Classic Muppet Performer Dave Goelz On Playing Gonzo For 40 Years And The Re-Release Of 'The Muppet Movie' [Interview]

Over more than 40 years, Dave Goelz has portrayed one of the cornerstone Muppet characters, the loopy Great Gonzo. On The Muppet Show, Gonzo was primarily a daredevil in the style of Evel Knievel, but over the course of a handful of films, he's been everything from an alien to a pirate to Charles Dickens. The first of those films, the superlative The Muppet Movie, celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this summer; in commemoration of the milestone, The Muppet Movie is playing in theaters around the country on July 25 and July 30.

Via phone interview, Slashfilm sat down with Goelz, the longest-tenured Muppet performer, about making his first movie, working with Jim Henson, the next Muppet project, and more.

When The Muppet Movie opened in 1979, it arrived in the middle of the five-season run of The Muppet Show on TV. What was the transition like from doing a weekly show to making a feature?

The big difference was pace. On the show, we'd shoot 15 pages a day. On the movie, we'd shoot 1 to 1 ½ pages a day. Because it's single-camera, the set is relit every time the camera moves, which meant there was a lot more free time. Also, the pace allows for more perfectionism, getting things really right. 

Because it's a big screen and everything would be seen more clearly, we made an effort on the film to keep hands down at the bottom of the frame so you don't see arm wires or sleeves. And you didn't have digital rod removal at that time. Things like that altered our technique a little bit from what we would do on television. But basically, it was the luxury of having more time to get [everything] right.

You mentioned rod removal, and I was thinking — I recently rewatched The Muppet Movie, and I've never really noticed the rods [that Muppeteers would use to hold up Muppet characters]. I can't tell if it's my mind refusing to notice them, or if it's the skill of Muppeteers like you in hiding them.

Well, it's funny. When we do big projects on television now, we use rod removal. We did a series a few years ago [ABC's The Muppets], and the rod removal costs a lot of money. I have to confess, I never even notice whether they're there or not. I'm looking at performances or feeling the scene as it plays.

One of the big moments for Gonzo in The Muppet Movie is the solo number, "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday". What was your memory of getting to perform such a wistful song? It doesn't seem like the obvious fit for the character.

Well, there are several relevant factors. One is that I was just beginning. I was not too comfortable in playing real emotions. I liked playing sillier things. There's an episode of The Muppet Show where Gonzo left the show to become a film star in Mumbai, and that was intended to be played seriously. And I remember thinking, "This is not fair! I shouldn't have to do this! I'm too exposed." But it taught me a lesson, that there was a power in [playing it seriously]. By the time of the movie, I was fine.

Playing the emotion was something that was a little uncomfortable for me. Singing the song was tricky because it had been recorded in key for Paul [Williams, who wrote the song]. So they had to re-record it for me. I tried to sing it, but I couldn't. The last thing would be, it was added as a special gift from Paul Williams. He wasn't asked to do that song. It wasn't in the script. He brought it in because he related to Gonzo. He wrote it for Gonzo, and Jim [Henson] loved it so much that he wrote scenes in the movie to accommodate the song.

Now, since it's a Muppet movie, like the show, there were a lot of celebrity cameos. You get to play opposite Richard Pryor at one point. Was there a standout among them?

Oh, yeah. At that stage, everybody was a legend. I was looking at the cameo list [recently], and in those days, really popular and established performers were in their 40s and 50s and 60s, people like Bob Hope. Now we have more outlets, and we have a lot of younger celebrities. But those guys were luminaries. They were celestial bodies, all those folks, who we had seen all of our lives.

At that time, I can tell you exactly, there were 119 international celebrities. We ran out just before we finished the Muppet Show [which aired 120 episodes]. There were fewer people who were known the world over than there are now. So I was just always amazed that they could come in and, out of nothing, they could create their performance. 

Richard Pryor was very nice to work with. I was a little nervous about him, because I always felt a lot of angst and anger in his performances. I didn't know what he would be like, but he was fine. He was very businesslike, just got it done and went on his way.

After Gonzo meets Pryor's character, he's lifted into the air by holding onto countless balloons, one moment that pushes the limits of puppeteering in the film. What was it like making that scene, with whatever effects were involved?

As I recall, we shot it in three places. On the MGM lot, we shot the takeoff. There was just a big crane and a wire holding the balloons and the puppet. The puppet was radio-controlled, so I could have him look around and speak, record dialogue. Then there was the part that we shot up in Carmel Valley. I remember there was a hairpin turn on somebody's ranch, where we shot more stuff with him up in the air and the crane was there, too. And then, when Gonzo landed, it was in Hidden Valley, in Los Angeles.

We shot this over a period of weeks, I guess, and he came down the same way, with a crane lowering him down on a wire. Then, we cut to a better shot where I was performing the hand puppet. I was just happy to be in California. It was sunny and warm and familiar. We'd come from England, where it had been raining on us for two seasons. It was a joy to be there. The movie crew was like this giant, lumbering machine. The scale of everything was much larger than what we did on the show. Having a giant crane come with you on location, you know? All of those are memories I have from the shoot.

