance to deepen my work. Gonzo had gone through two phases before this. First, he was an outsider on The Muppet Show, which reflected how I felt about suddenly being in show business. Then he became bombastically enthusiastic about wild, explosive stunts, which was really fun. This was his third soulful phase that was the completion of his character. The characters all come from inside of us so I guess I had that in me at this point in my life. I didn’t have it in the beginning but it was there now – and it worked out perfectly. It felt great for me. I’m so glad I got to play that part, it was a gift from Jerry.

Henson: It was liberating because it allowed us to treat the Muppets like Monty Python; an ensemble of brilliant performers that can be cast in a story – and the fact they have a lot of history between them influencing their relationships just became a plus. It allowed what had been baggage, making it hard for my dad to keep making Muppet movies, to become a plus too. It also made it an exciting way to go.

The Muppet Christmas Carol Trailer (1992)

‘I hardly had to direct Michael Caine… he was usually two steps ahead of me’

With their story set, production began at Shepperton Studios in June 1992 with screen icon Michael Caine stepping into the perpetual frown of Ebeneezer Scrooge opposite Kermit’s Bob Cratchit and a colourful cast of human and Muppet characters.

Raymond Coulthard (Young Scrooge): I went in to meet Brian and they did my make-up and put me in costume. We filmed some bits then Brian said, “Do you mind waiting around? I’d like Michael to meet you.” I was like, “Oh my God…” He sat me on this high stool in the middle of the studio. I had my eyes glued to the door waiting for Michael Caine to walk in. I waited and waited, then suddenly I heard this voice behind me say, “Oh, hello.” I turned around and there was Michael Caine. He shook my hand, turned to Brian and said, “Ah yeah. He’ll do.” And that was me with the job.

Henson: The whole movie is the contrast between Dickens and Henson. The production design is dark and moody Dickensian London but it’s also Muppety at times, and because Michael’s a very capable comedian and a very, very capable dramatic actor, he had the confidence to know that the right thing to do is to play it utterly dramatically. That way, Scrooge can lead the Dickensian influence in the film and Bob Cratchit can lead the Muppet influence. The fact that he’s such a good comedian is why he knew that by playing it straight, it’s going to be much more exciting – and funnier in places too.

Steven Mackintosh (Cousin Fred): I was in an episode of The Storyteller called “The Luck Child”, which was one of Brian’s early projects. Having seen me in that, he just cast me. I don’t think I auditioned. To be asked to do a Muppet film was a great honour. I came bouncing on set, got the costume on and somebody put these ridiculous curls in my hair. I was just marvelling at its scale and the way it was built on platforms for the muppet performers – there was this incredible Dickensian street. My first day was when I come bounding into Scrooge’s office with my exuberant energy. It was a total pleasure to watch Michael work and interact with the Muppets playing the Clarks.

Goelz: I remember when I first heard Michael’s name brought up, I thought he was too soft and approachable and looked too friendly for the Scrooge character. I was completely whipped around when I saw him work because he was 100 per cent committed to this heart and soul that had been faced with adversity and reacted by defending himself. It was a powerful performance. 

Dave Goelz’s Gonzo in ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ (Jim Henson Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Henson: I’d worked around some big talented actors before and realised that it’s much easier to have a big heavyweight actor who really knows what they’re doing. I hardly had to direct Michael. I’d explain what I thought was coming into Scrooge’s mind – but only a little bit. Michael was usually two steps ahead of me.

Coulthard: I did a slight accent but Brian said he didn’t want me to do a Michael Caine impression. The one thing he did say was that Michael’s mouth turns down at the edges and mine naturally turns up. If you watch my performance, I do the whole thing slightly oddly mouthed because I’m trying to turn the corners of my mouth down rather than up – but not too much so I don’t look like Beaker.

Goelz: I was so taken with the way Michael was performing and the fact that he never blinks in a shot. That’s one part of his technique. You’ll never see Michael Caine blink. Just watching his craft was stunning and of course, for that character, he had to resist our antics – and in between shots, we always play around. He was extremely professional but he wasn’t a stick in the mud at all.

Meredith Braun (Belle): I was playing Éponine in Les Miserables at the time. It was a weird juxtaposition of delightful fun with the Muppets during the day and dying with blood and dirt all over me every night. I knew [directing the movie] was pressure on Brian because he wanted to throw everything into it and make it the best it could possibly be. He cared about it deeply. That was very clear at the time – and we did as well.

Mackintosh: I didn’t remotely get any sense of pressure [from Brian]. It was so relaxed on set and those guys are such a big family. They were just so comfortable with each other and Brian was always very charming and laid back. I suppose he was stepping up to the plate but he knew everybody and everything so well.

‘I think Christmas Carol is probably Steve Whitmire’s best Kermit’

In addition to bringing the Muppets back together, Christmas Carol also featured Kermit the Frog’s first performance without his creator and original puppeteer, Jim Henson. Here, he was performed by Steve Whitmire, who continued to play the character until 2017.

