Top voice talent Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), relays how she got her start in voice acting under the tutelage of voice master Daws Butler. This is the first in a series of article she will be writing for Animation World Magazine. Stay tooned until September for the next installment.
Probably the most important ingredient to a successful career of any kind is the carpe diem principle: You have to recognize opportunity and grab it with both hands. This message is so often repeated that some people view it as trite or, as I believe, a fundamental truth to success.
The Right Place
Some of my early steps on the path to Bartdom, before I had even left Ohio, took place at WING Radio in Dayton. Most of the folks from the station knew of my passion to become a voice actor and they gave me opportunities to try characters on the radio. I would sneak up though I realize now that everyone knew and I didn't really have to sneak to the station at night and work on putting a tape together of all my characterizations. I knew it was a must in the voice over industry to have a "demo" tape but no one had told me how long. So... my first demo was no less than 13 minutes! Hey, I have a lot to say!
Midsummer a producer from Warner Bros. Records came into the station to promote their music. Warner Bros.?! Mel Blanc?! This might be "just the ticket." I shook hands with Anne Schwebel and we chatted, well, I chatted and she listened. I did voices, I told stories and made her laugh. As she was leaving, she handed me her card and told me to write her and that she would get my letter to someone in the animation department. She cautioned me not to hold out much hope as she didn't know much about animation at all.
What the Heck?!
I kind of forgot about it after I sent her a letter but Anne was good to her word. She responded with a letter or her own. (I realize all this would happen in less than 24 hours today, what with e-mail, but these were the snail mail days.) Near the bottom of her polite letter were the names of several contacts in animation. The last name on the list had no address, just a phone number and the name: Daws Butler. What?! This was the voice of most of the characters that I grew up with: Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick-Draw McGraw, Baba-Looey, Elroy, Cogswell, Lambsy, Chilly Willy, Augie Doggie, Henry Orbit, Hokey Wolf, Blabber Mouse, Super Snooper, Lippy the Lion, Wally Gator, Peter Potamus, Capt. Skyhook and Cap'n Crunch. (It was that last one that really locked me in! I love Cap'n Crunch.)
I thought, "What the heck. I'm gonna call him!" So I went down to the basement, that's where we kept the private phone in the Midwest, and gave him a ring. On the other end of the line, an answering machine picked up. This was summer of `77. Answering machines hadn't made it to the heartland yet. I listened to his outgoing message: (with a British dialect) "Hello. My name is Percival Pickles. I'm Mr. Butler's butler. Mr. Butler is not home just now. If you would like to leave a message, wait for the beep. (Long pause...) Beep." And that was it. Uh I didn't know what to do! I quickly gathered my thoughts as best I could, (in a cockney dialect): "`ello Mr. Butler. This is Nancy Cartwright. I am from Kettering, O'io. I understand that you teach voice acting classes and I am very interested in this. Please write to me at blah, blah, blah Thank you and pip-pip cheerio!"
Taking the Plunge
With that, I hung up the phone. I couldn't believe that I had done that! "He is going to think I am crazy... calling all the way from Ohio... " Then I realized, "As long as he thinks I am crazy, I should call him back and get him to call me. I don't want to wait for a letter! So I called him again: (same Cockney) "Mr. Butler, instead of writing me, why don't you just give me a ring-a-ding on the ol' telly? My number is (513) blah, blah... Call me and we can have a chat. Oh, call collect. Tootles."
I didn't have to wait long. Next thing I knew, the phone rang and I rumbled down the stairs to get it. On the other end: "Hollywood calling. Will you accept the charges?" OMYGOD! It was him!
Making the Most of It
Daws became a great friend. He sent me a bunch of scripts in the mail and I sent him my overly long demo tape. And this began our student-mentor relationship. He would send me one of his original scripts in the mail and I would take a portable tape recorder and record a take on it. I would then send it back to him and he would listen and critique it. He'd send me the notes along with another script. He was an extraordinary teacher. Always encouraging and never negative.
In one letter, which I kept, he wrote, "Dear little sweet, protégé, Nancy!! The years are going to start going faster now... no doubt about that and for a girl a lot has to happen between 19 and 25. The main thing is not to get involved in some of the traps that are put out for your young years the beauty school, modeling schools talent schools. Most of them are pure hokum. I'm not hokum, tho and I'm old enough to be pure." And he signed it, "Take care and don't be cosmetic unless you're going out on a Saturday night. Your well-meaning mentor, Daws." Such a sweetie!
Going the Distance
Fast forward to my arrival in LA... You could tell from the street that he had converted the garage portion of his modest three-bedroom Spanish hacienda into his training studio. When I knocked, Daws himself came to the door. There he stood, all 4' 10" of him. He smiled from ear-to-ear and said, "Don't just stand there. Give your old mentor a hug!" Did I say that he was a sweetie?
On Sundays, I would catch the #86 bus into Beverly Hills to work with Daws in that converted garage. We would start our one-hour lesson, working with his material, reading, re-reading, adjusting, working with mic technique... laughing and having too much fun. His class wasn't just about technique. He would focus on all phases of acting. He helped me to realize that voice overs weren't some lesser form of acting. It took all the emotion and especially commitment in order to communicate what that character was feeling. He believed that, "Talent cannot be taught. It must exist. But if it does exist at all, it can be nurtured and expanded." So, the hour lesson was never an hour. It was never less than four hours. We would just lose ourselves in that studio.
After a pretty full afternoon, Daws and his lovely wife Myrtis would take me out to Luv's BBQ Pit on Olympic near Doheny before taking me back to the dorm. They would tell me stories... like how Huckleberry Hound was characterized after a neighbor of Myrtis when Daws was courting her. "Weeeeeeeell hiiiiiiiiiii theeeeeeere Daaaaaaaaaaws. Hooooooooow aaaaaaaaaare yooooooooou doooooooin'? By the time he got done sayin' "hi," it was time to get Myrtis home!
So, seize the day! If I had at any point in this "chance" encounter not pushed Anne to give me some help, not called Daws, not called him back, not been right up front with him about what my dreams were, not pushed myself to be better and better I wouldn't be writing this to you today.
You never know when opportunity will call collect!
Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in her career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Chuckie on Rugrats, All Grown Up. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her new audio book My Life as a 10-year-old Boy.