Frank Oz was the voice of the wise and beloved Yoda and, more than 30 years after the character’s debut, not a month goes by without a fan approaching Oz with a simple request — but the answer is always the same: Do the impression he won’t.
The 68-year-old Hollywood Renaissance man — Muppet puppeteer, movie director and the voice behind the pint-sized Jedi master — holds his characters too sacred for such tripe.
“You wouldn’t parade your kids around like that, would you?” he said. “They’re part of me. I won’t use them as a party favor to impress people.”
Oz, who lives in Manhattan, will return to Los Angeles on Thursday to accept a lifetime achievement honor at the 38th annual Saturn Awards, which are presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
He’ll don a crisp black suit, walk down a red carpet with his wife, Victoria, visit his three sons (who live in and near Hollywood) and stay at the Four Seasons — the same L.A. hotel he has booked for decades, his “second home.” Still, this trip west is a little uncomfortable for Oz. He is honored, delighted even, to be recognized for a body of work spanning five decades. But, he explains: “When I first found out, I said, ‘I’m too young for this.’ It’s strange to accept an award for a ‘lifetime’ of work. I’m too young to have had a lifetime. I feel like I have so much more to do.”
Oz launched his career as a teenager, working at a puppetry theater in Oakland after his parents, Frances and Isadore Oznowicz, relocated from England. At 17, he met his great mentor, Jim Henson, who hired him two years later. The rest is Muppet history.
“I learned a huge, huge amount from Jim,” Oz said, recalling his years on the sets of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.”
“I learned how to film from him, how to direct. We were like brothers working with each other.”After nearly 10 years, Oz started “owning” principal characters, crafting distinct personalities for America’s most beloved fuzzy figures. Miss Piggy, Bert (of “Bert and Ernie” fame), Animal and the Cookie Monster top his all-star roster.
“I can’t tell you where I got Miss Piggy,” he said. “She’s so incredibly layered. It’s an organic process, I think. Experiences from my own life filtered into my comedic vision. Animal came from mud in my soul.”
Henson, who died in 1990, was always supportive, Oz said. “My fondest memories are the hundreds and hundreds of Bert and Ernie [scenes] with Jim. Years of joy.”
When Oz took on the role of Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Henson offered advice. He shared puppet technology with George Lucas and weighed in on the sage creature’s inverted diction.
The Jedi universe and the creative chemistry bred magic. “With Yoda, it was right away — I picked him up and immediately knew who he was,” Oz said. “I have no idea why.”
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, found the perfect costar in Yoda.
“Frank is an absolute genius,” said Hamill, adding that he would received “encouraging telegrams” from Oz on movie sets. “At first, I was intimidated to act with a puppet. I wasn’t sure how it would work. But Frank made me so comfortable. He really brought Yoda to life. It was much more impressive than any computer-generated effect.”
Hamill, eight years Oz’s junior, said he looked up to the puppeteer: “He has a great heart and is, obviously, hysterically funny. I learned a lot from Frank.”
Oz’s own Hollywood journey took him down the filmmaker path. Again, Henson was there at the beginning and at his side.
The pair shared directing credit on “The Dark Crystal,” which arrived at theaters in 1982 as the most ambitious puppetry film in Hollywood history.
Oz was the sole director of 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan” and the directing credits that followed included “Bowfinger,” “HouseSitter,” “Indian in the Cupboard” and “What About Bob?”
The voice work has never gone silent, however, and Oz has even returned to the green serenity of old Yoda with voice contributions to “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” in 2005 and for Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, the theme-park attraction at Disneyland. Most recently, Oz veered into the digital realm, lending vocals to the bright red, bean-shaped Mr. Fungus in Pixar’s “Monsters University,” the “Monsters, Inc.” sequel scheduled to reach theaters next summer. Oz said he would approach the next voice job with the same spirit that he learned from Henson.
“If there’s no love, you’re doing it wrong,” Oz said. “If you don’t love them, they’re not going to be great.”
– Danielle Paquette
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