Around a campfire with a group of his fellow stardom-seeking misfits, Gonzo the Great performs the haunting ballad “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of watching The Muppet Movie will be quick to point out that this scene is an instant tear-jerker that evokes a sense of longing.
It’s a pretty unexpected move from a character previously known for misfire stunts and having uncomfortable relations with poultry, yet someone Gonzo becomes the emotional soul of the Muppets’ first feature… and a character who sums up the dreams of anyone yearning for more than their current lot in life.
For the past 46 years, Dave Goelz has brought numerous Muppet legends to life (making him the longest consecutive Muppet performer). Included in his impressive puppet repetoire are Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, and many others. In advance of Fathom Events’ special 40th anniversary screenings of The Muppet Movie, we had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Goelz about the film, his approach to characters, and his memories of Jim Henson. Here’s what he had to say:
Why do you think that The Muppet Movie continues to resonate with audiences all these years later?
I think it resonates because it’s the story of how Jim pulled his team together. He didn’t drive across the country in a Studebaker, but Jim really gathered people like a snowball over the years. People stayed for a long time. I’m an example, it’s 46 years for me now!
There was a sense about Jim that he was on a journey, and it was going to be really fun. It was going to be a great adventure, and we could come too. And that’s what Jerry Juhl captured in the screenplay, he expressed it in a different way, but Kermit was on a journey and his purpose was noble and he created a group. It really is patterned after Jim’s life.
Was there ever any concern on set that the Muppets wouldn’t translate to movies? What was the mood like during the filming of the first feature.
We were just loving working in the sun! Frank and I knew we were going to do The Muppet Movie months in advance. We were in England shooting The Muppet Show and it rained all the time and we were thinking “summer in California, it’s going to be so great. We’ll drive cars, it’ll be beautiful weather…”
So we got there and that’s exactly what it was like. In about five seconds the five months had gone by and we were back in the rain again. So that was our main concern: Sunshine and a familiar culture. We were fairly new in England at that point so it was nice to be back in California where we knew how the system and the culture operated.
Whether the Muppets would translate to the screen was a question in our minds. We didn’t know whether they would look convincing in the real world, or if they’d look they toys or what. In the end they looked good, we felt that the transition worked very nicely.
Gonzo’s greatest moment in the film is his beautiful performance of “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” How did that sequence come about, and what are your thoughts on the song?
Well I’ll tell you, that song was not part of the original commission, it wasn’t even in the script. What happened was that Paul Williams went away and wrote songs, and he wrote that one because he related to Gonzo. I guess he felt like a flightless bird, he indentfied with Gonzo as a bird that couldn’t fly. He just wrote that song and brought it to Jim.
I remember going to Jim’s place up on Mulholland. After we had gotten to Los Angeles and before we started shooting he had all the puppeteers over for dinner. Jim turned to me and said we’ve got a great new song that Paul brought and we’re going to write it in. Paul played all the songs for us, and when I heard that one I was just blown away, so to include that was just a great gift. It is very ethereal, very non-specific, which is the way Paul was writing.
Paul writes really off the nose, and that leaves white space in a song — room for everybody to make it personal. “The Rainbow Connection” is like that, if you put the lyrics down on paper and look at them, they are not logical lyrics. They are evocative. They set you off on an emotional journey of your own. I think Gonzo’s song did that too. It’s not specific about what he’s going to go back to, it’s just a feeling about being with this group.
I love the song. When I was raising my kids I used to sing it to them at bedtime, it was one of the songs in our repertoire. It’s kind of an eternal song.
One commonality that all your characters seem to have is an enthusiasm and a love for life…
My love of life has only increased! Now im insufferable to be around. In fact, we were on a family hike recently and my daughter started saying “Isn’t this fantastic? Look at the sky!,” and I realized she was sending me up.
At that time (of The Muppet Show‘s production) think I was more neurotic. I was more tortured and our life was hard because we were displaced constantly – we lived in England part of the year, we’d go to New York or California to make a film, or work on a special somewhere else. I think had I been left to my own and never met Jim, I probably would have never left the country. I probably just would have had a simple routine in my life.
So the stress of all this probably propelled my work a little bit. It amped up the energy and let me act out in a way. My dad used to tell me stories when I was a kid about all the characters in the little Sierra town that he came from. They all had nicknames and I would picture them as a little boy — Duck Harold, Pup Cole, Pukey Burden…this little cast of characters that surrounded my dad when he was a boy. It was ery evocative to me and I think it helped create a real love of characters.
