Will Ryan pays a visit to the super-kinetic Charlie Adler, one of the industry's foremost voice actors and directors.
Driving up to Charlie Adler's rustic Calabasas home last November, I was thinking I hadn't seen Charlie in perhaps three, maybe five years.
Back when we used to audition a lot for voice work in Hollywood we'd bump into each other frequently. We were also Glo-Friends together on a less-than-memorable series of the same name. I believe that we battled the forces of evil together as part of the same G.I. Joe platoon. I also have a vague recollection of the two of us portraying random Smurfs in a now-abandoned recording studio in the back of the now-abandoned Hanna-Barbera building on Cahuenga.
But when I finally saw Charlie standing in his driveway, I realized it must have been more like nine or ten years since we'd actually seen each other. Each of us had some undeniably gray hairs on our respective heads and we'd both gained a few pounds. Luckily for Charlie, his were all muscle and tattoo.
When I first met Charlie, he was fresh off a road show tour reprising his star turn from a hit Broadway show. He had begun applying his talents to an audience of one microphone at a time. Less applause. Less travel. More money. Maybe.
'Maybe' turned out to be a decided 'yes' for Charlie, whose restless creative energy would seem to prevent him from ever accepting 'no' as an answer. So let's sit down in a nice comfortable chair in his oak-paneled living room and catch up with a few of the multiple personalities of the energetic Mr. Adler.
Will Ryan: So, Charlie. When you first came to Hollywood you had just left the world of theater?
Charlie Adler: Yeah.
WR: What made you decide to settle here?
CA: Well, I actually moved out here 'cause -- at the time I was in New York. I did Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway in the Harvey Fierstein role, and then did the national tour. When I left to do the national tour I thought, 'I'm going to get out of New York for a while, finish the tour, move to L.A. and see if I can get a TV series.' And I did. Got the Red Foxx show and never hated anything more in my life than television at that time. It just was dull for me.
WR: Five days of waiting around for a few minutes of shooting.
CA: Yeah! I gotta do something. I didn't feel used. I was kind of embarrassed. It wasn't what I thought it was gonna be. It's funny how you spend your whole life going, 'God, I just want to be in a TV show and have a parking space.' Then I got it and it was just so not what I wanted to do. Now, at 44 years old, I probably would re-think that whole thing because now I know how to wait around, but then it was so wrong for me. I was 27, and I had committed to live here. What I didn't expect was to have animation grab me and it did. It just literally did, it just grabbed me.
WR: Was it your agent Arlene who did all this literal grabbing?
CA: My agent in New York was Harry Abrams, which is how I got Torch Song Trilogy and their affiliate office [in Hollywood] was Abrams, Rubiloff and Lawrence and I went and met the on camera agent. At that time I was very hot commercially and had on the air probably about, at any given time, 8 national spots. That's when I passed for white and worked with the Antichrist. So I was working all the time.
WR: It seems to me you used to enjoy McDonald's and Coca-Cola.
CA: Yeah, I did. Actually, I was vegetarian when I was doing the McDonald's commercials. I had a big spit bucket. Anyway, so I met with the on-camera agent and in New York you're considered an actor. You do a voice-over, you do it on camera, then I would do a soap opera for a week, then I'd go to the theater every night and do a play for eight months and then afterwards go out and sing.
WR: Just like London.
CA: Yeah, you're a craftsman.
WR: You do all these different things.
CA: Right, exactly. It's like London so you're considered an artist and so there are no rules about that. When I came out here and Mark (Pearlstein), the then agent at Abrams, said, 'Well, we're gonna sign you for on camera.' I said, 'Well, great,' and then I said, 'Do you guys do a lot of voice-over? 'Cause I do a ton,' and at that time I was doing anywhere from 7-15 radio spots a week and here -- by the way I think I've maybe done 15 radio spots in my entire career in Los Angeles -- they just do not get it. I make everybody very nervous. But New York got me, which is why it's so odd.
WR: Is it possible you actually have energy and so does New York, do you think?
CA: Yes, my energy was very off putting. But it is in life and I don't expect to go to the prom nor do I want to be invited to every prom. It's fine by me.
WR: I'll keep that in mind.
CA: I'd absolutely consider your prom. So Mark made it very clear to me that you do not, when you sign with an agency out here, sign across the boards and I said, 'Well, I have to be represented for voice.' He said, 'You have to meet that department separately.' And I said, 'No, I do not, it's all or nothing. Buh-bye.' He said, 'Wait right here!' So I had never been particularly clever in business.
WR: You mean to say, you had a certain amount of leverage and you didn't realize it at the time?
CA: I don't know if I was even aware of the fact that I had leverage. I just think it annoyed me. I think it was that visceral and I'm that immediate. It just pissed me off is what it did and five minutes later I was down in the voice-over department and I met Arlene Thornton and (Ginny McSwain), who was then the agent there, who totally had no interest in me whatsoever.
WR: So it wasn't love at first sight?
CA: You know, the re-telling of the story is how it was instant love but it wasn't. That first meeting was very difficult and it was, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, come on back in a week. Do you have any tapes?' And I said, 'No, I didn't need a tape in New York, I just work. I don't have a tape.' Well, what do you do? I had done one animated thing in New York. I did two of the specials, My Little Pony I and My Little Pony II, and that was it. Spike the Baby Dragon is my career. Hello! So I didn't have any tapes of that nor did I have any voice tapes.
WR: But, of course you were there in person. With your actual mouth.
