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Frank Oz

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Oz performing Grover, circa early 1980s.

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Frank Fozzie and friends

Frank Oz and Fozzie entertain a young visitor with his Fozzie doll.

Richard Frank Oznowicz[1] (b. May 25, 1944), better known as Frank Oz, is one of the foremost Muppet performers and Jim Henson's closest collaborator. Oz and Henson performed some of most famous Muppet comedy teams -- Oz was Bert to Henson's Ernie, and Miss Piggy to Henson's Kermit the Frog. On Sesame Street, Oz also performed Grover and Cookie Monster; on The Muppet Show, he performed Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam the Eagle.

Early Years

Richard "Frank" Oznowicz was born in England, spent parts of his childhood in Belgium, and moved to America when he was five. The son of puppeteers Isadore "Mike" Oznowicz and his wife Frances, with two other siblings, young Frank was performing as part of the Oznowicz Family Marionettes troupe by age 12. Despite this background, "I don't have a love of puppets," Oz explained in a 1987 interview "I did it as a means of expression. I was able to express myself and please my parents. It was also safe to hide behind puppets because at that point I was a little shy."[2] He had no desire to go into puppeteering professionally: "I just did it as a hobby to get some money-- I really wanted to be a journalist."[3]

Beginnings with Henson

At the age of 17, Oz first met Jim Henson at the Puppeteers of America festival in California. His first impression of Henson was as "this very quiet, shy guy who did these absolutely ******* amazing puppets that were totally brand new and fresh, that had never been done before."[4] At age 19, in 1963, he joined the burgeoning Muppets, Inc. as a right hand for Rowlf the Dog in variety appearances and later on The Jimmy Dean Show. It was here that Jimmy Dean introduced him as "Frank Oz...," mumbling the last part of his name. Thus, Oz began using the shortened form of his name that he's known by today. [5]

He also worked on commercials, replacing Jane Henson as key assistant. While Henson provided all of the voices, he and Oz would alternate when performing such buddy duos as Scoop and Skip, and the new puppeteer assisted on such characters as the Southern Colonel and Nutty Bird. His most notable commercial role was as Delbert the La Choy Dragon. This was Oz's first, and one of his very few, experiences as a full-bodied puppet performer, and one which he did not relish:

I hated it. I hated doing it totally. Jim knew I hated it. I think he relished it. The La Choy dragon was a *****. I was totally blind in there. I always hated being inside characters, but I was the main performer and that was my job.[4]

Sesame Street

On Sesame Street, Frank Oz originated the characters of Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster, and performed them exclusively for nearly 30 years. During this time, he performed a great number of minor characters, including Lefty the Salesman. He was also offered the role of Big Bird, but because of his experience as the La Choy Dragon, he turned down the role.[6]

Commenting on his performing habits, Fran Brill noted that Oz would often put his hand on top of whoever was doing right hands so they couldn't gesture too much.[7]

According to the book Sesame Street Unpaved, during the show's early years Oz was in almost every sketch, but by 1998 he only appeared on the Sesame Street set four days a year, performing nearly fifteen sketches with his characters during those four days. As of 2011, he is still taping appearances during a limited schedule for new segments, one day a year.[8] Despite this, to help keep Oz's characters visible Eric Jacobson is currently the principal performer of Bert and Grover, and David Rudman is the principal performer of Cookie Monster. Oz was confirmed to have performed in segments for season 43.[9]

Middle Years

Between the beginning of Sesame Street and the start of The Muppet Show, Frank Oz performed in nearly every major Henson production, including The Great Santa Claus Switch, The Frog Prince, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. One of his most significant characters during this time was The Mighty Favog on Saturday Night Live.

The Muppet Show

Frank Oz was one of the main performers on The Muppet Show, performing several of the show's stars. Oz performed Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal, as well as secondary characters Sam the Eagle, George the Janitor and Marvin Suggs.

Fozzie Bear was originally intended to be his main character, and Miss Piggy was originally meant to be a supporting character. In fact, during the first few episodes of the show's first season, Frank Oz shared the role of Miss Piggy with Richard Hunt. Once the writers and producers realized that Miss Piggy was more than just a one-joke character, and had more star potential than Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy became a major part of the Muppet cast, and Frank Oz performed her full-time.

