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vol 3 - issue 07 (mar 2001) :: interviews
FRANK OZ
interview by insane wayne chinsang
illustration by debbie

THE MOST SENSATIONAL, INSPIRATIONAL, CELEBRATIONAL, MUPPETATIONAL: THIS IS WHAT WE CALL FRANK OZ.

wayne: Did you always want to entertain people?

Frank: It wasnít as altruistic as wanting to entertain. It wasnít a dream of entertaining a lot of people and making them happy. It was just a way to express myself as a kid. Also, it was to please my parents because it was their hobby. It was also a way to make money. I had my first show in front of a supermarket when I was eleven-years-old and I made $25. During birthday parties or Christmas parties I would make $25, $35, sometimes even $45 for fifteen minutes to a half-hour of entertaining. Those were the real reasons; not to entertain or make people laugh. Iím not that good a guy.

w: How else did you pass the time as a child?

F: The usual things. Iíd think about girls and sports. I was a shy kid, a self-deprecating kid. I used characters and the puppets to express myself because I had low self-esteem. So that was a nice way to push parts of myself out. It was therapy in a way, looking back on it.

w: Do you think that the fact that you can detach yourself from it is what makes it therapeutic?

F: I think there are many reasons for doing it. Not everybody uses the puppets for that reason. I use it partly for that reason, but also it was a safe expression of myself without putting myself on the line. Other people do it for healthier reasons. They see it as a wonderful art and craft.

w: Youíve given life to some of the most well known characters of our time. What character do you enjoy doing the most and which character is most like Frank Oz?

F: It depends on how I wake up in the morning. There are aspects of me in every character. Just like there are aspects of Jim (Henson) in every character. But itís exaggerated and filtered through our comedy and professional filter to make it a character. Iím all of them, really. I think Grover is the easiest to do. It seems to come to me more organically. Heís the one Iíd pick if I had to pick one.

w: What puppet has been the most difficult to control?

F: Theyíre all hard. But the heavier ones are the harder ones. Piggy is certainly hard, but thatís just part of the job. I donít even think about it. Sheís also hard because I have to reach down into the feminine part of myself and bring that up. Itís not just the surface with her. There are a lot of neuroses in her. So I have to come from a different place with Piggy.

w: What I find to be most timeless about the Muppets is that children and adults can enjoy it. Having grown up with these characters, I find myself disliking what is being made for children nowadays. It seems as if everything is watered down. How do you feel about childrenís programming today versus that of the likes of The Muppet Show?

F: Well, the Muppets and The Muppet Show are two different things to compare. Because on one hand, weíve done Sesame Street for so many years purely for children. But the other stuff we havenít done for children; weíve done it for ourselves, like The Muppet Show. So Iím not a childrenís television expert. Iím just another viewer with kids. I donít even really watch childrenís television shows. The ones I happen to come across seem as if theyíre talking down to kids a little bit. And I know thatís not something we used to do. I donít want to attack anybody but I think some of the shows Iíve scanned through are a little soft and appealing to children the way parents would like to see children; their dreamlike child. But there is more going on in kids these days than parents think.

w: In the '90s, Muppets Tonight was made, but it was rather short-lived. Why the short lifespan and are there any plans for another Muppet-based show anytime soon?

F: Yeah. There are plans. Muppets Tonight just didnít work. There were some terrific things in there and we had a wonderful time doing it, but it didnít gel. Partly because we tried to use some old ideas with new ones when we just should have stuck with new ideas. And yes, there is talk in the Muppets about trying to get another show together with a fresher and newer approach, as opposed to leaning back on some of the characters we had before.

w: The country seems to be going crazy with the new presidency and the looming recession. Are these issues that you are concerned about?

F: Well, sure itís important to me. But I donít think about it much. I just try and be the best human being and dad I can be. All we can do is be the best citizens we can be. I canít do anything about the recession or the presidency. Iíll just do whatever I can to raise my kids the right way.

w: Is there anything you havenít done, like parachuting out of a plane or reading a certain book, that youíd like to do?

F: Yeah. Iíd like to read a book sometime. Iíve never read a book before. (laughs) Thatíd be an adventure. I understand they have pages and everything. Yeah, Iíve got to do that sometime.

w: I hear that some of the pages have pictures on them.

F: (laughs) That makes it easier for me. Well, professionally Iíd like to direct some theatre. Iíve directed some already but Iíd like to do more. The movies just organically worked because of Jimís support, but theatre directing is something Iím interested in. Traveling with my family is also important, and Iíd like to get healthy. You know, the old New Yearís resolution thing where you always say youíll work out, but you donít. Iím pretty satisfied, as long as my children and wife are happy. Iím not looking to be a big company man or to parachute. Iím not looking to look death in face. Iím fine looking life in the face. Iím pretty boring.

w: How does directing a movie like Little Shop of Horrors or In & Out differ from directing a Muppet movie?

