Do impressions, Frank Oz will not

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 15, 2013

Frank Oz, the voice and hands of the much beloved Star Wars character Yoda, has little patience for fans who ask him to do the character's trademark reverse syntax and lilting tones.

Neither does he accede to requests to do the voices of Muppet and Sesame Street characters he helped create, such as Miss Piggy, Bert and Cookie Monster. As far as Oz is concerned, it would be the equivalent of performing a party piece.

"It's like asking your four-year-old daughter, 'Hey, would you play the violin for my friends?' All I would be doing is showing off. I respect these characters too much to do that," says the 68-year-old puppeteer, director, voice actor and actor, whose real name is Frank Oznowicz.

The American was in town last week for a week-long stint as the artist in residence at Tisch School of the Arts Asia. Oz says he came to Singapore at the invitation of Joe Pichirallo, chair of the Undergraduate Film & Television programme at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

"He called and asked if I was interested, and I was, as long as there was air-conditioning," says Oz, in a deadpan reference to the heat and humidity here. "It was very fortunate, it worked perfectly for my schedule."

Throughout his interview with Life!, he is cheeky and direct to the point of being blunt, constantly bantering with and challenging this reporter. He is almost the antithesis of Yoda, though he is never mean-spirited.

Questions on the Star Wars franchise and the forthcoming Episode VII - which reunites Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher from the first three movies, although no plot details have been released - are almost brushed aside with little ceremony: "Disney owns it and I haven't heard (from the company), so I know nothing. But it would be a joy to come back and work with those people."

He says he is equally in the dark about plans for a possible standalone movie starring Yoda. "It's up to Disney, they own the franchise. Things aren't as well-planned as you think," he says with a wry smile.

The six Star Wars movies, starting in 1977, have not only made a combined US$4.5 billion at the worldwide box office, but also become a cultural phenomenon for generations of science fiction fans Stars Wars is not the only iconic show he is a part of. There are also the Muppets and Sesame Street characters he has voiced.

The Muppets, a collection of sketch comedy puppet characters, were created in 1955 by Jim Henson, is also a pop culture phenomenon, having spawned numerous films, TV series and music recordings.

When The Muppets (2011), the first theatrical movie to feature the puppet characters in 12 years, is brought up, Oz is equally forthright: "I didn't think the script was really right. It was a little bit too sweet and saccharine. I liked the Muppets when they were more rebellious. That's how Jim Henson did it in the first place, always rebellious and subversive."

Instead of talking about Star Wars and the Muppets, the father of four is far more eager to talk about his time at Tisch and the students he has flown more than 15,000 km to work with. He says: "There are a lot of smart people here and a lot of people who love film and want to do a good job. You can't beat that."

He adds: "When I do these classes, I'm shocked by how much I know. It feels good to give back. And I say to them, you know what, I'm telling you what I do. Another director might say 'Oz is a piece of s***, doesn't know what he's talking about'. It's your job to cherry-pick and tell yourself what you want or don't want."

Does his Star Wars past ever get in the way, such that he is constantly fielding questions from students about the franchise?

Oz responds with a laugh: "They respect me too much. I know you don't respect me because you ask me a lot of questions. They know what I'm here for. They don't ask me to sign things."

Still, he cannot fully escape the shadow that is cast by Yoda: "Some students get too nervous with me because 'Frank Oz' is here. You feel like saying, don't be nervous, I'm just a guy, I'm here to work with you, I want to play."

As if to emphasise his regular guy credentials, at one point, he breaks off from answering questions to grab a Kleenex and wipe the sweat that is pouring down this reporter's brow.

It is a surprising gesture given his legendary status among Star Wars fans - "I'll go someplace like a film fest and they're shouting, 'Please sign autographs, sign this, sign that'."

But Oz is not just about two iconic franchises. He has directed movies such as the comedy Bowfinger (1999), starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, and crime thriller The Score (2001), which starred the late Marlon Brando.

This year, he will reprise his role as the voice of Jeff Fungus in Monsters University, the sequel to the highly popular Pixar animated feature, Monsters Inc (2001).

Asked if animatronics and puppetry still have a place on the big screen in an era of computer-generated imagery (CGI), he says it depends on the story that is being told.

"First of all, the audiences don't even know (the difference). Sometimes, what they think is CG is animatronics because it might be cheaper to mix the two. It's always based on what the story needs, what is honest for the story."

Ultimately, Oz is adamant that he does not let his fame affect the way he conducts himself: "Sometimes, when we're eating, my wife will say 'Uh oh, there's somebody here who knows who you are'.

"But I never know, I never see myself as a celebrity. I'm just a kid from Oakland who got lucky."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 15, 2013

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