Puppeteer Frank Oz is the man behind such iconic characters as Yoda, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Grover and Animal. He’s also directed several films.
Who Is Frank Oz?
Puppeteer and film director Frank Oz was born May 25, 1944, in Hereford, England. He launched his career as a teenager with Jim Henson and the Muppets, and went on to become the performer behind such characters as Miss Piggy, Grover and Fozzie Bear, as well as Yoda in the Star Wars franchise. Oz has also directed several successful films, including Little Shop of Horrors.
Born Richard Frank Oznowicz on May 25, 1944, in Hereford, England, Frank moved with his parents, Isidore and Frances Oznowicz, as well as his brother, to Oakland, California, when he was six. At a young age he adopted the name Frank Oz, because people struggled to pronounce Oznowicz.
Oz was, by his own admission, a shy child. As the son of amateur puppeteers, he gravitated toward puppets as an easy way to express himself. By the time Oz was 18, he'd already spent several years playing around and working with puppets. But he had no anticipation they'd be a part of his future. Instead, Oz had dreams of becoming a journalist.
While Oz was still in high school, he had a chance meeting with 23-year-old Jim Henson at a puppeteering conference. "He was this quiet, shy guy who did these absolutely amazing puppets that were totally brand new and fresh, that I had never been seen before," Oz would later recall. Henson appreciated Oz's work as well. Two years later, as Oz struggled through his first year of college, Henson asked the young puppeteer to join his Muppets team.
By the late 1960s, the Muppets were already generating steady, well-paying work; Henson had directed a number of television commercials for such big-name clients as Purina and La Choy, using his characters.
In 1969, the opportunity to something completely different arrived with Sesame Street, a public television program for children that emphasized the idea that learning could be fun.
The Muppets proved a perfect fit for the format, and the success of Sesame Street far exceeded anyone's expectations. For Oz, the opportunities the show allowed for a performer were the most thrilling part. "I was a drone," he later recalled. "I kind of went where the job was, so it didn't mean a lot to me as far as it being a special program. What it meant was that I could actually work out characters, because for years prior to that I was frightened to death of doing my own characters."
By 1976, Henson had grown frustrated by the parameters of working on someone else's program. In an attempt to realize his full creative vision, Henson debuted the adult variety hour The Muppet Show. Oz was one of the program's key creators, performing such popular characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal.
Yoda and Beyond
Like Henson, Oz had his own ambitions. By the early 1980s he'd gotten his toes wet in the film world. He'd performed as Yoda in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and made various bit appearances in other movies like The Blues Brothers (1980) Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and Trading Places (1983). He then was able to fulfill his directing dreams, taking the helm of projects like The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1988) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988).
In recent years, Oz has continued his varied career. He reprised his role of Yoda for the George Lucas-directed Stars Wars prequels in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He has also continued to direct films, including the heist flick The Score (2001), with Marlon Brando, Edward Norton and Robert De Niro, and a 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives.
Oz was not involved in a revival of The Muppets, which aired on ABC from September 2015 into March 2016, but he did return to voice Yoda for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).
'Muppet Guys Talking'
On March 16, 2018, Oz made his long-gestating documentary, Muppet Guys Talking, available for streaming. Mostly filmed in 2012, the 65-minute doc features a roundtable-like discussion between Oz and longtime colleagues Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta and the since-deceased Jerry Nelson.
In an accompanying interview with Vanity Fair, Oz explained his rationale for seeing the project through. "Part of the reason I wanted to do it was because everyone knew Jim Henson, and some people know me, but nobody knows these guys, and they’re brilliant," he said, adding that he "wanted to show people how you can really work in an environment where, as namby-pamby as it sounds, you can do really great work, work like a son of a bitch and have fun—no politics, no backstabbing, no jealousy."