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Frank Oz speaks — but not as Yoda or Miss Piggy

The Muppet puppeteer and movie director heads to Los Angeles to accept a lifetime achievement Saturn Award.

July 26, 2012|By Danielle Paquette, Los Angeles Times
  • Frank Oz is a film director, actor, voice actor and puppeteer who is known for creating Muppets Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear.
Frank Oz is a film director, actor, voice actor and puppeteer who is known… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

A word to the wise, Frank Oz fans: He won't do that Yoda impression.

The 68-year-old Hollywood Renaissance man — Muppet puppeteer, movie director and the voice behind the pint-sized Jedi master — holds his characters too sacred for such tripe.

"You wouldn't parade your kids around like that, would you?" he said. "They're part of me. I won't use them as a party favor to impress people."

Oz, who currently resides in Manhattan, will return to Los Angeles on Thursday to accept a lifetime achievement honor at the 38th Saturn Awards (which, for the sci-fi un-savvy, is a sort of Oscars for the horror and fantasy genre, presented annually by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films).

He'll don a crisp black suit, walk down a red carpet with his wife, Victoria Labalme, visit his three sons (who live in and near Hollywood) and stay at the Four Seasons — the same L.A. hotel he has booked for decades, his "second home."

Still, this trip west is a little uncomfortable for Oz. He is honored, delighted even, to be recognized for a well-known and highly acclaimed body of work spanning five decades. But, he explains: "When I first found out, I said, I'm too young for this. It's strange to accept an award for a 'lifetime' of work. I'm too young to have had a lifetime. I feel like I have so much more to do."

Oz launched his career as a teenager, working at a puppetry theater in Oakland after his parents, Isidore and Frances Oznowicz, relocated from England. At 17, he met his greatest mentor, Jim Henson, who hired him two years later.

The rest is Muppet history.

"I learned a huge, huge amount from Jim," Oz said, recalling his years on the sets of "Sesame Street"and "The Muppet Show." "I learned how to film from him, how to direct. We were like brothers working with each other."

After nearly 10 years, Oz started "owning" principal characters, crafting distinct personalities for America's most beloved fuzzy figures. Miss Piggy, Bert (of "Bert and Ernie" fame), Animal and the Cookie Monster top his all-star roster.

"I can't tell you where I got Miss Piggy," he said. "She's so incredibly layered. It's an organic process, I think. Experiences from my own life filtered into my comedic vision. Animal came from mud in my soul."

Henson, who died in 1990, was always supportive, Oz said. "My fondest memories are the hundreds and hundreds of Bert and Ernies with Jim. Years of joy."

When Oz took on the role of Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back,"Henson offered advice. He shared puppet technology with George Lucas and weighed in on the sage creature's inverted speech.

The"Star Wars"set, the creative chemistry, bred magic. "With Yoda, it was right away — I picked him up and immediately knew who he was," Oz said. "I have no idea why."

Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, found the perfect costar in Yoda.

"Frank is an absolute genius," said Hamill, adding that he'd received "encouraging telegrams" from Oz on movie sets. "At first, I was intimidated to act with a puppet. I wasn't sure how it would work. But Frank made me so comfortable. He really brought Yoda to life. It was much more impressive than any computer-generated effect."

Hamill, eight years Oz's junior, said he looked up to the puppeteer: "He has a great heart and is, obviously, hysterically funny. I learned a lot from Frank."

Most recently, Oz veered into the digital realm, lending vocals to the bright red, bean-shaped Mr. Fungus in Pixar's upcoming film "Monsters University." The sequel to the mega-hit"Monsters, Inc." will hit theaters next summer.

danielle.paquette@latimes.com

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