Star Wars: Where Are They Now? Frank Oz
Richard Frank Oznowicz was born on the 25th of May, 1944, in Hereford, England. Spending parts of his childhood in Belgium, Richard and his family eventually settled down in Oakland, California, where the youngster adopted the name Frank Oz, due to the struggle people had pronouncing Oznowicz… Oz- Ozno- you get my point! By his own admission, Oz was a shy child. However, as the son of two amateur puppeteers, he gravitated towards puppets as a way to express himself. For the next twelve years, Frank became an adept puppeteer, though he only done so as a hobby to receive some money. With no desire to pursue the craft professionally, Oz aspired to become a journalist. But, while still in high school, the seventeen-year-old had a chance meeting with Jim Henson at a puppeteering conference. Frank would later recall:
“He was this quiet, shy guy who did these absolutely amazing puppets that were totally brand new and fresh, that I had never been seen before.”
Two years later, struggling with his first year of college, Oz joined Henson’s Muppets team. By the late 1960s, the Muppets generated steady, well-paying work for Frank. Then, in 1969, a unique opportunity presented itself: a new public television programme for children required puppets to emphasise the fun in learning. Realising the Muppets were a perfect fit, both men joined Sesame Street.
The success of Sesame Street exceeded all expectations. Oz particularly enjoyed the opportunities the show granted him, like the freedom to develop his own characters. However, by 1976, Henson had grown frustrated with the barriers emplaced by working on someone else’ programme. As a result, he debuted The Muppet Show, in an attempt to realise his full creative vision. Frank became one of the programme’s key creators, performing several of the show’s stars, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal, as well as secondary characters Sam the Eagle, George the Janitor, and Marvin Suggs. Like Henson though, Oz had his own ambitions. Consequently, he ventured into the world of film by the early 1980s. Following notable performances in The Blues Brothers, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Trading Places, the puppeteer-turned-actor even tried his hand at directing, taking the helm on projects such as The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. However, one of his most renown roles ever came in 1980, when he was selected to portray wise Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. The performance only emphasised Frank’s career further. But what has he gone on to do since his days in the galaxy far, far way? Well, let’s find out! This is Star Wars: Where Are They Now? Episode 11 – Frank Oz.
Originally, Jim Henson was going to portray Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. However, pre-occupied, Oz was assigned as chief puppeteer and as creative consultant, while other Henson alumni worked on the Jedi Master’s fabrication. Frank even voiced the puppet last minute, when George Lucas had a change of heart. The plan to use a puppet in collaboration with live actors was incredibly risky. But Frank masterfully brought the character to life, resulting in a memorable performance, which was bolstered by his creative freedom. For example, Oz developed the character’s trademark style of reverse grammar. Thanks to his efforts in both Star Wars: Episode V and its sequel, Return of the Jedi, Yoda quickly became a fan favourite. As a result, Frank went on to portray the Jedi Master in the each of the Star Wars prequels, even when Yoda was switched from a puppet to full CGI. His ties with Star Wars does not end there, though. Oz voiced the character in Return of the Ewok and the 2003 MTV Movie Awards. Furthermore, archived audio clips of him performing Yoda were used for the video games LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game, LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, and LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. Frank’s latest involvement with the saga came in the form of Star Wars Rebels, in which he voiced Yoda for two episodes, those being "Path of the Jedi" and "Shroud of Darkness". Despite his association with Yoda, however, he refuses to attended fan conventions or to imitate the character’s voice outwith Star Wars, out of respect for the role.
Away from Star Wars, Frank has only occasionally performed his classic Muppet characters. The reason for this relates back to his initial reservations for pursuing puppeteering full time, his goals to become both an actor and a director, and the fact he has four kids. In his personal life, Oz married Robin Garsen in 1974. However, following their divorce, he went on to marry Victoria Labalme in 2011. In the same year, Frank made a rare in-person appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, where Sesame Street is currently taped. The seminar focussed on his roles as a Muppet performer and a director. To no surprise, given his age of seventy-two, Frank Oz’s career is winding down. However, he seems all too willing to lend his voice for Yoda when need be… just not for fan conventions or fan gratification!
So, what do you think of Frank Oz’s performances as Yoda? And what are your thoughts on his career path to date? Let me know in the comments below.
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