Jim Henson and Frank Oz
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NEW YORK - 1970: Puppeteers (L-R: Daniel Seagren holding and Jim Henson working Ernie and Frank Oz with Bert rehearse for an episode of Sesame Street at Reeves TeleTape Studio in 1970 in New York City, New York. (Credit: David Attie/Getty Images)

Frank Oz and the Muppet Guys want you to join them Saturday to honor Jim Henson

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May 14, 2020, 11:05 AM EDT

It’s almost impossible to believe, but May 16 marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson passing away from an acute bacterial infection. He was only 53 years old, but his legacy of creativity, compassion, humor, and innovation are still inspiring children and adults three decades later. And his Muppet character creations, like Kermit the Frog, Ernie, and the Swedish Chef, remain instantly recognizable. 

But Henson’s presence is still dearly missed by fans, and especially the family, friends, and colleagues he left behind. In 2017, his long-time collaborators, Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Fran Brill (Prairie Dog), Bill Barretta (Pepe), and Jerry Nelson (The Count), released a documentary called Muppet Guys Talking. It was the five of them reminiscing about the impact Henson had on their lives and on generations of children who watched the television shows, films and puppetry he put into the world.

Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Jerry Nelson and Frank Oz from Muppet Guys Talking.

With the anniversary looming, Frank Oz and his wife, Muppet Guys Talking producer Victoria Labalme, decided to get the gang back together to celebrate Henson’s memory, and to raise money for the front line workers helping battle COVID-19. They welcome anyone and everyone to pre-register on Muppet Guys Talking for a link to their group conversation on Saturday, May 16 at 4 p.m. ET. 

SYFY WIRE exclusively rang up Oz - whose long career also includes co-directing The Dark Crystal (1982), directing Little Shop of Horrors (1986), and voicing/puppetering Master Yoda throughout the Star Wars universe - to talk about the event, how Henson might be facing the troubles we’re all experiencing together right now, and new projects he’s pondering in quarantine.   

What tickled you all most about the reception to Muppet Guys Talking as you screened it at film festivals and interacted with audiences?

Frank Oz: Well, the Q&As were quite amazing because a great deal, maybe even half, of the Q&As weren't people questioning us. They just came to the microphone and thanked us, which was astounding.

By the time the film was released, Jerry Nelson had passed away (in 2012), but did it spur the four of you to connect more?

We live in different parts of the country, but it's all about friends. I mean, all we care about is getting together as friends because we love each other. And so, the real joy was hearing things from other people that we didn't know about and also just the camaraderie. And we tend to screw around with each other, and that's so much fun. We always keep in touch. I mean, I'm annoying Dave and people all the time. But I think the real heart and soul of it was just these friends getting together.

Is this reunion to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Jim’s passing something you always planned, or did it come out of the times we’re living in?

This only started about a week and a half ago. This is just like a mom and pop thing. My wife Victoria Labalme, said, “Jim’s 30th anniversary of his passing is coming up. It'd be great to get the guys together again and lift some spirits like we did with Muppet Guys Talking.” I said that sounds great. And we asked the guys. Unfortunately, Jerry’s not here anymore. But there's still the four of us. And then a couple of days later, she said, you know, why don't we use it as a fundraiser? 

And then I saw an article in the New York Times about three non-medical hospital workers who died of COVID-19. And these are the ones who we don't know about. These are the ones who are not seen. They're invisible. They're the people who strip the beds and do the laundry and are security guards. And so, what we're doing is we're using Elmhurst Hospital, where a great deal of illnesses happened so far. It’s an emblematic place to give attention to all these people who are non-medical workers that we don't know about. And so part of it is to raise some money for them. But more than anything else, letting them know that we know they exist and we know how hard they work, and we want them to know that we care. And that's kind of what it's all about.

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If Jim were still alive, how do you think he would be addressing this global separation?

Jim knew computers were coming. Forty years ago he knew that. And he was just starting on the [front] edge of that because it was just the very beginnings of it. Now, if he was around, with all the technology, he would be the first one to jump in and say, “Hey, let's use this stuff and we can help some people!” There's no question in my mind that it wouldn’t even be Zoom. It’d be like Henson Zoom, giving you a whole new thing. [Laughs] His mind was like that that; it was a mixture of heart and mind. And the mind about technology would've really helped the heart.

How has this pandemic mindset affected you creatively?

It's so interesting. I've gotten busier. But it's also that I just feel that nature has grabbed us by the back of the collar and said, “Hey, guys, all your running around, all those meetings you gotta do, all those things you're supposed to do, just sit down and shut up. And now you can understand what's the important stuff.” I get the idea that that's what nature did to us 'cause we're not that smart. We're not that powerful, nature says. 

And so, I think during this time what's wonderful is I'm connecting with friends much more, friends I hadn't connected with. Victoria’s doing a lot of creative work. She has a book. I’m doing some stuff I never had time to do. So, it's an odd time because there's so much grieving and pain across the country and the world. And so that is one aspect of it that we're very aware of. And then there's another aspect that kind of focuses on what's important in our lives.

The film adaptation you directed for Derek DelGaudio’s Off-Broadway show, In and Of Itself, was supposed to screen at SXSW this year. Is there a chance it will get released somehow this year?

Yeah, the important thing is we're trying to handle it properly. Stephen Colbert and Ellie Colbert are the producers, along with a few other people. We've gotten together in meetings and are trying to figure out how to best present it in a way that we don't have to wait for this crisis to be over. And so, at the moment there's talks with some streaming services. And the important thing for us is to present it with whatever streaming service, in such a way that people understand that this is not a normal movie. It's interesting. Being in the theater, you felt that you didn't want to talk afterwards. You just sat there for a bit. It was so extraordinary because Derek was so amazing. And the film, interesting enough, those few people who have seen it, they feel it's as good if not better, and powerful. So, we're really pleased about that. I can't wait for people to see it.

At this point in your life and career, is your creative compass pointing towards something specific when we all get to return to work?

Well, it all depends on the script coming to me, movie or theater. I live and breathe by the script, so I never know until I find something on paper that I love. There's nothing that I can jump into right now except my own things. I've been putting my own things off for a long time because I'd be directing other people’s scripts and such. There's some stuff I want to do and helping people out learning about film from the dozen features I've done. I'm trying to work on something like that. But, otherwise there's not a big thing that I have in mind.

Victoria has a book she's editing right now, and that'll come out in a year. It's called Risk Forward. It's about how we all find ourselves in a place that we need to at times, trust ourselves and risk forward. And there's a lot of stuff in there that's really helpful. But, for me, I don't have anything to jump into. But, honestly, I'm in a great place. I'm very happy about the work I've done with a lot of people. And if I get to do something again that's great. And if I don't, I’ll just sit with my beer and look at the sports games. Oh, yeah, I was only kidding about the sports games. [Laughs]

You can also just wait for Rian Johnson to call you back for the Knives Out sequel?

I am blessed that I have Rian asking me to do things like that. And I've been very fortunate. I've never planned anything. I've never thought of my career, ever. I just was asked to do the work, and I did the work. And I was asked again, and then I’d do it again. And then I was asked again, and that's just what happens. So, I'm an anomaly. I mean, one has to be careful what one says yes to because there are people around who try and cheat you. But nevertheless, except for those people, the best advice I had was when I was in Oakland, California. I left when I was 19 for New York. I was just a kid and going to New York for the first time. And a friend of the family said, "People in New York, the talented people there are a dime a dozen. It's about the opportunities you take." And so, I took that to heart, and I said yes to everything that was legitimate in order to learn. But don't listen to me either. Listen to yourself. That's most important.