Interview with Muppet Performer Bill Barretta, Part 1

Ryan Dosier – That’s right everybody, today we interview Bill Barretta. The legendary performer of Pepe, Johnny Fiama, and Bobo the Bear took the time to answer some of my questions–three parts worth, in fact. I really hope I don’t need to give him much of a back-story. Every Muppet fan should know exactly who this extremely talented man is. It is an extreme honor for me to have the opportunity to discuss the Muppets with Bill and we both hope you enjoy the interview!

Read Part 2 and Part 3!


Interview with Bill Barretta, Part 1
Conducted by Ryan Dosier

RYAN:   Bill, first of all, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview with The Muppet Mindset. It is such an incredible honor to be able to ask you questions that only obsessed Muppet fans could possibly come up with or really want to know the answer to. Anything you’d like to say to said fans before we get started?

BILL:   Hello…How are you?…You look great in that shirt…Why aren’t you wearing any pants while reading this?

RYAN:   As a Muppet legend, it’s almost required that you have an interesting back-story about how you got involved with the Muppets. I know that yours involves cleaning toilets; would you care to elaborate on that?

BILL:   Legend? Uh, well yes it’s true I first met Brian Henson while working for the Operations department at Sesame Place in Langhorne Pennsylvania. We became friends and tried to stay in touch over the years as we went our separate ways. Eventually after Jim had died I moved out to Los Angeles and during my first six months there, Brian came out to produce the show “Dinosaurs”. Since I was a struggling actor at the time I asked if there was any position that I might be able to help with, production assistant, cable wrangler, toilet cleaner, anything to get me closer to the business. He said that there was a character in the show that was a lot like Jackie Gleason from the Honeymooners and that he remembered me fooling around and impersonating him at one time, which was true. I love Ralph Cramden. Anyway, he said there were auditions to be inside of a large rubber suit like the Ninja Turtles film they had done, and would I be interested in auditioning for that type of job. I of course jumped at the opportunity! Since I had been studying as an actor and my training was rooted in interpreting a scene through moment to moment “behavior” (Meisner technique), what better way to apply those skills by being inside of a suit where I didn’t have to necessarily memorize the dialogue, but interpret it through what I was doing in the scene. This is kind of an odd thing, but when I heard it was a Dinosaur and that I would be judged on my behavior, I immediately shaved my head (so that I would look more like a reptile) and began practicing how to move like a reptile and incorporating human characteristics.

Anyway, sorry if this is a lot of acting mumbo jumbo, but I auditioned and after they reviewed the tapes and apparently watched the audition with the sound off, (I had to do the dialogue for the audition and improvise as the character) Brian and Michael Jacobs decided that I should play Earl…or they just needed someone really stupid to get inside of an 80lb. rubber suit for 14 hours a day and who seemed excited about the whole thing.
From Dinosaurs I began to mess around with some of the background hand puppets and assist the other puppeteers when I wasn’t inside of Earl, which wasn’t that often. I had very little experience in puppetry but I knew my lip-sync was pretty good and that I loved creating characters.

As a child my brother Gene, who is four years older than me, used to plan all of our creative activities. Either we were going to make movies, put on some sort of show, get me to jump off the roof of my house or even build puppets. He’s really the reason I’m doing what I do today. He always encouraged me to perform and I loved doing it. One day he decided to write to Jim to find out how to make a Muppet. Well, Jim amazingly sent back a great letter and directions on how to do so. I think this may have been 1971? Well, Gene found the closest foam & fabric store near us and got us to start building and performing puppets. I have to say, that period probably lasted for about a year I think, but my mother continued throughout my life to buy me different types of puppets on special occasions, so even though I never thought I would become a puppeteer, somehow she knew.

RYAN:   Your first big job with the Muppet people was as Earl Sinclair’s body on Dinosaurs. How does a huge, full-body, more-machine-than-reptile character like Earl work?

