A condensed version of this interview was originally published in Verbicide issue #18
What is the current landscape of voice acting? Is it generally a set group of established actors, or is the face of voice acting constantly changing and evolving?
I think in the old days it was a much smaller club, but today the group of new and talented people is expanding rapidly. Fortunately, there is a lot of product to support the talent pool. Like in most things, change is good, and new blood helps keep the industry fresh and the old codgers like me on their toes!
I assume that, in the past, voice actors were a tightly knit group since most actors ended up working together many times over their careers. Do voice actors still share some sense of camaraderie, both inside and outside the studio?
Most definitely. I really enjoy the people I work with, and can’t get enough of Tress MacNeille, Rob Paulsen, Jeff Bennett, Jim Cummings, Tom Kenny, Maurice LaMarche, and on and on. These are funny, bright people with just enough cards missing to be shy of a full deck. I love that. There are many good folks in this business, but the [voice actors] are a great group to hang with.
What are the differences in becoming a voice actor now as opposed to when you we’re starting out?
I don’t think you have the luxury of time. When I started, I was cast as Freddy Jones of “Scooby Doo” fame because I was a young whippersnapper of 23. I could barely read the copy and didn’t know which end of the mike was electrified, which explains why shock therapy has no effect on me. Joe Barbera was fantastic and really gave me a chance; he would give me the opportunity to read for all the characters, not just Freddy, and that really opened things up for me. Today, you better be riding firmly in the saddle when they let you out of the gate or you won’t make it around the ring. The actors are so good today you really need to be professional and know how to read copy and chew up the scenery. In that respect I was very lucky — I worked with fabulous professionals like Don Messick, Daws Butler, John Stephenson, June Foray, and many others and actually learned on the job.
Are there any “new” voice actors who you feel make great contributions to the characters they inhabit, yet have failed to be duly recognized?
Actually, a few years ago there was a wonderful comedian named Joey Camen who would open his act by taking tennis balls out of his mouth — I know, just stay with me. He had this very, very cute voice that he used on “The Smurfs.” I always felt a show could have been built around that voice, and Joey was a sweet kid who could have done a lot more in my opinion. Also, Greg Berg is a great voice guy who is working a lot now, but I always felt people didn’t recognize his abilities early on. Like I said, he works a lot now so all is good. Scott Menville has amazed me with his range and I am enjoying watching him. We are doing a new version of the “Scooby Doo” shows and Scott does the young Shaggy. I knew his dad, a writer at Hanna-Barbera, and Scott used to come by the studio when he was a little squirt and watch us play — now he is playing! There are just so many new good folks that I would be leaving people out, so I had better just stop. They are a force to be reckoned with.
What are the day-to-day realities of voice acting? For instance, how much time do you spend reading scripts, auditioning, and performing in a studio?
Well, I have become old and lazy — I only work three days a week, but I used to average three sessions a day and sometimes as many as five or six. A few years ago during the peak of the season, I would run from one studio to the next and back again. It was all a lot of fun; it was like I imagine radio in New York must have been back in the heyday.
I really try not to read scripts, as the directors and writers and producers will go over them at the session, and if I have a preconceived idea how I will play the character it is very hard to get that initial instinct out of my head if the powers want to go a different direction. I audition mostly at home now on MP3 and send it over to the agency — very nice, but you know we actors do like to show off, so sometimes I miss auditioning at the studios, but they just don’t do it much that way anymore.
You began your entertainment career as a comic and live action actor. What fueled your transition to becoming a voice actor?
It just sort of happened. I was spotted in a nightclub doing a dog and cat fight during my standup act and this producer hired me to do a Friskies dog food commercial. I had never heard of voiceovers. Also, early on, I was on stage in a college play and one of the gals in the show said I should meet her commercial agent. I said, “okay!” I got a commercial on my first audition and did a lot all through college, but that is how I got into doing commercials. Once you get going, your agent will send you out on readings and hopefully that will get the ball rolling. I was very lucky in that I have never stopped working. One thing led to another, but voices just kind of took over and I said, “Go ahead, take me — I’m yours.”
My initiation to the world of voice acting was an abrupt Internet detour to a site which was hosting recordings of “Thundercats” outtakes (www.cheezey.org/thundercats/sounds/outtakes.html). It was the first time that I truly understood that the voices of animated characters belonged to real people. Has that odd separation of voice and actor ever been an issue for you, personally or professionally? Do you ever find yourself explaining to fans that you are not the characters you did voices for?
I once got a letter from a little girl inviting me, Hefty Smurf, along with Papa Smurf and Smurfette to a picnic. Her mother wrote the letter for her, but the little girl signed it and it was in kid talk. It touched all of us in its pure innocence. I felt bad that thinking someday she would find out there really weren’t any Smurfs and the voices she heard were coming from big old hairy adults who lived in normal houses not houses made of mushrooms. I guess it is a fine line we walk.
On the other hand, I have learned that there are a lot of fans of the “Transformers” and fans of Megatron. That is very nice. I don’t think that voice actors have quite the same problem as on-camera folks. We are just too many people to keep track of.
You’ve talked a little about the issue of voice actors mimicking each other’s performances. You particularly, with such a large catalogue of characters, must often turn on the TV to find several imitations of voices you created. Is this regarded as a serious issue within the industry? Is it merely looked down upon by peers, or is it accepted as a reality of the business?
