The wizardry of Oz
Frank Oz may be known as the voice of various Muppet characters, but he is also a hit film director. He talks to Stephen Applebaum
FRANK OZ’S face may not be familiar, but his voice certainly is to millions of television viewers and cinema-goers. He it was who voiced Miss Piggy, the Cookie Monster and a whole gallery of memorable Muppet characters during the 1970s. He also provided the vocal chords for Luke Skywalker’s mystical alien guru, Yoda, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. And just in case that was not enough to cement his place in the popular-culture pantheon, he went on to direct some of the biggest film comedies of the ’80s and ’90s — including Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, HouseSitter, In & Out, Bowfinger, as well as Marlon Brando’s last film, The Score.
Not bad for an immigrant to America who grew up not speaking English and never had any ambitions to get into showbusiness. His career started only because his interest in puppetry attracted the attention of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson, who asked the then 19-year-old Oz to come and work with him in New York.
Henson became Oz’s friend and mentor and sparked his movie-making career when they collaborated on the ambitious puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal (1982). The film was a massive undertaking, Oz recalls, and would cost around $200 million to make today. “The truth is, I didn’t direct that movie, Jim did,” he says modestly. “It was all his vision. For me it was an amazing trial by fire.”
Oz survived and went on to direct his string of hits. For years, his track record was impeccable — and then he went and remade the low-budget 1970s satire The Stepford Wives as a $90 million special-effects extravaganza starring Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler. The 2004 movie was too big, too broad and too brash for most people. The reviews were terrible and the film bombed. Oz was crushed.
“I’ve always trusted my own instincts, and every movie, whether you like it or not, that’s my movie,” he says. “ Stepford is something that got so expensive I felt responsible to listen to other people, and it swayed my vision.”
Growing from “a very self-deprecating child with low self-esteem” into someone who followed his own gut-feelings had taken Oz a long time. The failure of Stepford caused him to lose confidence in himself again. “I went back to my acting teacher for coaching, and to try to get back to the purity of what I loved,” says the 63-year-old candidly. “My confidence didn’t return immediately, though. I came back and it grew by taking a chance.”
He is talking about Death at a Funeral — a low-budget, back-to-basics farce he made in British with a mainly home-grown cast, which is released in the UK this week. There are no big computer effects or huge locations; just actors, a director, a camera, and a witty script by Londoner Dean Craig.
“Whatever anybody thinks about this film, it’s not a combination of me and the studio and the producer — everything is me. Every decision made behind every frame is me. Like I said to my agent when I was editing: ‘If it’s a piece of s***, it’s my piece of s***’.”
In the event, strong reviews from America and some audience awards from festivals should ensure that there is life after Death for Oz. “It feels terrific to know you took a big chance and people seem to like what you like,” he smiles, obviously relieved. “It’s a really good feeling.”
Despite being made by an American, Death at a Funeral is quintessentially British. But then Oz has ties here. He worked in the UK for nine years, and was, in fact, born in Hereford.
His Jewish father, Isidore Oznowicz, came from Amsterdam and fought in the Dutch Brigades in the Second World War. Frances, his Catholic mother (“she was pushed into the religion and gave it up”), hailed from Bruges in Belgium. Although they were not religious people, Oz remembers having an orthodox Uncle Abraham in Amsterdam.
“He was, like, six foot four, which is probably where I get my height from,” he chuckles. “So on my father’s side a lot of the Jewish culture was strong, and a lot of his relatives went to the camps. But even though he didn’t practise, obviously just being a Jew was enough and he had to run like hell.”
Oz’s parents became refugees and headed for Britain via North Africa and Gibraltar. “There was only one ticket out of Morocco, so my mother used that,” says Oz. “There was some story about dressing her as a boy. Later, my father went to England to make sure she was safe, and then went back to the Dutch Brigades.”
Six months after Oz was born, his parents moved the family back to their home in Antwerp. There, his father dug up a puppet of Hitler that he had buried. “Puppetry was their hobby,” says Oz. “They weren’t professionals, and when the Nazis invaded they had to make sure the Hitler puppet was hidden, because they didn’t want them to see them making fun of him.”
In 1951 the family emigrated to America, beginning what Oz describes as a “typical immigrant story” involving living in a “shack” in Montana and his father “working like hell” to improve their situation.
His upbringing has given him an appreciation for the underdog, he says. “Where people might see immigrants and say: ‘Get out of here’, I see immigrants and see us. My sister was born in the United States [he also has a brother who was born in Wolverhampton] but I remember not speaking the language and being ashamed of that, and then wanting to be American.”
When Oz took up puppetry at the age of 11, it was partly because he discovered that he could use them to express sides of himself he was scared of revealing. “You’re not rejected, the puppet is, so there’s one wall between you,” he explains. But mostly, he says: “I think I wanted to please my parents.”
He never dreamed of becoming a professional puppeteer, or even a film-maker. As a teenager, he thought he wanted to be a journalist. “But really what I wanted to do was direct theatre — I was just too scared to admit it to myself. But then when I was 19, Jim [Henson] asked me to come to New York to work part-time for him, and it just ended up being forever.”
It could have been a lot shorter. Because of his then low self-esteem, Oz says it took four years before he dared to do any voices. “I guess people would say: ‘Oh, Frank Oz, he’s got it made. He knows how to do it like that’,” he says, snapping his fingers. “But I didn’t think very much of myself and Jim was about ready to give up on me because I was too frightened — until he forced me into it.”
Henson died unexpectedly of bacterial pneumonia in 1990, aged 53. The loss of his friend has made Oz determined to make the most of the time he has in his own career. “I’m frightened of not being here and not doing the things I wanted to do. I’m at the beginning of a new phase and there’s many things I still want to do, many projects — theatre, movies, a suspense thriller. I’ve not done one of those yet.”
Frank Oz has directed a string of film hits, but it is as the voice of Miss Piggy ( left) and Star Wars’ Yoda that he may be best remembered