The Wizard That is Frank Oz

By: Jeremey Gingrich


Most people have heard of the Muppets. For people of my generation (whatever that’s called), it is almost impossible not to know about them. One of my favorite things about the Muppets was the close relationship between two of the main puppeteers, creator Jim Henson and Frank Oz. This relationship translated beautifully in their collaborations, with Henson as Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog and Oz as Fozzie Bear (note: not Fozzie the Bear).  Later, George Lucas would tap into the puppetry for Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and continue to use Oz for all the following Star Wars movies, working the puppet in JEDI and PHANTOM MENACE, and just as the voice for the computer-generated Yoda of CLONES and SITH. But Oz truly broke out in the 80’s and 90’s as a director, with some of the funniest collaborations with great comic actors. And though Fozzie Bear will always hold a place in our hearts, let’s not forget the man directing him, also directed characters not made of fabric-covered foam rubber, and directed them pretty well.

Little Shop of Horrors

The Frank Oz trifecta begins with his first foray into non-Muppet directing (he first co-directed THE DARK CRYSTAL and directed THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN), which was 1986’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Yes, it’s a musical, and yes there is a giant talking plant, but it’s the love story between lovable schlub Seymour (typecast schlub Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) that carries the plot. The big plant is merely an obstacle. Another obstacle is Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, DDS (sadistic dentist Steve Martin) who has hilarious scenes with his jet black hair singing an ode to dentistry and torturing a masochistic patient in Bill Murray. Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops did the voice for the plant who runs amok (if plants could run) and the two lovers must try to find their way through these impediments. But along the way we have James Belushi, John Candy and Christopher Guest doing funny cameos, and yes, even little Tisha Campbell singing as a recurring chorus girl (“Damn, Gina!”). This movie has everything.

Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray in What About Bob?

The next stop into the wonderful world of Oz is a head trip taken by Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray in WHAT ABOUT BOB?(1991). This hilarious pic has the pompous Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss) taking on clingy new patient Bob Wiley (Murray) who apparently suffers from crippling fears of everything. Dr. Marvin thinks he’s so good he can toss Bob aside with a copy of his book and a contrived prescription (a vacation from his problems), but that’s when the doctor/patient line is truly crossed, as Bob follows Dr. Marvin on vacation to Lake Winnepasakee (sp?) and becomes everyone’s favorite new person. Leo loses his family, his house and his sanity thanks to Bob’s lovable, schmucky ways, including reciting poetry (“Roses are red, Violets are blue, I’m a schizophrenic, and so am I.”) And though Bill Murray has the fun playing crazy but lovable, it’s truly hilarious watching Richard Dreyfuss’ slow descent into madness, with that vintage Dreyfuss laugh in full maniacal glee. He’s even crazier here than when he was making mountains out of mashed potatoes.

Steve Martin and Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Finally, the best comedy in Frank Oz’s bag of tricks is DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) with Steve Martin and Michael Caine playing con artists working the French Riviera. Watching Steve Martin’s first con in a dining car on a train is hilarious enough as he talks about his sick grandmother, but he trumps it later as a disabled Naval officer. But Michael Caine is not to be outdone, as the smooth professional teaching Martin the intricacies of the big con, and using Martin to get out of relationship obligations by playing Ruprect, the “special” brother of Caine’s fabricated prince who needs every penny to free his enslaved people. Con movies are great, and when played for comedy, they can be hilarious, and Steve Martin plays a liar better than any other comic actor you will ever see (watch him weave his deceptions in Oz’s HOUSESITTER and BOWFINGER as well). And the final twist that almost always comes in con movies truly catches you off guard. Just a great finish to a great night of comedy, directed by the man who once delivered his comedy bits from a muppet named Fozzie Bear.

Trifecta time: 302 minutes

You can’t go out and party every weekend, so on those nights you want to take it easy, has put together a bi-weekly column to help you with your movie selection. The Trifecta is a recommendation of three movies that set a mood, that showcase an actor or director, that acquaint the viewer with a geographic location, or maybe even have some obscure link like a Best Boy or Key Grip.

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