Here we are again with another edition of “You’re The Voice,” an ongoing series of interviews with some of the best and, as a result, most prolific voice talent in the animation industry. As you may recall, we kicked off the series by chatting with Tom Kenny, the man who gives voice to Spongebob Squarepants, among many other characters, and the proceedings wrapped up with the assurance that I already had an interview locked in for the next column. Unfortunately, while that interview is still a go for whenever we can get around to scheduling it, the individual in question…oh, hell, let’s stop trying to keep it a secret: it’s Billy West…has been so busy promoting the return of “Futurama,” not to mention constantly working his butt off in various and sundry recording sessions, that we just haven’t been able to lock down a time to talk. But to borrow a phrase from Billy’s quote book…
Good news, everyone! Someone else has stepped in to serve in Billy’s stead!
When I posted the link to the Tom Kenny interview on my Facebook page, one of the first people to offer their congratulations and praise was one of Mr. Kenny’s peers: Rob Paulsen. Not wanting to let a perfectly good opportunity slip by, I immediately thanked Rob for his kind words, and then I promptly asked him if he’d be interested in doing an interview for a future column. He agreed without hesitation, and I told him I’d check on his schedule after I’d chatted with Billy West, but once I learned that Billy’s schedule was looking pretty tight, he gladly agreed to step in and help avoid any future delay in putting the next edition of “You’re The Voice” into play.
After a bit of idle chit-chat about the weather…no, seriously: Rob had heard about the excruciating heat that we’d been getting here in Virginia, and when the topic of humidity came up, he told me about visiting Orlando for some Disney business, stepping off the plane, and wondering if he’d accidentally landed in Thailand by mistake…we got down to business with our Obligatory Opening Question:
How did you first find your way into voice acting?
Well, I started out in music, primarily. Growing up in Michigan, I was a big fan of a lot of kids’ cartoons and music. My initial desire was to be a professional hockey player, but fortunately for my dental health and the general health of my body, I realized fairly early on that I had neither the talent nor the temperament to make any money as a professional hockey player…or any professional athlete, for that matter!
I was a huge fan of the Pythons and Peter Sellers and primarily British comics when I was a kid, and I was kind of enamored by all those goofy, wacky voices. And, of course, I was watching cartoons: Jay Ward and all those “Fractured Fairytales,” and, of course, Mel Blanc. Everybody loves Mel. The first thing I found that I was fairly good at was singing, so it wasn’t a huge leap for me to go from singing to doing other things with my voice, and I found that I was pretty good at doing dialects. I’m not a very good impressionist. There are so many good ones, and I was always impressed by…I’m at the age where I was watching Rich Little, John Byner, David Frye, and other fantastic impressionists like that, guys who I thought were really spectacular when I was a kid. My heroes were, like, Jonathan Winters, Pat Paulsen…no relation…and Steve Martin. All these guys made me laugh, and a lot of them had funny voices, but I was clearly not a great impressionist, and I’m glad I didn’t go down that road, because when I got out here, I found people like Maurice (LaMarche) and Kevin Pollak and other folks who do killer impressions of folks. I’m a pretty good actor, and I’m good at creating things and pretty solid with dialects, but I’m not an impressionist. But, anyway, as I was saying, the Pythons, Peter Sellers, “The Goon Show,” and all those guys were my heroes, so I started working on dialects, and I had a pretty solid musical background, so I started learning how to sing in character, and…I probably spent a little too much time in my bedroom by myself. (Laughs) When I wasn’t playing hockey, I was working on funny voices.
When I graduated high school, I went to college for about a year and determined that the University of Michigan, although they were lovely people, probably didn’t care one way or the other that I was there, because I wasn’t exactly setting the place on fire. I remember going home to tell my parents that I was wasting their money and my time, and I wanted to go to L.A. and be in the moving picture business. I had a whole lot of experience relative to my age. I think I was 21 or 22, doing theater, and I also spent a year and change at a pretty successful rock and roll cover band back in Michigan. I’d also spent a lot of time doing musical stuff in high school, learning how to read music and working on my goofy voices, and although I never did in cartoons back in Michigan, obviously, I’d done a lot of radio stuff, lots of theater, lots of music, so by the time I moved to L.A. in June of 1978, I had a lot of experience relative to my age.
I got my agent…by whom I’m still represented, oddly enough…in 1979, signing with them ostensibly to be an on-camera talent, and I was doing quite a bit of on-camera stuff. I did a lot of commercials, I ended up doing quite a bit of episodic television, and a half-dozen movies or so. At the time, the voiceover portion of my agency said, “Do you do voice work?” And, of course, I said, “Yeah!” I mean, I hadn’t really done so professional, but, of course, when your agent asks you if you’re a rollerskating parachutist, you say, “Sure! I can do that in my sleep! No problem! Where do I sign?” (Laughs) So they started sending me out for cartoons. Now, mind you, when I came out here…God, it seems like a long time ago because it was a long time ago…the only outlets for animation were primarily ABC, CBS, and NBC Saturday mornings, and, of course, some syndicated stuff. My first auditions were for “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” and “Smurfs” and odds and ends that were on Saturday mornings, with the occasional after-school thing. But there was no cable, no satellite. The first jobs I got were, I think, “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” and they were as a result of my agent setting me up for general auditions, because I didn’t come out here specifically to do cartoons. I came out here to do whatever people would hire me to do that came under the heading of entertainment.
So that’s how I got started, and it didn’t take me long to realize that this was something incredibly fun and satisfying professionally…and even artistically. There was a whole lot of stuff that I was getting hired for because of my voice that I would never be considered for on camera, but when you’re a young father and your kid is on the way and your wife says, “You know, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you’re that hard on the eyes, but maybe there’s more work for you in this voiceover thing.” (Laughs) “Let’s not worry so much about the on-camera stuff, because there are a million average-looking white guys with SAG cards out here.” The opportunity to work with my voice didn’t limit me so much, and I was getting more voice work, anyway. Eventually, I pretty much stopped doing on-camera work altogether, and now that I’ve been doing animation for 25 years or so, I haven’t done any on-camera stuff – with the exception of interviews or DVD extra things – for probably the last ten or twelve years. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. It’s been a hell of a ride, and hopefully it’s not over, because it sure beats the hell out of working for a living!
