A Chat with Noel MacNeal, Part 2

Published: February 19, 2011
Categories: Feature

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BearDanceTough Pigs: How did you end up with the role of Bear? How did you first hear about that project?

Noel MacNeal: I actually auditioned for another show that they were trying to develop. It was a pilot for a Double Dare kind of game show, hosted by this big huge alien. I go in, and I’m inside this alien prototype with this huge mouth worked with two hands, and the whole time I’m in there thinking, “Why don’t you just get Marty Robinson to do this? It’s pretty much just Audrey II.” I did it, and had fun, and that was first thing in the morning, and I left and went home… went grocery shopping, did laundry.

Then I got a phone call later in the afternoon saying, “Noel, there’s actually one more character we’re wondering if you could come back to audition for.” They faxed me the sketch of this bear, with this little mouse and all that. So I’m in the cab, and I’m reading it through, Bear does this, says that. I looked this over for about 20 minutes in the cab, and I got there around 5:30, and I was the last one to walk in.

I walked in, and the Muppet exec at the time immediately came up to me and said, “Do your own voice.” I said, “What? That’s not what we do.” And I found out it’s because Bear was designed to be the anti-Barney. He was designed to be a voice that a grown person could actually sit through, while still being a show for kids. It was designed to be a show for kids and adults, because Bear shares his day with his little friends the way a grown-up would share their day, so families could actually watch together. I kind of did what, at the time, I called my “Uncle Noel voice.” Just a little gentler, up, and high: “Come on, let’s play!” And I got inside, and it had this sort of helix and a foam head — it was a prototype. I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be a walk-around. This is so cool!”

And then it dawned on me: Wait a minute. This is just a courtesy call. I’m the last one here, they’ve obviously got somebody else. So I just said, “I’m just going to have fun.” And so whenever it said Bear sniffs the camera, I just jammed the nose in. Or Bear holds up a glass to viewer — I held it right up and used the reflection to look through it, and just kept running around, and all that. Sometimes I would try to slip into a character voice, and it was like, “Ah-ah-ah! No no no! Keep your voice!”

Then the following Monday about 6:00, that’s when I got the call saying, “We’d like you to be Bear.”

TP: Do you know how many other puppeteers auditioned?

NM: I don’t know. I had heard that they picked somebody else, and then I came in and did it. So thank you, Mitchell Kriegman, for picking me! And in between that, during the weekend, I met this girl, who I ended up dating later that week, and we fell in love and got married and she’s my wife now.

TP: Good week!

NM: Yeah, those 36 hours were the most life-changing of my life.

TP: Every time we watch Bear, I’m amazed at how lifelike he is.

NM: Thank you!

TP: You really forget that he’s a puppet. Is there a secret to making him so lifelike?

Noel in the Big Blue HouseNM: Bear was great because we had this relationship where I could try something and the suit would say to me, “No, don’t do that. That feeling you’re feeling right now? Don’t do that again.” With the fact that he loved to dance so much, I just kept in mind that he’s light on his feet. He’s very graceful. He has this huge girth, but he’s never clumsy. So it was just playing with the angles and the lines you could make with the way he would stand, and pose, and just have as much fun with it as possible.

One thing I did learn very early on… There was one episode in the first season where Bear kneeled down and got on his knees to talk to Tutter, and suddenly [the illusion] was broken. You suddenly realized it was a guy in a bear suit. That’s why from then on, Bear only squatted down. We shot it where Bear would go down on all fours, and Jim Kroupa would do the right hand. That’s why, when I was training the guys at Disney World, I told them, “Don’t ever go down on your knees. It looks bad.”

TP: The puppet looks like it was pretty light. Was it?

NM: About 45 pounds… but it was all in the hips, a harness on the hips. It was very easy to move around in, and it was actually very comfortable.

TP: Was there a monitor? How did you see what you were doing?

NM: There was a monitor. It was what I call Big Bird technology. There was a microphone strapped to my chest, and the string from the left hand to the right hand. But then when I did appearances on other shows like Hollywood Squares or Donny & Marie, and I had to walk out, I couldn’t really count on cameramen knowing how to shoot a puppet. So the Henson Company developed the camera-in-the-eye, so for those shots, I had a camera in the left eye, and a matching glint in the other one. Basically it was like if you put your right hand over your right eye, and make a tube with your left hand and put it over your left eye like half a binocular, that was the vision I had. So for those shows I would have two monitors. I would have the monitor giving me the feed of what you see at home, and then I would have the monitor showing me my actual vision.

