Stephen Lynch interviews Keith Scott, Australia's foremost voice actor, and hears all about his love of Jay Ward Cartoons and his exciting time on the set as the voice of Bullwinkle in Universal's upcoming Rocky and Bullwinkle.
When the makers of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle hired Keith Scott to be the voice of the world's most famous moose, they knew they were getting more than just an actor. Not only were they employing Australia's foremost vocal impressionist, who had years of experience providing half the voices for Yoram Gross' cartoons, they were also procuring the services of the world's most avid fan of Jay Ward Productions.
For apart from being the official voice of Bullwinkle since 1992, Keith Scott has spent many years chronicling the history of the studio. Now, in a fortuitous turn of events, his book The Moose That Roared is being released on the same day as Bullwinkle's debut as a major movie star. Recently I spoke to Keith about this convergence of his two worlds, and asked just how did an Aussie get to be the voice of Bullwinkle anyway?
Stephen Lynch: Let's clear up one thing from the start. It's been reported elsewhere that you and Bill Scott are related. That's not true, is it?
Keith Scott: No. It's totally erroneous and incorrect. I knew the late Bill Scott really well, from 1971 when I first wrote to him until the day he died in 1985. He was the original voice of Bullwinkle, and he could see how genuine my passion for his cartoons were. I always joke that he took me under his antlers, and eventually when he semi-retired he said, "You've got this voice when I'm gone." I never believed it would happen.
SL: So how did it happen?
KS: A couple of years after Jay Ward died, his daughter Tiffany took over the company and started revitalizing the characters. At that time I had made a tape of all the imitations of Bullwinkle, Boris, Dudley Do-Right and a lot of the supporting characters. Tiffany got a copy of this from June Foray, who is the voice of Rocky. Once Tiffany heard the tape she realized that I'd obviously studied it for years so she appointed me the official voices in '92. For the first few years it was just for an occasional 30 second animated TV commercial. Then in '97, my biggest break came when she recommended me to narrate George of the Jungle, which was another of her father's cartoons. I thought that was just a once off situation and I just came back to my normal everyday voice-over work and live shows. Then suddenly she called up and said that they were really getting close to doing a movie with Rocky and Bullwinkle, and that she'd like me to be the voice of Bullwinkle. I said, "Fantastic!"
SL: So how did you first discover you had this ability to impersonate voices?
KS: It's so long ago now I almost forget. When I was very young, I was always enchanted by the mimics and impressionists on The Ed Sullivan Show, so it was kind of a foregone conclusion. I started developing it in high school doing teacher's voices. Then just after I left school, William Hanna from Hanna-Barbera opened up a local branch for farmed out animation and he lived here for six months. I had letters from Daws Butler who did the voice of Yogi Bear, and all these other people that I had written to as a kid. Not so much as a fan, but seeking some sort of instruction. They were all so gracious about it and very, very good with their time. Of course, when he saw that I had these letters from his then chief voice man, he gave me a job working around the office. Finally when I had a very rough demo tape ready he gave me a reference, and I guess his name carried such credibility that it got me into an agency. From that point I just started slowly getting into voice-over work. It really took about two years before I had the confidence and had developed enough skills to feel comfortable. Then it sort of took off. From around about '74, I started doing quite a bit of work, many anonymous radio and TV commercials, just crazy voices, either impersonations or original characters. At the same time I was also working as an impressionist doing stand up stuff where I made it into that first wave of that Comedy Store generation. So that was an exciting time.
SL: Was it difficult doing impressions at a time when contemporary actors didn't have very distinguishable voices?
KS: Not really, because in those days it was recognized that anyone who did impressions just did the older one's like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne and I fell right into that. What gave me a bit of uniqueness in Australia was that I was one of the first to do political impressions. It was just at that period where TV media was taking over. Now if I do stand up comedy it's all news media oriented stuff. The movie things are thrown in as an added extra. The other thing that I had always done was mimic all these cartoon voices, and that was always a bit of a laugh in school because the baby boomers were the first generation to grow up weaned on cartoons. That's the routine where I do forty cartoon voices in one sentence. It's kind of a closing gimmick, but it still works. I've been doing it for 15 years and I want to drop it, but people keep insisting that I do that cartoon medley. So I just keep adding ones to it, like Homer Simpson or whatever. Bringing it up to date. Even back then, before I ever had the connection with Jay Ward, I'd throw in Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right.
SL: How did you come to become the voice man for Yoram Gross?
KS: It just came as a call through the agency. I think the first one was a feature film called Dot and Keeto. I did all the male voices and Robyn Moore did all the female voices. We worked well bouncing off each other. It was great for me because I was given total leeway. There was a trend at the time, especially with overseas cartoons, to be very realistic, or just use all teenage voices. The old Mel Blanc style of voices had fallen out of vogue for a time. But I was given total freedom to do any crazy imitation I wanted. If there was some desk clerk in a scene I'd do Cary Grant, or for a gorilla I'd do Dan Blocker from Bonanza. There was absolutely no discipline in what I did, but they ended up sounding like funny cartoon characters, which is what the guys on Bullwinkle used to do. Half the bit part voices on that show were just imitations of old character actors. The young kids wouldn't have had a clue, but they made an interesting voice. I'm still working for Yoram up to this day, especially in the last few years when he began doing his half-hour TV series like Flipper and Tabaluga.
