Legendary Muppets performer Frank Oz spoke candidly with Yahoo about his departure from the beloved puppets, following a decorated career as a Muppet performer and voice actor. Oz, who worked closely with The Muppets creator Jim Henson, gave life to such cherished characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle and Sesame Street fixtures Bert, Grover and Cookie Monster. Oz's time with the Muppets spanned three decades through the 1990s, until Oz distanced himself from the muppetational creatures following the death of Henson and the handing over of his company to his children. By 2002, Oz had departed completely.
Asked if the Muppets can continue without their original creators, Oz says it wouldn't be "fair" for the characters to bow out with their original performers.
"I had to give up my characters on Sesame Street, and I had to give them up because I had four kids, I had a directing career, and I couldn’t say to Sesame Street, ‘Listen, I don’t want anybody touching my characters for the nine months or year and a half that I’m doing a movie,’" Oz said. "I just couldn’t do that, you know? Wouldn’t be fair. So I had to release them. And it hurt, because I still love ’em so much."
"And I’ve become a director, and I love it — but I love my characters," he continued. "And by the way, these are good friends of mine who do the characters, and they work really hard. But they can never be as good as me. Just like I could never be as good as them. If they did a character called Joe, and I took over, there’s no way I could do Joe as good as them. Because Joe was in their hearts and their soul."
"They’re doing their very best, and they really are trying to be true to the characters," Oz noted, "And they actually are. But because they’re not inside me, they don’t know the soul as much."
The characters can evolve and continue on without the people who do them, Oz said, but, "Will they be as good? No. Will they be as touching and soulful? No. But they will be as quotation marks 'good'? Yes, in my opinion."
Disney's 2011 The Muppets was a hit, but the Muppets' celebrated return to the big screen was followed by a 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, that failed to garner much love. A 2015 ABC "mockumentary," in the style of The Office, didn't fare any better: the series, criticized for it's edgier take on the characters, was cancelled after just 16 episodes following poor ratings.
"I think the answer is to go back and be true to who they are," Oz said about returning The Muppets to prominence. Oz made clear he wasn't putting down Disney, who purchased The Muppets in 2004. "I think Disney really, truly believes that they’re doing the best they can."
"They truly love the Muppets," Oz said. "They really do. And they believe truly that they know how to handle it. But they actually don’t know because they haven’t been part of this for 30 years, and what’s really strong about the Muppets is the people underneath the characters. That’s what it’s all about, not the characters."
Oz's fondness for his old friends is clear: he hopes they have a future. "There needs to be, because I think it's extraordinary the reaction around the world with the Muppets still," Oz concluded. "The affection is extraordinary."
In his directorial career, Oz steered Henson productions The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan, later tackling non-Muppet productions like Little Shop of Horrors and What About Bob? Oz also performed Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi and Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, later lending his voice to a digitally created Yoda in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith as well as various animated Star Wars productions.