Mark Evanier profiles the career of legendary June Foray, voice actress, ASIFA supporter and Governor of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.
Here's a moment you doubtlessly recall from many a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon: Arch-villain Boris Badenov ambles up in some sort of disguise...only it's usually not much of a disguise. Usually, it's a different hat. Still, though his masquerade wouldn't fool Quincy Magoo during a total eclipse, it fools Bullwinkle J. Moose.
Not only that but it also fools Rocket J. Squirrel -- and he's the smart one in the team. Rocky hears Boris introduce himself as someone other than Boris. Then Rocky says, "That voice...where do I know that voice?"
Viewers might well be asking themselves that when Rocky talks. As it is no secret, Rocky is the most famous of countless characters who have been given a voice by the Queen of Voice Performers, the legendary June Foray. For a time, it was not uncommon for people to refer to her as "The female Mel Blanc." That prompted her friend (and frequent employer) Chuck Jones to correct folks...
"June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc was the male June Foray."
The Beginning of a Legend
One can make the case either way. Less arguable though is that June is one of a select group of voice legends that includes not only the immortal Mr. Blanc but two of her other frequent co-stars -- Daws Butler and Paul Frees. Put any of them in a room with a microphone and you had a cast of hundreds...
But put June and any of those men (or Stan Freberg or Don Messick, etc.) in that studio and the possibilities were infinite.
It isn't just that June can portray so many different people but that each is a fully-rounded, well-delineated characterization. The folks she becomes don't just sound funny; they breathe and laugh and cry and run the gamut of emotions without you ever feeling, "Oh, that's just somebody doing a silly voice!" Small wonder she has worked so much...ever since age 12, to be precise.
That was when she first performed a role in a radio play back in her native Springfield, Massachusetts. Three years later, she was a regular player in the rep company of WBZA in Springfield...and by the time she was 17, she was ensconced in Hollywood and landing roles in radio programs of the day -- everything from The Jimmy Durante Show to the prestigious Lux Radio Theatre. She even had her own kids' show for a time, telling stories as Lady Makebelieve.
"Radio was the greatest training ground," she says. "You had to be very quick and you had to be very versatile...and you were surrounded by such wonderful actors."
Hitting Her Stride
Then it was on to cartoons. In the 1940s, producer Jerry Fairbanks brought out his "Speaking of Animals" shorts which featured live-action footage of animals with cartoon mouths superimposed on them. June was one of the actors engaged to dub in the bon mots "spoken" by the critters.
It was on those jobs that she met and formed lasting relationships with two other voice performers -- Stan Freberg and Daws Butler. Soon after, June joined Stan, Daws and Mel Blanc, among others, recording children's records for Capitol...and that led her to just about every cartoon studio in existence.
"Someone at Disney heard one of the records and called me in to do the sounds of Lucifer the Cat in Cinderella." (For Disney's next animated feature, Peter Pan, she played a mermaid -- but did not do any voices. They put her in a bathing suit and filmed her performing actions to serve as reference for the animators.)
She also performed -- before a microphone -- for Tex Avery at MGM and for dozens of Walter Lantz cartoons. But her best-known work in theatrical animation was for Warner Bros. where she quickly became the star female voice, performing in countless films. Her roles included Granny, the feisty owner of Tweety and Sylvester, and the Alice mouse in the Kramdenesque Honeymousers series.
Her favorite? No contest: "I started playing witches...for Disney in Trick or Treat and Witch Hazel for Chuck Jones in several films." Her witches were classic -- and oft-imitated. Even today, casting agents will tell you: They rarely hear a female voice demo tape that doesn't include some approximation of a June Foray witch voice.
During the Fifties, June performed on such radio shows as remained, including the last-ever network comedy radio program -- The Stan Freberg Show. She had performed on many of Stan's best-selling comedy records, including "St. George and the Dragonet" and "Sh-Boom." Says Stan today, "She was, quite simply, the best in the business. I could write anything, confident in the knowledge that whatever the age, whatever the accent, June could do it."