BILL:   Well all of the characters on Dinosaurs were highly collaborative situations. In the case of Earl, there are three parts to the performance. One – I was inside the suit moving everything except all of the facial manipulations and jaw, Two – An amazing puppeteer like Dave Goelz for the first season and Mak Wilson for the rest of the series, manipulated all the facial manipulations, jaw and provided the production guide vocal. And Three – Stuart Pankin provided the final voice for Earl. But there are many other people who helped Earl come to life such as the designers, builders, dressers, writers, Henson technical crew, production crew, who without them Earl could not have existed.

RYAN:  Is it difficult to provide the body movements for a character when you’re not the one controlling the voice and the face?

BILL:   Yes at first it was very tricky. It was really important to “listen”. I think to perform these characters we all needed to be good listeners. We all had earphones and microphones inside so that we could not only communicate with our personal puppeteer on the head, but so that we could communicate with everyone involved in the scene, including the director. Try and imagine being on a party line with up to 12 to 15 people everyday for hours on end. It’ll drive you a little crazy.

I guess what I was trying to say at first was that after a while the listening is what allows you to instinctually begin to know what or how your partner on the head is going to react or respond during a scene. Aside from the written dialogue, you still need to keep the character alive and so all of those small moments also become a millisecond give and take between you and your partner. It’s pretty amazing how you can become so in tuned to someone else and I think that’s why we all became very close on that production.

RYAN:   You got involved in The Jim Henson Company thanks to Brian Henson and the two of you really seemed to have a good rapport ever since. You would perform numerous, hilarious, character duos such as Johnny Fiama and Sal and Seymour and Pepe along with Dr. Phil van Neuter and his hands. What are some of your favorite memories of working with Brian?

BILL:   I have to say I really loved Johnny and Sal. I recently looked at the two of them on The Jerry Lewis Telethon and it was pretty darn funny. I think by that point we had really found the balance of these guys and it was a blast! I don’t know if you ever saw this, but Johnny and Sal did a version of what has now become the Internet record-breaking Muppet event, “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the telethon. And it was just the two of them performing the song. We changed the lyrics and choreographed a hysterical routine. That I think, was my favorite Johnny and Sal moment, but there are definitely the moments (which are always my favorite) that are smaller, less in your face moments. Little glances, asides and even a moment in “Muppets from Space” where they ended up avoiding the blame for cutting Gonzo’s welcome cake for the aliens.

RYAN:   While we’re on the subject, did Brian come back to perform Sal for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video?

BILL:   Actually, no, I don’t think Johnny was even supposed to be in the video but he was sent to the shoot. When they decided to add him, we felt that he shouldn’t be there without Sal, so it was a last minute thing but I’m glad they made the cut.

RYAN:   Whatever happened to Seymour? He hasn’t been seen since Muppets Tonight. Did Pepe hire somebody?

BILL:   You know I’m not really sure why or who decided to fizzle Seymour out…It may have been Brian, but I loved Seymour, he was so sweet and biiiig. A great character and I loved his design, small trunk and great hands…Loved him!

RYAN:   Where did you get the inspiration for the character of Johnny Fiama? He could have so easily become a one-note character, but you developed him into something incredible and extremely three-dimensional.

BILL:   Well, thanks. Again I love to create characters and most of the characters I come up with are usually based on people I know or have observed in every day life. I love observing people and seeing how they communicate and deal with their surroundings and situations they find themselves in…Even if they’re strangers. It’s intriguing to me.

Johnny was initially based on two people, my grandfather Paul Giordano Sr. and my dad, Gene Barretta Sr. And maybe the similarities would not be so obvious, but I try to pluck those elements of their personalities that make them entertaining people to watch and they were both interesting characters. If you knew them you’d probably get it. Unfortunately they’re both gone now, but they both got to see Johnny.

