SXSW: Frank Oz Talks Favorite Muppets, Playing Yoda and Fighting Low Self-Esteem

The actor and pupeteer was in Austin to promote his new documentary, 'Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched.'
Frank Oz   |   Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW
The actor and pupeteer was in Austin to promote his new documentary, 'Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched.'

Children and adults have adored The Muppets ever since Jim Henson created the colorful characters in 1955, and puppeteer Frank Oz attributes the enduring legacy to the way the franchise showcases all types of people. 

“We represent a lot of people, and in my opinion the reason people are touched by The Muppets is because we represent your childhood. Those impressions are deep, and don’t go away,” he said during a Q&A panel moderated by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin at SXSW on Tuesday.

Oz — who has voiced Cookie Monster, Bert, Miss Piggy and many other Muppets — was in town to premiere his new documentary, Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, at the festival. The film features Oz, 72 and four of the original Muppet performers — Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Bill Barretta (Rowlf the Dog), Fran Brill (Little Bird) and Jerry Nelson (Count von Count) — discussing the creation of their iconic characters under the leadership of Henson, who died in 1990. 

The veteran actor ultimately credited Henson with the themes of tolerance and acceptance in the show, which originally aired from 1976-81. Henson, he said, "never shared his philosophy verbally, he just was who he was and we followed him,” adding that "all of those traits and more were Jim's."

Despite playing several characters on the show and resulting spinoffs and remakes over the years, Oz admitted he does have a few favorites. “Miss Piggy I love because she's neurotic and layered and Animal because he's so crazy,” he said. But Fozzie Bear “is really my essence."

Oz, who is also known to Star Wars fans as the iconic voice of Yoda, stayed mum on the possibility of his character re-emerging in this December's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But that didn't stop him from talking about the beloved character. In the original films, the character was a puppet, as opposed to the CGI version used in Episodes I, II and III, which were released from 1999 to 2005. He explained the difficulties of the puppet version: "I tried extra hard to make it look easy. Nobody should even notice I'm doing the job. The goal is for Yoda to be transcendent and I believe we did that." 

As for how Oz got into the art of puppetry? It was his parents' hobby, he explained. "I had very low self-esteem, so I wanted to express myself safely, which I could do with a puppet," he added. "It was a safe way of expression." 

He left the SXSW audience with some parting advice about dealing with similar struggles. "When I was a kid, I didn't think I was good whatsoever, and it's a struggle. But the struggle is where the value is," he said. "If you think you're no good, believe me, you are."