Trust me, as a TV critic, I know what you mean. (Laughs) I have to suffer through people finding out what I do for a living and saying, “So, wait, you watch TV all day? Oh, yeah, that sounds rough…”
Oh, man, I know. Maybe Tom touched on this, too, but I get people quite often that’ll be E-mailing me or Facebooking me, or when I go to a personal appearance, they’ll slip me a CD with a note that says, “Hey, I do goofy voices, and I’ve been told that I’m really good…” And that may very well be true, but quite often, the people who I run into at these things are in their mid-30s with a couple of kids, or someone says, “I’m a teacher, and I’m tired of it.” And I have to say, “Look, I don’t mean to pee on your party, but I’ve been at this since I was 22!” I was doing a performance with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra a couple of weeks ago…which was spectacular, by the way, because I got to sing a lot of really great “Animaniacs” songs in front of a bunch of huge fans…and, afterward, there was a lovely young fellow who came up very earnestly, just as sweet as he could be, with his sweet wife and pictures of his kids, and he’s an awesomely huge fan who says, “Oh, I love you and June Foray and Frank Welker…” And I say, “Well, thank you so much, it’s a pleasure.” And he handed me this lovely CD, beautifully produced, but it was him doing all these great Disney characters. He was really good at them, but…there are half a dozen people who cover them already! I’ve been given CDs with my characters on them. “Hey, I want you to see how I do Pinky. Could you hand this out to somebody?” And I said, “Well, I’ll be happy to, but you’re doing Pinky, and…well, the last time I checked, I’m still breathing, so forgive me, but if they do some more of these, I would hope they’d give me first crack at it!” It’s so incredible to me that people just think, “I do this goofy thing at parties, and maybe I can turn it into a living! Oh, by the way, I live in Youngstown, Ohio, but you never know, right? Maybe they’ll just call me up, and I can be the new voice of Mickey Mouse!” (Laughs) It’s amazing to me. But nonetheless it happens all the time, and I can totally understand your thing with critics. Like, “How hard can it be? You sit there and watch TV, you get on your computer, and off you go!”
Yeah, and then people ask you, “Man, how do I get a job like yours?” And you have to explain, “Well, I started writing when I was 17, I’m 39 now, and it took a hell of a lot of unpaid writing gigs to finally get here.”
I hear you, Will! I’m much older than you…I’m 54…and I started making money as a singer when I was probably 18 or 19, having worked a lot before than in high school, learning music and all that. And, like I said, when I came out here, I was 22, and I’d had a year of theater under my belt, a year of fronting a live band, I’d learned how to write music, I’d been on auditions, I’d failed on stage, I’d made all kinds of mistakes, earned not very much money, done plenty of free gigs. That’s just the nature of the beast. It wasn’t like I just stepped into it. I’ve been out here 32 years. Now, mind you, the last 20 or them, I’ve been pretty prolific and working pretty steadily, and I haven’t really had to do anything but be a voice actor, thank God, since probably the mid-‘80s. But there was still that period where I was barely earning enough money to survive. So to just get a CD together and decide you’re going to be a voice actor, or, in your case, to just decide at the age of 30 that you’re going to be a TV critic because you no longer want to work at UPS…it just doesn’t work that way! Yeah, it’s a career, man. You sound like you’re probably like me: I was very fortunate that I knew what I wanted to do. Not specifically voice work, but I knew I wanted to be a performer since the time I was quite young, and as I said, the only thing that might’ve gotten in the way of that was if I’d had more talent as a hockey player. But I’m grateful that didn’t work out, ultimately, because I can still go out and play hockey and fulfill my limited skills and enjoyment of playing the game, but I can make my real money doing something that makes me even happier.
At this point, Rob – who was driving at the time – became aware that he was preparing to pass through a notorious black hole for cell phone reception and asked if we could take a break for a few minutes while he passed through the area. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: when we reconnected, it was time to start running through some of the highlights of his resume.
* Tripwire / Snow Job, “G.I. Joe”
* Air Raid / Slingshot / Chase, “Transformers”
* Various, “Challenge of the GoBots”
The very first voice job I ever did was “G.I. Joe,” I think. “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” were both being produced by the same company, Sunbow, and a producer named Don Jerwich gave me my first gigs. On “Transformers,” I did characters called Air Raid and Slingshot.
They’ve also got you down for voicing a character called Chase.
Could be. I don’t remember. (Laughs) At the same time, I was also doing a couple of characters on “G.I. Joe.” Ancillary…secondary, probably even tertiary characters. One was called Tripwire, the other was called Snow Job, who was sort of an Alpine trouper. I always thought it was kind of curious that this guy was dressed in a white outfit, wearing a white hood, carrying a white weapon, skiing, and he’s apparently supposed to be able to fight in Alpine show conditions…but he’s got a bright red beard that’s the perfect target. (Laughs) I always thought that was a little odd.
If IMDb can be trusted, you managed to successfully cross over and contribute to both “Transformers” and “Challenge of the GoBots.”
You know, I don’t remember doing “GoBots” at all! (Laughs) I presume they’re correct. I probably did. But, again, having been fortunate enough to work for a long time, there are a number of shows that I don’t remember. I know I wasn’t a regular. I’d probably remember if I’d been a regular.
* Various, “The Smurfs”
“Smurfs” was right there, kind of in the same ballpark as “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers,” year-wise. It had to be 1983 or 1984. It was already a huge hit. The most exciting aspect of working on “Smurfs”…and I was not one of the sort of well-known, internationally-iconic Smurfs like Grandpa or Stinky or Poopy or whatever the hell they were…but the people with whom I got to work were just legendary. Jonathan Winters was Grandpa Smurf, I believe, and Don Messick was Papa Smurf. I want to say that June Foray might’ve worked on that show at some point, too. Lucille Bliss was Smurfette, and you had Michael Bell, Alan Oppenheimer, B.J. Ward…everybody who was anybody, both live-action and voice work. I think Lenny Weinrib, Jack Angel, Joanie Gerber, I think…oh, my God. Anyway, I got to work with all of these voice legends and a lot of on-camera folks, too. As I mentioned, Jonathan Winters…I mean, that’s huge! I know I keep using “huge,” but it’s not hyperbole. It was just enormously unreal for me to work with these legendary actors, and, of course, because I’m the geek that I am, I was pretty aware of who they were when I got to L.A. I mean, I knew who June Foray and Joanie Gerber and Mike Bell were. He did a lot of on-camera stuff, but he was the voice of Butter in the Parkay commercials for all those years, and I knew he was doing a lot of voicework. So I got to meet all of these people whose work I was very aware of. I never had the pleasure of working with Daws Butler, but I worked with Don Messick a lot. I worked with Mel Blanc a few times. So it was a huge thrill working on “Smurfs.” I ended up doing…I don’t know, 10 or 15 of them, maybe, over the course of a few years.
* Hadji, “Jonny Quest”
The first big show I got on which I was a main character. They did another permutation of the show in the mid-‘80s, and I got to play Hadji. I was a huge fan of the show when it originally aired in the mid-‘60s on ABC. I think it was on Friday nights. I was a big fan, but I didn’t realize until I got to L.A. that Tim Matheson was the original voice of Jonny Quest in the mid-‘60s. So I was not quite old enough to have had anything to do with the original one, nor did I live in Hollywood… (Laughs) …but the second version was me, and Don Messick was still Dr. Quest, as he was in the original version, so that was cool.
* Peter “P.J. Pete” Jr., “Goof Troop” / “A Goofy Movie”
* Carl Wheezer, “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”
Yeah, that was a really interesting character for a couple of reasons. First, that was another great group of actors. Jim Cummings played Black Pete, Dana Hill, God bless her, was Max, and, of course, Billy Farmer was and is Goofy, both figuratively and literally. (Laughs) He’s a great guy. And April Winchell, God bless her, she was… (Sighs) I just talked to her the other day…well, I chatted with on Facebook. She’s such a talented woman. I love April. She’s so gifted. It was a great cast.
