Frank Oz to ‘Star Wars’ fans: Do the Yoda impression I won’t

July 23, 2012 | 3:46 p.m.

Frank Oz (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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.

A Yoda puppet at a “Star Wars” exhibit at California Science Center. (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times)

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.

“Death at a Funeral” director Frank Oz with actor Peter Dinklage on the set. (Credit: Sydney Kimmel Entertainment)

“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.”

Yoda and Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back.” (Credit: Lucasfilm)

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.

Director Frank Oz on the set of “The Score” with stars Edward Norton and Robert De Niro. (Paramount Pictures)

“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.

Frank Oz and Jim Henson collaborated for years. (Credit: The Jim Henson Company)

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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Comments


12 Responses to Frank Oz to ‘Star Wars’ fans: Do the Yoda impression I won’t

  1. Jeff says:

    Between Yoda and Miss Piggy alone, this guy would cement his place among the immortals. Add to that his movies, which also include the AMAZING "Little Shop of Horrors" and "In & Out," and you have a guy who may go unheralded generally speaking but is absolutely one of the geniuses of our time.

  2. john says:

    Too bad Lucas doesn't share that sentiment, with endless revisions, interference and pimping out his once loved masterpiece for the almighty dollar. I guess Oz has more integrity than to sell himself for a quick buck, or Lucas own his butt.

    • Lionel_Horsepackage says:

      "Pimping out" his works for the "almighty dollar"? For crying out loud — grow some perspective. Jim Henson's works have been far more exploited since his death than anything George Lucas has ever done.

      If anything, Lucas has kept his thumb on his intellectual properties with a much stronger, consistent intention than most other major rights-holders over the years — there might have been changes made, but they're changes that *he* wants to make, and he's been rather classy about re-releasing his films only in sporadic bursts.

      To, when you consider how many different re-packaged and re-marketed versions of The Lord of the Rings there's been on DVD over the past decade, compared to how many Star Wars versions (two on DVD, one on Blu-Ray), Lucas has shown absolute restraint, compared to New Line.

  3. Eddie says:

    Nice story, but I have one correction: Frank Oz would not be doing a Yoda "impression." He IS Yoda.

  4. Ford Saeks says:

    I think he should write a book titled, "The Wizdom of OZ" He's a great thought leader and creative thinker. What an asset to the planet!

  5. Fred says:

    Well deserved. Frank Oz has created a lot of great characters and directed some great movies.

    It should be noted that Oz retired from Muppet performing in early 2000 to focus on his directing career. Puppeteer Eric Jacobson is currently the principal performer of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle, Grover, and Bert. (Puppeteer David Rudman is currently the principal performer of Cookie Monster.)

    Although, Oz will still come back to perform for Sesame Street at least once a season.

  6. Marc says:

    It's one of the smallest moments in his career, but I will never forget Frank Oz' hilariously dry turn as the prison clerk in the opening scene of The Blues Brothers.

  7. dr.H says:

    Hey LA Times – Sorry to be That Guy, but the movie was Death AT a Funeral.

    Death OF a Funeral is a future Emocore band.

    Cheers,
    Dr.H

  8. DAMON E GOSS says:

    HOW DO YOU GET AHOLD OF FRANK OZ AWAY…

  9. David Holman says:

    I was fortunate enough to get to work with Frank when I joined the Henson Organization in 1973 when we did the second back-door pilot special or ABC-TV aiming for what became the original "The Muppet Show". I was the associate producer on that second stab at a TV series which failed at all 3 networks. Like Jim Frank never gave up and they continued with "Sesame Street" until we got to do the first year of "Saturday Night Live", before Lew Grade of England was the main push for "The Muppet Show" to become the most successful syndicated TV program in the history of TV at the time. Frank was Jim's right arm in bring Fozziie Bear and Miss Piggy to life, along with so many other characters. After those first 5 seasons of this series the Jim topped it off with the first Muppet movie called "The Muppet Movie", again with Frank and the rest of the very talented Muppeteers, creators in the workshop and producers and directors. Frank with Jim's support developed into a very fine film director. This award is very well deserved and frankly earned by hard work and great talent.

  10. Jeffy says:

    Frank, thanks for the wonderful times with the family. I still check in on you now and then and I still feel like family. Your greatest works, C, C, H, and H will leave amazing marks on this world. Thanks for the amazing memories.

  11. Marvette says:

    this guy is awesome! I love Sesame Street! today is Sesame Street's 43rd birthday. Happy Birthday Sesame Street.

    And thank you Frank and Jim.

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