Puppeteer and film director Frank Oz was born May 25, 1944, in Hereford, England. He launched his career as a teenager with Jim Henson and the Muppets, and went on to become the performer behind such characters as Miss Piggy, Grover, and Fozzie Bear. He also performed as Yoda in the Star Wars franchise. Oz has also directed several successful films, including Little Shop of Horrors.
Born Richard Frank Oznowicz on May 25, 1944, in Hereford, England, Frank moved with his parents, Isidore and Frances Oznowicz, as well as his brother, to Oakland, California, when he was six. At a young age he adopted the name Frank Oz, because people struggled to pronounce Oznowicz.
Oz was, by his own admission, a shy child. As the son of amateur puppeteers, he gravitated toward puppets as an easy way to express himself. By the time Oz was 18, he'd already spent several years playing around and working with puppets. But he had no anticipation they'd be a part of his future. Instead, Oz had dreams of becoming a journalist.
But, while Oz was still in high school, he had a chance meeting with 23-year-old Jim Henson at a puppeteering conference. "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," Oz would later recall. Henson appreciated Oz's work as well. Two years later, as Oz struggled through his first year of college, Henson asked the young puppeteer to join his Muppets team.
By the late 1960s, the Muppets were already generating steady, well-paying work; Henson had directed a number of television commercials for such big-name clients as Purina and La Choy, using his characters. Then, in 1969, came the opportunity to do something completely different: A new public television program for children called Sesame Street. On a show that would emphasize the idea that learning could be fun, the Muppets were a perfect fit.
The success of Sesame Street far exceeded anyone's expectations. For Oz, the opportunities the show allowed for a performer were the most thrilling part. "I was a drone," he later recalled. "I kind of went where the job was, so it didn't mean a lot to me as far as it being a special program. What it meant was that I could actually work out characters, because for years prior to that I was frightened to death of doing my own characters."
But by 1976, Henson had grown frustrated by the parameters of working on someone else's program. In an attempt to realize his full creative vision, Henson debuted the adult variety hour, The Muppet Show. Oz was one of the program's key creators, performing such popular characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal.
Yoda and Beyond
But Oz, like Henson, had his own ambitions. By the early 1980s he'd gotten his toes wet in the film world. He'd performed as Yoda in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and made various bit appearances in other movies like The Blues Brothers (1980) Twilight Zone: The Movie, (1983) and Trading Places (1983). But Oz wanted to direct films. By the mid-1980s, he got his wish, taking the helm of projects like The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1988), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988).
In recent years, Oz has continued his varied career. He reprised his role of Yoda for the George Lucas directed Stars Wars prequels in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He has also continued to direct films, including the 2005 remake of The Stepford Wives, as well as the Marlon Brando, Edward Norton, and Robert Di Niro drama, The Score (2004).
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