Henson: We were nervous. Kermit could have played Charles Dickens and then there would’ve been a lot more pressure on him. The idea of Kermit playing Bob Cratchit just made sense in this world but we didn’t beef up that role. I was nervous about two things – one: is the audience going to say I’ve screwed up Kermit and he’s not good anymore? And two: is the audience going to say this Muppet movie isn’t funny and I only want Muppet movies that are really funny?

Mackintosh: You get this sense being on set with the Muppets that you’re working with this well-oiled machine. They’re a tight unit. There’s a lot of laughter and jokes between takes and brilliant improv stuff when the camera cuts. It’s like you’re in a scene with the best actors going. You completely forget there’s someone under there doing it all. No stretch of the imagination is required; you just feel like you’re having a real conversation with a frog.

Coulthard: There’s not a big laborious process because you’re working with a puppet. It’s like they’re alive. The only thing you have to be aware of is that everything’s done on a four-foot platform so the performers can stand on the floor, so you have to make sure you don’t fall down the holes. Fozzie Bear is real and you get as much rehearsal time with him as you would an actor.

Goelz: It was really fun working with Steve [Whitmire, who also played Rizzo the Rat] and it came very naturally. He’s a consummate artist and absolutely professional. I love the fact we had a comedy foil for Gonzo too so that he could be frustrated with this idiot sidekick that he has.

Henson: We were very careful in the shooting of Kermit. I took many takes with Steve Whitmire and spent many days in sound and post-production making tiny adjustments to every line and syllable to try and make it really click in as close to my father as possible. I think Christmas Carol is probably Steve’s best Kermit – that is, the closest match to what my dad would’ve done instinctively. We thought, “Let’s make sure every scene Kermit has is a good scene for Kermit and let’s minimise them.” I knew the number one criticism would be “we wish there was more Kermit” but it also didn’t worry me.

Jim Henson in 1985 (Getty Images)

Braun: I really just communicated with the puppets, that was the funny thing. Fozziwig was played by Fozzie, not the puppeteer, so between takes you’re chatting with Fozzie. When they have the Muppets on, they’re the muppets. It’s very method.

Coulthard: I think I’m probably one of the only people on the planet that’s heard Fozzie Bear talking dirty. In the scene where I meet Belle at Fozziwig’s party and Fozzie introduces us, Brian came up to Frank Oz [who performed Fozzie] and said, “I’ve got this idea. When Scrooge and Belle clip shoulders, turn and look at each other, it turns into a dream sequence because of this moment of instant love – so just keep talking. It doesn’t matter what you say, we’ll distort the sound.” Meredith and I walk on, clip shoulders and look at each other and Fozzie precedes to tell me exactly what I could do to his niece, asking us not to make a mess on the furniture because it’s new. It went on and on and we were just standing there trying to keep a straight face. At the end of the scene, Brian goes, “Frank? Forget it.” They didn’t do the dream sequence.

Braun: Maybe they do it to freak the actors out but it was really funny. In hindsight, standing there flirting with Fozzie Bear but not the puppeteer was freaky because I knew these characters when I was a child. It was all very gentle. I was a bit starstruck by them really. It was a bit of a fantasy being in a room full of Muppets; like walking into a dream. Although, in my experience, Miss Piggy was not a diva. I think that reputation is completely wrong. She was a delight.

Coulthard: They bring these characters to life so much that I remember being a bit freaked out when I walked on set and saw the Fozzie Bear puppet on the table. You expect it to move.

‘“The Love is Gone” is an empowering song and has become much more relevant’

Complementing the magic was a collection of new earworm songs from original Muppet collaborator Paul Williams, all of which have since become synonymous with seasonal warmth. Among them was Meredith Braun’s “The Love is Gone” – a heartbreaking ballad that was infamously cut from the theatrical release only to later remerge on the VHS cut.

Henson: To be honest, I was surprised my dad had moved off from Paul’s work for the second two Muppet movies. Then I learned it was because Paul had substance abuse problems that got bad after the first Muppet movie. When I reached out to him, he was just recently sober after a really long period of being self-destructive and he really wanted to do it. The studio was concerned but when he first started sending his ideas, it became clear it was going to be great. 

Goelz: I remember driving around listening to the first cassette of tracks – and he’d done it again. Paul has this way of channelling the spirits and it’s a perfect fit for what we do. He’s worked with us around eight times on various projects and it’s always a reunion. He’s an amazing talent.

Henson: It was fantastic for Paul. The fact that it was a movie about redemption and how you can change your life and become what you think is a good person and the self-loathing deep down can finally be expelled? That very much matched up with where Paul was at in his life, so his songs are as strong as he’s ever written.

