Frank Oz talks about life as Yoda

Jedi masters Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) ponder the meaning of a major disturbance in the Force in "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace."

Lucas Film/Scripps Howard News Service
Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 1:08 a.m.
Celebrated on film, in song and in about a zillion toys and collectibles, Jedi Master Yoda - ''a guy who looks like a Muppet, but he's wrinkled and green,'' to quote Weird Al - may be the most popular character in the ''Star Wars'' mythology: Wise as a yogi, noble as a king, cute as Kermit and as powerful as Darth Vader.
''I was blessed to be the character,'' says actor, voice artist and filmmaker Frank Oz, 61. ''It wasn't a career, it was a privilege.''
Yoda's most recent film, ''Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith,'' debuts on DVD today in a bonus-packed double-disc set from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Oz first brought the sage of Dagobah to life in ''The Empire Strikes Back'' (1980), the second ''Star Wars'' movie and the fifth in the George Lucas chronology. In ''Empire'' and its followup, ''The Return of the Jedi'' (1983), Oz wasn't just the voice of Yoda but one of the on-set puppeteers who manipulated Stuart Freeborn's design; in other words, Oz contributed to Yoda's ''performance'' in front of the camera as well as on the soundtrack.
''Ninety-nine percent of the people think that I just did the voice,'' Oz said. ''They don't grasp that the hard part, the really, really hard part, was the actual performance of the puppet.''
By the time Yoda returned in ''Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace'' (1999), the on-set Yoda had been replaced by a computer-generated (and more youthful, according to the series chronology) Yoda. If the digital Yoda lacked the physical presence and immediacy of his predecessor, he also wasn't limited by the restrictions of puppet movement. ''You lose 10 percent, but you gain 90 percent,'' Oz said. ''The old way, you could never have had that fight with Count Dooku'' in ''Attack of the Clones,'' in which a bounding, leaping, swashbuckling Yoda engaged in a light saber duel with the renegade Jedi played by Christopher Lee. ''George said that when Yoda came in and encountered Count Dooku, he wanted him to be like John Wayne encountering a villain in a Western,'' Oz said.
Oz first gained fame as an associate of master Muppet creator Jim Henson. Working on ''Sesame Street'' and ''The Muppet Show,'' Oz gave voice and helped ''perform'' Miss Piggy, Grover, Cookie Monster, Sam the Eagle and other beloved characters. He also worked as a writer and director on various Henson Productions, moving to live-action directing for such films as ''Little Shop of Horrors'' (1986), ''Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'' (1988) and, most recently, the remake of ''The Stepford Wives.''
Talking to Oz was a bit of a surprise because he didn't sound like Yoda or Bert or Fozzie Bear or any other characters who - despite their vocal differences - are all distinctively, recognizably Oz-ian. His voice was soft and almost anonymous.
Nevertheless, ''I think of them all as parts of me, and parts of everybody,'' Oz said of his many characters. ''If they weren't part of everyone, people wouldn't be touched by them. You can't do characters if you don't love them.''
Asked if he could mimic the twisted syntax of Yoda's speech at a moment's notice, the way so many ''Star Wars'' cultists can, Oz said: ''I have the ability, but I never do it. That's just a party trick, something for a trained monkey. His character is quite layered, quite deep, and I don't want to treat him as a party trick.''
He said Yoda's so-called ''backwards talk'' ("Your father he is,'' Yoda says in ''Jedi'') fits ''his character and his history.''
''There was some of that in the script (of ''Empire''), and I talked to George and asked him to expand it more. It wasn't because it was a gimmick, I felt like it was part of his character . . . He's many centuries old, and in my opinion that is how a Jedi used to talk, in a much more formal manner. By the time of 'Empire,' everything had become more colloquial, not unlike what's happening in the world today. Yoda is trying to be true to what he was.''
Oz said there's no talk at this point of doing the third ''Star Wars'' trilogy that Lucas originally announced many years ago. ''Maybe 20 years from now,'' Oz said, ''when everything is digital and George is in a wheelchair and slobbering from his lips, he can push a button and make everything happen. But as it is now, it's a tremendous amount of work.''

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