The interesting thing about the whole “Goof Troop” and “A Goofy Movie” thing was that that character…P.J. was the genesis of a character that actually got to be more successful, arguably, for its respective studio and for me, personally. It was a character I did on “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” called Carl Wheezer. The voices are very similar. Fortunately, “Goof Troop” was already done, and I just kind of tweaked P.J. a little bit and it turned into Carl. So I was very fortunate that I had a character that had a couple of different lives in him and has been able to take care of the braces on my kids’ teeth. (Laughs)
* Steelbeak, “Darkwing Duck”
“Darkwing Duck” was another show on which I got to work with Jim Cummings, who’s just another multi-talented, gifted, wonderful guy. I have to say…and probably Tom mentioned something similar, because he falls into that category, too, he’s so freaking talented…but one of the things that I’ve learned from doing voice work is that I have never worked with people who are so supremely talented but have little or no pretense about their talent. There’s no arrogance, no ego. I get jobs all the time where people say, “You know, Frank Welker said you’d be the guy for this,” or, “Jeff Bennett told me,” or Corey Burton or Tom Kenny or whoever. We all cross-pollinate all the time, and I’m so appreciative of being able to work with people who are not only so talented and inspired but are also people who you’d choose to have over to your home. It’s a really cool thing, because that isn’t always the case in an industry that can be so ego-based. But, yeah, all those Disney guys…that’s where I got be very close with Corey Burton. A lot of folks have passed away, like Ed Gilbert, and a lot of folks have retired. But, yeah, “DuckTales” and “Darkwing” and “Goof Troop” and “Rescue Rangers” and “Tale Spin,” I got to work on all those things, and by the time you get to work on all the shows…you’re not really a regular on any of them, but fortunately there are enough of them going on that you keep busy and you sort of feel like you’re at least a Disney regular to the extent that they call you to work on all of their shows. Yeah, it was huge fun on those.
* Gusto Gummi, “Adventures of the Gummi Bears”
Oh, yeah, I should’ve remembered that. Talk about another great cast: Ed Gilbert was on that, June Foray, and Corey Burton. I think Jim Magon was the producer on that. That was a pretty big deal for me with Disney because I did become a regular on that. I think it was, like, the second or third season that the show was on, and I played a character named Gusto, who was an artist. I’d get so many people…and still do…E-mailing me about how much they loved Gusto Gummi. I never saw that coming.
It was great fun, but I was more enamored by what Corey and June and…I think Paul Winchell was probably on it. Anyway, there were so many great characters on “Gummi Bears,” and, yeah, that was really good, and Gusto was a very important character for me. It kind of solidified my place, at least in the mind of the people at Disney, who thought they could bring me and I wouldn’t embarrass them too much. (Laughs)
* Gnorm, “A Gnome Named Gnorm”
Oh, man, that’s an interesting story. You know, that was directed by Stan Winston, who has sinced passed away but who was a very prolific and Oscar-winning character and creature designer. Yeah, he designed the characters for “Terminator” and “Predator,” and I think he directed “Pumpkinhead.” I got to go to Stan’s creature shop in Van Nuys, right by the Van Nuys airport, and…he had already directed “Pumpkinhead” by then, and I think he’d also won an Oscar by then for his special effects work. He was a really cool guy, and he directed this movie about a gnome who lived beneath the surface of the earth and was… (Hesitates) As I recall, he was charged with the job of finding a way to either keep light underground with his community, or find a way to get some light. So he came to the earth to get what he and his gnome family and friends referred to as “lumens.” He had to come to the surface of the earth from underground to get light and take it beneath the earth. Stan directed it and created this character named Gnorm, which makes for funny alliteration with Gnorm, but it was originally called “Upworld,” because that was what the gnomes referred to the surface as. They would say, “We’re going to the upworld.” And that’s what the working title was when I did, but they changed it to “A Gnome Named Gnorm,” probably because it wasn’t that good a movie and they thought the title might suck people in…or at least rent it, anyway. (Laughs) I was surprised when it came out because…I think I got an invitation to go to a screening, and I always thought that “Upworld” was a way cooler title. But, y’know, it was probably some marketing guy who saw the movie and thought, “Ah, I don’t know. A talking midget with lots of plastic prosthetics on…? How about ‘A Gnome Named Gnorm'”? (Laughs)
But working with Stan was really interesting because of his background. I mean, I got to be closely associated with an Oscar winner for a couple of months. That’s pretty cool. Anthony Michael Hall was the lead guy on it, and…I don’t recall if I actually worked with him, because all I did was just voice the character after they shot it. Basically, it’s just a guy in a gnome suit. It could’ve been a puppet, I guess, but I’m pretty sure it was a midget in a lot of make-up, and I did his voice. I don’t know if I even ever saw the movie. But working with Stan Winston…I’m also a big gearhead, a car nut, and at the time, he was driving a 1986 Porsche Turbo, and that was kind of my dream car. I think I had just gotten my first Porsche, but it wasn’t a Turbo. Still, it was pretty cool hanging with a guy who was, y’know, a real cool Hollywood guy who’d won an Oscar and had this groovy Porsche. For a 30-year-old guy, I was going, “Man, I’m just rockin’ and rollin’ here! This is a whole lot better than being in Flint!” (Laughs) I don’t know that it ever made it’s money back, but I got paid and my checks cleared, so I can’t complain.
* Arthur, “The Tick”
Oh, yeah, that’s another interesting story. Sue Blu, who directed “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” was directing “The Tick,” or at least the first season of it, and…I wasn’t really familiar with it. I knew that there was this guy named Ben Edlund who was a relative youngster who wrote this comic book that was doing really well…and what a precocious fellow, in the most positive way. Incredibly articulate, clever, erudite young fellow. Anyway, I had gotten the part of Arthur when the show was initially cast, and Townsend Coleman, who did Michelangelo with me on “Turtles,” was going to do The Tick, and I remember getting a call just as we were getting ready to record…and I think it was from Sue, the director, saying, “You know, honey, I’m sorry, but they’ve decided that they really want a celebrity to do the role of Arthur.” And I said, “Oh, okay, that happens.” It was just starting to happen then. It’s much moreso something that happens now. But she said, “Oh, but they really love you, and since they’ve already cast you, they’re going to bring you in, and there’ll be lots of other parts.” And I believed her, because that’s usually the case. Even if you’re not a regular, you can end up being in just about all the episodes playing some goofy character or other. So I said, “Okay, no problem, thank you very much. It’s disappointing, but, oh, well, that’s the way it goes. But who’s the celebrity?” She said, “Micky Dolenz.”
Micky Dolenz?!? I mean, no offense, I was a huge Monkees fan when I was a kid, but…if you’re going to get a celebrity to draw attention to the show…Micky Dolenz?!? If you’re going to get one of the Monkees, get Mike Nesmith! I thought he was one of the bigger stars! But, anyway, Micky did it for the first 13 episodes, and if I wasn’t in all of them, I’m sure I was in at least seven or eight of those. And then Micky went away to do dinner theater or was on the road with some show or other, and they said, “Do you want to come in and do Arthur now?” And our voice points were all that different, and I heard what he’d done, and it was easy enough for me to cover it, so I said, “Sure, but…I know I can’t hold you to this, but I would really appreciate it if…if you guys want me to fill in, since you already cast me originally, I’m happy to do this, and I’ll put my ego aside, but…please don’t tell me that Micky’s going to take over once he’s done with ‘Under the Yum Yum Tree’ or whatever he’s doing.” But they said, “No, no, you’re our guy,” and I did Arthur for the remainder of the show’s run.
