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New film reveals Miss Piggy’s backstory, more Muppet secrets

Published: Updated:

Only Miss Piggy’s creator knows the depths of her tragic origin story. Frank Oz, who gave life to the character in the early 1970s, says Piggy left her hometown farm for life in the big city after her dad died in a tractor accident and she had a falling out with her mother.

Piggy went to charm school once she got to the Big Apple, Oz says, "but she had to pay for it, so she did some things she wasn’t proud of." (A bacon commercial, he adds.)

Gonzo’s daring nature was born out of puppeteer Dave Goelz’s personal insecurities, and actor/puppeteer Jerry Nelson drew on Eeyore’s depressive demeanor to create Snuffleupagus’ signature phrase - "Oh, dear" - on "Sesame Street."

It takes more than a wacky voice to bring a Muppet to life. Every character has a detailed backstory dreamed up by the puppeteer behind it - or rather, beneath it. The artists who created some of the Muppets’ most beloved characters - Cookie Monster, Grover, Count von Count, Bunsen Honeydew, Animal, Prairie Dawn and Pepe the King Prawn - shed light on their creative processes and their characters’ secret backstories in a new documentary, "Muppet Guys Talking," available online Friday.

"This is a great opportunity to show people who the people were underneath," says Oz, who directed the film. "Besides the idea of showing the world the culture in which we lived and worked because of (Muppets creator) Jim (Henson)."

Featuring original Muppet performers Oz, Goelz and Nelson, along with Fran Brill and Bill Barretta, the 65-minute documentary is a love letter to Henson and the creative community he developed. The five artists discuss their memories, moments of inspiration and the challenges of working with puppets.

For example, during the opening of 1979’s "The Muppet Movie," in which Kermit sits on a log in the middle of a lake, strumming a banjo, the six-foot-tall Henson was crunched into a steel canister underwater. His arm was overhead, controlling Kermit, and a microphone ran into the submerged container to capture Henson’s voice.

"He would do anything," Goelz says. "I think we all learned commitment from that."

Henson also welcomed ideas from everyone, from the puppeteers to the prop builders and electricians.

"His appreciation of people was beyond my range," says Goelz, who counts Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew and Boober Fraggle among his creations.

Outrageousness was always welcomed, Oz says, and kindness was king.

"All the sweetness came from Jim," Oz says.

The film includes archival footage of the late Muppet originator, along with clips of late writers and puppeteers, including Richard Hunt, who played Scooter and Janice on "The Muppet Show" and Don Music on "Sesame Street."

"Muppet Guys Talking" is dedicated to Nelson, who died shortly after filming his appearance in the documentary.