F: The language of moviemaking is different. Iím not saying this to be funny, but the fact that the Muppets have no legs causes you to shoot it differently. You cannot have a wide master shot, itís just impossible. So itís the toughest shooting you can do. Itís almost like animation, where youíve got to design every shot and put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. You canít rely on coverage and then put it together in editing. Youíve got 30 monitors and all this cable. Youíre sweating. Itís a lot of physical labor, but a lot of comradery, too. Also, there is an energy difference, too. With the Muppets itís more of a punchy energy. With human beings itís more naturalistic.

w: Do you have any phobias?

F: Yeah. Interviews. (laughs) No, Iím fine with interviews. I know itís not a very unique fear, but I donít want to die. Iím a little scared of flying but not that much anymore. Itís just something youíve got to do.

w: Can you give any advice to someone who is terrified of flying and has to take a flight this coming September?

F: Yeah. All I can think of is that the pilot must have children, too. So they must know what theyíre doing. Thatís all I think about. You just hope that they really love their children and that theyíre not having marital problems.

w: In your amateur opinion, do dogs have lips?

F: Yes, but you canít see them. Theyíre internal lips. They will show them to other dogs, but you will never see them.

w: What do you read and listen to?

F: Iím really eclectic as far as reading goes. As far as music goes? I was a weird kid. I shouldíve been gay because I listened to a lot of Broadway musicals. I donít know why Iím not gay. I listen to a lot of jazz and world music, like African or Cuban music. Something that has vitality to it. A lot of the American stuff just feeds on itself.

w: Do you like Fela Kuti?

F: Yeah, I do. There is some great stuff out there that no one knows about. Extraordinary stuff with great vitality.

w: Favorite meal to sit down to and favorite drink to accompany it?

F: I have a particular drink that any real man should be embarrassed to order.

w: Does this go back to the gay thing?

F: Yeah, this is the gay thing. I did In & Out, which I am very proud of, and the producer said I shouldíve been gay. I like all the things gay men like. But I have a ďGirls Who LunchĒ drink as my favorite drink: a Cosmopolitan. Theyíre delicious. So I try to order it with a very deep voice. As far as food goes, Iím pretty easy. I love Japanese food. I love meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I love spaghetti. Iím easy.

w: What kind of accessories would a Frank Oz action figure come with?

F: Oh, just an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and a purse. (laughs) I donít know. Certainly no hair. And, ahh,.. (pauses) Are you sure youíre not Barbara Walters? (laughs)

w: Not the last time I checked.

F: (laughs) Itís a provocative question, but I think that very few of us can see ourselves as others see us. I donít step outside of myself and look at myself, so I donít know how to answer that.

w: The dynamic that you and Jim Henson had seemed to be amazing; the chemistry never seemed to break. What was working side by side with him like?

F: It was a silent language. At that time I was a guy growing up with a lot of conflicts inside of me. Jim didnít have that. He was at peace. There was a great peacefulness with Jim. So we worked off each other very well. We were both only interested in one thing, which was the work. But I guess no matter how much you say it, there is still that mystery of how people work together so well. Part of it was Jimís extraordinary generosity in working with people. But when we got together and did our characters, it was very fluid with us. We had a great time.

w: My parents say they remember what they were doing when they heard Kennedy had been shot. I remember what I was doing when I heard that Jim had died.

F: Yeah, working with the man I always knew what a significant human being he was, but I didnít know how important he was to people. I remember (at his funeral) the whole Riverside church was filled and then there were people outside the church looking at monitors to see what was going on inside. It was pretty amazing. It was a powerful, powerful ceremony. I realized what Jimís work represented to people. I was with Jim for 30-odd years and,.. (pauses)... thereís just not much else to say.

w: Iím sure people come up to you all of the time and ask you to perform a character. Which character gets the most requests?

F: Piggy, usually. Or Yoda. But I donít do it. Itís just like asking Paul Simon on the street, "Hey, Paul. Could you sing 'Kodachrome' for me?" Itís just odd and it stops you as a human being. Thereís no more talk after that. Youíre no longer a human being. Youíre like a fence post being used to tie a horse to or something. Youíre just an entity. Thereís no humanity.

w: Youíve lived in both America and England. How are these two places different and which one do you prefer?

F: We had a great time over there. It was like a second home. My wife (at that time she was my girlfriend) and I lived there for nine years. We have friends there. We just love it. We were even thinking of moving to London again, but we realized we were Americans at heart. In the long run, weíre all just human beings and you make your life what it is.

w: Whatís next for Frank Oz?

F: The next thing is a rest. I just finished editing a film and that should be out between July and October.

w: Whatís the name of it?

F: The Score. Itís a drama. I had planned on taking a rest to be with my kids and my wife anyway, but it looks like the strike is going to force that along.

w: Is there any end to the strike in sight?

F: All we have are rumors, but the rumors donít sound good.

w: When everything is said and done, what do you want to be remembered for?

F: Being a good dad. I think thatís the most important thing: being a good husband and father.

w: Thatís a much better answer than a business-oriented one. Iíve always said that the only reason we exist is to make more people so that they can exist.

F: Thatís what itís all about. Being a good dad. Or should I say, "Being a good dad, and hoping my pilot sells." (laughing) Is that what I should say?

w: (laughing) Yeah. Thatís a good way to end it.


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