Because he voiced and operated several of the most beloved Muppets - Cookie Monster, Bert, Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy - puppeteer Frank Oz firmly secured his place in pop culture history behind friend, mentor and Muppet creator Jim Henson. But always looking to branch out creatively, Oz moved into directing, starting with a co-helming effort alongside Henson on "The Dark Crystal" (1982), which led to a second career as a talented and success director of primarily comedies. Though he stayed within the Muppet universe for his second film, "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984), Oz branched out on his own to direct two hits, "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986) and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988). Meanwhile, he teamed with George Lucas to bring to life the mystical Jedi master, Yoda, for "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "The Return of the Jedi" (1983), creating perhaps one of the most memorable characters within the "Star Wars" universe. After losing friend and collaborator Jim Henson to pneumonia in 1990, Oz nonetheless maintained his legacy by performing his Muppet characters on a variety of television specials, guest appearances and throughout the long run of "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ). Though he often had cameo roles in several John Landis like "The Blues Brothers" (1980) and "Trading Places" (1983), Oz preferred staying behind the cameras to direct eclectic fare like the Hollywood satire "Bowfinger" (1999), the heist thriller "The Score" (2001) and the black comedy, "Death at a Funeral" (2007), underscoring his unique ability to wear many hats.
Born Richard Frank Oznowicz on May 25, 1944 in Hereford, England, Oz was raised by his father, Isidore, and his mother, Frances, both of whom were puppeteers; in fact, his father once was president of the Puppeteers of America. As Holocaust refugees following their escape from the Nazis during World War II, his parents first landed in England, before relocating to Belgium when Oz was just six months old. When he was five, the family moved to the United States and lived in Montana before finally settling in Oakland, CA. By the age of 12, he was performing with his family at a local amusement park, though he later stated his ambition at the time was to become a journalist, not to follow in his parents' footsteps. After graduating from Oakland Technical High School, Oz went to Oakland City College, where he studied journalism only to soon be pulled back into puppetry when he encountered Jim Henson in the early 1960s. The pair began their long, storied collaboration after meeting at a Puppeteers of America convention in California - Oz was blown away by Henson's creations, the Muppets - then unknown - and so began working for his company, Muppets, Inc., when he was just 19 years old.
As a puppeteer and performer, Oz had plenty of work with Henson, though in the beginning he was dressing up in costumes for milk and toilet paper commercials. He hated the work, but soldiered on out of his love for Henson. While paying the bills doing commercials for products like Purina Dog Food and LaChoy Chinese foods, they made guest appearances on "The Jimmy Dean Show" (ABC, 1963-69) as Rowlf the Dog, who was the host's regular sidekick while becoming the first Muppet to rise to national prominence. It was on "The Jimmy Dean Show" that Oz acquired his stage name when the host was unable to pronounce his full given name during a live broadcast. Meanwhile, Oz assisted Henson in the creation of some of his most memorable characters for the educational series, "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ), including Cookie Monster, Grover and Bert, as well as countless minor characters. He worked on the series from its inception all the way into the 21st century, including the countless "Sesame Street" special programs and feature films, including the feature "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird" (1985), "The Adventures of Super Grover" (1987), and the charming all-star TV special "Put Down The Duckie: A Sesame Street Special" (1988). In 1979, Oz shared a Daytime Emmy Award with Henson and other Muppet performers for his efforts.
Oz, Henson and the rest of the Muppet crew enjoyed a brief stint on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) during its debut season, with Oz voicing The Mighty Favog, a grouchy stone idol that took its name from the clock in the green room at "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971). The Henson puppeteers gave the clock that name as a playful way of praying that the show did not run too long and deny them airtime. The Not-Ready-for-Primetime-Players, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Chevy Chase, made no bones about the Muppets taking away from their sketch comedy time, though producer Lorne Michaels fired the puppets after learning that viewers were less enthralled with the puppets and more interested in his stock players' cutting edge sketches. Soon, the puppets were fired from 30 Rockefeller Plaza. In 1976, Oz joined Henson as one of the principal performers on "The Muppet Show" (syndicated, 1976-1981), where he created another set of enduring characters like Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Animal, Sam the Eagle and the Swedish Chef, who was performed with Oz's real hands exposed.