That was a spectacular show, and it continues to be one of my favorite experiences. I mean, they’re all great, because you’re working and having fun, but that was one of the most clever shows I’d ever worked on in my life. The cast was great: Ed Gilbert again, the Firesign Theater came in and did a bunch of them, Phil Proctor worked on several, Townsend of course is just so wonderful, Pat Fraley was on that show, Cam Clarke, another Turtle, was on that show. Maurice LaMarche was on that show. I’m sure I’m missing somebody, because a lot of actors came in and out. Roger Rose was there. I think Roger Bumpass did a couple of them, too. Folks came in and out of that show quite a bit, and that was really cool. It was on Fox Kids, I think, and then it ended up on Comedy Central a few years later. It was way too hip for the room on Fox Kids, I’ll tell you that, but it was very clever. I had nothing to do with the live action version, and I never saw it, but I heard it was pretty good. Pat Warburton was a good choice for The Tick, ’cause he’s got that goofy, big wackiness down so well. Yeah, “The Tick” was great, and I’m very proud of that show. When I go back and see them every now and then when it’s on TV somewhere…man, it was hip. I think it was a qualified success, but I think it deserved a lot more success than it got. If it had had a little more juice behind it, I think it could’ve lasted longer. I mean, a lot of people know about it, but it doesn’t garner the same success as “The Simpsons” or even “Pinky and the Brain” or “Animaniacs,” from what I gather. People know “The Tick,” and when they find out I did Arthur, they go, “Oh, my God, I love that show!” But it’s not something they open the conversation with. I think it’s one of those shows where they could’ve done 100 episodes. I thought it was that kind of show. It certainly could’ve been as successful as other shows on which I worked if it had had more juice behind it.
* Mr. Normanmeyer, “The Addams Family”
Oh, God! You know, this is such a thrill for me, because there’s a cool story about every one of these! I was talking about this just the other day to…who was it? I think it was Dave Coullier, who’s another friend of mine, another Detroiter and hockey player as well as a very good voice guy, and, of course, he had a lot of success with “Full House.” He and I were playing golf the other day, and…God, I can’t remember how this came up! Oh, I know what it was: we were talking about shows we used to watch as a kid, and we were talking about “Davy and Goliath.” You know, the voice of Goliath, the dog, was Hal Smith, who played Otis the Drunk on “The Andy Griffith Show,” but he also did a lot of voice work for Disney. And the voice of Davy, the little boy, was Dick Beals, who played my son on “The Addams Family,” but he was better known not only as Davy but also as the voice of Speedy Alka-Seltzer! You probably don’t remember, ‘cause you’re only 39, but you’ve probably seen the commercials for the little stop-action guy that was a giant Alka-Seltzer tablet. That was Dick Beals!
By the time he and I worked together on “The Addams Family,” it was the early 1990s at Hanna-Barbera, and at that time, he was probably in his mid-70s. The interesting thing about Dick Beals is that, if you look him up on IMDb or search any pictures, he had a condition kind of like Zelda Rubenstein, who just recently passed away, where he was a true midget to the extent that he was a small person. Like in “Benjamin Button,” he aged like a normal person, but he never grew, but he had perfectly formed features. In other words, everything was proportional. It was a really interesting thing to behold, because here’s this guy who’s as old as my parents, and he was playing my son, because his voice never changed. He never got any taller than, like, four foot four, and his shoe size was 6 ½ or something. He was the size of a 10-year-old, and he had the commensurate voice, but the guy was very successful. He had a long career, he had his own advertising agency, he flew his own airplane… (Laughs) …and he played my son in “The Addams Family”! And my wife was Edie McClurg, who is still a close friend and a really talented lady. Just a blast. And John Astin was on the show! He reprised his role as Gomez Addams, which was a huge thrill. And we had already worked together…or maybe we were just getting ready to work together…on another show that we did. It was for Warner Brothers, and it was called “Taz-Mania!” God, he was a joy. What a thrill to…well, again, to work with a TV icon! That’s what was so thrilling about working on these shows and why it’s so much fun to reminisce about them. While I was there, I got to take advantage of having lots of downtime to talk with Gomez fricking Addams! I mean, I was a huge fan of that show when I was a kid! And he could not have been nicer. And Grandma was played by Carol Channing! How thrilling was that? And Uncle Fester was Rip Taylor! So, oh, my God, Will, it was unbelievable! I’m working with Rip Taylor, John Astin, and Carol Channing, for Christ’s sake! It was just a thrill, a huge thrill.
Dick Beals…I’ll never forget this one day when we were getting ready to record a show, and he had written a book about his life called “Think Big,” about overcoming the obstacle of being small. He was a very positive person, and he certainly didn’t look at his condition or his lot in life as an affliction. It was, like, “Hey, man, this has made me a better person because I’ve dealt with it,” and talk about making lemonade out of lemons, the guy totally did it. Frankly, I’m not even sure if he’s still alive, but I remember he invited me and Parley Baer…you may not remember him, but he was a very famous character actor, and he used to do a lot of voice work, too. A lovely, lovely old fellow. But Dick invited Parley and me down to come speak at his rotary club in Escondido… (Laughs) …so I did, but I said, “Look, they’re gonna know Parley, but these guys, with all due respect, Dick, are your age and my parents’ age. They’re 60, 70, 80 years old, and they’re not gonna know me.” “Ah, no, they’ll love your funny voices!” So he flew me down, we had a great day, I got to spend the day with Parley, and then when we got back, I remember Dick saying, “Hey, Rob, it was really nice of you to come down, and by the way, I would love for you to have an autographed copy of my book that I’ve just published about my life. You’re a fine young man, and I’d love you to have a copy.” I said, “Well, thank you, Dick, that’s very flattering and very sweet. Yes, I would appreciate it you’d sign it.” So he signs the book, hands it to me, and says, “By the way, that’ll be $9.00!” (Laughs) I thought he was screwing with me, but he was totally straight! And I said, “Oh! Oh, okay, all right, I’ve got some cash here…” It was kind of interesting. I thought, “Well, he’s autographed it, so obviously he can’t sell it, so I’ve got to buy it from him.” I was a little taken aback, but then I got home and I just started chuckling about it. I thought, “Well, good for him. No wonder the guy’s so successful. He knows how to work it!”
That reminds me of an encounter I had with the actor David Huddleston. He was a guest at the Williamsburg Film Festival, and I’d interviewed him in advance of the festival for an article I’d written for the local alt-weekly, so when I came to the event, I walked over to his table and, y’know, I’d brought my copy of “The Big Lebowski” DVD to get him to sign it. I introduced myself, reminded him who I was, he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, sure, it was great talking to you, thanks for doing that article.” I said, “No problem, and, oh, by the way, I wanted to know if you’d sign this for me.” And he said, “Oh, sure, sure.” So he signs it…and then he says, “That’ll be $10.00.”
Thaaaaaaat’s right! (Laughs) So he hit you up for ten bucks and it wasn’t even…well, was it an autograph situation?
