CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

‘Star Wars’ and ‘Muppets’ Icon Frank Oz Takes Us Behind the Puppets

The man who played Yoda and many iconic Muppet characters spills secrets about the show the whole world watched.

03.16.17 11:25 AM ET

AUSTIN, Texas – Frank Oz, the original voice and Muppeteer behind such iconic Jim Henson characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover (and, in another universe, a little green Jedi named Yoda), made it only 15 minutes into ABC’s short-lived Muppets reboot before he’d had enough.

“Disney and people who really love the Muppets really tried,” he begins, diplomatically. “And they really wanted to do their very best. But I think what possibly they missed is that one can’t just get a writer and start writing for the Muppets.”

“It’s us underneath who’ve been there for 30 years,” he says. “It’s not the Muppets they’re writing about, it’s our relationships underneath. You can sense our relationships—they’re very affectionate and funny. And [Disney’s] looking at it a different way. They don’t understand. They don’t get it.”

That amity was largely thanks to Henson, himself and his fellow Muppet originators, the “brothers and sisters” who created the personalities of the original Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Their camaraderie, and an avalanche of fond memories of the visionary Henson, are the heart of Oz’s new documentary, Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched.

Tucked into a corner table inside a hotel cafe in Austin, Oz reflects on premiering the film to an alternately giggly and misty-eyed audience for the first time at SXSW. After the premiere, many in the crowd stood up to thank him—along with his fellow originators Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Bill Barretta (Pepe the King Prawn), and Fran Brill (Sesame Street’s Zoe, Betty Lou, and Prairie Dawn), all beside him onstage—for bringing such immense joy to their childhoods.

It’s a sentiment he hears often from strangers, he says (it actually happens once during our interview, during a surreal interruption he jokes was staged), for which he’s deeply grateful. Still, he refuses to take much credit. “I know that I represent Jim and the Muppets and their childhood,” he says. “It’s not me, it’s what I represent.”

The Daily Beast sat down with Oz to hear more about the Muppets’ and Jim Henson’s legacy, the insecurities and neuroses that fed into his most iconic characters, Yoda’s lost Oscars campaign, and secrets behind some of the Muppets’ and Sesame Street’s most indelible characters.

In the film, you and the other Muppet originators say you don’t often think about your legacies, as it’s too large to grasp. What happens when you confront it in a theater full of people who feel this indebted to you?

Yeah, it does happen at other times with audiences, and even when I’m at an airport and things like that. But it’s most affecting and most touching when a lot of us [originators] are there. The guys—Dave, Billy, and Franny—they’ve being doing things by themselves and it’s really something. The reason we don’t talk about it is not that we don’t want to or that we don’t have an opinion, it’s just that we really don’t know because it’s just so vast. If I said, “Melissa, do you know that you’ve touched the world? Do you understand that?”

Whoa.

I mean, how can you grasp that? So I mean I’m very grateful, it’s a very wonderful thing to be thanked a lot. It really is. And it’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s because I’m selfish, because I want to do the very best work I can. I think it’s a good selfishness. But I did [the work] and it turned out well, with Bill and Dave and Franny and Jim and all the others. It just turns out that while we were selfishly doing the best work we can, we touched people. So we’re very blessed. There’s a lot of affection there [with fans], and I know that I represent Jim and the Muppets and their childhood. It’s not me, it’s what I represent.

You haven’t worked with the Muppets for a few years now, right?

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The last time I think I did Sesame Street was about four or five years ago, for about two days. They’ve stopped asking me, I think because they’re happy with the people who are taking care of my characters. And because I’m probably a bit more expensive than they would like, since I originated them. I haven't done the Muppet “classic characters,” we call ‘em, for about eight or nine years. But they’re still in my heart, you know.

Are there any characters in particular you miss performing?

I miss performing all of them. I mean, they’re all parts of me. One has to love the characters because they don't immediately take hold. It takes years to get a character. More than anything else, I miss playing around with my fellow brothers and sisters. That’s the fun of it. But I love the Animal, and I miss doing Fozzie. I loved doing Fozzie. Cookie Monster’s good. But both Animal and Cookie recently rip my voice apart, so. And then Grover I miss too. I guess Piggy I don’t miss as much, only because she’s so heavy—but I love her complexity. And there are other characters, but the two that I miss doing most are Fozzie and Grover. There’s a purity about both of them that is important to me.

