Hollywood has long been maligned for setting unsubstantial role models and superficial standards for the younger generation. Beauty, however skin-deep, seems to prevail over truth. Human perfection is Bo Derek. Yet if the U.S. voting age were lowered for the upcoming presidential election, the favorite might soon be a chap nobody would describe as a “10.” The new Man Who is a physically unprepossessing sage, 3¾ feet shorter than Jimmy Carter and 800 years older than Ronald Reagan. He is, of course, Yoda, the apostle to the Force and pivotal addition to the new Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed Americans are already voting with their feet. Opening week in 77 U.S. cities, the lines and stampedes to see the sequel exceeded even those of the original, which, as everyone knows, surpassed every movie in history with a gross of more than $400 million.
The world premiere of Empire and Yoda was a tumultuous benefit at the Kennedy Center in Washington for Eunice Shriver’s Special Olympics. The Empire human cast of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams was there in the flesh. So was Kenny Baker, who once again plays droid R2-D2. Though still charming, R2 seemed something of a mental pip-squeak compared to Yoda, whom the crowd—including Amy Carter—kept yelling for. “I guess kids expect him to arrive in a top hat, tux and limo,” chuckles Hamill. “But I don’t think we have to worry about Yoda going Hollywood.” Indeed, the producers purposely kept the 26-inch Yoda figure away from all public appearances to preserve the mystique.
Amy Carter, who cajoled her parents into letting her see the movie a second time within a week, was particularly disappointed not to catch Yoda in the pale and scaly flesh. “Oh, I just loved him and the way his ears wiggled,” she exclaimed. “He was so cute. He’s a Muppet voice, isn’t he? I was trying to figure out which one.” My, what good ears Amy has. She had detected the little-publicized fact that the manipulator of Yoda—Frank Oz—is also the master puppeteer responsible for Bert, Grover and the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, not to mention Animal, Fozzie Bear, Marvin Suggs, Sam the Eagle and Miss Piggy herself for The Muppet Show and its 1979 movie spin-off.
If the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, the hand that controls those beloved characters must be one of the most important in all showbiz. Yet Oz, 36, a naturalized American, is a self-effacing man. “I was given a beautiful design, beautiful words and the actual physical character,” he explains of the contributions of a team headed by George Lucas, the genius behind Star Wars and The Empire. “I could see patience, wit, wisdom and strength. I was simply the person to put all that together into a warm, functioning being.” Yoda was crafted by British designer Stuart Freeborn, who was also largely responsible for Chewbacca, the wookie. Actually, Freeborn fabricated not one but a half dozen Yodas out of bundles of wire, electronic circuits, hydraulics, bubbly latex skin and real human hair. He modeled Yoda’s worldly-wise eyes after Albert Einstein’s.
Yoda’s scenes were shot in two six-day spans in England, where Lucas built one of the world’s largest sound stages only 15 minutes from the home Oz keeps in London. “Just make him wonderful,” Lucas told Oz. After a bit of initial anxiety, Oz delivered. “First your body knows, next your mind knows and then you start work,” says Frank, speaking in an unintended Yodaism. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in 20 years of performing.”
Director Irvin Kershner freely admits that at first, because of the shooting problems, “I hated Yoda. He scared me. But as we were filming, I came to adore him. He was completely real.” The on-set replica of Yoda’s “swamp planet” of Dagobah was so soppingly realistic that everyone sloshed around in Wellingtons and dubbed it “the bog planet” (bog is an Anglicism for toilet). Oz and Kershner had to wear masks to prevent nausea from the miasma created with mineral oil. Oz also had to cram his 6’2″, 175-pound frame into a tiny bunker from which he controlled Yoda. “The technical difficulties were like having a chain around your neck, hands and feet and being dropped into water and told to direct from four fathoms,” groans Kershner. Finally he resorted to TV monitors and radio earphones to help Oz and his assistants manipulate invisible wires connected to Yoda’s eyeballs, eyelids, cheeks, tongue, lips and pointy ears to make the creature roll its eyes, blink, eat and frown. (Only in one distance shot was a midget used as a stand-in for Yoda.)
