Frank Oz: Muppets, Monsters, and Movie-Making

Today we celebrate the universally beloved puppetmaster Frank Oz (Frank Oznowicz, b. 1944). What a magical and sly surname forshortening, eh? To imply a connection to that magical place with every utterance of your name? Very savvy move for a guy in the fantasy game.

Oz is a second generation pupeteer. He is the son of a Dutch-Polish-Jewish father and a Flemish mother, who fled the continent to England to escape the Nazis in 1944. The U.K. is where Frank was born. After the war, they moved to Belgium for five years, then Montana, and finally, Oakland, where as a teenager, Frank apprentinced as a puppeteer at Children’s Fairyland amusement park.

In 1963, Oz went to work for Jim Henson, where he was destined to become the most beloved Muppeteer after the man himself. My favorite of Oz’s creations are the ones which debuted on Sesame Street in 1969. To my mind, “Bert” of Ernie and Bert” towers above everything else as his greatest character. I’m sure I’m alone in that, but as a vaudeville aficionado I cherish that subtle work and its impeccable timing. He is one of the great straight men of all time, and he is a thing of felt. The character draws from Oliver Hardy, George Burns, Bud Abbott and many others, and above all, the elephant in the room, Oz himself. One senses Oz’s own personality the most in Bert: exasperated, controlling, uptight, but ultimately good hearted and repentant after he blows his cool. Next, Cookie Monster, equally a thing of genius, though less subtle, an unleashed id, yet a universal one, one that speaks to all children, for his obsession, his mania, is also theirs. What is more desirable to a small child than a cookie? And yet they are always expected to be patient, to say “no” to their own impulses. We all want to let loose and go crazy. I love also that he is sentient, and possesses speech, but at a sort of a primitive, toddler level. Among his Sesame Street characters, I would place Grover third. He is sweet and has a sort of catchy way of talking (notably lacking contractions) but is a little bit vague compared with the other two (though I do believe he paves the way for Yoda, who came along a decade later). At any rate, as you know, Sesame Street was an instant pop culture phenomenon — all of the characters, including Oz’s were suddenly everywhere throughout the culture, on television, on record albums, in children’s books, coloring books, toys, lunch boxes, etc etc etc. Oz continued as a Sesame Street regular as late as 2001, and did occasional work for the show through 2013. Others continue to play the parts he created.

In 1976 came The Muppet Show, giving Oz the opportunity to create an entirely new batch of characters. The most popular by far was the show biz diva Miss Piggy, a foil and love interest for Henson’s Kermit, simultaneously plus-sized and sexy in the tradition of everyone from Sophie Tucker to Bette Midler, her oversized personality demanding all the attention, with a volatile temperament to match. When there is a villain to be dispatched, her martial arts skills often save the day; she is the closest thing to an action hero the Muppets have. Fozzy Bear, the lovable hack comic, was naturally a favorite of mine, more funny and touching for his failure to be funny than for his purported comic material. Sam the Eagle was another of Oz’s Muppet characters, a disapproving conservative commentator in the tradition of Bert. (Bert and Ernie would have been so perfect on The Muppet Show as a comedy team, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that they weren’t part of the cast, since Kermit, also from Sesame Street, was. All I can think is that Henson wanted to distance this prime time show from its precedessor and make it clear that it wasn’t strictly for kids. But they would have fit the concept like a glove. They were straight-up vaudeville). Another Oz character on The Muppet Show was Animal, the rock drummer based on Keith Moon, who always seemed to be very similar to Cookie Monster — a loveable bringer of anarchy. The Muppet Show ran on television until 1981. Oz also played his characters on the big screen starting with The Muppet Movie (1979) and a series of sequels through 1999.

Things started to shift outside the Muppetverse for Oz starting in 1980. First, he created the character of the wise, aged Jedi master Yoda in the Star Wars films, a role he plays to this day. And he appeared on camera as a live action actor for the first time in The Blues Brothers. Director John Landis was subsequently to give him bit parts in An American Werewolf in London (1981), Trading Places (1983), Spies Like Us (1985) Innocent Blood (1992), and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). That voice! When I first heard it coming out of a human being, it was like God talking through the Burning Bush or something. It was a very weird rift in the time-space continuum. My wife had a similar reaction recently when she first saw Phil Harris acting in a live action screen role. She’d only known him from his Disney voice-overs!

At any rate, the ’80s were when Oz (and Henson for that matter) started to grow a post-Muppet footprint, even as the Muppets were still going strong. Henson and Oz always been interested in fantasy. Even before Star Wars, they did stuff like the strange alien creatures on the first season of Saturday Night Live. In 1982, Henson and Oz co-directed The Dark Crystal, and this is how Oz got his feet wet behind the camera in Hollywood. In 1986, Henson made Labrynth, though Oz only performed in that one. Oz then directed The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984, his first picture on his own. Then came the screen adaptation of the Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors (1986), a natural progression, for though this was not a Muppet project, there was a puppet (a large carnivorous monster plant) at its center. Steve Martin had a small but hilarious role in Little Shop. Oz was to direct Martin next in his first film with no puppets at all, the farce Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, with Michael Caine), followed by Housesitter (1992, with Goldie Hawn) and Bowfinger (1999, with Eddie Murphy). His other films include What About Bob? (1991, with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus), the children’s fantasy film The Indian in the Cupboard (1995, a major box office failure), and 1997’s In and Out, from a Paul Rudnick script, with Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck as a gay couple.

In the next decade, things shifted even more dramatically for Oz. He stopped doing the Muppet voices on a regular basis and made some other kinds of films. The Score (2001) was a heist movie starring Robert de Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, and, in his final screen performance, Marlon Brando. Then came the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, also from a script by Rudnick, with Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, and Mathew Broderick. In both of these films, Oz experienced personality conflicts with the stars; the latter film had scenes reshot with a new ending, and it lost money at the box office. Gee, can you think of any reason a puppetmaster might have run-ins with powerful stars and method actors? Brando had also clashed with Chaplin. Some actors don’t like being told precisely what to do. On top of that — well, that voice. If he’s your director in a comedy or a fantasy, fine. But in a drama, though it’s nobody’s fault precisely, it must be singularly weird to be ordered around by Fozzy Bear. Can you imagine THAT voice going “Come on, guys, simmer down, get serious”? It seems like an almost insurmountable hurdle.

Oz’s status seemed to alter as a result of the bad publicity surrounding The Stepford Wives. In 2007 he directed the English farce Death at a Funeral, which did quite well with both audiences and critics; it was remade just three years later by Neil LaBute, starring Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. Death at Funeral was Oz’s last major film. Since then, he has directed a 2011 episode of the TV show Leverage, and the stage (2016) and concert-film (2021) productions of magician Derek DelGuadio’s one-man show In and Of Itself. He also had a role in Rian Johnson’s brilliant Knives Out (2019). They had clearly met on The Last Jedi (2017), for, naturally, Oz has never stopped playing Yoda. He’s a comedy genius, though. I wish he’d give us some more of THAT, either before or behind the camera.

For more on the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,