I think Muppet Guys Talking changed the way I see Fozzie. One of you described him so poignantly: “He’ll never be funny but he’ll never stop trying.”

He will never, ever be funny. Here’s a bear who left the cave. He was trying to make the other bears laugh and they weren’t laughing, so he decided to go out—he’s courageous—into the world. Now, he can’t go back to the cave, and he really loves the people he’s with, and he’s a very, very dependent, insecure bear. All he wants is love from people and that’s the way he gets it: through comedy. And he’s never funny. He’s just never funny. And yet he never gives up.

The originators in the film also talked about how, over the years, their personal flaws and insecurities often seeped into their characters. Was there anything like that in your characters?

You know, it’s also different levels of your life. When Piggy came in, I was—

[At this point a stranger walks up to our table, extends his hand to Oz and says, “I just wanted to tell you how important you are to me.” Oz shakes his hand: “Oh, you’re very kind!” The man explains that he manages Grumpy Cat, hands Oz his card, and says his career in entertainment has been inspired by Oz’s work. Oz laughs. “This is very nice of you to come up to me,” he says. The man shakes his hand again, thanks him, and walks away.]

See, that’s the kind of stuff that happens all the time. And I accept the thanks, and I’m grateful for it, but I also know he’s talking to Jim and [performer] Jerry Nelson and [writer] Jerry Juhl. I know that I stand in place for them and the other guys. I’m representative of the workshop. So I take it and thank him. In my part, I deliver. But I know it’s not about me. I know it’s about everybody.

Frank Oz

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Frank Oz with Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy.

Now, we were talking about Piggy…

Regarding the characters, you know, it’s interesting. I haven't talked about this before, but the characters evolve as I evolve as a human being. So in the very beginning, with Miss Piggy, I was more neurotic and I was more insecure. Thirty years ago—35 years ago?—I was still growing and I was an unformed personality. So this was kind of reflecting in Piggy. Then later on, I became more secure in myself and other characters then started to speak to me. I picked Fozzie specifically since his insecurity fit show business. But Grover was not neurotic at all. He’s just a very pure, sweet guy who tries the hardest he can—but you don’t mess with him because he’s wiry and can get ticked off. (Laughs.) They’re all parts of me, as the other guys’ characters are parts of them. But they’re parts of us at different points in our lives because how we grow reflects upon how the character grows.

In the last few years there have been a few Muppets revivals, two movies and a show that got canceled. Did you watch any of those?

I saw both movies, and I saw about half of the first show.

Only half.

Yeah. You know, Disney and people who really love the Muppets really tried and they really wanted to do their very best. But I think what possibly they missed is one can’t just get a writer and start writing for the Muppets. It’s us underneath who’ve been there for 30 years. It’s not the Muppets they’re writing about, it’s our relationships underneath. You can sense our relationships—they’re very affectionate and funny. And [Disney’s] looking at it a different way. They don't understand. They don't get it. It’s not that they don’t want to get it, they just don’t get it. But instead of relying on the people who really know what they’re doing, they feel they have to get writers to be hip. And you don’t have to be mean to be hip. The Muppets Show was very good and they were very hip for many years, but there was not a mean bone in their body.

Right, there’s a moment in the film when you talk about the sweetness Jim brought to the Muppets. An old clip plays of Robin the Frog, Kermit’s nephew, singing “Halfway Down the Stairs” with the piano melody Jim wrote.

It’s emotional, isn’t it?

It did bring back a rush of memories for me.

It’s that purity, that sweetness. And you don't need more than that, you know? As I said in the film, in this day and age, which is often cynical, being sweet means you can be laughed at. Even during that time [in 1977]. But Jim just did what he believed, that’s all that mattered. Jim was hip and he was very funny and he was very strong, but there was also sweetness. I mean, Jim was not an elf. He was the head of a vast company, he worked like hell, but there’s always parts that are different. And one thing was sweetness, and it came from him. So that thing with Robin on the stairs, I’m sure if you saw it for the first time as a grown-up, you would not react that way. But you saw your childhood. And so it touches you.

