Best known for his tough-guy roles in features and on television, James Coburn was a fun casting choice as the owner of the El Sleezo Café in The Muppet Movie. Just as Jim used Jack Warden as a newspaper editor in The Great Muppet Caper following Warden’s serious editor role in All the President’s Men, Jim used Coburn for a funny take on his typical tough characters. Shooting the film in the summer of 1978 gave the two men a chance to become friendly, and the following year, Jim stayed in a guest house owned by Coburn’s girlfriend Lynsey de Paul, furthering the connection and friendship. Jim spent Christmas Eve 1979 with Coburn and de Paul and, in 1980, for season five, Coburn guest starred on The Muppet Show.
On The Muppet Show, Coburn showed two sides to his personality. As a gangster in a “Salute to The Roaring Twenties” he plays the villain but had to be rescued from a chicken gang by Animal whom he had befriended in the opening of the show. Coburn ended the show celebrating serenity, demonstrating meditation techniques to a calmed Animal and sharing a gong duet with him in a “Salute to Japan.” He described his connection to Animal: “There’s a kind of simpatico between us.”
Another highlight of Coburn’s Muppet Show episode was somewhat in the background – the introduction of Betsy Bird. At the suggestion of her performer Betsy Baytos, a loose-limbed character dancer from California, Jim asked Michael Frith to design a full-body dancing bird that would have a much greater range of movement than characters like Big Bird. Jim’s team took on the challenge; as Baytos described, “The Muppet workshop built Betsy Bird with all those lovely feathers, shaped to fit my body and flexible enough for all those back bends and other contortions that make her so eye-catching.”