Well, the guests do charge a fee to sign anything other than the festival program, but…well, you know, it’s not like I felt like I deserved an autograph, but at the same time, since I’d interviewed him and helped promote his appearance, I can’t say that it occurred to me that he’d charge me for one, either!
It wouldn’t have occurred to me, either, and with Dick…we were having a cup of coffee, going over the script before we recorded it, when he said, “That’ll be $9.00!” And probably like you, my parents raised me to be very proper and diplomatic and all of that, and I would never have said, “Are you kidding me?” I have friends who would, but I never would have. So I just said, “Oh, absolutely, let me just get it.” But I was pretty well dumbstruck. Yeah, I’ve heard stories like that before. Or guys will just say, “I don’t do autographs unless I charge for ’em.” But I went the other way.
For the longest time, I just signed things because I felt like people were just so kind to ask that I would never think to charge for them. Since then, my wife…she used to kind of get on me because I would sign thousands…literally…of “Ninja Turtles” things over the course of the years, and quite often they’d be for people who were having some sort of fundraiser or something to do with children. I mean, I adore kids, and I have a soft spot for kids who are having difficulties. I’m lucky enough to have a healthy child who’s a grown-up now, but, still, when “Turtles” was happening and I was lucky enough to be part of that, I got involved with so many wonderful things that had to do with sick kids, and it was such a great thrill for me and such an education to be able to be involved with children and their parents on a very intimate level and during some very difficult times. I felt very fortunate and blessed, in an odd way, to be able to spend time with people and hopefully make ’em laugh a little bit when they were going through a time that was impossibly difficult to grasp. I mean, I couldn’t even figure out how these people got through it when I went back and saw my own healthy child. But I’d sign stuff all the time, and people would say this and that, and I’d say, “Sure, no problem!” But my wife, who saved up, one day finally said, “I want to show you something.” And she went on eBay, and she said, “Here you are, here you are, here you are, here you are…” And, mind you, it’s not like people were getting a hundred bucks a signature, but she said, “Look, they’re charging ten or fifteen bucks, and you’re doing it out of the kindness of your heart. I’m not telling you you should charge everybody, but you have to be a little more selective, and if somebody says, ‘We’ll bring you to our function and we’ll charge this much money for you to sign things,’ if you want to donate the money to charity, Rob, that’s fine. But you have to understand that there are people making money off of your work.” And I got it. (Laughs)
Now, I don’t ever charge for an autograph unless that is part of the deal upfront. Like, if I’m going to a personal appearance and people say, “Mr. Paulsen is going to be signing stuff, and it’s going to be $10.00” or whatever, and it’s a given, that’s fine. But when I go do a live performance, I don’t really like to charge. I would prefer that somebody…well, like, if you said, “Hey, Rob, it’s Will Harris, we want you to come to our thing, and we’re going to give you this much money. What do we get for it?” I’d say, “Okay, great: you give me this much money, and I will do my dog-and-pony show, I’ll do Q&A forever, and I’ll sign stuff for two hours, take a break, sign for two more hours, make sure everybody who has stuff gets it signed.” But I don’t want to have money change hands. I don’t want people to be handing me tens and twenties. That just seems kind of cheesy to me. I’d rather show up and have the person who invited me say, “Okay, man, I’ve got you for the weekend, and we’ll do this and this and this.” I love signing stuff for people. I’d just rather do it with a check that covers everything. That way, nobody comes up to me with a pile of stuff, because inevitably what happens…and you’ve probably seen this…is that they’ll walk up and say, “Oh, my God, I’m such a fan! I love Arthur and Rafael and Yakko and Pinky! I love this and that! Will you sign this stuff?” And then I’ve got to look at them and say, “$20.00 a pop.” And they’re, like, “But I’ve got 11 things!” “I’m so sorry, but there’s a sign…” “I didn’t see a sign! I can’t afford that!” And then I’m in the middle of trying to explain that I feel terrible about it, and…do you know what I mean? So I’m much better off with somebody calling me up and saying, “We’ll bring you in, we’ll pay you for your time, and you’ll sign the autographs.”
* Stanley Ipkiss / The Mask, “The Mask”
Oh, yeah, that was an interesting situation because…well, of course, it was on the heels of the movie, and everybody was in love with Jim Carrey, including me. I mean, my God, what’s not to like? I didn’t know Jim. Maurice LaMarche knew him pretty well. I think he was actually roommates with Jim for awhile, because they’re both from Toronto and knew each other from back in their stand-up days. But, of course, I was a huge fan of Jim’s, and when “The Mask” TV show came about, it was for CBS, and I remember auditioning for it. Ginny McSwain was the director. She’s wonderful, a good friend, and she directed “Jimmy Neutron,” “Goof Troop,” and God knows how many other things. She called me up and she said, “Hey, honey, congratulations! CBS wants you!” I said, “Hey, great! Wonderful!”
I remember that we went to record the first few episodes, and because the movie was such a big hit, there were so many cooks involved with the show. There was New Line, CBS, a toy company…I mean, lots of people were in the recording sessions initially. And it was a fantastic cast: Tim Curry, Frank Welker, Tress MacNeill, and I think Neil Ross. A really interesting group of people. I remember doing the first couple of episodes, and we’d do a few takes on something, and the folks in the booth…Ginny, who I knew quite well, would kind of roll her eyes, and you could tell she was trying to buffer something. Like, she was trying to give me some information that she’d gotten from somebody else in the booth. And what they were trying to say was, “Hey, that was great, Rob, but in the movie, what Jim does…” Or, “Hey, Rob, that was great, but there’s this thing Jim does something in the movie that we really like…” Finally, I was talking to Tim, who I adore…and he’s another one who’s just so talented, but he was also very helpful and supportive. I was…not so much getting angry, but I was getting a little bit nervous, because I didn’t want to lose the gig, but I was a little frustrated, because I’m going, “Look, I’m not Jim Carrey, but I know I can do this, and you guys think I can do this, but you’re not going to get Jim!” Anyway, Tim was very supportive, and he said, “You need to talk to these people.” It took me a little while, because I love my work, but like most actors, you want to please people, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. But finally I said, “Look, can I talk to you guys about something?” “Sure, sure, sure!” “Look, I am not Jim. I appreciate what you’re coming at me with, and I’m a huge fan, and I’m trying to give you the best I can, but we’re going to be doing hopefully 26 or 64 or however many episodes of this thing if the show goes, and the movie was only an hour and a half long, so I’m going to be doing a whole lot more ‘Mask’-ing that Jim did. I get that you want the sensibility, but if every time I do an Ipkiss line or I do a line as one of the characters that the Mask transforms into, you’re going to throw Jim at me, I really don’t know what to do, because I don’t know what Jim would do with every character that you’re going to ask me to do. He hasn’t done them yet. I’m going to do them. So do you want me to put more money in the meter, or do you want to get somebody else? Because that’s fine, too. I’m just telling you: if you want to let me go do what I think you hired me to do, you’re going to have to trust me a little bit.”
