Son of Talking Animals: Great Cartoon Voice Actors, Part 2
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can read the first part of Geoff Carter’s homage to cartoon voice actors here.
Welcome back to the gallery of faceless greats. These are the actors who can make or break an animated character. While dozens of talented people labor to make a cartoon character believable in form and appealing to the eye, once that series of drawings opens its mouth, all bets are off. Too many animated characters have been spoiled by unconvincing voice work, or by being reduced to little more than a sock puppet for Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy. The actors listed below never failed to put the character first, and to make it live and breathe.
Before I write another word, please understand this: This isn’t my attempt at an encyclopedia. It’s merely a list of cartoon voice actors whose variety of performances, or full investment in a single performance, has left a strong impression on me. If your favorite actor isn’t on this list or my previous, it’s a space consideration and nothing more. People could fill entire books with the names and resumes of worthy voice actors. In fact, someone has: Tim Lawson and Alisa Parsons’ “The Magic Behind The Voices” is a must-read for anyone who’s ever wondered how tough it is to put the words in the mouth of a talking dog.
I hope you’ll continue to add names of your favorite voice actors to the comment section of the previous post, or to begin a new rap session in the comments section of this one. We’ll put faces to all these voices if it takes ten years … which, honestly, it probably could.
Eleanor Audley. The Bette Davis of animated thespians. Eleanor Audley’s voice is kind of a gold standard of pure evil; every actor who has voiced a demonic sorceress or evil stepmother has drawn currency on her bank. Though she had bit parts on dozens of early television shows, including “I Love Lucy” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” — usually playing a socialite or headmistress — she achieved immortality as the voice of three great, dark Disney characters: as “Cinderella’s” Lady Tremaine, as Madame Leota (the head in the crystal ball) in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, and as “Sleeping Beauty’s” terrifying (and yet oddly sexy) Maleficent.
Steven Jay Blum. This isn’t a scientific sample, but by my estimates, Steven Jay Blum provides the American voice for half the stoic male characters in anime. He speaks for the irreverent but deadly fighter Mugen in “Samurai Champloo,” the suave negotiator Roger Smith in “The Big O” … I could go on, but according to the IMDb, the man has more than 300 voice credits to his name. His signature role, that of troubled bounty hunter Spike Spiegel in “Cowboy Bebop,” is a masterful turn that Keanu Reeves will try — and probably fail — to match in a planned live-action “Bebop” movie.
Peter Cullen. Cullen is part of a rare club: No one no one should dare to re-cast Charles Foster Kane, no one should dare to re-cast Indiana Jones, and no one should dare to re-cast Optimus Prime. Such is Cullen’s hold on the role that children sent him fan letters when his “Transformers” character was (temporarily) killed in 1986, and the same fans presumably motivated Michael Bay to cast Cullen as Optimus Prime in his big-screem “Transformers” remakes. The fact that Cullen voiced a few other characters I like, most notably Monterey Jack of “Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers,” is just the cherry on the sundae.
Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily. The voice of Buttercup from “The Powerpuff Girls,” Tommy Pickle from “Rugrats” and “Happy Feet’s” Baby Mumble has a face, and a very fetching one. She was a familiar sight in a bunch of classic 1980s movies, including “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Streets of Fire” and “Valley Girl,” and cultivates a singing career that has generated a few club hits. Yet despite her rock-star aura, it’s her childlike, inexplicably gravelly speaking voice for which Daily is best known. She probably can’t even open her mouth in public without being mobbed by kids and their hipster parents.
Keith David. In his reel life, Keith David usually plays a military or government man of uncertain motive, whose stentorian voice pretty much ends the argument. In the animated realm, though, he’s content to lend his deep, rich tones to everything from wise cats (in “Coraline”) to heroic winged beasts (“Gargoyles”). Though he’s had prominent roles in dozens of movies and television shows, including John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and David Twohy’s “Pitch Black,” he’s soon to take a properly immortalizing turn …. as a Disney villain. He’s already generating strong critical notices as voodoo magician Dr. Facilier in “The Princess and the Frog.”
Mark Hamill. It takes some doing, but if you want to understand Mark Hamill’s appearance on this list, you must split him in half. One side of him played Luke Skywalker in the better “Star Wars” movies, and gamely talks about them in documentaries and at conventions. The other side — his “dark side,” let’s call it — has voiced some of the most memorable cartoon psychopaths of the past 20 years, from Senator Stampingston of “Metalocalypse” to “Codename: Kids Next Door’s” Stickybeard. His gleefully-unhinged interpretation of The Joker in 1992’s “Batman: The Animated Series” is one for the ages; it stands head-and-shoulders alongside Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the villain.