CA: Right. So they said, 'Come back in a week and we'll make a tape,' and I didn't know what the hell to make so I ended up -- luckily, I had done a lot of improv in New York and a lot of improv in life and a lot of character work and so I just threw together -- they said five minutes, I did twelve minutes -- but I did it wearing this fine hat and sunglasses and with my back to them 'cause I was too embarrassed.
WR: Your back to them? You, of the theatre?!
CA: I didn't want anybody to look at me, which really, honest to God is true. Now they remind me what a retard I was. I just absolutely would not be looked at. I was so embarrassed.
WR: We pause now to conjure up this mental image. Okay. So that was your audition and then you had representation?
CA: And then I auditioned and then they got me a general audition at Hanna-Barbara. Then I was flown up to San Francisco to do an on camera commercial for Beck's Beer and I was up in San Francisco and got off the plane and checked my voicemail and there's a message from Arlene that said that I had been hired to replace Joey Kamen as a Smurf. They had killed off one generation and they were turning them in to the babies. So they turn on the Tidy Bowl. So I did that. That was my first animation job out here was Smurfs.
WR: What was your awareness of animation prior to working in it?
CA: Not a lot, not a lot. I mean, like everybody else I had stuff that I loved and I certainly loved all the -- my favorite stuff didn't have voices. My favorite thing was the Road Runner. That always just made me pee in my pants. I loved that. Let's see, do I not want to see it or do I want to take a dump? Hmm. That's a weird expression. So my favorite characters probably were Tweety Bird. I loved Tweety Bird and I loved Krazy Kat.
WR: The comic strip?
CA: It was a cartoon. They turned it into a cartoon. Yes and I was wild for Krazy Kat.
WR: And I'm just wild about Herriman. Charlie, you've made the transition from acting to directing, a very logical transition, but keeping your feet in both ponds, so to speak.
CA: The direction thing has been great. I would go out of my mind if that's all I did, as I found I was going out of my mind just doing animation voices. I mean there's a glass ceiling in this world that we inhabit and I'm not really particularly interested in any of -- any limitations, which is why I started painting and which is why I probably will be doing other things too. I mean four years ago I co-wrote a show for myself, which won a Dramalogue, which has now been scripted for a screenplay. And we have some people attached to it and that's still something I want to do down the road as a writer. Whether I'm in it or not as an actor or a director is at this moment immaterial but you start to lose your mind if you buy into the boxes that you're put in. So, very luckily for me, even the stuff I'm directing has a lot of diversity which is great for me.
WR: You mentioned that you recently directed Jane Goodall. That's kind of...how in the world did that come about? Tell me the story.
CA: Oh my God. Well I'm directing this series, The Wild Thornberries, which is with Tim Curry and a great cast. I've been with them something like 90 episodes and they wrote a script that was very pro-animal rights. I am totally about that, and probably if I didn't do this I would have an animal shelter and be a perfectly happy man. They had Dr. Goodall --
WR: I observe you have a dog on your lap at this very moment.
CA: And a peacock in the driveway. And a feral cat in the backyard. We got the beat now. Anyway, she played herself and it was a spiritual experience for me. It sounds so hokey to say that but there are some people on earth who are so potent and so inspirational and so remarkable and exemplary in the life that they have created and in what they manage to pass out. She's one of them. She absolutely rattled my cage.
WR: Which is pretty rare for her -- she's usually spotted in the wild, you know.
CA: You asked me something earlier, before we started rolling tape.
WR: You mean, what you would do if you could do anything in the world?
CA: Yeah. I just thought of what I would do in life if I had a magic wand.
WR: Does it involve tutus?
CA: It involves tutus and a can of Wesson oil, black light and a Jimi Hendrix poster. I think I would travel my ass off. I would probably have an animal shelter. I probably would spend my life being politically active and being ridiculous about what I committed myself to do. I would paint, I would sculpt, I would write and I don't think I'd ever act again as long as I lived. I don't think it would have anything to do with show business if I had the option. If I could turn the clock back -- and I love my life but there's one thing in me that isn't sung -- I would love to have been a doctor or a veterinarian or both.
WR: You're working toward a degree right now.
CA: Naturopathy. Homeopathy.
WR: Which is related?
CA: It is. Actually, I want people to look at my paintings.
WR: Oh yeah. What's the Website?
CA: I'm on Artnet.com and you just pull up my name. They have a directory of artists and you pull up my name.
WR: (They're terrific.) Now when did you start painting, by the way?
CA: It'll be just a year.
WR: That's very surprising.
CA: I'm having a good time.
WR: That's great. Unfortunately, these words are being preserved so you can't take anything back. With that in mind, do you have any final words in self-defense?
CA: I saw the best refrigerator magnet -- tells you where I shop -- and it said, 'I have no idea what I'm doing out of bed' and for the last two weeks that's been my motto. 'Charlie,' I go, 'I have no idea what I'm doing out of bed.'
WR: Well, let me sign off here before you hop back in.
For more articles about voice-overs, acting and casting visit the Animation World Magazine Archives and type in the above key words to get an array of past articles.
Will Ryan won an Annie Award for the series Elmo Aardvark: Outer Space Detective! in November. Co-produced by Renegade Animation and Snappytoons Amusement Company, it will soon be distributed by Mondo Media. He was recently nominated for a Writer's Guild Award and an Emmy for his work with Jim Henson Productions. His new book, Unsung Songs of the American People, will be published in November by Oxnard University Press.