It was a good lesson for me, because that was the first time I kind of stood up for myself, and I wasn’t arrogant, this wasn’t out of the blue, I had an absolute reason to question what was going on. Basically, what I said was, “Just let me do my thing here, and if you don’t like it, it’s your dime, you can fire me. But you’re not going to get the best I’ve got to offer you if, every time I get started, you put the brakes on.” And I don’t think it ever turned out to be a giant hit, but it certainly wasn’t unsuccessful, and they were very respectful and let me do my thing. Tim was helpful, too. It went on to go…I think it went on for a few seasons. But the coolest part of “The Mask” for me was…well, harking back to my musical background, they let me sing the “Mask” theme song. That’s me doing the theme song, and it was a fantastic song written by Keith Baxter and Chris Nelson. They had originally gotten Jack Sheldon, from “Conjunction Junction” and all those things on “Schoolhouse Rock,” and he was great, but Jack is a much more laid back bluesy jazz guy, and they wanted a little more pop. And I did a demo, and I was really grateful that CBS decided, “Okay, he can do it.” They called and said, “Okay, we’re going to use you,” and that was a big thrill for me. When you get to sing a theme song from a TV show on a network, whether it’s prime time or daytime, it’s a big win personally for an actor. So that was a cool thing.
* Bill, “Me, Eloise”
Okay, I have to admit that this wasn’t on my original list of items to ask you about, but I’m doing it for my daughter, because when you mentioned that you worked with Tim Curry, it occurred to me to check to see if you’d worked at all on the “Eloise” series of animated movies…and it turned out you had.
Oh, my God, yeah!
Well, my daughter is four, and since she was two, she has been demanding that I get an interview with Mr. Salamone (Tim Curry’s character).
Are you kidding me?
I am not. As recently as yesterday, she said, “Daddy, are you ever going to get to interview Mr. Salamone?”
(Laughs) How about that? Well, Tim is wonderful. So you haven’t talked to him yet, then?
I had a close call awhile ago, but it hasn’t panned out yet. So if you talk to him… (Laughs) …please put in a good word for me!
I’ll mention it, absolutely! I never know where he is, because he’s either in New York or England or…gosh, I probably haven’t seen him in a couple of years. But there was a time when he was doing a lot of animation and was here in L.A., and we worked together quite a bit in the mid- to late ‘90s. Oh, he’s a great guy, and he’s so talented. He’s lovely. When you do get a chance to interview him, you won’t be disappointed. He’s just so typically British in a really charming way, and he’s just so talented. But, wow, that’s great. Mr. Salamone. (Laughs) I have not seen any of those “Eloise” things, though, but I hear they turned out really well.
Hey, my daughter adores them!
Well, I’m so glad, and please tell her that Bill says, “Hi!” It’s not Mr. Salamone…
…but it’s a step in the right direction, and she will appreciate it as such. (Laughs)
Please, Tim Curry, contact us for an interview. A little girl’s happiness hangs in the balance.
* Max, “Mighty Max”
Well, there you go: that brings up Tim again, who was also a regular on that show, which was one of my kids’ favorite shows. It was very clever, and it actually had a dark side to it that you didn’t see too much in kids’ programming. Characters died. It wasn’t grisly, but the stories were much more in-depth.That was another interesting cast: the three main characters were myself, Tony Jay, who has since passed away, and Tim Curry, both British actors. Tony was really interesting in that he had an enormous ego. He was always great to me, but he could be difficult. But he was fun to watch, because he had a little bit of that diva in him, which was kind of fun to be around. But Tim was great. It was about this guy Max, who was a normal kid who, by virtue of his friendship with this guy named Norman…oh, I’m sorry, there were four of us! (Laughs)
The other one was Richard Moll, who played Bull, the big bald guy on “Night Court.” He played a character named Norman, and then Tony Jay played this giant chicken named Virgil, and the evil guy was a guy named Skullmaster, who was played by Tim. Norman was my protector, and Virgil had this ability to open portals into various places and times, like wormholes or black holes. All that stuff. So we’d go through time and to all these interesting places, and we had to save the world. It was really cool. Some characters would die, and they had these really interesting battles. It was really cool for me, because it was like reliving my childhood fantasies of being a superhero. I never really got to play proper hero guys. I was always kind of the reluctant hero. The Ninja Turtles were sort of superheroes, but it had a decidedly comedic bent to it. But “Mighty Max” was pretty slick, and, again, it was Tim Curry, Richard Moll, and Tony Jay, all really substantial actors, so I learned a lot, too. All of these guys have taught me stuff. It’s almost osmotic. You can’t help but pick up things just by getting to be in the same room with these gifted individuals, and you end up having more stuff to draw on. So not only do you get paid, but you hopefully get better and up your game a bit just by around all of these talented folks.
* Antoine Depardieu, “Sonic the Hedgehog”
Ah, Sonic. You know, the character of Sonic the Hedgehog was played by Jaleel White. He’s a really nice guy, very down to earth. He wasn’t around too much when I was doing the show because he was still doing “Family Matters.” I did the ABC version of “Sonic.” I think I did two or three seasons. Kath Soucie was on that show, as was Jim Cummings again. That was for ABC, and then it went to syndication, I think, but they went up and did it in Canada, and I think the only regular character in the Canadian cast was Jaleel. I don’t really know why they ended up doing it up in Canada. But, anyway, yeah, I got play a French-speaking little…gee, I guess he was a hedgehog, too, but I don’t really recall. I still get people interested in that show, though, because that was one of the first shows that was done as a result of the success of a video game.
* Various, “Capitol Critters”
* Benny Fingers / Doctor, “The Blues Brothers Animated Series”
I actually did “Capitol Critters” and “Fish Police.” At least, I think I did one or two “Fish Police.” That was Steven Bocho, as I recall. I only did a couple of “Capitol Critters,” though, too. I think that was basically because I was kind of a stock player at Hanna-Barbera, so they threw me a couple of those. I don’t really remember what I did. I wasn’t a regular, but I did a couple of them. I think that was about a mouse who lived in the White House or something…? But “The Blues Brothers,” I don’t think that ever aired! There was a guy…I remember that the producer on that show was a real asshole about things. I can’t remember his name, though. I’m not being coy, either. But he was a real jerk.
(Checking IMDb) Was it Greg…
Antonacci. (Laughs) Yeah, that’s right. Now, maybe he’s not anymore, but at the time, he sure was! That was a pretty cool cast, too. Obviously, John Belushi had died, but they had Jim, whom I subsequently worked with quite a bit and who’s always a nice guy to work with. Jim was playing John’s part, and I believe Peter Aykroyd played Dan’s part. Mark Hamill was on the show. It was a really odd experience. I think…yeah, it was prime time, and they had prime time TV writers writing the show. It was another case where there were a whole bunch of people there who I wasn’t used to seeing, and I remember doing an episode…I think I did two or three of them, but I did one episode with Taj Mahal, because they always tried to have legitimate music folk involved. I think Nell Carter may have been a regular, actually. But the one episode I worked on with Taj Mahal, I remember that he was sitting in there with his guitar while we were recording, and he’d be, like, picking out stuff and tuning up, and they had to very diplomatically say, “Uh, excuse me, Taj, would you maybe just hold off?” “Oh, yeah, cool, cool, cool!” “Okay, action!” And we’d started recording…and then we’d hear the guitar in the background again. I guess it never occurred to anybody to say, “Say, Taj, why don’t you wait outside, get yourself a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and you can play your guitar all day long if you want.” (Laughs) It was just a whole weird experience, and I think the product…I don’t even know if they finished it, and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was the producer’s demeanor, but given my humble opinion of it at the time, it could have been! But I think there were lots of problems with it, and I don’t think it ever aired. But it was a very odd experience, and…Mark and I are good buddies, so the next time I see him, I’ll ask him about it. It was very, very weird.