In addition to performing these main characters, Oz also normally performed the hands of The Swedish Chef while Jim Henson performed the body and voice. During these sketches, Oz would often do someting unexpected with the hands, without telling Jim Henson beforehand. The Muppet Morsels quote Oz as saying that the best Swedish Chef sketches were unrehearsed.

In addition to performing, Frank Oz also wrote the songs "The Rhyming Song" and "Jamboree". He was also credited on The Muppet Show as a creative consultant.

Frank Oz and Jim Henson

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An Evening with Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

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Watching Jim's Ernie teasing Frank Oz's Bert and driving him to distraction was to witness unadulterated glee!
- Caroly Wilcox[10]

And so it was with the many characters on which the two collaborated. Together, Jim Henson and Frank Oz made such memorable pairings as Ernie and Bert, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, and the aforementioned Swedish Chef. Two other characters that Oz performed, Fozzie Bear and Grover, would play off Henson's Kermit the Frog on numerous occasions, and The Salesman was always trying to pull one over on poor Ernie. Other pairings of the team's characters include Rowlf and Fozzie. As in the case of Kermit and Miss Piggy, Henson's characters often became the victim of one of Oz's characters, and vice versa. For example, Kermit would become victim to Marvin Suggs in episode 506 of The Muppet Show, as well as Oz's character of Animal. The first time this occurred was in episode 110, when Animal beat on Kermit like a drum. The two also worked together during the early 1980s while co-directing and performing in The Dark Crystal.

Michael K. Frith says that Henson and Oz's work was inspiring:

I've always said, and I still believe, that we all basically rode on the coat tails of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. They were a comedy duo that is up there with Laurel and Hardy. I mean, they had that sense of timing, they had that sense of play between themselves, they had the ability to understand each others characters and play off them with their characters. [11]

Branching Out

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Stuart Freeborn, Frank Oz, and Jim Henson consult over the creation of Yoda.

In 1980, George Lucas contacted Henson about a puppet character he wanted for his next Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, a creature known as Yoda. Since Henson was pre-occupied, Oz was assigned as chief puppeteer and as creative consultant, while other Henson alumni worked on the fabrication. Oz had a great deal of creative input on the character, and was himself responsible for creating the character's trademark style of reversed grammar.

Oz has also been a frequent cameo player in the films of John Landis, in which he was often cast as a grizzled or surly official. This began with An American Werewolf in London and extended to The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Innocent Blood, and most recently, Blues Brothers 2000. As a voice actor outside of the Muppets and Yoda, he was heard as Fungus in the Pixar film Monsters, Inc. and the robot in Columbia Pictures' Zathura.

Directorial Career

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Oz and Henson (with SkekZok) at the New York premiere for The Dark Crystal.

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Frank Oz on the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Frank Oz made his directorial debut on Sesame Street when he directed the Number Three Ball Film segment. When production began on The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson decided to let Frank Oz co-direct the movie with him. According to an interview with Oz,

[Jim] said, 'Do you want to direct Dark Crystal with me?', and I said, 'Why?, I don't know how to direct. You could do it yourself. Why would you want me to direct with you?' He said, 'Because it would be better'. And that's all that mattered. He didn't care about the credit. He knew that he had some weaknesses and he knew that I had some strengths, and so we worked together that way. [12]

A few years later, Oz directed The Muppets Take Manhattan. According to Oz,

There was a script written by two other writers, and I said to Jim that I didn't think this was in the right direction. I may have been wrong about this, but the point is that Jim allowed me to rewrite it and I rewrote the script. [Then] he asked me to direct it. I was very grateful, and that was the first directing job I had really done on my own. [12]

After this, he directed his first non-Henson movie, Little Shop of Horrors, adapted from the Broadway play. In the 1987 interview with The Advertiser, Oz explained the empowering aspects of directing:

Five years ago I would have hemmed and hawed while talking to you... But you get raw, naked, savage power as a director and all of a sudden you talk a lot.

Following the film's success, Oz became an in-demand director, primarily of live action comedies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, and The Stepford Wives. In 2001, he directed his first drama, The Score, and in 2007, he directed his first independent film, Death at a Funeral.

