Atlanta Muppeteer Peter Linz fulfills quest for identity with Walter’s fame

By Michelle Hiskey

How does deep passion change a life? That question is answered in the hit film “The Muppets,” and in real life for its lead puppeteer, Atlanta native Peter Linz.

Peter Linz (right) with Walter, the breakout star of "The Muppets," and actor Jim Parsons (Photograph: Scott Garfield/Disney Enterprises)

Linz’ hands and heart bring to life Walter, the newest Muppet and breakout star of the film that has grossed more than $80 million.

Linz, 44, fell in love with the Muppets as a kid in northeast Atlanta, and throughout the 1980s stuck with the dream of becoming a Muppeteer throughout Briarcliff High School and the University of Georgia. The Center for Puppetry Arts on Spring Street gave him professional breaks that led to Sesame Street.

“Classic Muppets were set in the late 70s and are still around today. A new Muppet character added to that ensemble is a rare event,” he said of his great fortune to be cast as Walter.

“The character of Walter hits really close to home for me. I’ve always been an enormous Muppet fan who dreamed of one day working with the Muppets, and that’s basically who Walter is. How flipping crazy is that? It’s mind-blowing. I could have been cast as a monster or a chicken or someone’s right hand, but instead, I got cast to play the guy who is the world’s biggest Muppet fan who literally dreams of working with the Muppets. Apart from my wedding day and birth of my children, being cast as Walter, was one of the greatest moments of my life. I was beyond happiness.”

Linz spoke by phone during the holidays about finding his identity by first putting a sock on his hand; the inner drive that resulted in Walter’s invention; and life at arm’s length from the paparazzi.

How did you first get into puppets and Muppets?

In preschool, I remember having a squirrel puppet and enjoying the reaction I got for doing stupid things with the puppet. It was empowering and satisfying to make people laugh. When I was 8, I first started dreaming of being a Muppeteer. You can get away with saying anything with a puppet, and that’s some of the attraction. Being an insecure teen, it’s how I flirted with girls. It sounds creepy now, but it worked!

In his early 20s, Peter Linz used stuffed animals as puppets to entertain his young cousins. (Linz family photo)

As you grew up, did you get criticized for what you loved?

(Laughing and switching to a hearty, deep voice) I know it’s hard to believe, now that I’m so cool, that I might have felt like an outsider growing up. But in high school I didn’t exactly fit in.

Back then, there weren’t 100 children’s networks on TV. Especially in fifth to seventh grade, I heard it all the time: “You still watch Sesame Street?”

“Yes,” I would say. “It’s fantastic, hilarious and funny.” To me, the characters were so clever and based in truth. They weren’t just slapped together. They were deep. There were little things that Muppet performers would add, improvise and toss out there for the parents. I would catch those, and that was completely enchanting.

That ‘oh that’s just for kids’ prejudice was something Jim Henson came up against. That’s why ‘The Muppet Show” got turned down until a producer in Great Britain saw the genius of it. To drive home the message, the pilot episode was entitled ‘The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence.” The show debuted as ‘The Muppet Show.’

Was your family supportive?

First and foremost, my career is a result of the support of my family. Not every parent dreams that their child will want to be a puppeteer. But that was always a dream of mine, and they always supported me.

As a teenager in 1982, Peter Linz and his puppet Blue George joined the rest of the family -- from left, dad Gerry, brother Michael, sister Stephanie and mom Fran. (Linz family photo)

Dad was a counseling psychologist, and I am the youngest of four kids, so by the time they got to me, they were pretty darn laidback.

I got puppets as presents from them and I did shows for them and the neighborhood. I was a Piedmont Park Arts Festival street performer for a number of years and of course, in high school I was president of the drama club. I took aptitude tests in high school about what my career should be, and I thought about getting a real job like my father had as a psychologist. But after college, I realized I really just wanted to play with dolls on TV.

How did the Center for Puppetry Arts help launch you?

I would not have gone as far as I have without the center. It’s a phenomenal place – not only for live-theatre puppetry but also for the variety of puppetry they showcase. Atlanta has such an incredible asset in the center.

I remember going there when I was 12 to see Bruce Schwartz, who performed these beautiful, exquisite rod puppets. He was one of my early influences.

Not only did I learn about many different types of puppetry by working there, but also I was right there at the right time [when the Jim Henson Company was looking for puppeteers in the south.] A lot of people say success is about being at the right place at the right time, but 99 percent of that is to be in the right place and eventually the time will come around.

I wore many different hats during my time at the Center. I was an intern. I performed on the main stage in ‘Gulliver’s Little People.” I was an assistant to the museum director, and a docent for the museum collection. I was an usher in the main theatre, and then I was a touring puppeteer for “Pinocchio.” I was going to be a resident puppeteer, which at the time made several hundred dollars a week, and I was so excited. But then came the Sesame Street audition.

How did you end up as a Muppeteer?

When I first interviewed with The Center for Puppetry Arts, they told me they couldn’t really help me with any connections with the Muppets. But a year later, the Jim Henson Company came through, looking for puppeteers they intended to employ in Orlando (because at the time, Disney was going to buy the Muppets.) Jim passed away and the sale didn’t happen, but they eventually held auditions anyway. Happily, I did well enough to get invited to a workshop.

The five-day workshop was held in Orlando with Kevin Clash (Elmo) and Steve Whitmire (Kermit). Kevin explained that not everyone could do this type of puppetry. The manipulation of the characters is very precise. We work with the puppets above our heads and see what we’re doing by watching a tv monitor. Puppeteers see the exact same picture the audience sees. The performance is much more intimate and subtle because the camera is so close to the character. Sometimes, there can be as many as 15 to 20 puppeteers all squished together, so personal hygiene is also important.

