The Muppet Show and I are about the same age. It’s a few months older than I am, and Frank Oz is a few months younger than my mom. I remember watching it, when it was new. And in syndication. And three seasons on DVD; the remaining two still haven’t been released, to my disappointment. And the movies, and specials, and other things with no Muppets in them at all.
Of course, it’s the puppetry that I think of first, and I’m not alone. Most people, when they think of Frank Oz, think of his work as Piggy or Fozzie or Grover or Yoda. That is, if they know who he is at all. I think probably most people are aware that Yoda does sound a bit like Grover or Fozzie, who sound a bit like each other, but I wonder how many of them realize that it’s because the same person is performing all of them.
This is not possible in my family, though. My aunt, Beth Fernandez, is the vice president of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppeteers. Today is actually the birthday of her daughter-in-law, who’s also the daughter of her long-time puppeting partner. Family gatherings with the Fernandez clan tend to involve at least one story about Jim Henson or something, and my aunt and a couple of my cousins appeared in The Muppet Movie. As puppeteers. We care about puppetry, in my family.
This may be at least part of why I’ve never really thought of Frank Oz as a voice actor, a designation that, based on an interview he did with Nathan Rabin, seems to bother him a fair amount. No wonder. Puppetry is some pretty intense physical work, more than just making silly voices. He has spent most of his career with his arms above his head, manipulating things that he has to watch in a monitor, because he can’t see his own performance. It’s not easy.
We also tend to forget his directing career. I think there are two reasons for that. One, I think most people forget about directors in general, because I don’t think most people have a very clear perception of what directors do. Two, it’s hard for HouseSitter or In and Out to compete with Bert for a place in our memories. I mean, Little Shop of Horrors is a fine movie, but if we’re going to think of Frank Oz and a monster that eats everything, we’re going to think Cookie Monster, right?
I’ve consistently tried, in this column, to include people that are a little a little more behind-the-scenes, not necessarily the first ones people think of, when they think of people involved in movies. Since before I was born, Frank Oz has been a part of our lives. It’s pretty hard to grow up in the US without being exposed to him essentially since birth; even if your parents don’t let you watch TV until you’re twelve, they probably play children’s music for you, and there’s “‘C’ Is For Cookie,” waiting for you to listen to it. You may not think about who’s underneath Sam the Eagle or Animal, but maybe more people should.