Because of his career as a director, he became too busy to perform as often as he had previously. He would still perform a few days on Sesame Street every season, and would often find time to perform in major (and sometimes minor) Muppet productions, though the producers often had to work around his schedule (and in some instances, other puppeteers performed his characters on set and he looped the dialogue later. Such was the case during many of the filming days for Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space.)

Current Muppet Status

See also Why doesn't Frank Oz perform with the Muppets anymore?

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Oz on the set of Muppet Treasure Island.

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Oz demonstrates how puppeteering works at a 2011 appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Starting in the mid-1990s, after more than thirty years of Muppet performing, Oz began to transition himself away from his Muppet duties to focus on directing. He occasionally performs his characters on Sesame Street, but following Muppets from Space, his classic Muppet Show characters have been turned over to Eric Jacobson.

In a 2007 interview, Oz explained why he distanced himself from the Muppets:

There were a lot of reasons. One was that I was a dad, I have four kids. The reason was that I was constantly asked to do stuff. And also, I had done this for 30 years, and I had never wanted to be a puppeteer in the first place. I wanted to be a journalist, and really what I wanted to do was direct theatre and direct movies.

So it was a slow progression, working with Jim, but I felt limited. As an actor and a performer, you feel limited because you're not the source for the creation, and I wanted to be the source. I wanted to be the guy and show my view of the world. And if I screw it up, then I screw it up, but at least I tried.

And as a director, what you're really showing is you're showing the audience your view of the world. I don't know why, but I thought I say things a certain way, and I wanted to express myself. I've always enjoyed, more than anything else, bringing things to life, whether it be characters or actors in a scene or moments in movies. I've done so much with puppets, that I've wanted to work with actors.[13]

In a 2000 interview, Oz said,

I've made a policy over the last 15 years of not having any pictures with my characters and I, at all, in the same shot. That is because, as a director, I can walk on a film for 18 hours a day for a year -- work my ass off -- and people will see it and say "Ah, yeah, that's nice. That was a good film", Then they see one picture of me and one of my characters, and they go ape****. They'll freak out and say, "You do that character!" The power of the Muppets, and the popularity of these characters, is so iconic in people's lives, that I've had to distance myself from it publicly. [14]

In addition to not posing for pictures with his characters, Frank Oz also refuses to talk in his character voices on request. [15] His reasoning for this is that the characters are too special to him. For him, to do a voice on command is akin to performing a parlor trick, and that the character exists as much more than just a voice. Oz goes more into depth on this subject in The World of Jim Henson.

Oz recently did a rare in-person appearance on October 23, 2011 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, across the street from the Kaufman Astoria Studios where Sesame Street is currently taped. Interviewed by Craig Shemin, the seminar focused on his career both as a Muppet performer and director.

Muppeteer Credits

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Directoral Credits

Henson Projects

Non-Henson Films

Additional Credits

Trivia

Awards & Honors

1974

  • Daytime Emmy for Individual Achievement in Children's Programming for Sesame Street.

1976

  • Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming for Sesame Street.

1979

  • Daytime Emmy for Individual Achievement in Children's Programming for Sesame Street.

1999

See also

Sources

  1. "10 Questions: Frank Oz" IGN FilmForce by Kenneth Plume, January 23, 2002
  2. Reddy, Muriel. "The Wizardry of Oz." The Advertiser, March 19, 1987.
  3. Borgenicht, David Sesame Street Unpaved, 1998.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Plume, Ken. FilmForce Interview, part 1. February 10, 2000.
  5. Interview, The Merv Griffin Show, 1983.
  6. Borgenicht, David Sesame Street Unpaved, page 33
  7. panel at Brooklyn Public Library event, November 21, 2009
  8. Oz, Frank EW interview
  9. Tyler Bunch on Twitter. April 22, 2012.
  10. Jim Henson: The Works
  11. A Company of Players.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Plume, Ken. Film Force Interview, part 2. Febuary 10, 2000.
  13. Oz, Frank August 7, 2007 interview
  14. Plume, Ken. Film Force Interview, part 3. Febuary 10, 2000.
  15. Oz, Frank. Sesame Street at 40: A Night of Celebration with the Legendary Cast
  16. Sesame Street: A Celebration - 40 Years of Life on the Street, page 31

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