Bear got to walk out and move around naturally, because I could actually see where I was going. Normally on Hollywood Squares, they introduce the celebrities to the audience, and the celebrities go and sit down in their squares, and other Muppets — Elmo, Big Bird, Kermit — have this screen in front of the square. They introduce them and they pull the screen back, and up pops Kermit. Bear is the only Muppet that actually walked out with the other celebrities, went into the square and sat down.

beardonnymarieTP: Are there any other TV appearances that stand out? We recently saw the one from Donny & Marie, where Bear got a kiss on the nose from Marie Osmond…

NM: Oh yeah, and the wrangler was just freaking out: “What kind of lipstick is this?! Can I get it off?”

TP: So that was not planned?

NM: No. When you go on television like that, it’s never planned. It’s been fun going on shows like that… One time for a promotion on Hollywood Squares, Susan Lucci sat on Bear’s lap, and Bear looked into the camera and said, “Tutter, press the record button!”

Wayne Brady was a fan of Bear, and he was a really nice guy… He was doing these promos for his show, before the end of the show, and I’m dressed as Bear waiting to come on and end the show… I’m just waiting. Wayne’s going through these things, and he’s kind of flubbing the lines, and he says, “Guys, can we do this afterwards? ‘Cause it’s getting a little hot in this suit.”

And Bear comes over and says, “Really? Are you getting hot? Really, Wayne?” Wayne gets embarrassed, and Bear puts his arm around him and looks at the camera: “Hi, I’m Bear, and this is my pal Wayne Brady. Want a good time? Watch The Wayne Brady Show. Check your local listings.” Then Bear pats him on the back, and says, “Okay!” and walks off. So a lot of celebrities — and a lot of them were parents too — had a great time with Bear.

TP: What are some of your favorite episodes of the Bear in the Big Blue House series? You directed a few…

NM: I directed the volunteer episode, and that’s the one where they had to deliberately write it so that Bear wasn’t in 95% of it, which is why he hurts his foot and the other characters go out. I was kind of unofficially directing in other episodes… It got to the point where Bear would always have his monologue song, and directors would come to me and say, “What would you like to do?” They’d set up the cameras, and I’d go with it. That’s one of the nice things about being a puppeteer for television, is you kind of self-direct yourself. You kind of play with the frame, and you know what to do within the frame.

Some of the other episodes… The Harvest Festival, which had so many characters, and Ursa the bear. You get to learn that Bear actually has a special grownup friend, which is actually a good, subtle thing to introduce to kids. And at the end, instead of the usual credit crawl, they have Bear and Ursa sitting with their backs to camera looking up at the stars talking to each other, and just before it fades Bear puts his arm around Ursa. So that was a nice episode.

The fourth season had some nice episodes… It was expanding the community. Especially the last episode, because we realized it was the last season, so we wanted to do a last episode. I suggested, “Wouldn’t it be funny if everybody thought Bear was leaving?” and they worked with that concept. Bear wins a contest for a vacation, and the characters overhear that he’s leaving, and he’s getting ready to pack and all that, and they’re trying to make him feel more appreciated. They come up with this huge extravaganza at the end, and it’s all the characters from the series singing this song, “Thank You, Bear.” And it turns out that Bear can take his friends with him, and so they go to this wilderness lodge kind of resort in Sequoia City.


They redressed the attic to look like this hotel room, and of course the hotel room has a balcony. Bear wonders: “Do you think she’s here?” He steps out, and sure enough, Luna’s there. She’s like, “Bear, what are you doing here?”

That was the scene with Luna and Bear that was used for Lynne Thigpen’s memorial service. I was the last speaker, and that was the last scene they used, and it was Luna saying, “Isn’t it nice how we can all touch each other’s lives in such positive ways all the time?” And Bear says, “Would you mind singing the Goodbye Song one more time?” and she says sure.

TP: About the Goodbye Song, we were wondering: Did you record that song for every episode?

NM: No, that was the original Goodbye Song. There were different versions of it, like at the end of the first season when Bear and his friends went camping, and Luna rose. That was when we realized: Okay, Bear’s not having these delusions talking to the moon. Everyone else can see this too. That’s when they added in Tutter and Treelo and Pip and Pop singing the song too. Then for season two, they had the Harvest Moon Festival, and that’s when everybody sang, so they added in Ursa’s voice, which was Carmen Osbahr, and all these other voices, like Doc Hogg. There were so many characters that they expanded the Goodbye Song, so Peter Lurye wrote one more little part of the Goodbye Song as well. And when I’ve done appearances, I get the track with just Bear singing it, so I get to sing it.

Come back soon for the third and final installment of the interview, in which we talk about Breakfast with Bear, 10-Minute Puppets, and the Ninja Turtles! And click here to sit on Susan Lucci’s lap on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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