Goelz: He brings with him the life experience of redemption – and he brought that to this movie. He knew what he was writing about. I remember when he did the song “Marley and Marley”. The ghosts say, “We’re Marley and Marley, woooo!” and he was specifically thinking about how children would react to that. He’s a genius.

Braun: I think Michael was a little bit scared [of singing on “The Love is Gone”] but we were very gentle with each other. I was only 19 and he was sort of like, “Right, I have to sing something and record it.” We were in the same boat but for different reasons.

Henson: Jeffrey Katzenberg [former Walt Disney Studios chairman] was famous for not really liking ballads and love songs in movies because he felt that they made young kids very antsy – and they do. Young kids check out; it’s not exciting for them. I later learned that he tried to remove ballads from other big-hit Disney movies.

Braun: “The Love is Gone” wasn’t difficult to perform. I was singing on my own every night [in Les Miserables] so I suppose I was in the right space. It’s funny. I didn’t question the fact that it was a sad song in a Muppet movie because so is “Rainbow Connection”. They’ve done it right from the very beginning. I only heard recently that the guy wanted to cut it out because he watched an audience of small children get restless at that point, which makes sense. Brian was gutted and really upset about it. 

Henson: He didn’t force me, he just wanted me to remove it – and the agreement was that I’ll remove it from the initial theatrical release but then it’s back in for the life of the movie forever on home release. He totally agreed but then they lost the negative. When we went back to do the VHS transfer, the highest level was British PAL 625 video but if someone wanted a higher definition version, we needed to find the negative – and nobody could find it. 

Festive feast: The Muppets enjoy some Christmas dinner (Jim Henson Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Braun: I carried on working. It’s a Christmas movie but it didn’t even occur to me that it would come back every year. Increasingly, I’d walk past a television showroom and it would be showing on all the screens. Then with it being cut out, it sort of became bigger and every so often I’d see Facebook campaigns to put it back in. I’ve had people say they paused the movie at that point, put it on YouTube and then hit play again. That’s so sweet. Then I heard they’d put a team of people together to find it. 

Henson: Disney looked for years and years and I’d harass them on almost a monthly basis. They really worked hard and never did find the negative – but what they did find was a first-strike interpositive, which is just as good as a negative. They found that somewhere in Europe or something and that’s how we were able to rebuild the scene.

Braun: It’s spoken about more these days than it was when we made it. It’s an empowering song and has become much more relevant. My theory is that Belle went off, became a suffragette and got the vote for women. It’s about a bold, strong thing to do. Musical theatre doesn’t have the best reputation for representation of women so I’m delighted that something has lasted from my past that happens to be strong, feminist and about making a brave choice. 

‘I lost it when I first saw it’

Despite only receiving a limited theatrical release, The Muppet Christmas Carol has gone on to become one of the most beloved festive movies ever made. Thirty years later, it’s not only considered a cultural high point for the Muppets – but a hotly anticipated part of every holiday season.

Goelz:  I lost it when I first saw it and I haven’t gotten through it ever without breaking up. It’s such a powerful story of one person’s redemption but it’s also universal. Wouldn’t it be great if every dangerous person in the world had that realisation and changed? It’s profoundly touching on a macro scale. This is one of my absolute favourites of all the things we’ve done. Jim was in every frame of this film, for sure.

Mackintosh: I started to see its prominence grow every year in the Christmas TV schedule from being slightly buried to suddenly becoming more visible in a more high-profile slot. Then, it became a thing where you expected to see it and if you didn’t, people would be like, “Where is it?’ When is it on!” It was a lovely thing to realise that it had become part of the fabric of Christmas.  

Coulthard: It’s extraordinary. When people find out you’ve done The Muppet Christmas Carol they go slightly weak at the knees. It’s so loved. My daughter became friendly with a girl at school and told them her dad was in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Apparently, her father – whose favourite film was The Muppet Christmas Carol – said she had to stay friends with my daughter., so hopefully she can come for a sleepover, but only if her dad drops her off. It still has that effect on people. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.

Braun: I get a lot of emails every year around Christmas from people growing up with loss and explaining what the movie has meant to them. It’s lovely. I’m honoured to have been a part of it. How lovely to be associated with something so joyous and genuinely trying to do good. There’s no cynicism about the Muppets and I love that. I think the fact that audiences have responded with genuine affection is a reflection of the fact that we did it sincerely. I couldn’t be associated with something nicer really. 

Henson: My personal relationship with the movie is that it was a big, important piece of work for me that was truly terrifying for me to do – but it was also very rewarding. I had the greatest people around me. Production designer, costume designer, director of photography, composer, songwriter, writer… I really did go into it feeling like we’d pulled together a team that was the best of what the Muppets had used in the past but was also pulling from the best of what we’d been doing in fantasy. I’m really happy that it has grown in popularity. 

‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ is available to stream now on Disney+. Find the ‘full-length’ version, complete with ‘The Love is Gone’, in the extras section

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