I first created Johnny Fiama as a character to perform as myself. This was just before Dinosaurs started and I had this crew cut (Dinosaur look I mentioned before) that was growing out. I was messing around with this bad Italian entertainer idea and one time when my brother came to visit in L.A. we shot an improv video at my house of these two brothers. The Fiama brothers…Johnny & Frankie. Well we had so much fun that a few years later when my brother moved to L.A. we decided to shoot a mock documentary of their last performance together called The Last Swing. We got some friends involved and my wife Cristina who was my girlfriend at the time, and shot it over a weekend. Actually my brother decided to start posting some of our old videos and movies on YouTube, so if you want to see the original version of Johnny, search The Fiama Brothers – The Last Swing. Its in four parts so try to watch this twenty-some minute thing if you’re up for it. It’s pretty funny even though we threw it together and its all improv based on an outline.

RYAN:   Will we be seeing more of Johnny and Sal in upcoming projects? They’re near the top of my “most missed Muppets” list.

BILL:   I hope so, but that ultimately would be up to the Muppet Studio folks.

RYAN:   What is your favorite Johnny and Sal moment? I think mine has to be Johnny singing “What the World Needs Now” to Beaker.

BILL:   I have to say I have a hard time remembering that one, but I think I may have answered this earlier. It’s funny I don’t know whether I have just a bad memory like my wife says, or if when I’m performing I kind of get lost in it, live it for that moment and then move on. Maybe it’s both?

RYAN:   Let’s discuss Pepe now, shall we? Pepe is one of my all-time favorite characters and I find him hilarious no matter what he’s doing. Why do you think Pepe went from being an elevator operator to one of the most popular Muppets?

BILL:   I don’t know exactly. Maybe timing? Or maybe he’s just a little bit more naughty than most of the Muppets and people like naughty puppets?

RYAN:   Although Pepe is very popular there are still some fans that can’t stand the poor fellow. If you could show these naysayers one Pepe clip to prove them wrong, which would you choose?

BILL:   Hmmm…I would suggest they take a look at themselves for a moment and see if there is anything about his personality that might feel a little bit too close to home. Or not…

RYAN:   Which characters do you think Pepe works with best?

BILL:   Rizzo. Steve and I have so much fun messing around with those two, but I don’t think people have really been able to see that yet. There was some of it in Muppets From Space, but they evolved into a funny pair. There are probably more moments behind the scenes that haven’t made it out there yet that would really show how fun these guys are together.

RYAN:   Pepe and Kermit have been sort of teamed up together in recent appearances (Extreme Makeover, America’s Funniest Home Videos) and it seems like, for two characters that are polar opposites, they work extremely well together. Why do you think this is?

BILL:   Well, they say opposites attract. But again Steve and I enjoy playing together, and in the end it’s the relationships beneath the puppets that create the relationships above. Kermit tends to let the others be who they are. He tries to be patient and understanding with Pepe and I think Pepe secretly respects and appreciates that, especially if he can ultimately get away with something he’s not supposed to.

RYAN:   A pairing that we don’t see too much of is Pepe and Miss Piggy. Are they too similar to work well together? Would Pepe flip if he knew I said he and Piggy were similar?

BILL:   I don’t think he’d flip; he’s just allergic to pork.

RYAN:   According to Jim Lewis, you were a big asset when he was penning Pepe’s book It’s Hard Out Here For a Shrimp. What did you help contribute?

BILL:   Jim, who I love, basically wrote an entire book and then mistakenly let me get involved. Poor guy. I would have to say that my contribution was working with him on helping get Pepe’s words onto the page, as Pepe would say them. Don’t get me wrong, Jim is amazing at capturing the essence of the Muppets, so I really just tweaked. Maybe a few points of view here and there, but Jim really wrote the thing and he did an amazing job once again.

RYAN:   Any favorite quotes from the book?

BILL:   There are too many, but off the top of my head I like, “I like my women like I like my coffee…a latte’” and “Excuse me, but is your seat taken?”

  Does Pepe have professional ballet training, or does he just like the form-fitting tutu?

BILL:   Yeah, well, that was a site gag that seems to hang on for some reason. Not my favorite, but I guess it makes people laugh?

