Jim Henson created the Muppets, making him a household name. But did you know that Henson almost played a fan-favorite role in the original “Star Wars” trilogy? Here are the details of which character George Lucas asked him to play, and why Henson turned down one of the most iconic roles in the franchise’s long history.
Jim Henson Was Originally Asked to Voice Yoda for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’
According to the 1995 VHS release of “The Empire Strikes Back”, which featured George Lucas in an interview with Leonard Maltin, it was Jim Henson who was first approached to play the role of Yoda. That interview, which is quoted on an archived version of StarWars.com, shares an excerpt from Lucas’ recounting of events: “I went to Jim [Henson] and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m busy, I’m doing this, and doing that, I’m making a movie and all that — I really can’t, but — How about Frank [Oz]? You know, Frank’s the other half of me.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’d be fantastic.'”
Henson was passionate about puppetry. After his time assisting in the “Star Wars” universe, the “Muppet Show” creator set to work on “The Dark Crystal”, and then on “Labyrinth”. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1985, Henson talked about why he was drawn to puppetry, and the difference in characters created with human actors versus puppets.
“The creatures are actors, just like live people. What it`s all about is getting a performance out of a creature. It`s more exciting than working with people,” Henson told reporters, but admitted the form had some limitations (at least, in an era with limited animatronic abilities).
“Whatever we can do with creatures, we can never approach the kind of sparkle and depth you get with a real person,” he added.
Is Yoda Technically a Muppet?
Given the ties between Henson and the character of Yoda, many fans often wonder whether the little green Jedi is technically a Muppet, or just another cinematic puppet. IGN conducted an interview with Frank Oz, the longtime collaborator of Jim Henson and voice of Yoda, and that interview shed some light on exactly that distinction between Muppet and puppet. Oz outlined the history of how involved Henson was in Yoda’s creation:
“Jim came to me and said Gary Kurtz, who was co-producer of The Empire Strikes Back, had a character and I think they asked Jim first – but with running a company and everything he couldn’t do it, so he recommended me.
So all I remember was that he said, “Come over here, I want you to meet this guy and look at this character.” So I went in my trailer on the set, and Gary talked about it a little and showed me this character, and sometimes you “get” a character immediately and sometimes, like Bert or Grover, it takes years. So he opened up this book and I saw this drawing, and for some reason, I immediately knew what this guy was. I can’t tell you why. I just knew it.
From then on, I was the one who kind of put all the elements of Yoda together, and although Jim didn’t make Yoda, George and he had an understanding that they would exchange technology information. George would give to Jim and Jim would give some of his people to George to help. Wendy Froud helped out a little bit with the character and two other people from Jim’s company worked the cables for me.
It was not Jim who made the puppet, he just consulted on it, then I continued on after that.”
So, in summation, while Henson worked as a consultant during the development of Yoda, he didn’t create the character. And while Henson Company employees may have done the puppeteering, that doesn’t technically qualify Yoda as a Muppet. According to the Henson Company website, all rights and ownership of Muppets name were transferred to The Walt Disney Company back in 2004.
‘Baby Yoda’ (Properly Known as Grogu) Is Also a Puppet
The original Yoda was a puppet, but what about the “Baby Yoda” the Internet goes crazy for? While some fans might expect that a modern “Star Wars” would mean all-CGI effects, “The Mandalorian” series actually used a practical effects puppet to bring the character of Grogu to life.
Oddly enough, the original Yoda was almost not played by a puppet actor at all. According to SyFy, the original plan for Yoda involved a trained monkey wearing a mask. It was only later that Henson was brought in to assist with Yoda’s creation.
In an interview with StarWars.com, George Lucas revealed that he had some concerns about using a puppet to bring Yoda to life. However, according to an interview VFX artist Goran Backman gave to CinemaBlend, “Mandalorian” creator Jon Favreau had a soft spot for the traditional puppet look of the original Yoda, and wanted Grogu to elicit the same audience response. According to Newsweek, it takes two people to operate the “Baby Yoda” puppet.