* 2-T Fru-T, “Butt Ugly Martians”
I thought it was going to be really big. It was in the early 2000s, and I thought it was going to be huge. I even bought stock in the toy company! I heard the local KBC radio guy talking about, “Well, guard your wallets, moms and dads, ’cause here comes the next big thing! It’s called ‘Butt Ugly Martians!'” And I heard him talking about it, and I thought, “Oh, wow, this is great!” And it was a great cast: Charlie Schlatter, myself, Scott Bullock, Kath Soucie…and Robert Stack! What a thrill. I got to spend a year working with Robert Stack! Oh, my God. He has since passed away, but when I was a kid…I’m old enough to remember the original “Untouchables,” which was produced by Desi Arnaz, and he was Eliot Ness, man. So it was cool to meet Robert Stack. And, of course, he was also a movie star: “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” and all those movies. I worked with him when he was 80, and the guy looked like a million bucks, man. And he was just as nice as could be. But that show…I don’t know that it was underrated, because it wasn’t very good… (Laughs) …but I thought it was going to be a huge hit, just purely for commercial reasons, but it just went away. So I was wrong about that one.
* Raphael, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”
Yeah, that was certainly a watershed moment and a turning point in my career. It really put me on the map, because all of a sudden, if you’re associated with a hit show, people assume that you’re much more talented than they should really be giving you credit for. (Laughs) But that was one of those serendipitous things. They say luck is when timing meets preparedness, and that’s kind of what happened. I remember I was working on the animated version of “Fraggle Rock,” and we got a call…a lot of us did: Bob Bergen, Townsend Coleman, and others…to go read for this thing called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And, like “The Tick,” I was vaguely familiar with this underground comic book, as I recall, but not very much, because I’m not really a comic book guy. But we read for it, and they mixed and matched us. I read for all the parts, as did all the actors they auditioned, which was not uncommon and still isn’t. But they just kind of mixed and matched, and I got the job.
We did five episodes to begin with. I thought, “This is pretty interesting: it’s a group of turtles who’ve mutated into giants because of this radioactive ooze, they live in the sewer with this rat who’s their mentor, they’re into martial arts…this has got all the earmarks of a really cool thing. Or at least a good acid trip, to say the least, but without the added negative side effects of having to actually take the stuff.” (Laughs) The first five episodes, it was me as Raphael, Townsend Coleman was Michaelangelo, Barry Gordon, who was subsequently the president of the Screen Actors Guild, was Donatello, Cam Clarke was Leonardo, and Pete Renaday, who was doing Mickey Mouse stuff…by which I mean he was doing the voice of Mickey Mouse!…was Master Splinter. Renae Jacobs was April O’Neil, and Pat Fraley was Krang. We did five episodes that were paid for by the toy company, Playmates, and they aired as a week-long miniseries during Christmas vacation of 1987 and 1988, I think. I don’t think they were hugely successful right out of the chute, but I think they decided there was enough to spring for eight more, so we ended up doing 13 total, and then they came back six months or a year later, and it just went crazy. I mean, it was really, really big.
Looking back at it now, especially with a friend like Tom, who’s enjoying the Spongebob craze, it was not dissimilar to that. It was enormous, and it was enormous for a long time. For six or seven years, I think. And it was a huge thrill for me and my son, because my son was about six when it really hit, so for about three or four years during its prime popularity…it was the perfect age for him for his dad to be Raphael. It was a mutual benefit: I got a huge thrill out of being able to share that with my son, and he got a big kick out of being the coolest guy in school because his daddy was a Turtle. (Laughs) So it was a great, great gift for me and my family, and, of course, it was work that continues to pay benefits even now, because I run into people who are in their late-20s, mid-30s who were Turtles fans when they were 11 or 12 years old, they’ve been animation fans and followed my career, they were in high school and college when “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain” were on, and now they get to bring their kids to functions and say, “Hey, you remember I told you about the show with the turtles? This is one of those guys!” There have been so many other permutations of the Turtles that have been pretty successful, and I have not been involved with any of them except for the original batch, which I’m very proud of. It was a great experience, we did something like 200 episodes, and it was just…well, what can I say? It was a total labor of love. It was a bunch of folks laughing their guts out and pinching themselves every day, saying, “I can’t believe I get to do this.”
It really opened up a lot of doors for me professionally, but like I said, I got to participate in so many wonderful charities as a result of the Turtles, and I think that has made me a much better parent. At the very least, it made me more aware of how fortunate I am to have a happy, healthy kid, because, man, the opportunities that I got to be with sick kids and their parents…you know, you can’t put a price tag on what a huge gift that was for me to be able to do it. So when I get a chance to do it now, I jump at it. I just don’t get that many chances any more, because, y’know, it’s understandable that folks want the flavor of the month. Right now, it’s Tom’s time, and I can’t even imagine how many requests Tom gets from people wanting Spongebob to come and hang out with the kids or talk to them on the phone. And he’s wonderful about that. He’s such a caring, lovely guy, and he’s done favors for all of us. I think he left a message on my niece’s answering machine five years ago, and she still plays it. He’s just the sweetest guy. A great guy. So, anyway, I’m very grateful to the Ninja Turtles, and I’ll be proud to have been Raphael ’til they put me in the ground.
* Yakko, “Animaniacs”
Ah, boy! (Laughs) That was another one that put me on the map even more, and in a different way. I had done “Tiny Toon Adventures” for years with the same group – Steven Spielberg, Todd Ruegger, and Andrea Romano – but I kind of felt like, especially when I heard that “Animaniacs” was coming, that it was almost like they’d been doing their homework on “Tiny Toons” and just getting things sorted out. It was successful, but I knew that “Animaniacs” was going to be a really big deal, particularly with its music. There was quite a bit of music on “Tiny Toons,” which I was involved with, too, and the composer was a guy named Bruce Crowley, who was very successful and has gone on to do a lot of great stuff. I worked with him subsequently with a DVD release for Disney called “The Three Musketeers” where I did a lot of singing, and he was really talented.
“Animaniacs” is the only show that I’ve ever actually gone to the producers and mustered up my courage and said, “If you don’t hire me for this, you’re making a mistake.” And it wasn’t out of arrogance. It was because I knew that I was really, really ready to do this. Music was going to be a huge part of it, and as much as I love voice acting, my first love is singing. I really, really love to sing. And I was ready for this. I didn’t expect that me and my arrogant sort of gutsy statement was going to get me the job, but I just wanted to make it clear to them that I really, really was confident that I could do this. So I was involved in a very long audition process, and I know that Tress MacNeill, one of my dearest friends, we called each other nightly because…the audition process was six weeks long, and it was pared down and pared down, and they listened to lots and lots of people. Ultimately, I got the job, and I think my instincts were correct. Not necessarily in terms of my contribution, but the show was a huge success on many levels, and I was correct in that it was a big deal. And it was certainly a big deal for me, but it was a great show, and the music was such a huge, integral part of the show.
