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Frank Oz

Frank Oz.

Frank Oz Cookie Monster

Oz w/ Cookie Monster.

Frank Oz Miss Piggy 1

Oz w/ Miss Piggy.

Frank Oz (born on May 25th, 1944 as Richard Frank Oznowicz), is 1 of the foremost Muppeteers in the whole Muppet business. He is Jim Henson's closest collaborator as well as his best friend. Oz & Henson, together, performed some of the Muppets' most famous teams -- Oz was the neat Bert to Henson's untidy Ernie, & Miss Piggy to Henson's Kermit the Frog. Oz, on Sesame Street, also performed Cookie Monster, Grover, & Lefty the Salesman; & on The Muppet Show, he performed some major characters like Fozzie Bear, Animal & Sam the Eagle, & also some minor characters, George the Janitor & Marvin Suggs. He also performed Uncle Hank, the uncle of Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street Stays Up Late!

Early Years

Richard "Frank" Oznowicz was born in England, spent parts of his childhood in Belgium, & moved to America when he was 5. The son of puppeteers Isadore "Mike" Oznowicz & his wife Frances, with 2 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 & please my parents. It was also safe to hide behind puppets because at that point I was a little shy.". 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."

Beginning w/ Henson

At age 17, Oz first met Jim Henson at the Puppeteers of America festival in California. His 1st impression of Henson was as "this very quiet, shy guy who did these absolutely ******* amazing puppets that were totally brand new & fresh, that had never been done before." At age 19, in 1963, he joined the burgeoning Muppets, Inc. as a right hand for Rowlf the Dog in variety appearances & 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.

He also worked on commercials, replacing Jim's wife, Jane Henson as key assistant. While Henson dubbed all the voices, he & Oz would alternate when performing such buddy duos as Scoop & Skip, & the new puppeteer assisted on such characters as the Southern Colonel & Nutty Bird. His most notable commercial role was as Delbert the La Choy Dragon. This was his 1st, & 1 of his very few, experiences, as a full-bodied puppet performer, & 1 which he didn't 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 & that was my job."

Sesame Street

Jim & Frank voicing Ernie & Bert

Frank & Jim Henson working together on an Ernie & Bert sketch.

Eventually, on Sesame Street, Frank Oz had originated the characters Cookie Monster, Grover, & Bert, & he performed them exclusively for nearly 30 years. During this time, he performed a great number of minor characters, including Lefty the Salesman, Prince Charming, & Harvey Kneeslapper. He was also offered the role of Big Bird, but cause of his experience as the La Choy Dragon, he turned the role down.

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.

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 4 days a year, performing nearly 15 sketches w/ his characters during those 4 days. As of 2006, he still tapes appearances during a limited schedule for new segments. He performed Grover in the 2006 direct-to-video production Elmo's Potty Time, & has performed in material produced for season 40. As of 2011, he is still taping appearances during a limited schedule for new segments, 1 day a year[1], most recently a handful of segments for season 42.

Middle Years

Between the beginning of Sesame Street & the start of The Muppet Show, Frank Oz performed in nearly every major Henson production, including The Great Santa Claus Switch, The Frog Prince, & The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. 1 of his most significant characters during this time was The Mighty Favog on SNL.

The Muppet Show

Frank Oz was 1 of the main performers on The Muppet Show, performing several of the show's stars. He performed Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, & Animal, & Sam the Eagle, & secondary characters George the Janitor, & Marvin Suggs.

Fozzie Bear was originally intended to be his main character, & Miss Piggy was originally meant to only be a supporting character. In fact, during the 1st few episodes of season 1, Oz shared the role of Miss Piggy w/ fellow Muppeteer, Richard Hunt. Once the writers & producers realized that Piggy was more than just a 1-joke character, & had more star potential than Fozzie, she became a major part of the Muppet cast, & 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 & voice. During these sketches, Oz would often do something unexpected with the hands, without telling Jim beforehand. The Muppet Morsels quote Oz as saying that the best Swedish Chef sketches were those that had gone unrehearsed.

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

Frank Oz & Jim Henson

Jim Henson Frank Oz 1

Oz & his very best friend, the late (but great) Jim Henson.

Jim Henson Frank Oz 2

Frank Oz & Jim Henson dressed up for the premiere party for the The Dark Crystal in New York.

"Watching Jim's Ernie teasing Frank Oz's Bert & driving him to distraction was to witness unadulterated glee!"
- Caroly Wilcox[2]

It was w/ many characters on which the 2 collaborated. Together Jim Henson & Frank Oz made such memorable pairings as Ernie & Bert, as well as Kermit the Frog & Miss Piggy, & the Swedish Chef. 3 other characters that Oz performed, Fozzie Bear, Grover & Cookie Monster, would play off of Kermit the Frog on numerous occasions, & there was also Lefty the Salesman, who tried to fool poor Ernie on several occasions. Other pairings of the team's characters include Rowlf the Dog & Fozzie Bear, along with Rowlf sometimes paired with Miss Piggy. Kermit also had to listen to another of Frank's characters, Sam the Eagle endlessly complain about the weirdness of what was shown normally on The Muppet Show. Also, when it came time for Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem to perform a number on a Muppet Show episode, Henson's Dr. Teeth & Oz's Animal were always positioned right next to each other on the bandstand, even after Jim died. Also, in episode 302, when guest star Leo Sayer had asked to meet Animal, Dr. Teeth brought Animal into Leo's dressing room so Animal could meet Leo. Also, in at least 2 clips of the At the Dance segment on The Muppet Show, Dr. Teeth was seen dancing w/ Mildred Huxtetter, a character Oz had voiced in that segment. As in the case of Kermit & Piggy, on several occasions, Henson's characters usually became victim to Oz's characters, &, occasionally, vice versa. For example, Kermit became Marvin Suggs' victim in episode 506 of The Muppet Show, as well as Animal. The 1st time this occurred was in episode 110, when Animal beat on Kermit like a drum to get him to forget about replacing Animal as the show's drummer. They also worked together in the early 1980s while co-directing/performing in The Dark Crystal. They also played the parents in the Twiddlebug family with Henson performing the father, Thomas Twiddlebug, & with Oz performing the mother, Tessie Twiddlebug. It can be seen clearly that Jim & Frank had been like brothers, like their primary characters of Sesame Street, Ernie & Bert, respectively, are today. At his Memorial Service, 5 short days after his death, Frank speaks of a Christmas gift Jim gave him, which he called "Bert in Self-Contemplation". He starts to cry but manages to say "That's when I knew, he loved me & I loved him."

