Frank Oz is not interested in talking about Star Wars, so before you ask: No, he hasn’t seen “The Mandalorian,” so the voice of Yoda has no real opinion of its viral infant incarnation. “I have nothing to do with Baby Yoda,” the 75-year-old multi-hyphenate said in an interview this week. “But I heard it’s very cute, and I’m sure Disney has a whole plan for it.”
He tacked on a clarification: “I love doing Yoda. The only thing that bothers me is if people think that I only do Yoda. That’s not a good feeling.”
Indeed, Oz has lived many lives, including a versatile filmmaking career that includes “What About Bob?” and “Bowfinger,” but no legacy has stuck with him more than his work with Jim Henson. The Muppets gave Oz his break, and he never hesitates to celebrate that legacy, even if it means doing so without Disney’s blessing.
On Saturday, the man behind Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy joins the ranks of pop culture figures who have planned online reunions in recent weeks, as he and three other original Muppet performers — Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta — will gather for a virtual salute to Henson on the 30th anniversary of his death. (Register here for more details.) The event is a charitable effort that will encourage viewers to donate to medical workers, as well as an extension of “Muppet Guys Talking,” the 2017 documentary Oz directed about their decade-spanning collaborations as Muppeteers.
That story stretches from early commercials to “Sesame Street” to “The Muppet Show” and beyond. “We’ve talked a lot about Muppets and stuff, but not about Jim and his work specifically,” Oz said. “We knew him for so long. He was a very singular person and saw life from a very singular perspective. I think it influenced me because it showed me that working collaboratively can be joyful, without any sense of backbiting or jealousy. I know that sounds namby-pamby, but that’s what Jim instilled in us, so we could work like hell and enjoy it.”
Oz has a history of slagging Disney for failing to recapture Henson’s spirit in later Muppets efforts, citing its disinterest in the puppeteers. He remains skeptical of any change on that front. “It depends on if Disney trusts the performers, and to what degree they can relinquish control of creativity, and bring it back to the people who know it best,” Oz said. “Jim was underground. Without Jim’s spirit, there’s no reason to go on.”
That sentiment has been echoed by Oz’s peers. In “Muppet Guys Talking,” Goelz says he misses working for a company run by a single person who navigated the corporate culture that surrounded the Muppets as they gained popularity. “Jim was definitely a businessman,” Oz said, “but number one for him was always the purity of the work. It wasn’t a surprise to him that the Muppets became big, because he always wanted to do something larger for the world, but it’s not like he planned it that way. All his plans were about performing and bringing people together. It was never about popularity.”
Oz’s break as filmmaker also came from Henson, when he asked his colleague to co-direct “The Dark Crystal.” While Oz’s filmmaking career blossomed over the next decade, that dystopian fantasy became iconic in its own right. A few years ago, Oz turned down an offer from Netflix to have a hand in its prequel series, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” but has since caught up with the show. “I thought it was terrific,” he said. “I was so pleasantly surprised. I thought they did it with care, there was a lot of thought behind it, and they opened it up. I was very pleased. They did a great job.”
That’s high praise from a man with a history of criticizing the way Henson properties have evolved over the years. Oz said that while he and other Muppeteers have proposed official reunions in the past, “they’ve been rejected,” he said. “There’s not much we can do since we don’t own the characters.”
He produced “Muppet Guys Talking” (as well as Sunday’s fundraiser) independently from the studio, and resisted the idea of launching some new Muppets-like project with a different name. “It has to be the Muppets,” he said. “If we called it something else, it would still have the same spirit as Jim, and we couldn’t disguise it as something else. Look at all these shows that rip off the Muppets. Which of them have gained the popularity of the Muppets? They haven’t, and there are reasons for that. It comes from one man.”
However, Oz doesn’t surround himself with that legacy. He rejects offers to give public talks on puppeteering, and said he has never owned any puppets. “I never brought it home,” he said. “It’s never been about puppets to me; it’s been about characters we created — their purity.” Nevertheless, the Muppets often cast a shadow on Oz even as he ventured far beyond them. When he clashed with Marlon Brando on the set of 2001 heist movie “The Score,” rumors circulated that the actor referred to Oz as “Miss Piggy,” though the director doesn’t remember it that way. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “There’s so much bullshit about what Brando did and didn’t do on the set.”
However, it may be apocryphal. “I left to be a filmmaker in order not to be labeled,” he said. “If I started showing how Muppets were performed, I’d be labeled again. It’s odd, because I know people view me as a Muppet performer, but that doesn’t mean I have to view myself as only that.” Of course, the guy who directed “Muppet Guys Talking” has no problem revisiting the past. “I never resented it,” he said. “The only thing I felt after about 15 or 20 years of Muppets was that I wanted to get out in the marketplace. Jim was the one who gave me the opportunity.”
Still, he maintains a deep relationship to the characters. Asked to name a lesser-known Muppet that deserves more attention, he cited the exuberant crooner Johnny Fiama, but added that the team leaned into certain Muppet stars as they gained traction. “The characters will earn their own popularity,” Oz said. “If there’s something about them that the people want to see more about, they will. It’s kind of up to the work itself.”
That includes Fozzie Bear, the flailing and furry comic whom Oz describes as “desperately insecure” in his documentary. Given these anxiety-riddled times, the Muppeteer had some thoughts on how Fozzie would be coping with the pandemic. “Fozzie would want to be close to Kermit, because Kermit is his security,” Oz said. “With Kermit, he would want to find a way to be funny. That’s not altruistic for Fozzie. He’s not trying to make people feel better. He just wants to be a great comedian. But the main thing is that he would need to be with Kermit. He feels alone without Kermit.”
Oz has plenty to keep him busy these days. Shortly before the lockdown started, he put the finishing touches on “In and Of Itself,” the filmed version of the intimate magic show co-directed by Derek Delgaudio, which was originally slated to premiere at SXSW. The movie is seeking U.S. distribution. “We’re exploring the usual streaming services, which is all we can do right now,” he said. “But it’s just exploration at the moment.”
He praised Delgaudio, whose stage show includes an intimate engagement with audience members that makes one show lead into the next, for recapturing some of the collaborative spirit the filmmaker experienced with Henson. “By working together so well, we created something that came from Derek’s heart, but also a place that could touch the audience,” he said.
That’s a connection that Oz has been missing in recent weeks, as he remains in self-quarantine with his wife outside of New York. “It affects me most that I can’t hug people,” he said. “I can’t slap them on the back.” But he doesn’t regret it. “It’s a decision we’re making,” he said. “For this amount of time, we’ve got to be this far away from each other to protect each other. It will end. This is an intellectual decision and we have to commit to that.”
He wasn’t worried about his productivity as much. “I don’t lose any creativity from this,” he said. “But I do lose a sense of community.” That was part of the reason he felt compelled to organize Sunday’s charity. “I read about hospital workers dying,” he said. “It got to me that we don’t know all these hospital workers. They’re invisible people. I just want them to know that we care about them, and if we get some money for them, even better.”
The “Muppet Guys Talking” reunion conversation will be live-streamed on Saturday, May 16, at 4pm E.T. To register, go here.