Know Your Talking Animals: A Quick Guide to Cartoon Actors
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” — Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in “Sunset Blvd.”
There was once a time when the actors who provided the voices for animated characters had no faces whatsoever – a time when Alan Reed, Hans Conreid and Eleanor Audley could walk down a street without being mistaken for Fred Flintstone, Snidely Whiplash or Maleficent.
Odds are good that our children won’t know what that means. An increasing number of celebrities – actors with faces — are moving into voice work by the day, pushing the no-faces out of work. Virtually every part in Dreamworks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens” was played by a name actor, to no discernible purpose other than to yank us out of the story: “Yeah, that’s Seth Rogen.”
In an interview with Wikipedia’s David Shankbone, voice actor Billy West derided celebrity voice casting as a dangerous trend. “…If (celebrity voices) were judged by the same standards (as us voice actors) … they would be pretty piss-poor as voice performers,” said West. “Will Smith does characters that are drawn to look like him and sound like him. I wish I had that luxury. Nobody draws a character that looks like me and sounds like me for me to just step in and be the perfect person for the role.”
Voice actors are of a rare breed. I can’t do what they do any more than Will Smith can. I can’t project sadness, joy, fear, confusion, rage or indifference without using my face. What follows is a nowhere-near inclusive list of some legendary voice actors who did just that. Some have passed on, and some are still working their magic — until a Will Smith or Seth Rogen steps in to replace them, anyway.
This will probably be the first of several such lists, by the by. There’s a lot of faceless faces out there. I’ll get to Seth McFarlane, Patrick Warburton and MC Chris next time, I promise.
Mel Blanc. “The man of a thousand voices” did so much work around Termite Terrace that the elastic-voiced actor who provided the voices for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the like is sometimes credited with characters he didn’t create. Let’s make it easy: The original voice of Elmer Fudd was Arthur Q. Bryan (though Blanc took it over in the 1970s) and Paul Julian originally made the Road Runner’s “Beep-beep.” That’s about it. Every other character in the Looney Tunes universe originated with Blanc, who was replaced by a half-dozen other voice actors upon his death in 1989.
Daws Butler. Without the late, great Butler’s gift for speaking in tongues, an entire corner of Hanna-Barbara’s cartoon empire simply wouldn’t have existed. His best-known characters include Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, Huckleberry Hound, Wally Gator and Quick Draw McGraw. Also, he provided the original voice of Cap’ Crunch, and even doubled for Mel Blanc’s Barney Rubble on “The Flintstones.”
Corey Burton. A skilled impressionist, Burton is Disney’s go-to actor for cartoons and theme park work. He voiced Moliere in “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” doubles the late Paul Frees in Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion Holiday” and provides “additional voices” in nearly every Disney animated production. Outside of the Mouse House, he voiced Shockwave in the original “Transformers” cartoon and doubles Christopher Lee in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”
Jim Cummings. “Cummings is amazing,” voice actor Gene McGarr once said. “He can do Russians, he can do wolves, and he can do Russian wolves.” Cummings voices Fuzzy Lumpkins on “The Powerpuff Girls,” provided many of the voices on “Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers” and “Darkwing Duck,” and took over Winnie-The-Pooh from the late Sterling Holloway.
Paul Frees. “He used to come to recording sessions with a blonde on each arm and six-shooters in each holster,” said McGarr, “and he’d say ‘The king is here!’ And he meant it.” One look at Frees’ list of characters bears him out: he was the original Pillsbury Doughboy, Boris Badenov in “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” Ludwig Von Drake in “The Wonderful World of Disney,” and the voice of many of the pirates in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” His album of “celebrities” singing 1960s pop hits, “Paul Frees and the Poster People,” is worth tracking down on eBay.
June Foray. The endlessly gifted voice of “Rocky and Bullwinkle’s” Natasha Fatale and Rocky the Flying Squirrel, “Looney Tunes’” Witch Hazel and “DuckTales’” Magica DeSpell has worked steadily since the mid-1940s and is still going full steam at age 91, voicing pixies, little kids and grandmothers for Disney and Warner Brothers.
Maurice LaMarche. If Orson Welles had never existed, LaMarche might have been tempted to invent him. He’s used his Welles imitation, or variations of it, to voice Welles in “Ed Wood” and “The Critic,” and to create the megalomaniacal mouse the Brain in “Animaniacs.” But that’s not his only trick; LaMarche can bend his voice to fit pretty much any character, and has done just that for “Futurama,” “Inspector Gadget” and “The Tick.” He even did a wicked imitation of Alec Baldwin for “Team America: World Police.”
Phil LaMarr. LaMarr began as a “face” actor — he was part of the “Mad TV” cast, and played the ill-fated Marvin in “Pulp Fiction” — but he moved into voice work in the late 1990s, and he’s seldom stepped back before the cameras since. He’s Green Lantern on “Justice League”; he’s Kit Fisto in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”; he’s Samurai Jack. In other words, he’s most everwhere and most everybody.
Tress MacNeille. Like Foray, MacNeille is seemingly tireless. As she moves further along in her career, it’s tough to find an animated production she doesn’t work on. Best known as the adorable, precocious Dot in “Animaniacs,” the plucky Gadget in “Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers” and the conniving, evil “Mom” in “Futurama,” MacNeille has also done extensive work on “The Simpsons,” “Rugrats” and “The Boondocks.”
Tara Strong. A girl’s girl. While Strong’s instrument is sufficiently elastic to play six-year-old girls like Bubbles of “The Powerpuff Girls” and teenaged heartbreakers like “Teen Titans” Raven, she has also made a career of voicing preteen boys, as she does in “Ben 10” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.” If you’d like to learn to do what she does, she runs a school for voice actors — VoiceStarz — with her husband Craig.
Frank Welker. He may not belong on this list, because part of me believes he can’t possibly be real. His work transcends voice acting and approximates special effects. Welker has voiced a huge collection of characters — the Nazi monkey in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Martians in “Mars Attacks” among others — whose personalities might had been very different indeed had Welker not been around to actualize them. He also created Jabberjaw, but we’ll not hold that against him.
Billy West. If West had done nothing else but to populate “Futurama” (he voices Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan, among others) and speak for both Ren and Stimpy from “Ren and Stimpy,” he would have more than earned his place on this list of disembodied immortals – but he’s also worked his mojo on “Justice League Unlimited,” “King of the Hill,” “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and on Howard Stern’s radio show.
Paul Winchell. The onetime ventriloquist’s gravelly yet playful-sounding instrument gave life to Tigger from Disney’s “Winnie The Pooh,” to several Hanna-Barbara characters (including Dick Dastardly from “Dastardly and Muttley”), and to Mr. Owl from the original Tootsie Roll television ads. He also made a number of live-action appearances, and even had his own variety show for a time.