I'll tell you this, too: the notion of Gonzo taking off in the balloons and seeing the world from above is kind of non-linear. It doesn't directly lead into the song "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday". It triggers the song, but it's not a literal set of lyrics. It's evocative of wanting to go back to something that was true and real. It takes on a far greater meaning than what we see in the film. It's about the connectedness of the group, and how important it is to honor that. It's not really about going up with a bunch of balloons in the sky. Anyway, it's a song that really endures, I think. I love it. 

Speaking of pushing the boundaries, in the final sequence, there's a major crane shot with something like 250 different Muppet characters, and more than 130 men and women had to make it possible. I assume you were among them.

I was right in the middle with Gonzo and somebody else. I can't remember the other character.

What was that experience like?

Well, it was a little unnerving. You know, we have concentric rings of puppeteers in all the cities we work in. If we need someone to do a character in Los Angeles or London or Toronto, we can call on really accomplished puppeteers. When you get to that many characters, you're getting to the outer circle. And you don't know exactly what you're going to get. They're hobbyists, or they know someone who's a professional, so they got called in.

So I was a little nervous about how they were all going to look. I think Frank Oz gave them all lessons on how to lip-sync and how to move. Funny thing is, I only found out a couple years ago that Tim Burton was one of the puppeteers. I guess we wouldn't have known his name at that point anyway, because he was early on in his career. It's just funny to find that out now.

I've also read that the director John Landis performed Grover in that scene, though I don't know if that's true.

Well, I wasn't going to say it, but this was one of my concerns. When we were in there shooting, we didn't know most of these people. Right behind me, there was somebody mouthing off with Grover, doing a lot of crazy, blue material. And just being really obnoxious. I remember thinking, "God, it's just a shame that a classic character like Grover gets picked up by some goofball who just abuses him and misrepresents him." And then Frank introduced me to John, whose name I knew at that point, and John was doing Grover. [Laughs] He was clowning around for Frank's benefit, I think. It was OK in the end.

What do you feel makes The Muppet Movie feel so timeless 40 years later?

I don't know if the public feels the same way, but I feel like it's a simulacrum of Jim's life and how he gathered his collaborators together. Kermit drives across the country, and he's on a journey, and people buy into it. They want to sing and dance and make people happy. That's the same thing Jim did, just without the Studebaker. He built his production company manually, over many years, one person at a time.

My story is that I flew down to New York and met everyone but Jim, because he was out of town. I had been building puppets so the head of the workshop said, "You should definitely meet Jim." So I went down to LA to meet him. And over time, he convinced me to come to New York and build characters for a Broadway show that he was doing at the time. It didn't end up happening, but that's how I got in there. 

Everybody came in by some manual method. During that process of me coming in, I made some videos and then Jim came through to the Bay Area. I took him out to dinner, then took him back to my apartment to show him these videos. He could see that I was serious, and intent on learning how to do this. He took the time. He came to look at us, stayed in a motel, went out with me, saw my videos, and it was that intensive for him. He did that with everybody. He pulled a great variety of personalities into the company, and that really enriched the work.

Moving off The Muppet Movie, Gonzo became more of a central figure in films like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. How did it feel for you to get more of a spotlight in these later films?

I really enjoyed it, it was great. Even in my development as a performer and as a person, I was changing and Gonzo was changing. There was room for him to be soulful and to play the part of Charles Dickens. It was Jerry Juhl who thought of doing that, because as he wrote the screenplay for Muppet Christmas Carol, he really wanted to get in the Dickensian prose, and he wanted to do it without having a narration voice. It occurred to Jerry to use Gonzo. 

That was the final step of stretching the character from absurdity into soulfulness. This was his chance to be articulate about it. I loved delivering that language.

As a grown-up watching it, I'm pleasantly surprised at how faithful the film is to Dickens' prose. It might not seem like the Muppets would treat the story with reverence and respect, but they do.

You know what? It's true. I'm told that the Charles Dickens Museum in London — Muppet Christmas Carol is their favorite movie version of the story. I don't know how we pulled it off. Jim had just died. Brian [Henson, Jim's son] was directing, his first film. And we were doing this profound piece of literature with rats and pigs and chickens. Somehow, the presence of those things really triggers emotions. I've never been able to watch it without breaking up. I can't do it.

When something really poignant happens and you laugh, it catches you off-guard and makes you cry. It's structured in such a way that it does that. I love the effect that movie has. It's really respectful of the material.

I know my answer to this question, but I'm curious: if you had to choose a Muppet movie that's underrated, which one would it be and why?

Good question, but I don't know how they're rated. [Laughs] I'm inside here, I just live my life. I have no idea what the ratings are, what's overrated or underrated. I just know what's creatively satisfying.

Which, then, were the most creatively satisfying?

I'd say three: Muppet Movie, for sure. It's an interesting thing, because with the frog-legs scenes, it's slightly cartoony. But underneath that is the real journey that Jim took, and it has a lot of meaning. I think people sense that. Second one is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which we just talked about. It's such a profound story and I think we did it justice.

