Frank Oz, the Muppeteer and comedy director, isn't a funny guy.
He sounds more like an English professor than the man who falsettoed the voice of Miss Piggy. It's tough to imagine him directing Bill Murray as an insufferable nudnik in "What About Bob?" or Steve Martin as a sleaze in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." It's tougher to imagine him animating and voicing Muppets such as Bert, Animal and Fozzie Bear.
But Oz (ne Oznowicz), the son of Holocaust refugees, insists he never meant to direct comedies in the first place. Nor did he intend to work in the movies. "It's all been an accident," he says.
The lanky, owlish director started puppeteering to please his father, Isidore, an avid amateur puppeteer; then Muppet master Jim Henson discovered him, and the comedies kept coming. But after directing "Bowfinger" in 1999, Oz told his agents, "I have to do something else."
He got his chance when he received the script of a high-tech crime caper, "The Score," now a hit summer movie starring Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton. The film tells of a cautious jewel thief (De Niro) cajoled by a cheeky young punk (Norton) to attempt one last heist.
The movie has received rave reviews, but Oz, 56, is annoyed when people are surprised he can elicit something other than laughs at the cineplex. "I grew up with dramatic family stories, so I've always wanted to direct drama," he says by phone from his main residence in Connecticut.
One of his favorite family yarns is a caper as thrilling as any scene from "The Score." It took place before he was born, when his Jewish father furtively dug a hole in Nazi-occupied Antwerp to bury a marionette he'd secretly carved of Adolf Hitler. The puppet-caricature, which had a funny mustache and a uniform sewed by Oz's lapsed-Catholic mother, Frances, was too dangerous to carry on the road. So, his father, Isidore, carefully covered it with spadefuls of earth before he and his wife (who was sometimes disguised as a boy) fled south to catch a boat to England.
After the war, Oznowicz returned to Antwerp to dig up his puppet, which later occupied a place of honor in Oz's childhood home in Oakland, Calif.
"I still have it on display in my apartment in Manhattan," says the director, who uses "Oz" as a stage name but whose legal surname is Oznowicz. "His clothes are in shreds now, but there's a photo next to him of when he was new. It's a crucial part of my heritage."
Oz's first memory is traveling by boat to the United States in the middle of a hurricane, at age 5. "I vividly recall tables and chairs flying through the air," he says.
After he started puppeteering at 11, his classmates called him the Puppet Man -- but Oz didn't mind. "Puppetry was a good way for me to express myself without really putting myself on the line," he says. "It was safe, because I was gawky, skinny, shy, with pimples and low self-esteem."
By 19, Oz had followed Henson to New York and, six years later, he was working Muppets for "Sesame Street." The characters served as Oz's alter egos. "Bert was the boring part of my personality," he says by way of example. "Miss Piggy was the neurotic part."
Eventually, Oz animated and voiced the Jedi Master Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back" and directed Henson films, such as "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984). Directing "What About Bob?" six years later helped Oz curb the grief he felt over Henson's death of pneumonia in 1990.
Before "The Score," Oz had directed A-list actors such as Eddie Murphy and Richard Dreyfuss. But the Brando-De Niro-Norton trio kicked the stakes up a notch. The trick was not getting psyched out by all the expectations. "Everybody was saying, 'You've got the greatest actors in the world, this had better be great,'" Oz says. "But the minute you start buying into that, you're dead."
Nevertheless, the shoot turned into one of the prickliest of his career. The problem was the notoriously difficult Brando, who played a homosexual character, the jewel thief's fence. The 77-year-old actor wanted his character to wear makeup and to act campy. Oz thought that was wrong for his gritty, realistic film. Verbal fisticuffs ensued (example: Brando kept calling Oz "Miss Piggy"). The director takes some blame for the tension: "I chose the wrong moment to be strong, and we got confrontational." He says the fun part of the shoot was learning how to crack a safe by pumping it full of water. But the most important part of a heist isn't the mechanics, he insists. "It's having the chutzpah to do it."