That was one of the first things I learned in the business. Don, Daws, and Joannie Gerber all were so respectful of that issue. I had the ability to mimic just about anything I heard so I had to be extra careful not to accidentally take someone’s voices. It is a very bad thing to do, and all of us that know and love each other won’t do it. But to answer your question, just the other day I heard myself on a show I didn’t do. It was a double-edged sword — it’s nice to know that my voice was recognizable and someone thought enough of it to use it, but hey, I’m still working. It is a no-no. I just want to believe that this young fellow was not conscious of the fact that he was doing me, but liked the voice when he was a kid and is reproducing it out of muscle memory.
I recently had an incident where an actor was asked to do one of my characters for a commercial, non-union. I must say he nailed it! Scary, don’t get sick in Tinsel Town!
You’ve discussed a dislike of being typecasted as a certain kind of voice actor. How do you — and other voice actors — avoid this problem? Or, if that is unavoidable, then how do you break out and stretch creatively from time to time?
Unfortunately, it is a problem. It is becoming harder and harder to avoid it. In the old days we used to go out on auditions and there would be character drawings on a table and you could pick the ones you wanted to try. That was absolute heaven — you could choose something that struck you as interesting and different, but it was your decision, and more times than not you could come up with something that no one expected. That is kind of taken out of the formula now. People play it safe and hire you for what you are known for doing. I guess that is good, but it’s very limiting. Most of the directors who work for the studios believe they know every voice you can do. They have limited time, and part of their job is to just cast the show so they cast you for what they have seen you do, and that is that. How do you get around it? I’m not sure — buy the studio?
What is your process for creating voices for the many “non-verbal” characters that you are famous for, like Nibbler or Slimer? Is it mostly inflection of the voice, or is it as complex as trying to create a consistent language base for each character?
I am more visual, and go from what the character says to me when I look at it. When they showed me artwork of Nibbler it was automatic. Then, those wacky [writers] — and they are wacky — told me Nibbler also eats like a ravenous dinosaur, belches like a Bronx taxi cab driver, and speaks like a pompous TV announcer. Hmmm? Well, we combined all of those ingredients and came up with what you hear.
I’m sure that many people have commented on how your performances positively affected their childhoods. In a sense, they have an emotional attachment to a character you helped bring to life. But do you feel an emotional attachment to these characters as well? In light of the recent resurgence of cartoons and other properties from the 1980s (“Transformers” in particular), does your emotional connection to these characters change as different studios reinterpret them to bring them to a new audience?
I’m not sure how much of an emotional attachment I have to my characters. I know I have affection for the process and friends I worked with, but I really just do my job and then move on. I suppose if I had conceived the character, written the script, and did the artwork maybe…but it is a very collaborative process, and it is hard to call it my own.
How has the shift from traditional animation to CGI affected the profession of voice acting? Which kind of animation do you prefer?
I’m not sure I really like CGI all that much. I guess I do, but I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to animation. I think “Curious George” would have been a disaster done in CGI. I never could get my head around the CGI “Scooby,” and obviously they couldn’t get their head around me, either, as they never called. But all in all, I think CGI affords creators a lot more latitude for effects. As to affecting voice acting, the process is the same and there is a lot more product with CGI, so that is a positive.
When people cite Mel Blanc as one of the most influential voice actors, there is a sense that it is because the characters he originated at Warner Bros. withstood the test of time, maintaining the voices he pioneered. People remember him through the characters. But from a technical and professional standpoint, when you listen to his performances, what impresses you about him? Why is he one of the greatest voice actors?
I have said this before, but the thing that stood out for me about Mel Blanc was the power in his voice. His voice cut through so beautifully. I had the pleasure of working with him and I would dribble out of the side of my mouth just staring at him while he worked. His voices all fit the characters so perfectly. The writing and the drawings were classic, but his voices and his comedy sense and personality shaped what is and will always be part of our culture. So many, so funny, and so brilliant — he was truly the father of animation.
As it becomes less common for voice actors to truly be linked to their animated counterparts, some actors, like Billy West, have opted to create their own characters through independent projects in the hopes of owning a character of their own. Is that an attractive prospect to you, or do you find more contentment in the challenge of essentially voicing studio projects as you’ve done in the past?
No, I think that is a terrific idea, and I hope Billy can pull it off. It can be rewarding on many fronts. Giving birth to a project and keeping artistic control is very appealing. Howie Mandel is one of the few people I know who did it and was very successful. The show was called “Bobby’s World.” I love the fact that Howie still gives me credit for his success in getting into animation just because I happened to recommend him for the “Gremlins.” He was the sweet little Gizmo, and I was the nasty, disgusting Stripe, the evil gremlin. Howie created “Bobby’s World” with Jim Staahl and Jim Fisher from “Laugh Trax,” a live action comedy show we all did together. “Bobby’s World” was based on one of Howie’s characters from his standup. The show was Howie’s baby and he did very well with that show. He said, “Frank, I have a role for you, do you want it? Deal or no deal?” I took it and was Howie’s dog, and loved every minute of it!
Is there a performance or character you enjoyed so much that you wouldn’t mind being permanently associated with it?
There have been many characters I’ve enjoyed doing over the years, but I think I will have to let the audience decide who they will associate me with. I have been lucky in my career in that I have had a large volume of work in many areas. I guess I’m a bit like a journeyman golfer; I am just trying to make the cut and be there on Sunday.
What, if anything, do you try to instill in all the voices you create?
I always hope to add something beyond what the creative team was thinking. It is very rewarding if you can make them laugh or smile or say, “We weren’t thinking of that, but let’s give it a try!” I am working on “Curious George,” the PBS television show, and it is such fun because the director and producers trust my talent and instincts and just let me go. I add a lot more to that little non-talking monkey because they let me fly. It is so simple: give your actor a chance to perform, and chances are he will — oh, and occasionally toss him a banana!