And that’s one thing we all do: we try to be very pure with our characters. It can be very easy to get laughs by being lewd or anything else. But we’re very strict in making sure the purity and essence of our characters is strong and we don’t veer from that.

You also talk in the film about how frustrating Bert was for you to find at first, because he was so boring. Are there other characters who were harder for you to crack than others?

Hmm… Grover came about organically. Fozzie came about organically. Oh, I never cracked what I wanted Sam [the Eagle] to be. Jim and Jerry wanted Sam to be patriotic. I always saw Sam as in his 50s and lost. His wife flew the coop, she was gone, and all his kids had left and he was alone. And he had great standards and looked around and tried to find a place to be needed. And he saw all these freaks and said, “Oh yes, they need help. They need moral guidance.” So he is there, self-appointed to give moral guidance, but in truth he’s lonely. And that’s my Sam. But the other Sam went out, which is the patriotic Sam. (Laughs.)

What about Yoda in Star Wars?

Well Yoda was different, because Yoda was written by George Lucas and Larry Kasdan, so that was a written character with his own design made by somebody else. But what I did with Yoda was pretty much what I did with everybody, which is ask very specific questions and get the Yoda history. It evolves through a lot of work. And again, I don’t work in a vacuum. If it wasn’t for Mark Hamill believing in Yoda, you guys wouldn’t believe in him. So Mark deserves a lot of credit too. It’s really people; it’s all dealing with people. That’s what it’s about and that’s how characters are created.

I read that George put up an Oscar campaign for you for Empire Strikes Back.

And I didn't even realize it at the time. He was so generous. Yeah, he tried to get me an Oscar nomination, with thousands of signatures and everything. And it turned out that no, you cannot get a nomination for a puppeteer because are you nominating the puppeteer or are you nominating the character? You can’t nominate the character. So there’s a chasm in the rules. Their view, I think, is you cannot nominate Dave Goelz because he’s not on camera, and you can’t nominate Gonzo because he’s not real. So as generous as George was, there’s no place for it in the Academy. It’s strange, isn't it?

It’s the same situation now for actors who do motion-capture work. How do you view that kind of acting?

Well, it depends. The most brilliant motion-capture I’ve seen—I haven’t seen the most recent one Liam Neeson did, the monster movie [A Monster Calls]—but the one that blew me away was [Andy Serkis’s character Gollum] in Lord of the Rings. I thought that was an absolutely brilliant use of motion-capture. That was a real brilliant character, organically done. So it depends on the people, the talent, the taste and the sensitivities behind it. Serkis and that whole animation team’s work there I thought was friggin’ brilliant. That’s the best of motion-capture. And then there’s other motion-capture that does too much and takes you out of the movie.

You won’t tell me whether you’re onboard for any new Star Wars movies so I’ll ask about the old ones: What do you make of people’s hatred for the prequels and the way they used CGI?

Well, here’s the thing: you can look at it several ways. As far as Jar-Jar Binks, I loved Jar-Jar Binks. I loved him. When I first read that script, before it even started, I said, “George, this is gonna be just great.” And I think it’s absolute nonsense, this racist nonsense. If you look at Abbott and Costello, that was exactly what it was. It was just fantastic and I thought it was hysterical and I loved it. As far as the other prequels, George based them to a good degree on Flash Gordon serials, and I grew up with Flash Gordon. And people talk about the acting in Star Wars. That naturalistic acting, like in Scorsese films? If you had naturalistic acting, then it wouldn’t be fun. So the acting on purpose is of a style that is not real, in order to believe everything else to be real. Those people who malign that don’t get the fact that if they got what they wanted, they wouldn’t have what they love.

Your publicist is telling me it’s time to wrap up, so Frank, thanks so much for talking to me.

My pleasure. And did you like how I paid that guy to come up to me back there and say all those nice things? That was good, wasn’t it? (Laughs)