I ask Frank Oz if he feels like the Paul McCartney to Jim Henson’s John Lennon, the one left behind to carry the flame after his revered creative partner suddenly and shockingly died. Oz takes a deep breath and turns his head to the side, thinking.
If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, your childhood was shaped by Henson and Oz and their work with the Muppets, just as the kids who grew up in the 50s and 60s did so in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney. Even if you weren’t a devoted fan of the Muppets themselves, you couldn’t help but take in their influence osmotically, what with The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, the Muppets movies and Labyrinth swirling in the atmosphere. I was pretty much raised on the Muppets, just as I now raise my own kids on them, and I cannot remember a time when Henson and Oz’s creations were not stamped in my mind’s eye.
Eventually, Oz comes up with an answer to my question that he deems satisfactory. “I don’t, in part because I [originally] worked for Jim, but then we became brothers, and things changed, of course. But I’ve never thought about it that way before,” he says a little sadly.
Oz, 77, is talking to me by video from his apartment. It is impossible to talk to him without frequent reference to Henson. When I ask if he lives in New York he says yes, and adds that he’s lived there since he was 19, “ever since Jim [Henson] asked me to come here to work with him on the Muppets”. He talks about himself as Henson’s No2 – the Fozzie Bear to Henson’s Kermit.
Yet is it possible that Oz has made more of an imprint on more people’s imaginations than Henson and the Beatles combined. Even aside from the Muppets and Sesame Street, where he brought to life characters including Cookie Monster, Grover, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle and Bert, he is also the voice of Yoda, and yes, he coined Yoda’s formal yet convoluted syntax, all “Speak like me, you must not” and so on. “It’s funny you ask about that because I was just looking at the original script of The Empire Strikes Back the other day and there was a bit of that odd syntax in it, but also it had Yoda speaking very colloquially. So I said to George [Lucas]: ‘Can I do the whole thing like this?’ And he said: ‘Sure!’ It just felt so right,” says Oz.
Jim Henson (back centre) and Frank Oz (back right) with the Muppets and other performers in 1978. Photograph: David Dagley/Shutterstock
Does he get tired of the endless terrible Yoda imitations?
“No I’m used to it. But people don’t understand, anyone can do a voice. It’s not the voice – it’s the soul,” he says.
Oz also directed many of the most beloved and enduring 80s and 90s comedies, including Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, In and Out and Bowfinger. He became one of the more pleasing cameo actors around, most recently in Knives Out, but also in the great run of 80s John Landis / Dan Aykroyd films, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and Spies Like Us: “Whenever John needed a prick in a film, he called me,” Oz says cheerfully.
When he and his wife go to the opera, do people shout his unforgettable line from Trading Places at him: “It’s an OPERA”?
“Ha! Isn’t it something how that’s lasted? John [Landis] sent me a postcard the other day that showed a picture of me holding up a used condom [from The Blues Brothers,” he chuckles.
In 1983 – just to take a year at random – Oz was working on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Trading Places and The Return of the Jedi. Did he ever sleep?
“Well, the person who really didn’t sleep was Jim. We were doing The Muppet Show and whenever we got a break, Jim would say: ‘You know, they’ve asked us to do the Queen’s Jubilee’, so we’d do an extra performance here, another one there. I was a worker bee, but Jim really didn’t sleep, and anything he asked me to do, I’d put my heart and soul into it,” he says.
Wearing a crisp white shirt and spectacles pushed atop his head, Oz has agreed to take time out of his still busy schedule to talk to me about his life and career, but there’s so much to discuss that I feel a little flummoxed about where to start. So we start at the beginning. His full name is Frank Oznowicz, and he tells me about how his Jewish father escaped from the Nazis in Belgium with his mother, who was Catholic. They made it down to Morocco and his father joined the Dutch Brigades, which allowed him to get a visa and then travel to England, where Oz was born.
Oz in 1977 with Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
“My dad was smart, he knew the Nazis were coming. It was amazing how he escaped, but it never seemed real to me because how can any of us process something like that?” he says.
Before the war, Oz’s father carved and performed with puppets, and his wife made the costumes. After the family emigrated from Antwerp to the US when Oz was five, they stopped the puppet shows. But their son took up the family tradition when he was a teenager, performing around San Francisco at parties, church fetes, supermarkets – anywhere he could make some change.
“I think it was the safest way for me to express myself without feeling rejected, because I wouldn’t be rejected – it was the character who was rejected. I had very low self-esteem back then,” he says.
But the puppetry added a new layer of insecurity: “There is always a pejorative attitude towards puppeteering and I became identified with being a puppeteer, but I wanted to be a full human being,” he says. This slight tension still exists today. At one point, I refer to him and Henson as “Muppeteers” and he winces: “That makes us sound like Santa’s elves! Performers is fine,” he says firmly.
Oz tried to escape the puppet life by going to college to study journalism. But six months in, a young man named Jim Henson, who had seen him perform two years earlier, got in touch and asked him to come to New York and help on a show he was starting. And that was that.
With partnerships, the two people are usually either very similar or completely different. How was it with Henson and Oz? “Complete opposites. Jim was quiet, confident. I was more uptight than Jim, neurotic, all these problems which I worked out with a shrink for years, whereas Jim was very playful,” he says.