When I returned home from the workshop, I bought a video camera straightaway. As I toured with “Pinocchio” for nine months on the East Coast, every hotel room I stayed in, I hooked up my camera to the tv and practiced everything I had learned in Orlando.

Initially, the most difficult thing was getting used to doing everything backwards. When you move the character to the left, the image on the monitor moves to the right. After a while, your brain makes the switch and you don’t think about it anymore. Also, the slightest movement can cause to the character to project a different emotion. Eventually, you have to do 120 things at once [and] all of the technical stuff has to be second nature, so that as an actor, you can concentrate 100% on your performance.

In 1991, another puppetry workshop came along, and I got hired out of that. I was 24.

Did you know Jim Henson?

I just missed Jim by a couple of months. My first season of ‘Sesame Street’ was the first one without him. I was at the mercy of Kevin Clash, who took Jim’s place on ‘Sesame Street’ as far as casting. Kevin was my mentor and tormentor early on. He is an incredible performer and a good friend.

When I got to “Sesame Street,” I had headaches every day because I was so stressed. Yes, I was living my dream, but I was also working alongside my heroes, and I didn’t want to mess up.

I would do one or two bits in a show, so I would be in New York one or two times a week every few weeks. For the six-month season, I would drive up from Atlanta and stay a couple of weeks and then come home. Then back up to New York to do it again. At first, I wasn’t making enough money to fly. I didn’t have two cents to rub together.

What’s it like to do your job physically?

Peter Linz with Theo, star of the PBS show, "Behind the Lions"

Every puppet works a different set of muscles. Tutter [the small blue mouse from ‘Bear in the Big Blue House’] is a tiny sock puppet, so he doesn’t take a lot of strength. Theo the giant lion [from ‘Between the Lions’] is much heavier and therefore more physically demanding.

I have a microphone like any actor on television, but I’m emoting through my hand, not my face. It’s a magic trick, an illusion.

The Muppet Technique was invented by Jim Henson. Before Jim, puppets on tv were simply traditional puppets shot in a traditional puppet theater. Jim saw that the frame of the TV was the puppet stage and that in order to work for television, puppets needed moving mouths and eyes that could appear to “focus” on the camera or other actors. He also invented the notion of the puppeteers watching their work on a monitor while they perform the characters.

My work boils down to lip-syncing and eye focus – always being aware of where the puppet appears to be looking. Acting through a puppet is not all that different from acting through your own body. A puppet says the same things – they just use a different vocabulary.

Under the best circumstances we work in a studio or soundstage, where the set is elevated. This allows us to walk around under the set, performing the puppets above our heads for the most flexibility and freedom. On location, we have to get down low. We have special rolling carts that we sit on and pull ourselves along with our feet, or someone pulls around by rope or cable. In the movie, when you see a shot of Walter walking down the street, I was below the frame on a ‘rolly’ with my arm up and my head down. We always have to be careful about our heads!

What does it take mentally to be the man behind the Muppet?   

A big part of our job is to be invisible. My characters can be hugely popular, but I can walk down the street and no one bothers me. I like it, but I sometimes wish people knew more about what we do. These characters come from amazing performers who are sadly invisible. I mean, without them, the Muppets would be just empty sacks of cloth.

I’ve only been recognized twice in my entire career, once when someone had seen “Avenue Q” on Broadway, and another time a month ago when I was with my family in a theatre and this girl came out and said, “Oh my God, you’re him!” She had a little freak out because she had seen my photo in the local paper the week before. It was sweet.

A little fame would be good, but not too much.

How did you end up as Walter?

Disney auditioned puppeteers on both coasts in summer 2010. They sent us a picture of the puppet and a couple pages of script. I thought I did terribly but then I got a phone call to fly to L.A. for a callback. It came down to 5 of us.

Walter is a wonderful puppet because he has a head like Kermit’s. It’s simple & flexible so I can get a lot of expression from the slightest movement of my fingers. The simple hand puppets are my favorite types.

How has attaining your dream changed you?  

Peter Linz and his puppet fans at the 1990 Olde English Festival in northeast Atlanta. His sign says "puppets sleeping." (Linz family photo)

I’d like to think it hasn’t changed me at all. I try to be a parent who is as good to my daughters as my parents were to me. One of my daughters never got over dinosaurs. She’s 14 now and wants to be a paleontologist. I totally support whatever my children are passionate about.

Being in “The Muppets” is an experience that has definitely enriched me. I find I’m a bit more confident in my work. I’ve never had a lead role in a major motion picture. Personally, it is interesting the amount of attention I am getting. It’s funny after 20 years in many different shows and with different characters, to suddenly be involved with something this high profile. It’s been validating as a performer to showcase what I do, and personally I am so grateful to have had the opportunity.

What about the Oscars?

I have high hopes for Bret McKenzie, who was our Music Director and wrote most of the songs. His music is just great – it’s contagious, infectious, catchy and really fun. “Everything’s Great” is a terrific song to wake up to.

I am not sure the Oscars consider Muppet Performers. If nominated, I won’t turn them down!

 

About Michelle Hiskey

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur, and her day job is senior editor on Emory University's development communications team. Michelle worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years as a sports reporter, columnist and Sunday feature writer, and her stories of recovery and redemption bridge unexpected places and people across Atlanta. She lives in Decatur with her husband Ben Smith, also a journalist, and their two awesome daughters. She can be reached at michelle.hiskey@gmail.com.
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