NEW YORK – Grand larceny is a long way from Sesame Street.
But Frank Oz — famous for providing the voice of muppets Cookie Monster, Grover and Miss Piggy — is making his debut as a dramatic director with a classic heist movie that opens Friday.
The Score, in addition to its famous director, has a standout cast: Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Ed Norton and Angela Bassett all team up in this action/thriller.
De Niro plays Nick, a veteran thief tired of the life. He wants to retire to his Montreal jazz club and settle down with his girlfriend Diane (Bassett). But Max (Brando), Nick's manipulative fence, talks Nick into one last gig. He'll have to partner up with the young, arrogant Jack (Norton) who is on the inside at the Montreal Custom House. If they work together, they can walk off with millions. It'll be the score of a lifetime.
The key to the film, Oz said, was De Niro, who was the first actor cast and acted as a magnet for attracting the film's other stars.
"I have no idea why actors pick their roles," Oz told Fox News at a recent media roundtable, "but I do know that one reason Marlon did this was because of Bob."
Bassett jumped at the chance to work with De Niro. "When am I going to be in Analyze This?" she laughed, sporting bright purple hair and dark sunglasses.
Edward Norton also lauded his veteran costar. "It was eye-opening watching him. As you start to do commercial films and take bigger roles, there's a certain pressure that falls on you. ... I was impressed watching him because he shrugs it off and stays true to those acting basics."
Norton, who has been praised for performances in Primal Fear and Fight Club, felt the weight of his costars' accomplishments while shooting a scene with both Brando and De Niro. "It was the most self-conscious moment I had about the whole thing, because I have enormous admiration for the both of them."
Oz had to look beyond the Oscars and accolades. "You can't think that way about [De Niro and Brando]," he said. However, he explained that his directorial style was very hands-off — his direction of Brando consisted of a few meetings to talk about his character.
According to a recent Time magazine report, Brando's off-screen antics required special handling. The Godfather star called Oz "Miss Piggy" and refused to come to the set if he was present, leaving De Niro to lead the scene with Oz funneling instructions through an assistant director, the report said.
Despite such distractions, The Score's younger actors learned a lot from the more experienced ones. Norton recalled a scene in which he sat with De Niro discussing how his character needs to control himself in order to become a better thief. Norton felt the scene was as much as a discussion of showbiz with a screen legend as a blueprint for grand larceny with a skilled thief.
"It was an assessment that, for me, had echoes to the game of acting. I thought these were things Bob could easily say to me. Issues of talent not being enough — that you have to marry that to discipline."
For fans familiar with Oz's work in comedies like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, In & Out, and Bowfinger — not to mention his classic turn as Yoda's voice in the Star Wars series — his switch to drama seems a bit out of character.
"When you are successful, people offer you more of what you were successful at," Oz said of his tendency toward comedy.
Although Hollywood saw him as the force behind comedies and muppet movies, Oz said he longed for drama. "I always wanted to be a theater [director]," he said.