I’ve seen an ancient and bloated Orson Wells interview both James Maury Henson and Francis Oz, and similar interviews on BBC One, while a rare snowfall descended on London in 1979, and the sound of bells floated down the frigid canyon of the Strand to the frosted windows of my suite at the Savoy. Once, I thought that Henson’s neologism “Muppet” was a phonetic fusion of the words marionette and puppet, and I knew that Christoph Ritter von Gluck (1714-1787) composed an opera for marionettes. Bunraku theater was performed in Osaka in 1684, and that these lifeless constructions of foam and felt can move the four-chambered heart to tears, and renew our sense of wonder in the world.
This is why I accepted the role for the Country Bears film: I heard that the Creature Shop was going to fabricate the eponymous bears, and this implied that I would be acting with Muppets. Years later, I still occasionally wake up in the depths of the night, and stare at the blue and violet ceiling, trying to figure out just how they made those goddamn bears. Animatronics, radio controlled prosthetics, midgets…I swear I’ve thought of everything, every technologically feasible possibility…but I can assure you that those things weren’t Muppets.
When Steven Spielberg handed me that screenplay at that restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, I secretly thought that the film was going to be just execrable garbage. I mean, I had this entire monologue about a leopard frog that falls into this container of milk, and it begins struggling, kicking its slender green amphibious legs, and it never quits. Eventually, this was supposed to form an island of butter in a white sea of cream, and the frog survives. While we were filming this, I was standing on this stage, thinking of Kermit the Frog in this gigantic stainless steel pasteurization vat, flailing his helpless green arms about, as his visit to the Land-O-Lakes dairy products factory has just gone horribly wrong.
Look. When you see a movie, you are breathing your own experience into something lifeless: a projector, a beam, an image on a screen, pixels on an LCD, still frames that swim into motion like the first living cells. This is why I always wanted to work with the Muppets, to embrace this mystery with courage and faith.
Sometimes I wonder if everything I did after the Deer Hunter was just crap. But to this day, I just can’t wrap my mind around those bears.