To this day, whenever I get involved with either a personal appearance or people find out what I’ve done or who I am, they usually go right away to “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain.” Speaking as a fan, it’s for very good reason. The shows are timeless. I mean, they’re not 40 years old, but they’re 10, 15 years now, and I think they hold up really well. And the music…not only the music in terms of the background music, which was done by the late, great Richard Stone and Julie and Steve Bernstein, is in the best tradition of Warner Brothers music. It does not take a back seat to Carl Stalling’s music at all, and that’s high praise indeed when you look at Stallings’ work. But the stories were great, I think the execution of the stories was great, they spent the money, Mr. Spielberg’s thumbprint is all over it, and it makes it that much better. Tom Ruegger and Andrea Romano, Jean McCurdy, who was the president of Warner Brothers Animation at the time…all the stars aligned exactly the way they needed to.
I remember saying to Tress and Maurice and Jess Harnell and the other actors, “Take a picture of this, guys, because unless you’re on ‘The Simpsons,’ this is about as good as it gets.” Everybody won Emmys, everybody made money, we won Peabody awards, it got critical acclaim…I don’t think I ever read a bad review of “Animaniacs.” Ever. Not even a lukewarm review. I mean, not everybody went head over heels, but virtually every review was at least, “Wow, this is really good, you should watch this,” and it went from there up to, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” It went from positive to over-the-top positive. I’m sure there were bad reviews, but I never read them…and I’ve read a lot of reviews of shows I’ve worked on. Not all of them are glowing, and with good reason. But there was something for everybody with “Animaniacs,” and it was done in the best tradition of Warner Brothers’ stuff, which is to say that the stories did not condescend to the audience, they were written for adults, but they had the wackiness that children love. I get people all the time saying, “I was in my teens when those shows came out, and now I watch them in my twenties, and I get it. I get it in a different way, but it’s just as entertaining.” And the music I got to sing on those shows…oh, it was just spectacular. And I still do “The Countries of the World” probably fifty times a year for different reasons. (Laughs) Great stuff. You can tell how I feel about the show, I guess, but what’s not to like?
* Pinky, “Pinky & The Brain”
We got to have a lot of celebrities on “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain.” I mentioned that I’m a big Python fan…? Well, Eric Idle played my mother and father on “Pinky and the Brain.” Ernest Borgnine was on the show. Roddy McDowall came and played an evil hamster. Roddy McDowall, Will! I got to spend days with Roddy fricking McDowall, who could not have been sweeter. At the time, he had cancer and ultimately passed away, but he never told anybody, couldn’t have been nicer, answered all of my questions about Elizabeth Taylor and what it was like really being a part of the golden age of movies, “Planet of the Apes”…oh, my God, it was spectacular. I remember we did a “Romeo and Juliet” episode on “Pinky and the Brain,” and they brought in Olivia Hussey, who for my mind was the definitive Juliet, because she played the part in the version that was directed by Franco Zeffireli. Oh, my God, she was so stunning. At the time she came in, she was probably 50, and she was still stunning. Had skin like alabaster. I sat next to her, and I finally had to ‘fess up: “Look, I used to have the biggest crush on you…and probably still do. What a thrill it is to meet you!” And she said, “Oh, thank you so much! That’s so kind of you! I hope I can do your show proud. I hope I don’t screw up!” Oh, my gosh, it was just spectacular. And Cary Elwes played Romeo, and he and I got to be good buddies…and my wife had a huge crush on him because of “The Princess Bride”! (Laughs) You know, from every level, it was just great. And, again, Maurice LaMarche was a friend before this, so I got to do a show that ended up being…I don’t know if it’s become part of the culture, but it was certainly quite popular and people still love it, and I got to do it with a good friend of mine. What’s better than that? People still love “Pinky and the Brain,” and I’m very proud of it. It was very clever. I loved that character…and I got to win an Emmy!
Actually, those three…”Turtles,” “Animaniacs,” and “Pinky and the Brain”…are probably my triumvirate. It’s like that old question, “Who’s your favorite child?” But, certainly, those three are the ones that people seem to like the most, and they were certainly huge parts of my professional life…and continue to be to this day. I don’t think they’ve been around long enough to have become cultural icons quite yet, but I think you can argue that they’ve almost gotten there. I guess the only way we can be sure that they’ve made it is if we do this same interview in 20 years and see if people still remember them. And as far as my favorites, close to those three would have to be “Jimmy Neutron,” because Carl Wheezer continues to be a real favorite amongst lots of people, because it was completely different from most other stuff I’d done, and he’s a very sweet, dear character because he has a lot of flaws… (Laughs) …but he’s a lot of fun to do.
When I look back…hopefully, I’m not done yet, because I love my work. I’m still keeping pretty busy, which I’m grateful for. It’s cyclical, it goes up and down, but I’ve certainly had more up cycles than down. I’m really one of the lucky guys, because when I look back at my 25 years, I’ve got probably three or four characters that, in and of themselves, are characters that people know by name, as opposed to just knowing the show. I’m really grateful for that. Most people Raphael is a Turtle, most people know Pinky and Yakko, most people know Carl. So I feel like I’ve got four characters on my resume which can almost stand alone. I don’t know that they’d be worthy of their own shows, but if you ask people, they’ll say, “Oh, I love Carl,” or, “I love Pinky.” So I feel like I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been able to work on those shows and have had a part, however small or large, in their success. And it’s not false modesty, because it truly is a collaborative medium, and I can’t even draw stick figures. (Laughs) And the fact that I’ve got someone nice like you who wants to talk to me…? It indicates that there’s at least a little bit of interest in me, and I’m always flattered when somebody is aware of my work.
I have to say that it’s happening more. I’m getting older, people have now listened to me long enough where they kind of go, “Man, you have a familiar voice. Rob Paulsen, why do I know that name? Oh, yeah!” They’ve seen enough credits over the years, even by accident, that I’m being recognized more and more. I’ve been around so long that I’m like an old shoe, but I’m always flattered when people want to take the time to talk to me or make a fuss. It’s a huge thrill, and it’s particularly flattering that people have a soft spot in their hearts for a character that I’ve had a part in creating, because, you know, usually people associate cartoons with their childhood. Either it can be a memory of a really great childhood, or sometimes a cartoon character may have brought them joy during a particularly difficult childhood, but even if the general part of growing up wasn’t a great experience…”My parents were going through a divorce,” “I got picked on,” and so on…cartoons usually bring back pleasant memories…and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve got one guy who continues to keep in touch with me, he has cerebral palsy, and Raphael has been his hero the whole time because he gave him courage. I had no idea that stuff was affecting people like that when I was doing it, but years down the road, you get to meet people in personal situations that have these really great stories that make you realize that, while you thought you were just pulling a paycheck, selling action figures, and making a huge hit, it had a much, much deeper impact on people around the world than you could ever have suspected. That’s a huge thrill for me, it’s a real gift, and I’m truly grateful for it.