RYAN:   Beyond the tutu, Pepe has sported a good number of outfits in his tenure with the Muppets. From the classic blue hoodie and green shirt combo to the brand new olive green sweater and shirt combo that we saw on AFV, Pepe must have quite a wardrobe. What outfit is your personal favorite?

BILL:   I think I like his black turtleneck shirt and gold chain. That to me is Pepe. And he actually looks pretty good in his Bill “Bass” pinstripe suit with the electric blue shirt.

RYAN:   Pepe has also wooed a lot of women(s) in his day. Who were some of your favorite female stars to have Pepe work with?

BILL:   I had a ball with Joan Cusack. She was great. Pepe’s had so many women it’s hard to keep track at this point.

RYAN:   What was it like to be propelled into a main character role as Pepe in Muppets From Space after playing mostly one-note characters previously?

BILL:   Fun and exciting. Gee I hope the others weren’t too one note. But by then I think I was becoming more comfortable with the technical side of performing with the Muppets. I remember I would feel very comfortable with a character I was going to do and then I’d have to put the puppet on. Hopefully I’ve found a balance so that the complete character can come through.

RYAN:   Pepe doesn’t sing nearly as often as his fellow Muppets, but when he does it’s out of this world. A prime example of this is “Merry Christmas Baby” from A Green and Red Christmas. There really isn’t a question here… I just had to compliment you on that fantastic performance.

BILL:   Thanks. I love to sing and singing as Muppet characters allows me to not be afraid of trying to sing great. It’s more about the character in the performance rather than the expertise in the vibrato so to speak. Although, I do like Pepe’s falsetto “tribute” to Stevie Wonder at the end of that song. I think Stevie does that scream at the beginning of “Signed Sealed Delivered”?

RYAN:   Will we ever see Pepe in a one-prawn performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” utilizing his new-found opera singing powers granted to him by Santa Claus? Was that you singing Pepe’s operatic solo?

BILL:   I doubt it, but yes that was my attempt at opera…sorry.

RYAN:   Another excellent character of yours is Bobo. Where does he come from within you? He’s just so… different.

BILL:   I would have to say that Bobo is probably the most like me out of all my characters. Content with being content and grateful that people have allowed him to exist outside of the zoo.

RYAN:   A lot of Bobo’s funniest moments are when he’s paired with human guest stars; Cindy Crawford, Jeffery Tambor, Nathan Lane, etc. Which guest star do you think worked with Bobo the best?

BILL:   I’d have to say that Tambor and I have a special relationship, and still do. We just love trying to make each other crack up. He’s so brilliant and unfortunately there was quite a lot more to those two that didn’t make it into Muppets From Space. We just hit it off then and have remained friends since.

RYAN:   To round out Part One of our interview I’m going to say a series of random Bobo quotes and I just want you to say the first thing that comes to your mind. Ready?

Ding ding ding.

BILL:   Nathan Lane breaking up during rehearsal and takes.

RYAN:   The goat?!

BILL:   This was a milestone for me. Tambor told me back then that no one had ever made him crack up on film, that he was the one who got the others to break. So I made it my mission to try and get him to lose it during a take. Well, he couldn’t get through any of “the goat?” takes. If you watch the movie you can see him turn his head away from camera with a smirk just before they cut to the next shot. That moment was improvised and he wasn’t expecting it…I got him! And a few more after that.

RYAN:   Jalapeños, jalapeños, getting my friend some jalapeños.

BILL:   Ah, one of my favorite, made up, ditties. Also improvised. In fact, I think the production had to make sure that wasn’t someone else’s tune and clear the song. Happy little tune.

RYAN:   Careful you must be when sensing the future! Geez, what is this guy, dyslexic or something?

BILL:   Frank Oz.

RYAN:   And, finally: Hey, that’s a nice set of balloons ya got there. Maybe you’ll let me play with ‘em later.

BILL:   My wife.

Well, that’s it for part 1 of our interview with the magnificent Bill Barretta. Check back on Tuesday for part 2 where we discuss Topo Sticky, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Tom Bergeron, and much, much more! You won’t want to miss it!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

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