Miss Piggy was initially a supporting character, but the show's writers and producers soon discovered her "star" potential and she soon became the second most popular Muppet behind Henson's Kermit the Frog. Oz originally performed the character with regular puppeteer Richard Hunt, but took over the duties himself during the show's second season. Oz handled his characters in all of the subsequent Muppet film and television projects, including the highly successful "The Muppet Movie" (1979), "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981), "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984), "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992) and "Muppets in Space" (1999). He also provided voices and puppet work in many non-"Muppet," Henson-produced projects, including "Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas" (1977) and "The Dark Crystal" (1982), Henson's ambitious theatrical fantasy film. For their efforts on "The Muppet Show," Oz and the rest of the Henson team was nominated five times for an Emmy, taking home the trophy for Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Program in 1978.
In a turn of fortune, George Lucas approached Henson in 1979 to create a puppet character for the much anticipated sequel to "Star Wars" (1977), "The Empire Strikes Back." But Henson was too busy with "The Muppet Show" and preparations for "The Dark Crystal" that Oz was instead tapped to give voice a wizened creature named Yoda, who trains Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to become a Jedi on the murky planet of Dagobah. Oz had a great deal of involvement in the character's development, including his signature backwards speech patterns, and watched as his creation became one of the breakout stars of the film. In fact, Lucas loved his performance so much that he lobbied for Oz to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oz reprised his role operating and voicing Yoda in "Return of the Jedi" (1983). It was during this period that Oz began branching out into other areas, namely appearing onscreen as himself in several John Landis films while taking several turns in the director's chair himself. He made his first feature appearance as a corrections officer who returns personal items to Jake Blues (John Belushi), including "One unused prophylactic, one soiled," in "The Blues Brothers" (1980).
After performing his more famous characters for "The Great Muppet Caper," Oz voiced Miss Piggy for Landis' horror comedy, "An American Werewolf in London" (1981). Meanwhile, his directorial career was launched when Henson asked him to help direct "The Dark Crystal" (1982), a Tolkienesque children's fantasy about two Geflings trying to heal the mysterious Dark Crystal in order to save the world. He found the experience to be so positive that he was game to helm the third Muppet film, "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984), which he also rewrote. Following appearances as a corrupt cop in Landis' "Trading Places" (1983) and a test monitor in the goofy "Spies Like Us" (1985), Oz directed the feature version of the popular Broadway musical, "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986), which marked his first film project outside the Henson camp and inevitably led to other offers for live action projects. Oz followed with "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988), a crime comedy starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as con men who target wealthy women gullible enough to fall into their good graces. Once again, Oz generated a hit film that further amplified demand for his directing services.
But what should have been a sweet moment in time for a man often viewed as copilot to Henson throughout their long and affectionate partnership, became an incalculable loss when his business partner and friend died unexpectedly from pneumonia in 1990. Devastated by the loss of Henson, Oz and the rest of the Muppet world found themselves suddenly without their creative and spiritual leader. Recovering from the shocking death, Oz continued on by directing "What About Bob?" (1991), starring Bill Murray as a clawing mental patient who ingratiates himself into the life of his egotistical psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss). He next directed "HouseSitter" (1992) with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. Both comedies were moderate hits at the box office. Following his debut as an executive producer on "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992), directed by Henson's son Brian, Oz fared less well with audiences with his inventive children's fantasy "The Indian in the Cupboard" (1995), which focused on a young Brooklyn boy (Hal Scardino) who receives a mysterious wooden cabinet as a gift that brings all his toys to life. Moving back to television, he was both a performer and executive consultant on "Muppets Tonight" (ABC, 1996), a short-lived variety show centered around the goings-on of the fictitious television station, KMUP.