No wonder it took up to four hours to film every two lines of dialogue. When the inevitable tensions developed, Oz ad-libbed in Yoda’s style to defuse them. In The Empire, it’s Yoda who takes over from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) the task of passing on the wisdom of the Jedi Knights to the impetuous Luke Skywalker (Hamill). One difficult day, when Hamill solemnly told Yoda, “I followed my feelings,” Oz suddenly and incongruously popped Miss Piggy into the scene decked out in lavender gown and gloves. “Feelings? Ya wanna know about feelings? Get behind this couch and I’ll show ya feelings, ya little runt,” squealed Miss Piggy. “Where the hell is this? Get my agent on the phone. I’ve been booked in dumps before, but nothin’ like this.” As the crew howled with laughter, Hamill and Piggy went into a duet of the tune “Feelings,” and Kershner cringed. “I could joke about everything else but not about Yoda,” says the director. “I had to keep him a living thing with feelings and imagination.”
That attitude owes not a little, of course, to the brilliance of the man who was born Frank Oznowicz (which he still proudly keeps as his legal name). Oz’s Jewish-Catholic family had fled Belgium to England before the Nazi occupation and eventually settled in Oakland, Calif. His father worked as a store window trimmer, and both parents were amateur puppeteers. Thus by the time he was 12, Frank was doing marionette shows at shopping center openings and birthday parties at up to $50 a performance.
At a puppeteering convention, Muppet mogul Jim Henson first noted Oz’s skills. Four years later, after Oz had decided “it was silly to keep on doing puppets” and was studying journalism at Merritt College in Oakland, an offer came from Henson to join the Muppet workshop in New York. Oz worked first with the character Rowlf on TV’s old Jimmy Dean Show en route to Sesame Street and The Muppets. When the Star Wars producers asked Jim Henson who could handle Yoda, Oz was his recommendation.
“Jim has been so supportive of me that I would never think of leaving,” says Frank of his 17-year Muppet connection. Indeed, Oz is co-producing the Muppet Movie sequel and co-directing (with Henson) a non-Muppet fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. Frank would like to move into more directing, producing and even up-front acting, and he has a bit as a prison guard in the upcoming The Blues Brothers. “For me, it’s been a nice, steady climb,” figures Oz. “Everything is going about as wonderfully as it can go. The only thing missing now is time.”
He particularly feels that lack since marrying aspiring painter and ex-model Robin Garsen, 27, last December. They met in 1978 on The Muppet Movie set, where she was an art department apprentice. Robin was a divorcee, and when they moved in together it was Oz’s first such liaison. He later had to cut two days off their Hawaiian honeymoon to “loop” Yoda’s voice onto the sound track. Frank and Robin are currently in residence in a rented three-bedroom house in the chic Hampstead section of London. They also maintain a six-room co-op in Manhattan and are now dickering for a house near skiing and sailing at Lake Tahoe. In London their pleasures are more sedentary: theater, reading and predinner jogs (which enable Frank to indulge his penchant for junk food). He occasionally smokes a cigar or pipe (“when I want to look intellectual”) and drinks champagne or other wine. Robin notes that “Frank is serious about every subject, even humor.” But he does occasionally get into giddy phases like Fozzie Bear, and she sees all his puppet characters in him from time to time. “Frank is very sweet,” she sums up, “and unaffected by success.”
Considering Lucas’ grand design for seven more sequels (as well as his propensity for giving a piece of the profits to his co-workers), Oz should be in cigars, junk food and success for some time to come. He has not yet been signed formally for the next installment, Revenge of the Jedi, due out in three years, but the Force seems to be with him—and Yoda. As Kershner observes, “In a funny way, I’d like to think that Yoda is a creature of the ’80s. As people become more self-aware, they take on more of the compassion and wisdom of Yoda. We certainly need that.”