Sterling Holloway. Unlike many of the actors on this list, Sterling Holloway — that’s him pictured at the top — rarely sounded like anyone but himself. Kaa the Snake, Flower the Skunk, Winnie-The-Pooh — all of them were voiced with the same halting, gentle and mellifluous purr. But what Halloway’s voice lacked in variety, it made up for in expressiveness. Halloway didn’t have to pretend he was snake or a skunk or a stuffed bear; he simply said he was, and we believed him. It didn’t hurt that Holloway, a character actor who appeared in dozens of films and television shows, had one of the most unique voices in the history of the medium. Had a nice face, too.
Tom Kenny. The voice of “The Powerpuff Girls'” Mayor of Townsville, “The Clone Wars'” Nute Gunray and the one and only SpongeBob SquarePants, comedian Tom Kenny belongs to a tradition that includes such legendary names as Mel Blanc and Paul Winchell: He’s as adept at improvisation as he is at characterization. You could put anything in front of him, from an ineffectual public official to a sea sponge, and he’ll immediately get inside its head and start rambling. (If you want to see some convincing evidence of Kenny’s gifts, simply watch this video. It features Kenny, and the other talented members of “SpongeBob’s” voice cast, re-dubbing several classic movie scenes.)
Don Messick. This voice actor wasn’t so much a part of the cartoon industry as a cornerstone of it. Don Messick was Barney Rubble’s adopted alien son Bamm-Bamm; he was Droopy the Dog; he was Yogi Bear’s constant companion Boo Boo; he was Hamton J. Pig in “Tiny Toon Adventures”; he was both Scooby-Doo and his supremely annoying nephew Scrappy-Doo. Notice the common thread running through all those characters? Me neither. Messick was a nonpareil creative genius, and he could be everybody in the room, including you.
Thurl Ravenscroft. This is an appropriate time of year to talk about this legendary voice actor: If you haven’t already, you’ll soon hear Thurl Ravenscroft’s once-in-a-lifetime basso profundo in Chuck Jones’ holiday perennial “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” (He sings “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”) Ravenscroft was the Fred Astaire of voice actors — graceful and carefree, yet at the same time grounded and avuncular. Through he did most of his cartoon work as part of vocal ensemble The Mellomen, Ravenscroft did help to create one superstar: He was the voice of Kellogg’s spokes-cat Tony The Tiger right up to his death in 2005.
Brendon Small. The writer, director, producer and star of “Home Movies” and “Metalocalypse,” is the only voice actor I know of who’s parlayed his voice work into rock stardom. When Brendon Small created the music and half the voices for “Metalocalypse” (he performs four of the show’s main characters, each one markedly different from the next), he probably never imagined that he’d be taking the show’s fictional band, “Dethklok,” on a wildly successful club tour. Every night, Small stands before a live crowd and pretends to be Dethklok’s Nathan Explosion, and even though the audience can plainly see that he isn’t, they buy the illusion without question.
Janet Waldo. Though she did a ton of work for Hanna-Barbara, Janet Waldo deserves recognition for infusing two characters in particular — Judy Jetson of “The Jetsons” and Josie McCoy of “Josie and the Pussycats” — with boundless flirty energy and irresistible charm. Her take on the American teenage girl was note-perfect and capable of inspiring swoony crushes, and Waldo kept delivering performances as that eager young girl when she was well into her seventies. She probably still sounds like Judy Jetson today — a perfect teeny-bopper trapped in amber.
Patrick Warburton. This was an incredibly tough call: I put Patrick Warburton on this list because of his work on “The Venture Brothers,” a show blessed with an overabundance of sterling voice talent. In time, I’ll sing the praises of James Urbaniak, Michael Sinterniklass and Dana Snyder, but today, I’m all about the actor who’s given “Venture’s” Brock Samson, “Family Guy’s” Joe Swanson and the clueless Kronk of “The Emperor’s New Groove” the most perfect comic deadpan ever spoken into a microphone. Warburton’s comic style as a face actor — best seen in “Seinfeld” and “News Radio” — translates perfectly to animation. Even without looking at Warbruton’s face, you can tell he doesn’t approve of you. If that’s not a gift, what is?