ABBA, Alfred Nobel, Bjorn Borg, Greta Garbo -- Sweden has many famous faces. But there might be one character whose ways in the kitchen have made him one of the best-known Swedes in the world today: The Swedish Chef character from "The Muppet Show."
Someone considerably less known, however, is Lars Kuprik Backman, the man who for years has claimed he's the real-life model for the whimsical kitchen oddball of the popular TV show.
"Yes, I'm sure it's me. I used to look exactly like that," the ruddy-faced and sandy-haired 64-year-old chef said in his catering office and storage space on the outskirts of his northern hometown of Rättvik, where he is a local celebrity.
But, the jovial and somewhat rotund Backman continued, it was not only the way he looked in the 1970s that made him think he inspired the late Jim Henson to create the crazy puppet chef who tosses cutlery and pans around the kitchen while babbling incomprehensibly in a "Swenglish" accent.
"There are so many things that make it difficult to think that it wouldn't be me," he said.
It all started in 1969, when Backman moved to Los Angeles, at the age of 19 to work as a chef at the Viking Horn restaurant, which specialized in Scandinavian food.
After a few years, the buoyant young cook was invited to appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" to cook Swedish food – on live TV .
"I was 24 and thought it would be a piece of cake," he said, shaking his head at his own naivete while puffing on a cigarillo in his small office.
Backman planned to prepare some typical samples from the Swedish smorgasbord: a big salmon and a long open meatball sandwich, which he was going to decorate with mayonnaise that he had in a pastry bag.
"I had it all set up. I was ready. It all seemed fine. How hard can four minutes live on TV be? I thought."
Did Backman Inspire Sesame Show Creator, Jim Henson?
But then suddenly some 50 people entered the studio, he explained.
"Nobody had said anything about an audience! I became terribly nervous. My heart was racing. I started to sweat and suddenly they were counting down 'three-two-one' and then …," he paused.
"I was live on TV in America, and I was paralyzed. I couldn't speak! I couldn't remember any English or any Swedish. But I knew the show had to go on, so I started talking, but the only thing that came out were these guttural sounds," he said with raised eyebrows in disbelief over his terrible performance.
"It was unintelligible, and I was still holding that silly pastry bag, shaking with fear. The only thing I wanted right then was to go home to my mother in Sweden."
Even more telling, Backman claims, is that he worked as a chef in the canteen of 20th Century Fox studio lot for seven years from 1976, where Jim Henson worked during the early years of the Muppets. It all that makes Backman believe he was the inspiration for the Swedish Chef.
Henson, the late founder of the "Muppet Show" and a driving force behind Sesame Street just like many others at the company, often drop into the kitchen to greet Backman and his staff, Backman claims.
"There was always a show going on in there," said Backman, smiling at how he and the 30-odd people who worked for him used to fool around in the kitchen, partly fueled by a hidden box of beer.
"We sang and we danced. We threw things in the air and pans on the floor," he said, adding that they would often come out into the canteen and perform: "clown around, sing, chop cucumber or something."
Backman said former colleagues and friends at 20th Century Fox have kept telling him throughout the years that he "has to be the real life model" because he "looked and acted just like that in those days.
"I had a long red mustache and lanky hair that straggled under my chef's hat. Plus, I was the only Swedish chef around," he said, adding that his disastrous cooking incident on TV seemed to be widely known at 20th Century Fox, as people kept reminding him of it. Backman believes that Henson also knew about it.
Muppet Writer Dismisses Backman's Claims
But there are some who deny Backman's claims, like Jerry Juhl, a writer on the Muppet show who worked with Henson. On the "Muppet Show" Central News Web site he denied Backman was an inspiration albeit confessing to not remembering the genesis of the Swedish Chef character.
Nevertheless, Backman still thinks he is the real-life model.
"I think they fear that I am going to sue or make some sort of financial claim so they deny it. But I am not going to sue them," he said with a resigned shrug.
He does however admit to being inspired by the Muppet.
"I thought it was a great name and translated it into Swedish and used it for my catering business 'Svenska Kocken.'"
Despite the disagreement over the "Muppet Show," Backman's memories of his 16 years in California have not soured, he said, smiling broadly as he recalled the heady 1970s when he worked and partied hard, appreciated the beautiful women on Venice Beach and played tennis with Charlton Heston.
"To work as a chef in Hollywood is not like working in an ordinary kitchen. I would bike around with the food on a tray. I served food at rap parties. I served accompanied by orchestras. We worked on steamboats and served food on ice-sculptures, he said, adding he also catered for the TV series "Mash" and "Dynasty" and the film "9 to 5."
The only reason he left America was to tend to his sick mother back home and the fact that he met an old sweetheart, with whom he is still going steady after 22 years.
Today, he travels around with his portable kitchen and sells food, but he also arranges "cooking happenings" in shopping malls, at trade fairs, private dinners and parties.
In addition, Backman and his assistant Inge Grannas, "the Smurf," have done gigs at big football events like the World Cup in Germany 2006 and the European Cup in Austria last year. Backman also cooked on Canadian TV a couple of times, he said, proudly showing newspaper clippings of the events.
Wanting to give a flavor of his style in the kitchen Backman dressed up in his chef's gear, chopped and woked vegetables that he later tossed over half of his kitchen.
He also shared his favorite number that he performs with his band "Fiddle Rock & Kuprik Rock", in which he – dressed in a grass skirt and a tie around his forehead – plays the cabasa and sings "Putti, Putti", a hit by Hawaiian singer Jay Epae that was a big hit in Sweden in the 1960s.
Raising his voice over the samba tones, Backman explained his business had certainly not made him rich, but that the most important thing in life was to have fun.
"If people want to believe that I am the Swedish Chef or not, doesn't really matter. What's important is to have a little fun and put a smile on people's faces."