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February 07, 2013

‘Star Wars': Frank Oz on Stuart Freeborn, the legend behind Yoda

Posted in: Movies

Stuart Freeborn sculpts the Yoda puppet. (Lucasfilm / Los Angeles Times Archives)

Stuart Freeborn sculpts the Yoda puppet. (Lucasfilm / Los Angeles Times Archives)

Jedi Master Yoda is one of the most famous and iconic of the hundreds of characters in the “Star Wars” universe and one of the men most responsible for creating that character was makeup artist Stuart Freeborn, who died in London on Wednesday at age 98.

Freeborn worked closely with Lucas and Frank Oz, the puppeteer and director who was known for controlling the Muppet Miss Piggy before he joined “The Empire Strikes Back” to perform the ancient Jedi Master.

Reached by phone, Oz recalled the series of meetings that took place with Freeborn at Elstree Studios.

MORE: Remembering Stuart Freeborn

Frank Oz (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Frank Oz (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“He was a legend already. He was brilliant and he was a sweet man,” Oz said. “I remember going into that first meeting in this small workshop. I remember looking up and seeing masks of Chewbacca and everything else.”

Despite Freeborn’s long history in film and his collaborations with such well-known directors as David Lean and Stanley Kubrick, Oz said he never got a chance to ask Freeborn to share his tales.

“We were very much zeroed in on Yoda,” he said. “There was actual tension in the room — nothing bad — but he was taking a little while to make Yoda. [Irvin] Kirshner and George [Lucas] kept shooting ‘Empire Strikes Back’ while they were waiting for Yoda and they were running out of things to shoot. But he delivered it.”

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Oz had two weeks with Yoda before he began to shoot the scenes set on Dagobah, at first with a rough version of Yoda and finally with the real thing.

“At first I had the real Yoda, but something would go wrong and I’d bring it back to Stuart,” Oz said.

“He did amazing work.”

– Patrick Kevin Day

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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