I first met Frank Oz on the set of Muppets From Space, in January of 1999. We got on quite well, and made plans to do an in-depth interview sometime in the near future.
Towards the end of the year, our schedules finally met in the middle, and we had quite a long conversation, marked by Oz’s complete candor about his time with the Muppets, his move into directing, and much more. I also learned that Frank Oz swore.
Like a sailor.
It was an endearing verbal affectation that sticks out in my memory to this day. Here was an iconic performer who brought to life a fair chunk of my childhood - Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Animal, Grover - and he cussed. A lot.
From the vaults, I present to you my chat with Frank Oz…
KEN PLUME: You were born in England. When did your parents move to the States? Why did they?
FRANK OZ: I was born in Hereford, England in 1944. We moved when they had an opportunity to get a visa, about 1950. My Dad always thought Europe was a bit too small for him. He wanted to see the United States…
The typical immigrant story. He wanted a better life for his children, too. He always tried to get the visa and it didn’t come up. Even before the war he wanted to come to the United States.
At that time you had to have six months residence supported by a sponsor in the United States. He finally found a sponsor in Montana, bizarrely enough, so in 1951 he took my brother and I and my mom, who I think was pregnant with my sister, from Belgium to Montana.
PLUME: What was your father’s profession?
OZ: He was a window trimmer, like for Ladies’ apparel stores.
PLUME: Your parents were both puppeteers, weren’t they?
PLUME: What was his profession in the States?
OZ: He stayed a window trimmer. He was a freelance window trimmer.
PLUME: So the puppeteering was a hobby…
OZ: It became a hobby, right.
PLUME: Did your parents foster puppeteering within the family?
OZ: No. My brother had no interest in it whatsoever and my sister didn’t have interest in it till later years. My brother was into cars. It was something that I latched on to because it was a way to please them and it was a means of expression for a shy, self-effacing boy.
PLUME: Did it come naturally to you?
OZ: I have no idea. In the beginning I imagine you’re a kid, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. It took awhile. At that time, it was only marionettes, not hand puppets.
PLUME: Where were your interests growing up?
OZ: The usual things: girls and sports. That was the interest, mainly. I never wanted to be a puppeteer. I stopped puppeteering when I was about 18. I puppeteered when I was eleven years old to 18 to make extra money to go to Europe, which I made half of and my parents gave me half.
I bought a tape recorder and some stuff and went to Europe for three months when I was 18. The puppeteering was only there as a hobby. I wanted to be a journalist. When I was 19 and after I had spent about a year in college, Jim Henson asked me to come out and try puppeteering for awhile.
PLUME: Where did you first meet Jim (Henson)?
OZ: They have these puppeteers conferences, which I never used to go to… ever…except for this one I went to when I was 17 years old and Jim happened to be there.
PLUME: Jim Henson wanted to hire you right out of high school, right?
OZ: He saw what I did there, and I was working with an old friend of mine named Jerry Juhl, so he hired Jerry, who went on to be the writer for the Muppets. Two years later when I finished high school and was in college, he asked me to come out to work part-time with him. I tried to continue my studies at CCNY in New York, but that lasted only about a semester or two. I continued on with the Muppets. What was going on was too exciting.
PLUME: What were your first impressions of Jim during that first meeting?
OZ: He didn’t have a beard. At that time I was 17, so he must have been about 23. He was this very quiet, shy guy who did these absolutely f***ing amazing puppets that were totally brand new and fresh, that had never been done before.
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