SL: Is it true you are also licensed to do the Warner Bros. characters?
KS: Yes. That was after Mel Blanc died and they were looking for replacements. They found a few in the States, but at the same time Warner Bros. had just set up world wide overseas branches. The guy running Warner Bros. here had the bright idea of getting a local person to do all the characters for any below-the-equator promotional work. The people in the States gave a tentative go-ahead, and then after one year, when we had done a few animated commercials, they were much happier about it. I'm still officially sanctioned to do it for anything down here but a lot of that's dropped off because after '95 the animated commercials stopped being produced here and they moved base to Hong Kong. However just a couple months ago we had an e-mail from Warner's in England saying the American people had recommended me to do some voices for one of their theme parks. So there have been little highlights along the way. It's always been something I've been quietly proud of but it's not something I usually talk about because they still have replacement voices in America.
SL: Tell me about your work on George of the Jungle. Did you base that voice on the show's original narrator?
KS: I wanted to base it on Paul Frees, but the director kind of steered me away from it because it was movie length. He thought that doing it all at the one Paul Frees level would get a bit monotonous, and he was probably right. Unfortunately for me it was a 50/50 result. I thought a lot of it sounded accurate, but 50% sounded more like Gary Owens from Laugh-in, which drifted from the character. Whereas in the Bullwinkle movie, we've really tried to maintain the William Conrad voice from go to finish. Des McAnuff, the director, really understands pacing and dynamics and he wants it to move and be accurate to the spirit of the old cartoons, which is a great thing. The Dudley Do-Right live-action movie on the other hand was such a flop and so unfunny because of the director. He took the attitude that, "Jay Ward was funny then, but I'm going to put my own humor into it." You can't do that with an established character, because people want to see what the characters are up to now. So it was no wonder it flopped, when he falsified it like that.
SL: I got that movie out for my kids recently and I think it lasted 10 minutes before they turned it off.
KS: The only thing you'll notice is that at the beginning of that tape, we did one new Fractured Fairy Tale called The Phox, the Box and the Lox. It was always meant to precede the movie. That was from an old Bill Scott script that I had that was never produced. I told Tiffany Ward about it, who was getting this idea about doing some new productions. They recorded it in Hollywood while I was there for this assignment, and I did the two lead characters. Again we tried to keep it accurate, so I imitated the voices the way Daws Butler used to do the lead characters in Fractured Fairy Tales. June Foray worked on that one too, and they found an Edward Everett Horton sound-alike who did quite a good job. So it turned out pretty good, although the pacing was slightly different to the old Fairy Tales, but then they had five minutes to tell the story, where this new one only had four.
KS: We did a pre-record of all the character lines, but really I traveled with the movie for the whole shoot. The director wanted me to do that because Charlie Fleischer, who did Roger Rabbit, had proved that to be on the set was a viable way of doing it for timing purposes, if you're going to marry three-dimensional animation with live actors eventually. So I was there with the script everyday, standing on the side of a road when we were on location, or at Universal on the sound stage, just being Bullwinkle. It was weird. It's such an integral part of the movie and I'm getting all these huge scenes with people who I never thought I'd work with like Robert DeNiro. They also found, not that it was part of the original deal, that they had to get me there on all the days so that I could also read the narrator's pieces. That gave them an idea of how long the shot would run, because the whole movie is driven by narration. So that was the role that I had. Originally I had always assumed it was just going to be a recording session, maybe a one-week gig. It turned out I was living over there for five and a half months.
SL: Did you find that the contact you had with Bill and the research you have done about the studio, helpful in playing Bullwinkle?
KS: Oh, invaluable. One of the things he did a few years before his death was pull out all of these huge reel-to-reel tapes, which were all the original recording sessions. I was able to make copies of everything. It's all of the episodes, including all the outtakes in between where you can hear them working out jokes and ragging each other. I studied those tapes for 20 years, and it was like fly on the wall stuff. So I had really got into the heads of not just the characters but the actors doing it. I even gave copies of them to June Foray, who was incredibly happy to get them because it was like a photo album of memories. So it really has been that total involvement with me that goes a lot deeper than just mimicking a voice.
SL: So what do you think set the Jay Ward cartoons apart?
KS: Well at the time, Hanna-Barbera were the big new force in town and although some of their early stuff is quite charming, it was still pretty formulaic. It was like Tom and Jerry revisited but with the new faces of Pixie, Dixie and Mr. Jinx. So suddenly along comes Rocky and His Friends and they're doing jokes about congress and the Cold War, and Peabody is going back in time and altering the course of history. It just had that kind of wise-ass take on things. That nothing should be taken seriously. Bill Scott always used to say that you'd come back to it and see things that you didn't get when you were a kid. Which was true, and I started appreciating it even more, and then as an adult even more. They were multi-layered and I loved the irreverence of it. They were obviously just doing things to amuse themselves, but if you were in for the ride, it was a great ride. Then you'd start looking back at the competition again and it would still be cats chasing mice. It was well done, but Rocky and Bullwinkle just had that extra oddball feel to it.
Stephen Lynch has written about the various aspects of filmmaking for books and magazines throughout Australia, England and America, as well as co-hosting Flicks, a weekly film review program.