She also did a bit of on-camera acting, appearing on several TV shows and in movies. (If you want to see her cringe, remind her of her role as the sexy High Priestess in the film, Sabaka.) At some point though, she bowed to the inevitable: Hollywood was loaded with actresses who could emote in front of the camera...but put her at a microphone and June Foray was in a class by herself. To date, her last on-camera acting was in the mid-Sixties, playing a Hispanic telephone operator in several episodes of Green Acres.
By then, she was well into her best-known body of work -- her stint for Jay Ward, performing almost all the female roles (and the occasional male) on The Bullwinkle Show (ne Rocky and His Friends), Dudley Do-Right, Fractured Fairy Tales, Fractured Flickers and many more. She can barely venture anywhere these days without someone imposing on her to speak a line or two as Rocky (usually the line about "That trick never works") or perhaps Natasha Fatale and/or Nell Fenwick.
It was not just that the Ward cartoons were wittily written -- which they were, largely under the supervision of Bill Scott -- they were also brilliantly performed. Working with a fine stock company that included Scott, Paul Frees, sometimes William Conrad, Daws Butler or Hans Conried and others, June was part of the high-watermark of cartoon voice acting.
"They were recorded very quickly," she recalls. "When they came to you for your line, you had to be ready and you had to get it in one." Surviving tapes of recording sessions prove she nearly always did just that.
June appeared concurrently and after in hundreds of commercials and countless other TV shows. Just a few years ago, she brought Granny back to life on The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries and has been heard on The Smurfs, Garfield and Friends and many more.
She has also, unbeknownst to many of her fans, been heard in dozens of live-action movies, dubbing other actors. Listen for her (and Paul Frees) throughout Bells Are Ringing or The Comic, to name two of many. She can also be heard in dolls (the original Chatty Cathy) and around Disneyland (The Pirates of the Caribbean), and if there's any other place a person can be called on to deliver a vocal performance, June has been there.
Community Service and Its Rewards
Of special note are her many contributions to the film and animation community, including service as a Governor of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, and also the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She has been such a fixture of ASIFA -- The International Animated Film Society -- that ASIFA-Hollywood even named an award after her.
And just when you think she's taken home every honor for which she's even remotely eligible, along comes another one: On July 7, a star bearing the name "June Foray" will be unveiled on the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame. It roughly coincides with the release of the big-budget, Robert DeNiro-produced feature film of Rocky and Bullwinkle ...starring you-know-who as the voice of the former.
On a personal note, I have to add that it has been a pleasure to know and work with June Foray. When I was a kid, her voice could be heard on darn near every TV show and record that I loved. It's great to meet a performer and discover that you love the person just as much as you love the performances.
Mark Evanier made the long, hard struggle to Hollywood all the way from West Los Angeles. He's been writing comic books since 1969 (when he apprenticed with the legendary Jack Kirby), live-action TV since 1976 and animation since 1978. His comic book credits include his own co-creations, The DNAgents, Crossfire and The Mighty Magnor, along with fourteen years of collaborating with cartoonist Sergio Aragonés on Groo the Wanderer. Mark has also worked on pre-existing characters including Superman, Blackhawk, The New Gods, Tarzan, Mickey Mouse, Super Goof, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety & Sylvester, Pink Panther, Woody Woodpecker, The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear and dozens of others. In animation, he wrote, voice-directed and co-produced 121 half-hours of Garfield and Friends for CBS, and can also claim credits on Mother Goose and Grimm, CBS Storybreak, Dungeons and Dragons, ABC Weekend Special, Scooby Doo, Thundarr the Barbarian, The Wuzzles, Richie Rich, Yogi Bear and many more. In the arena of live-action television, he has written for Welcome Back, Kotter; The Love Boat, Cheers, Bob, That's Incredible, The Richard Pryor Show, plus dozens of variety shows and specials. He has three Emmy nominations (no wins) and lives in Los Angeles in a big house full of comic books.