Pop Culture

'Muppet Guys Talking' offers rare look at 'Sesame Street' puppeteers

Growing up with "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," some of our earliest friends were good-hearted, sassy puppets: Miss Piggy, the Count, Cookie Monster, Grover and Gonzo.

But the people who powered the puppets ... well, we didn't give them quite as much love and attention.

That can all change now, thanks to a new documentary called "Muppet Guys Talking," which stars five of the original puppeteers behind some of those beloved household names: Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta and Frank Oz.

Courtesy Frank Oz
The gal and guys behind "Muppet Guys Talking," Frank Oz at center.

In the film, which is available to stream starting Friday, March 16, the old gang sits around and reminisces about working for Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died suddenly in 1990 at age 53. Plus, there's lots of great behind-the-scenes footage of them lending a hand (literally) to the puppets!

Of all those in the doc, Oz's name is probably the most familiar — he's the voice and the hand behind Grover, Cookie Monster, Piggy and Yoda from "Star Wars," among others. He left puppets a while back and is now a full-time director of films like "Dark Crystal" (1982), "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988), "In & Out" (1997) and now "Talking."

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Frank Oz holding Cookie Monster back in the early days of "Sesame Street"; and in "Muppet Guys Talking."

That means Oz has a perspective on a lifetime of "Sesame" and the Muppets no one else does. He shared seven fun, amazing tidbits with TODAY that you might never have known about your fuzzy friends ... and their handlers:

Every Muppet on camera required its own puppeteer, and some of the setups (as the doc shows) could be downright dangerous.

"Jim just wanted to do the impossible," said Oz. "We show some of the harder setups — under water, using an elevator, a campfire — in the film because they showed how incredibly hard we worked and how impossible it all was. All Jim cared about was quality. He'd do anything for the shot — anything."

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"Sesame Street" in 1970: Daniel Seagren holding Roosevelt Franklin, Jim Henson holding Granny Fanny Nesselrode and Frank Oz with Betty Lou during a rehearsal in New York City.

Oz's wife, Victoria Labalme, talked him into making "Talking."

"She thought there was real value in seeing how people could work together in a situation with no jealousy, no tension, everyone doing the best they could," he said. "She felt that was a valuable message to send around the world. She badgered me for a year."

The puppets were often expressions of their handlers' personalities.

"We'd pick parts of ourselves and put them into the puppets," Oz said. "Of all the characters I performed inside I'd say I'm closest to Grover and Fozzie (Bear). We all hide Grover inside ourselves — the pure parts of ourselves that we have to be careful to let out unless we know and trust someone. I see parts of them in me all through 'Talking': Bert who is boring, Fozzie trying to make people laugh."

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Gonzo, Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear in 1981's "The Great Muppet Caper."

Speaking of Bert and Ernie … it turns out they really are just good friends.

"It confuses me that (people have speculated they were a gay couple)," he said. "Nobody asks if Abbott and Costello were gay, if Laurel and Hardy were gay. They don't ask if the Three Tenors are a threesome! I guess people want it to be true because they think it's funny."

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"Sesame Street's" Bert and Ernie, just good friends.

Oz and the late Jim Henson were also close friends, and Oz still thinks of him frequently.

"I dream about him," he said. "The hardest thing about losing him was just losing him. After a take we'd look at each other and without talking we'd know what had to be done in the next take. Those things just occur without knowing why, and they're beautiful that way."

People continue to respond to the Muppets for reasons that are mysterious even to Oz.

"All I know is in some form, in some way, these characters touch people," he says. "There's a recognition that's transcendent and recognizable because we are all different — and they are different but yet inclusive."

  • Slideshow Photos

    From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

    Primarily known as the genius behind such characters as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Jim Henson was a creative genius and a true American original. Brian Jay Jones’ new book, “Jim Henson: The Biography,” (Ballantine Books) takes an in-depth look at the extraordinary life of the “gentle dreamer” whose imagination touched the world.

  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    The magic of the gentle dreamer

    Primarily known as the creative genius behind such beloved characters as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Jim Henson was a creative genius and a true American original. Brian Jay Jones’ new book, “Jim Henson: The Biography,” (Ballantine Books) takes an in-depth look at the extraordinary life of the “gentle dreamer” whose imagination touched the world.
    A manic Muppet monster devours a machine in one of Jim Henson’s short films for IBM from the late 1960’s. The monster would be defanged and used again as Sesame Street’s ravenous Cookie Monster.

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company
  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    The Henson family in the late 1970’s. Left to right: Cheryl, Jane, Brian, Jim (with Heather on shoulders), John, and Lisa.

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company
  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    Frank Oz and Jim Henson at the premiere party for "The Dark Crystal" in 1982.

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company
  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    "The Dark Crystal" (1982) was Jim’s most ambitious project to date, a richly designed universe requiring complicated and physically demanding puppetry. Here Jim and performer Kathy Mullen bend and squeeze themselves out of camerashot as they perform Jen and Kira, the film’s heroes.

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company
  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    Jim Henson with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly on the set of "Labyrinth" in 1985. The movie was, according to Jane Henson, “absolutely the closest project to him,” and he was devastated by its failure at the box office.

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company
  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    Twenty-three-year-old Brian Henson performed the dog on "The Storyteller," one of many projects in which Jim and the Henson children would perform or participate in 1988. “One of the best ways for us to be around him,” said daughter Cheryl, “was to work with him.”

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company
  • From the mind of Jim Henson: A look back at the man behind The Muppets

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    Jim Henson and the cast of "Fraggle Rock." Airing on HBO from 1983 to 1987, the show was the network’s first original series—the colorful ancestor to shows like "The Sopranos" and "Game of Thrones."

    Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company / Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company

"Muppet Guys Talking" is now available exclusively for purchase and streaming at MuppetGuysTalking.com.

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