The third one is Muppet Treasure Island, because it just evokes that world in such a rich way visually and character-wise. I was very, very pleased with that. And I like when the Muppet characters play other characters. That enriches the work for me. Some people don't like it, but I love it.

That last one [Muppet Treasure Island] is my pick for most underrated. It's such an incredibly funny movie. And Tim Curry's performance is great, too.

Just an incredible talent. I think, too, the heart of Robert Louis Stevenson's work comes through in Muppet Treasure Island. You have a little boy looking for a father figure, who tangles with a disreputable guy who finds some sort of honor at the end. It's a poignant, powerful story.

With Curry and Michael Caine, it's powerful to watch such talented actors to never play down to the Muppets, but treat it seriously.

Yeah, I think what Michael said was, he was going to play [Scrooge] like he was in the Royal Shakespeare Company. In one of his interviews, he said he'd prepared for the movie by cutting up his wife's credit cards. [Laughs] 

But yeah, people of that stature can come in and enter an imaginary world and treat it as real. Without being false to their characters, too. Michael Caine was just utterly convincing. I remember when Brian told me he was going to use Michael Caine. I thought, "Well, Scrooge is soft." I always think of him as a spindly, beaky guy. But by the end, I was convinced. Michael Caine just did that character justice. He's so good. 

Tim Curry as well. Very theatrical guy. Very able to handle broad comedy. "After all, this is my only number!" [Goelz is referring to Curry's sole musical number in Muppet Treasure Island.]

That song is so good.

Oh, yeah. And you know, Curry recorded an unbelievable version of "A Professional Pirate". It was so good, and we were rehearsing to that. And then, when we went to shoot, he wanted to do it live. So he did a slightly different version, and it took me a little more time to appreciate it. 'Cause I thought, "God, when you have something that good pre-recorded, why not just lip-sync and keep it?" But he did an amazing job with the live performance.

It's a great scene, and a movie I really do love. I do have a bit of a reflective question. You have, I think, the longest tenure of any of the Muppet performers, of more than 40 years. If you could go back to yourself, circa 1976, what's one lesson you'd give yourself about working for so long?

That's a great question. I think I would tell him to trust everything will be all right. Just do your best in life, and your best in work. 

So, one of the more recent credits you and Frank Oz have is in the Pixar film Inside Out. How did that come about?

Well, Pete Docter [director of Inside Out] is a friend of ours. Frank's been in a couple of his films, too. And this time, we were hanging out together, and he saw the way Frank and I bounce off each other. We insult each other constantly. It's very inventive. I can't do it with anyone in the world but Frank. It's just the chemistry we have. He'll insult me, and I'll find a way to top it. It goes on and on, and it's just absurd. Pete saw that, and thought it would be fun for us to come in.

I think we recorded for about an hour. There's a little scene that was written, about three and a half pages long. And then Pete just said, "Let's just have fun." So we just started improvising. One of those improvs wound up in the film. And Pete's great, he's such a talent.

Outside of Gonzo, who's your favorite Muppet character to perform as and why?

[Pause] I was going to say that I can't really answer that, because I've had a whole bunch of characters in different groups. The Fraggles, the Muppet Show ones, and so forth. We did another series called Jim Henson's Animal Show with Stinky and Jake. It's really fun, because when I originate characters, I pull them from my own interior life. My own soul. They're a part of me that gets taken out for a walk.

It's really therapeutic. There was a period in the 1980s when we were doing the Fraggle Rock characters and the Muppet Show characters, and I love switching around like that. A different part of me got exercised for each one. So my first answer was going to be that I love them all.

But the second answer is that Gonzo's the easiest one to ad-lib with, because there's a freedom with him that allows me to ad-lib any way I want to. He trades in the unexpected, so if something pops in my head that's kind of a left turn, I can perform it and that's believable. With Bunsen Honeydew, for example, he's a structured guy and he's oblivious to everything around him. He's only interested in what he's obsessed with. That's a part of me too, but it's hard to play with people and relate with people. It's more of a construct.

One last question: you're among the cast of Netflix's Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. What can you tell me about that?

I can tell you a little bit, because I was only there for a few days of shooting. I dipped into the world, and mind you, this was a world that had been built in five months. And it had many, many more characters than the movie did. They were really benefiting from the expertise of the original film, which took five years to make from top to bottom. There's a lot to learn at that point. This time, the shop geared up in Burbank and, God, they built so many characters.

There's tons of Gelflings here, from an earlier point in time. The sets look utterly gorgeous. The way it's shot by Louis Leterrier and his director of photography, those two guys are working handheld cameras and Steadicams. It just looks amazing. The camera's very active, it's right in the middle of the action. The sets live up to the original film, except this time, they did ten hours of material. It's a staggering accomplishment. I don't know if anyone can appreciate how difficult it is, unless you've seen it being done.

So, I'm very excited to see it. You know, I live near Skywalker Ranch, and a friend of mine is in charge of doing the sound design. It's been a dream of his to somehow be involved in Dark Crystal, so he's beside himself. He showed me some of the footage, and boy, it is lush. It looks and sounds very lush. There's a lot more dialogue and story than the original film had, because this is mostly about the Gelflings. I can't wait to see it.