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

I've always said, & I still believe, that we all basically rode on the coat tails of Jim Henson & Frank Oz. They were a comedy duo that is up there with Laurel & 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 & play off them with their characters.

Jim Henson/Frank Oz Muppet Pairings


Muppeteer veteran Steve Whitmire has been seen taking Henson's place in these 7 pairings he originally shared with Oz before his death:

Branching Out

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 & as creative consultant, while other Henson alumni worked on the fabrication. Oz had a great deal of creative input on the character, & 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 & extended to The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Innocent Blood, & most recently, Blues Brothers 2000. As a voice actor outside of the Muppets & Yoda, he was heard as Fungus in the Disney/Pixar film Monsters, Inc. & the robot in Columbia Pictures' Zathura.

Directorial Career

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?', & 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'. & that's all that mattered. He didn't care about the credit. He knew that he had some weaknesses & he knew that I had some strengths, & so we worked together that way. [4]

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

There was a script written by 2 other writers, & 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 & I rewrote the script. [Then] he asked me to direct it. I was very grateful, & that was the 1st directing job I had really done on my own. [4]

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 & hawed while talking to you... But you get raw, naked, savage power as a director & 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?, & The Stepford Wives. In 2001, he directed his first drama, The Score, & in 2007, he directed his first independent film, Death at a Funeral.

Due to his career as a director, Oz became too busy to perform as often as he had previously. He would still perform a few days on Sesame Street every season, & would often find time to perform in major (& sometimes minor) Muppet productions, though the producers often had to work around his schedule (& in some cases, other performers performed his characters & he looped the dialogue later).

Current Muppet Status

Starting in the mid-1990s, after 3+ decades of Muppet performing, Oz began to transition himself away from his Muppet duties to focus on directing. Immediately following Muppets from Space, all his main Muppet Show characters have been handed over to Eric Jacobson, who has also mostly taken over Bert & Grover, while David Rudman has become the new performer for Cookie Monster. Although, as David & Eric have once said, Oz usually comes in 4 or 5 times a year & will do a "Bert Day", "Grover Day", "Cookie Day", etc.

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

There were a lot of reasons. 1 was that I was a dad, I have 4 kids. The reason was that I was constantly asked to do stuff. & also, I had done this for 30 years, & I had never wanted to be a puppeteer in the 1st place. I wanted to be a journalist, & really what I wanted to do was direct theatre & 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, & I wanted to be the source. I wanted to be the guy and show my view of the world. & if I screw it up, then I screw it up, but at least I tried.

& 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.[5]

In a 2000 interview, Oz said,

I've made a policy over the last 15 years of not having any pictures with my characters & 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 -- & people will see it and say "Ah, yeah, that's nice. That was a good film", Then they see 1 picture of me & 1 of my characters, & they go ape****. They'll freak out & say, "You do that character!" The power of the Muppets, & the popularity of these characters, is so iconic in people's lives, that I've had to distance myself from it publicly. [6]

In addition to not posing for pictures with his characters, Frank Oz also refuses to talk in his character voices on request. [7] 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 & 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 23rd, 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 Muppeteer & director.

Evidently, Frank Oz was offered the chance to perform in The Muppets, despite the fact that as noted, he had retired from Muppet performing. In Fall 2011, when speaking of the early script of the then upcoming film, Oz was quoted in a UK article as saying:

I turned it down, I wasn’t happy with the script. I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss & hurt the movie.[8]

Oz stated in the same interview that:

Working with Jim & the Muppets was very exciting... I feel so deeply privileged to be part of it. But when you work for 30 years on something, you wanna do something else.[8]

Oz's quote about being dissatisfied with the movie's script was soon publicized, picked up by several U.S. websites & bloggers, combined with unsourced claims that some of the film's Muppet performers were also unhappy with the movie.[9] Since Oz's Muppet retirement in 2000 was relatively quiet, some of these authors were under the impression that his dislike of the early script was the reason for his departure from the Muppets, even though his true departure from performing with the Muppets was almost 10 years prior.

Muppeteer Credits

Predecessors/Successors

Trivia

Directoral Credits

Henson Projects

Non-Henson Films

Additional Credits

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

  • American Comedy Awards Creative Artist Award presented by John Cleese

Sources

  1. Oz, Frank EW interview
  2. Jim Henson: The Works
  3. at Disney World: Part 06 (1990)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Plume, Ken. Film Force Interview, part 2. February 10th, 2000.
  5. Oz, Frank August 7, 2007 interview
  6. Plume, Ken. Film Force Interview, part 3. Febuary 10, 2000.
  7. Oz, Frank. Sesame Street at 40: A Night of Celebration with the Legendary Cast
  8. 8.0 8.1 Metro
  9. The Hollywood Reporter

See also

Wikipedia has an article related to:

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