The first teaser for Muppets Most Wanted was just released and a lot of the focus was on the human co-stars (Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey). The Muppets have a great history of human co-stars and cameos. Sometimes they can be intrusive or pointless (Dawson's Creek in Muppets from Space, Quentin Tarantino in Muppet Wizard of Oz, most of the humans in The Muppets, etc.) but when they work they work great.
It was difficult to be subjective in making this list so I went with my personal favorites and I tried to spread the wealth across the seven theatrical releases. There are many more great cameos (I know that I will have one friend protesting the absence of Peter Falk from The Great Muppet Caper and another will protest the absence of Steve Martin from The Muppet Movie). So here are ten of my favorite human performances in Muppet movies.
10. F. Murray Abraham, Muppets from Space
Muppets from Space is certainly the lesser of the theatrical movies, but it does have plenty of good things in it. The best is the opening where Gonzo has a nightmare that he won't be allowed on Noah's Ark because there is nobody else like him (which always gets my emotions going). The scene is great with a lot of production value but the best is that Noah is played by the man who killed Amadeus. Murray plays a chilling, imposing Noah who has a fun punchline with an umbrella.
9. Alan Arkin, The Muppets
I thought that The Muppets was very overrated. One reason is that the celebrity cameos were more intrusive rather than supporting the movie (and the human leads took too much focus away from The Muppets). But the one cameo that had me cracking up was Alan Arkin who plays a disgruntled tour guide of Muppet Studios.
8. Charles Grodin, The Great Muppet Caper
Grodin plays a hammy, self aware villain to perfection with a dubbed singing voice. I always love when actors seem to have chemistry with the Muppets and Grodin definitely sells chemistry with Miss Piggy.
7. Dabney Coleman, Muppets Take Manhattan
Dabney Coleman does not get his due, but he is the best curmudgeon in the business and elevates every project he is in (even Inspector Gadget). He is easily the highlight cameo of Muppets Take Manhattan as a New York producer that is astonished by The Muppets proposal of doing a musical that involves singing and dancing (because people are sick of murder anyways).
6. Charles Durning, The Muppet Movie
The late great Charles Durning has been in a wide range of great movies but this is easily among his best performances (up there with Dog Day Afternoon). Durning is able to come across as a legitimate threat and seems like a man who wants to do evil things, but he plays it broad enough that it is still funny. Doc Hopper is definitely a great bad guy.
5. John Cleese and Joan Sanderson, The Great Muppet Caper
This is one of my favorite bits in The Great Muppet Caper. John Cleese and Joan Sanderson have a boring, stereotypical English conversation while Piggy breaks into their house. Cleese and Sanderson play it completely straight with perfect timing. The button on the scene is perfect as they casually point out Miss Piggy.
4. Bob Hope, The Muppet Movie
I could make another list full of cameos in The Muppet Movie (Orson Welles may be the best punchline a movie could ask for). The movie is full of people who created and recreated comedy and really pays tribute to them. My personal favorite is Bob Hope who does schtick with Fozzie.
3. Tim Curry, Muppet Treasure Island
My personal favorite Muppet movie is their adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic. Even if it is not the best it always makes me smile. Curry plays the screen's best Silver, capturing the different levels of the complex character. He is menacing but still loving towards Jim Hawkins. Curry is a large enough actor to be able to fit in with The Muppets. He has great comedic timing, musical numbers and is able to gain sympathy from the audience. Underrated performance.
2. Jack Warden, The Great Muppet Caper
Jack Warden is one of my all time favorite character actors. Just steals every movie he is in. He gives The Great Muppet Caper a great scene to open with.
1. Michael Caine, Muppet Christmas Carol
Caine does not play Scrooge in a Muppet movie, he plays it straight as Scrooge and gives one of the best portrayals of the classic character. Caine lists this as one of his favorite films and has said that he learned to treat the Muppets like actors. His ability to act with these fictitious creatures is incredible as he creates a full fledged relationship with many, namely the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Caine is even able to make jokes work as part of Scrooge's character, as he delivers lines such as "its Fozziwig's rubber chicken factory, I was apprenticed there," completely straight.