How Many of These Voice Actors Do You Know? By Richard Crouse
Would you spend money to see an animated movie starring Nicole Jaffe and Henry Corden? Probably not, because you’ve never heard of either of them.
Oh, but you’ve heard them.
Jaffe voiced Velma on Scooby Doo, while Corden vocalized for Fred Flintstone. Their voices are familiar, but not well-known enough for the producers of most of today’s big budget cartoons.
“If they were doing a half-hour Flintstone show today, they’d still go with me,” said Corden in 1999, “but for a motion picture, even an animated one, they’d go with a celebrity to play Fred, because they need to sell the picture.”
It boils down to bucks —George Clooney as the Fantastic Mr. Fox will put more bums in seats than Henry Corden. “I hate it but I understand it,” Corden said.
Luckily marquee actors like voice work— the hours are good and you don’t have to shave.
Marlon Brando was so taken with the easy money of voice acting he suggested doing the role of Superman’s Jor-El in voice-over, with his onscreen character portrayed as a glowing, levitating green bagel. That one didn’t pan out but he took further audio-only roles, including his final gig performing an old lady voice in the unreleased Big Bug Man.
Other star turns haven’t been so ignoble. Orson Welles thrilled a generation of tweens as the voice of planet-gobbler Unicron in Transformers: The Movie and Angela Lansbury was Mrs. Potts , the perkiest teapot ever in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
In the old days, Disney frequently used celebrity voices to augment their cartoons — remember Bob Newhart in The Rescuers?—but the trend kicked into overdrive when Robin Williams’s hyperkinetic jabbering stole the show in Aladdin.
It was a tour de force performance and Williams’s star power helped push the box office past $200,000,000, an animated film first. Since then Disney has made a habit of regularly hiring well known actors to voice their characters—“They properly recognized that you couldn’t send an animated character out there to Entertainment Tonight to promote your movie,” said animation producer Fred Seibert–but sometimes big name talent can work against the part they’re playing. Can you hear James Earl Jones as Mufasa without thinking of Darth Vader? Me neither.
Perhaps that’s why the House of Mouse went a different way with The Princess and the Frog, premiering this month on The Movie Network. They kept things fresh by casting Keith David, Bruno Campos and Anika Noni Rose.
“I was so wanting to be a Disney voice my entire life,” says Rose, the voice of Disney’s first African-American princess in The Princess and the Frog, “and I would have been more than happy to play anything. Is there a blade of grass? Do you need it to whistle? Because I’ve got that.”
She’s a good actor, but hardly a household name and that lack of familiarity allowed her character to live and breathe and not simply be an extension of an already well-known celebrity persona.
In animation circles the debate rages on about the pros and cons of casting big name actors versus voice only performers, but there is one thing everyone agrees on. “It’s not just about the voice, it’s about the character under the role,” says voiceover actor M.J. Lallo.
“It’s not just standing in the studio doing funny voices, it’s acting,” adds casting director Michael Hack. “It’s more realistic CG animation and more realistic voices. You need to be trained and have instincts for real acting. If you don’t bring anything as an actor, the animation suffers.”
Voxography: Ten Great Voice Actors
1. The Man of a Thousand Voices Mel Blanc was best known as the voice behind Bugs Bunny, but he also vocalized for Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety & Sylvester and Yosemite Sam. He supplied so many voices in films that Jack Benny once joked, “There are only five real people in Hollywood. Everybody else is Mel Blanc.”
2. June Foray, best known for voicing Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel, was praised by animation kingpin Chuck Jones who said, “Mel Blanc is the male June Foray.”
3. Andy Serkis says he used the sound of his three cats clearing fur balls out of their throats to develop the inspired voices he produced for Gollum and Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
4. Paul Lynde played off his irascible personality to play Templeton the Rat in Charlotte’s Web. Tony Randall was originally cast in the role, but when the director asked him to sound more “nasal” Randall suggested they get Paul Lynde instead.
5. Ben Burtt in WALL-E makes the list for creating the blips and beeps that make Pixar’s Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, or WALL-E character, such a charmer.
6. Despite an acting career that spans almost 70 years Peter Sallis is best known as the Yorkshire accented voice of eccentric inventor Wallace in the Wallace & Gromit films.
7. Named a Disney Legend in 1991 Sterling Holloway voiced dozens of characters for the Mouse House including the endearingly raspy voiced Winnie the Pooh. Ironically the actor best known for his distinctive voice made his silver screen debut in silent movies.
8. As the know-it-all Judith in Where the Wild Things Are Catherine O’Hara left behind her mimicry skills—remember her turn as Katharine Hepburn on SCTV?—to deliver a pure and lovely unaffected performance in her own voice.
9. As the swashbuckling Puss in Boots in the Shrek series Antonio Banderas is a scene stealer. He’s flirty—“I don’t know you,” he says to one comely cat, “but I’d like to.”—and daring with a flair for the dramatic.
10. In addition to writing and directing The Incredibles Brad Bird also cast himself in one of the film’s most memorable roles, the superhero costume designer and Edith Head look-a-like Edna “E” Mode.