Hollywood lost one of its last vestiges of golden age glamour on Tuesday, as actor Charles Grodin, whose on- and off-screen romance with his Great Muppet Caper co-star Miss Piggy electrified audiences and ushered in a new era of frank sexuality in motion pictures, died at the age of 86.
Neither Grodin nor Miss Piggy were unknown to audiences when they were cast in The Great Muppet Caper in the fall of 1980: Miss Piggy had a recurring role on a popular television variety show, while Grodin had appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, The Heartbreak Kid, and Real Life. But when word broke out that real sparks were flying between Grodin and Miss Piggy on set, the world was captivated at the thought of a tinseltown romance between the suave star of The Young Marrieds and the inanimate block of foam rubber from The Muppet Show. Grodin carried out part of his courtship in the press, first letting it be known that he was unhappy with the script, telling a reporter that “losing Miss Piggy to Kermit is hitting rock bottom.” Before long, he was rhapsodizing about his co-star to anyone who would listen, repeating variations of this line in a passel of interviews:
Miss Piggy and I have a real love scene in the picture. She’s just my type—available and unavailable, coy, flirtatious, and humorous. She has a flair. She’s unpredictable. And she’s pink, and that’s always nice.
Famously shy, Miss Piggy was more reserved about leveraging her personal feelings for Charles Grodin to help sell The Great Muppet Caper, but when journalist Alice Steinbach asked about rumors that she and Diana Rigg had competed for their leading man’s affections, you could feel the raw passion in her denial:
“NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, AND NON! WHAT HAPPENED WAS…”—the gears shift again as she gains control of herself—“what happened was, Alice dear, that Chuckie—which is what I call Charles—Chuckie became very enamored of moi, of course, and Diana, dear Diana, didn’t quite understand at the beginning. But now Diana and moi are the best of friends. And I deny any of the rumors about Chuckie and me.”
When Steinbach asked more directly if she and Grodin were an item, Miss Piggy demurred: “Because moi, moiself am truly, truly a private person, all I will say about that is that Chuckie and moi are still deep, deep friends, but that’s all.”
Once The Great Muppet Caper opened and audiences got a taste of Grodin and Miss Piggy’s on-screen chemistry, however, her denials rang hopelessly false. Take the scene in which Grodin first notices his co-star: Although the actors are surrounded by the artificial flash and dazzle of a 1930s-style musical number, you can tell there’s nothing phony about Grodin’s feelings.
Grodin’s shockingly naturalistic portrait of a man utterly consumed by lust made instant antiques of the performances that had defined male sexuality on screen for earlier generations, from Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire to Tab Hunter in Operation Bikini. Asked about the secret of his performance, Grodin told the Los Angeles Times that the trick was “genuine feeling”:
… all I can tell you is I played it straight. There was no other way to do it. It had to be genuine feeling, or it wouldn’t have worked.
“Now that it’s over I honestly think that it’s probably the greatest love scene I’ve ever played. I thought I did a good one with Farrah Fawcett in Sunburn—that film that nobody saw—but this one was much more passionate and tender.
“Afterwards I wondered to myself why it had been so good. I don’t know the answer”—a sly smile here—“but it did make me wonder if perhaps I hadn’t been going down a whole wrong path in my taste with women.”
Americans, mired in national sorrow and depression over Ronald Reagan’s ascent, found a much-needed escape in Grodin and Miss Piggy’s raw, unchecked sexuality, and in many ways their relationship defined what love and dating looked like throughout the 1980s. On-screen, too, The Great Muppet Caper cast a long shadow: projects that never would have existed without Grodin and Miss Piggy’s pioneering work include Black Mirror, the Simpsons episode “A Fish Called Selma,” and David Cameron’s entire political career. In 2011, Grodin published a sordid tell-all account of his time with Miss Piggy, but even that did nothing to spoil the magic of their on-screen romance. Since Grodin’s death, his fans have been tweeting about how much his performance meant to them:
But no tribute could have meant more than the one that came from Miss Piggy herself, in which she set aside any hard feelings over Grodin’s indiscretions in the press to pay tribute to her greatest on-screen lover:
Hollywood is going to continue making movies, they say, and birds will continue to sing, and spring will continue to be lovely, and jewel thieves will continue to fall head over heels for pigs who are working as receptionists at posh British houses of fashion while attempting to launch their modeling careers. But a light has been extinguished, a greatness has gone out of the world, and it’s fair to wonder if any other actor will ever embody pure, untamed desire for Miss Piggy the way Charles Grodin did. He was sensational.