For me characters are about celebrating flaws. I would always find a flaw within myself and isolate it, amplify it, and use it as the basis for a character. So Bunsen is similar to some scientists I used to work with at Hewlett Packard who were so fascinated with the details of what they were working on that they were oblivious to the big picture. So I thought that was a funny thing to emphasize.
I have that in me too. I get obsessed with things to the point where I am really not aware of the larger picture of whats going on. Gonzo got zesty in the second season of The Muppet Show. The first season I was insecure, and I was afraid to release a lot of energy with him. But I found my footing and by the second season he became more enthusiastic.
By the third season of The Muppet Show, Gonzo was a breakout character.
That was parallel to me. Gonzo was conceived as this loser who does stupid acts and thinks they’re great art. I could idenitfiy with the loser part because I had just arrived in show business from my parents’ couch. I was on the other side of the screen and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there.
We had guests walk into the rehearsal room — Danny Kaye would come in one door and I’d go out the other thinking “I belong on the couch, I don’t belong here. I have no ability, I have no training, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.” So that resulted in a Gonzo who was pretty insecure in the first season or so. As I got more secure I was able to give him more energy as well.
You came from a technology background into puppetry. How long did it take you to get used to the rigors of the artform?
Well I’m still waiting on that! I wish I had learned how to play a harmonica and joined a troupe. It would be very simple: Carry this thing in your pocket, do a concert, put it back in your pocket, really easy. Maybe you could even sit in a chair while you were playing!
Puppetry is the other end of the spectrum. Physically and mentally gruelly, maybe a little bit emotionally too. I think because of my work I’ve had about nine surgeries to correct things. I’ve had to have my hip replaced, I’ve had to have my shoulder replaced, because I just wore out the cartilage. I thought I had a simple job all those years and then when I hit 50 all of the sudden joints were bone-on-bone. There have been a lot of repairs as a result, but the tradeoff is that I get to have a body of work that I really love.
The mental part of it is that it requires multi-tasking. I’m optimized for one task at a time. But in the case of puppeteering you have to be looking at monitors, you have to be thinking about your performance, remembering your next line, listening to the other characters speak, doing all the acting through your hand, not tripping over cables, if somebody walks in front of your monitor then you have to switch your gaze to a different monitor. It’s a lot to do. I always feel like I’m on the edge.
I invented this term “edgework,” that we were always working at the ragged edge of our ability, and Frank Oz agreed. We were out there just on one foot at the edge of a cliff. I can remember how hard it is to do because its still hard!
As we wrap up, I was wondering if you could share your memories of meeting Jim Henson.
Oh my god, that was an emotional day. Jim invited me to come out to Los Angeles where he was shooting a Perry Como special with Frank and Jerry (Juhl) and meet him. I showed up the morning of the meeting, walked into Fernando’s Hideaway at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Jerry Nelson was there, not Jim. Jim’s mother had died the day before, and he gone to Albuquerque to be with his dad. I said “Jerry, I’m so sorry, this is horrible, I’m going to go back home and we’ll meet some other time.” And he said “no, Jim wants to meet you, he’ll be back tomorrow.” That was my first glimmer of Jim’s strength and his resolve.
So the next day I went to television city in Los Angeles and we met in a rehearsal room and I offered my condolences. He was grateful and very tired, but he was so gracious and so kind. He wanted to see my portfolio, I had puppets with me. He put a couple of them on and we ad-libbed together. For me, coming from Silicon Valley, this was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was standing there ad-libbing with Jim. That’s what he wanted to do, he wanted to go forward and take advantage of the fact that I was there.
That’s what I remember about him, his strength. That was eight Sunday morning and he walked right through until eight or nine Sunday night. His wife Jane flew up from New York and arrived during our interview. Jim asked me if I’d like to come back and watch them shoot that night and I did. I was sitting next to Jane Henson. There was no audience, it was just videotaping. So we’re watching Jim and Frank work and I just loved it and couldn’t believe how brilliant they were. Jane said to be “are you going to be working with us?” and I said “I really don’t know, we didn’t discuss that” and she looked back at the stage and said “I think Jim will find something for you to do.” (Laughs). I’m still doing it 46 years later.
The Muppet Movie will screen in more than 700 movie theaters nationwide on Thursday, July 25, and Tuesday, July 30 at 12:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. (local time) each day. Visit fathomevents.com for more info.