Oz rebounded with the smart comedy "In and Out" (1997), which starred Kevin Kline as a high school English teacher who may or may not be gay and which earned an Oscar nomination for co-star Joan Cusack. After a cameo as a prison warden in John Landis' misguided sequel, "Blues Brothers 2000" (1998), Oz directed "Bowfinger" (1999), an odd showbiz comedy that starred Steve Martin as a struggling director who manages to film his movie with a leading action star (Eddie Murphy) despite the star being unaware the cameras are rolling. Then after years of speculation and rumors, George Lucas made the first three episodes of his "Star Wars" franchise, starting with "The Phantom Menace" (1999). This time, however, Yoda appeared as a CGI creation, not a puppet. But Oz did reprise his vocal duties for the character, who with this series, had a much more prominent role in the story. He also voiced Yoda for the two hugely successful follow-ups, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (2005).
Oz continued to branch out into unchartered waters, directing his first heist thriller, "The Score" (2001), led by a powerhouse cast that included Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett. But the shoot was plagued by problems, due mainly to the notoriously difficult Brando and his unwillingness to be directed by Oz. Things were so bad, in fact that De Niro was forced to act as an intermediary between director and actor, who referred to deridingly to Oz as "Miss Piggy." Despite reports of on-set tension, the film opened to positive reviews and a modest take at the box office. Following voiceover work as Fungus for "Monsters, Inc." (2001), Oz directed the remake of "The Stepford Wives" (2004). Though full of snappy one-liners, the movie took a turn from the comic toward straightforward thriller territory, which left audiences and critics confused. Even worse, "Stepford Wives" flopped at the box office despite high-end talent like Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close onscreen. After voicing Robot for the live-action children's fantasy "Zathura" (2005), Oz took a surprising turn to direct the British-made black comedy "Death at a Funeral" (2007), which focused on a dysfunctional family gathered for their patriarch's funeral, only to be blackmailed by a gay dwarf (Peter Dinklage) claiming to be the dead man's lover. The film was remade with a nearly all-black cast by director Neil LaBute in 2010. Meanwhile, Oz never lost touch with his Muppet beginnings, as he continued performing the beloved characters for "Muppet Show" specials and on the long-running "Sesame Street," though he did turn down an opportunity to participate in the latest movie, "The Muppets" (2011), over issues with the script and his perception that the filmmakers did not respect the characters.
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Recruited by Jim Henson at a West Coast convention of puppeteers
First notable collaboration with Jim Henson, "Sesame Street" (PBS)
Created many voices for the syndicated series "The Muppet Show"
First feature was Jim Henson's "The Muppet Movie"; credited for voices, as a song performer and as creative consultant
Made his feature acting debut as a corrections officer in John Landis' "The Blues Brothers"
Performed the voice and puppet for Yoda in George Lucas' "The Empire Strikes Back"
First feature as producer, "The Great Muppet Caper"
Feature directing debut, co-directed (with Jim Henson) "The Dark Crystal"
Once again voiced Yoda for "Return of the Jedi"
Had a small role as a cop in John Landis' "Trading Places"
First screenplay credit and solo directorial debut, "The Muppets Take Manhattan"; also puppeteer and voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal
First non-Muppet feature directing assignment, "Little Shop of Horrors"
Voiced characters from the movie "Labyrinth," starring David Bowie; was directed by Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas
Directed "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine
Contributed Muppet characters to the short-lived NBC series "The Jim Henson Hour"
Helmed the comedy "What About Bob?" starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss
Debut as executive producer, "The Muppet Christmas Carol"
Signed a two-year deal with Limelight Entertainment to direct commercials
Directed "The Indian in the Cupboard," based on the children's book of the same name
Executive produced and performed in "Muppet Treasure Island," which was directed by Henson's son Brian
Puppeteer and provided voice characterizations for ABC's short-lived "Muppets Tonight!"
Directed the comedy "In & Out," starring Kevin Kline
Reprised his role as a corrections officer for John Landis' "Blues Brothers 2000"
Once again operated the Yoda puppet and provided his voice for the "Star Wars" prequel "Episode I - The Phantom Menace"
Directed the drama "The Score," starring Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton
Reprised role of Yoda in "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"
Directed Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick in the remake of Bryan Forbes' 1975 cult classic "The Stepford Wives"
Once again voiced Yoda in "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," the final film of the Star Wars saga
Helmed the British black comedy "Death at a Funeral"