Yoda as seen on the set of The Empire Strikes Back. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images
This dynamic was reflected in their Muppets, most obviously in Ernie (Henson) and Bert (Oz), but also Kermit (Henson) and Fozzie Bear (Oz), who was created because, Oz says, Henson wanted Kermit to have “a second banana”: “I had to flesh him out, so I made him desperately insecure.” Some of Oz’s Muppets came from direct inspiration – “the soul and heart of Grover” came from Oz’s dog; others, such as Miss Piggy and Cookie Monster, simply evolved from the stories. “Jim was never precious about his characters, so we weren’t either. We treated the purity of their souls with reverence, but not the puppets themselves. I remember once Jim was talking to a little boy with Kermit on his arm, just making the little boy happy, and then he said, ‘OK, I gotta go back in the box now,’ and he just took him off his arm,” Oz says.
I tell him that I was lucky enough to experience that myself, when I happened to spot Henson, along with Oz and the rest of the performers, at Disney World in April 1990, where they were filming the Muppets at Walt Disney World. He had Kermit on his arm and so, utterly transfixed, I walked towards this familiar frog, whom I’d known since I was a baby. Henson turned Kermit to face me and let me have a conversation with the Muppet. Six weeks later, Henson died. To my absolute mortification, as I’m telling this story I burst into tears. I apologise for my unprofessional display of emotion.
“No, don’t worry! So much of the time I’m a fencepost that people project their childhood on to, and that’s a great compliment. We all learned from Jim, because Jim was an amazing performer, but he would talk to anybody, him and his characters. He enjoyed playing, and that’s where the creativity came from,” he says.
There was a joyfully modish but warm and always anarchic energy to Henson’s Muppets that no one’s been able to reproduce since. This was most in evidence on The Muppet Show, which was a satire of variety shows like Saturday Night Live – which the Muppets originally appeared on – down to the weekly celebrity guests. Was it a bit of a drag having to work around, say, Elton John and Linda Ronstadt? “Not at all, because it gave us themes. For example, we were told that Bob Hope didn’t have much time to do the show, so the whole show was about Bob Hope not having much time. With John Cleese, he didn’t want to sing, so the show was about trying to get him to sing,” Oz chuckles.
Henson died suddenly in 1990 of streptococcal toxic shock syndrome when he was only 53. I tell Oz I still find it shocking how quickly it happened. “The Disney deal is probably what killed Jim. It made him sick,” Oz replies. At the time of Henson’s death, he was negotiating with Michael Eisner, then the head of Disney, about selling the Muppets. “Eisner was trying to get Sesame Street, too, which Jim wouldn’t allow. But Jim was not a dealer, he was an artist, and it was destroying him, it really was,” says Oz.
Disney finally managed to buy the Muppets – but not Sesame Street – in 2004, and to Oz’s mind, there’s a “demarcation line between the Jim Henson Muppets and the Disney Muppets”: “There’s an inability for corporate America to understand the value of something they bought. They never understood, with us, it’s not just about the puppets, it’s about the performers who love each other and have worked together for many years.”
Oz hasn’t worked with the Muppets since 2007, and I assumed he’d retired. I assumed incorrectly: “I’d love to do the Muppets again but Disney doesn’t want me, and Sesame Street hasn’t asked me for 10 years. They don’t want me because I won’t follow orders and I won’t do the kind of Muppets they believe in,” he says. He can’t bear to watch the Muppets or Sesame Street today: “The soul’s not there. The soul is what makes things grow and be funny. But I miss them and love them.”
It was Henson who inspired Oz to work as widely as possible outside the Muppets, recommending him to Lucas as the voice of Yoda. I ask if it was strange for Oz’s four children, all now in their early 30s and late 20s, that Yoda and Fozzie was their father.
“No, because they only liked Power Rangers,” he smiles.
Oz originally met Steve Martin on The Muppet Movie and they next worked together on Oz’s first non-Muppets direction job, the classic musical, Little Shop of Horrors. But their friendship was really cemented on their next film. When I interviewed Martin recently, he said that the most fun he ever had while making a movie was working with Oz on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
“Oh, we had a great time. The script needed a lot of work and the writers’ strike occurred then, so every morning, while Steve and I were in the south of France, we went to a cafe and worked. Steve trusts me and I trust him and working with him was like playing with Jim,” Oz says. I ask who he found funnier: Ruprecht, Martin’s alter-alter ego in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or Jiff, Eddie Murphy’s alter-alter ego in Bowfinger, his and Martin’s third film. “Ruprecht. No question. Eddie was great as Jiff and a lot of the time he was riffing. But Ruprecht was special,” he says.
Frank Oz with Nicole Kidman on the set of The Stepford Wives in 2004. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy
A rare Oz flop was 2004’s The Stepford Wives, starring Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler. In the past, Oz has said he didn’t know how to handle big stars, but I tell him that just a glance at his CV proves this is nonsense. “The director gets the credit, so the director takes the blame. I think I got hubristic. It’s the only time I said yes to a movie before the script was written. I wanted to keep it small, but then the budget ballooned and I went against my instincts, and when you go against your instincts, you take the blame,” Oz says.
Since then, he’s done more Yoda work, played more cameos and made more documentaries, including one about the Muppet performers, Muppet Guys Talking. I ask if it’s the Muppets that still give him the most pride. “Pride gets into hubris and I’ve learned to avoid that. Maybe satisfied is a better word. I’m satisfied with some of the movies I’ve done, but I can’t say I ‘did’ the Muppets, because it was always a combination of the writers, the other performers, Jim and me,” he says.
We are now well past our one-hour time slot and, to my enormous regret, I have to end our interview to put my kids to bed. But the next day, Oz sends an email telling me he bought my book. I write back, saying it blows my mind to think of Fozzie Bear, Grover, Bert and Cookie Monster reading something I wrote. He emails straight back: “We’re all looking forward to it.” And of course, once again, I burst into tears.