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Celebrity Voice Actors: The New Sound of Animation

by Joe Bevilacqua

Recently, my wife dreamt she was at a party where she met NewsRadio actor Dave Foley, and she said to him, "Dave, why are you taking work away from my husband?" I guess recently she had been thinking a lot about the subject since we have been seriously contemplating ending my bid for a voice acting career in the face of such stiff celebrity competition.

Robin William's sheer exuberance as the Genie in Aladdin created a memorable and entertaining character. Courtesy Walt Disney Company.

One of the current trends in the American animation industry is to cast major movie stars to voice animated characters. From Robin Williams in Aladdin, Tom Hanks in Toy Story, Dave Foley in A Bug's Life, Eddie Murphy in Mulan, and even Woody Allen in Antz, animated films have become starry-eyed. The trend has even moved to television where many new animated cartoon shows feature stars in the lead roles. Eddie Murphy now stars in The PJs. David Spade will star in Sammy next season. Dilbert features sitcom favorites such as Kathy Griffin, Larry Miller and Chris Elliott. For instance, one voice actor who asked to remain anonymous suggests, "If they were casting some of the classics of my youth for the first time today, they'd get Joe Pesci to play Bugs Bunny, Dan Ackroyd for Yogi Bear, and Whoopi Goldberg for Felix the Cat."

As animation has hit the big time, stars are taking work away from the core group of voice actors. While it seems unfair to give voice work to already working sitcom actors and motion picture stars, it is an understandable philosophy in view of today's fierce competition and need to draw a wide audience. It is a time of change, where voice actors are disgruntled, casting agents are dismayed and animation producers feel remorse, but also understand the business challenges ahead of them. Let's discover the many varied viewpoints from all of these parties on this too hot to handle topic.

A Need for Publicity
Animation producer Fred Seibert (Oh Yeah! Cartoons!) explains, "Disney started the recent fixation on celebrities with their re-launch of their feature animation division. They properly recognized that you couldn't send an animated character out there to Entertainment Tonight to promote your movie."

But voice actor Bob Bergen counters, "If you look at Disney's history, they've always used the celebrities of the day for their cartoons. Many were from radio, but well known voices to the audience. So this isn't a new trend. I think it feels like a new trend because of the amount of animation projects out there. No [other] time in film has there been so much animation being produced."

While in the past Disney used an occasional celebrity (Phil Harris in The Jungle Book, Bob Newhart in The Rescuers), today all their major characters are portrayed by celebrities, leaving those who make a living at voice acting to fight over a handful of supporting roles and crowd scenes. Moreover, the trend has spread to television with such shows as Disney's Hercules, an outgrowth of their 1997 animated feature film. The Hercules voice cast includes the film's Tate Donovan, James Woods, Matt Frewer, and Bobcat Goldthwait, as well as guest appearances by the likes of Diedrich Bader, Jason Alexander, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Idle, Merv Griffin, Regis Philbin, Harvey Korman, Lisa Kudrow, Heather Locklear, Wayne Newton, David Hyde Pierce, Carl Reiner, William Shatner and Betty White. (One must wonder what "acting ability" Merv Griffin and Wayne Newton bring to the show.)

Eric Idle, David Hyde Pierce and Bobcat Goldthwait are three of the 160+ voice actors on Disney's Hercules TV series. Courtesy Walt Disney Company.

Still, it was actually The Simpsons that first brought the celebrity trend to television in the early `90s and it has worked for them. At this point about the only reason a newspaper or magazine will mention the show is because of stunt casting.

"A decade or two ago, many actors with on-camera livelihoods shunned cartoon voice work," says animation writer and voice director, Mark Evanier. For example, if a four-time Emmy winner like Don Knotts appeared in a Scooby Doo cartoon, it was often considered a last resort just to make a living. "Many actors feared someone would say, 'His career must be on the skids,' which is the kind of thing that can become a self-fulfilling observation if enough people say it. But when you have folks like Liz Taylor doing The Simpsons and top film names in Disney animation, it no longer has that stigma," explains Evanier.

"[Studio execs] gravitate towards celebrities," says voice actor Corey Burton, "so that they have actors who have already developed a persona they can draw from to fill out the character, whereas a multi-voiced person is waiting for their idea to produce the particular voice. They get somebody like Don Rickles coming in to Toy Story, and say, `Okay, Don, you're Mr. Potato Head,' and they are able to use his personality. Plus, they see it as a big marketing plus, since they get little bits on Entertainment Tonight and other `behind the scenes' TV shows. That's not bad, but it's just insulting when they completely ignore the regular voice people."

Voice Track Quality
Celebrities might bring with them publicity opportunities and a pre-conceived personality for the audience, but are they really improving the quality of an animated voice track? "Any time your concern is to produce anything but the best possible voice track, you're doing something wrong," states Evanier.

"The rationale that they use is pretty bogus and insulting to voice-only actors," says Seibert. "Disney suggests that the real reason they cast celebrities is because they're fantastic actors. In fact, the reason, the whole reason that they're celebrities is because they're such wonderful thespians, and, of course, any director, animation or live-action, just wants the best available." The implication, Seibert suggests, is that "voice actors are not really actors, they're merely voices who can't hold onto a character."

"I don't think anyone in this business seriously, deep down, believes that you necessarily get better performances from celebrities than from professional voice actors...but it may give the show a special status as something above an ordinary cartoon. It shouldn't...but some folks think that way," says Evanier.

Veteran voice acting agent Don Pitts, whose stable of clients include both celebrities and full-time voice actors, feels more of the work should be going to the non-celebrities who are trained in mike technique and vocal acting. "They have the background in this area that movie stars could never achieve. It is a great disservice to the true voice actor. An actor trained in audio knows how to caress the microphone, how to get the most out of their voice. It is like in the days of The Lux Radio Theater on radio when the radio-trained actors got the small roles but they had to carry the show anyway because the big movie stars in the lead roles weren't trained in radio."

Bergen suggests the reason many voice actors might lose out on a part is because "when many so-called regular voice talent audition for a part, often they rely on changing their voice, giving the producer a 'cartoony' read...which most of the time is not what they are looking for in a feature. Rather they hire the actors whose own voices have the character they are looking for and whose acting skills are exceptional."

Evanier agrees that all celebrities are not bad choices for animated fare, but points to a problem with some producers. "Some celebrities, like Mark Hamill and David Paymer, give first-rate performances, fully the equal of most non-celeb voice actors, whereas others are hired for their marquee value only. I once had a producer tell me he wanted his show cast with 'names,' even if it meant an inferior voice track. He thought it gave his show -- which otherwise was done on a K-Mart budget -- an air of prestige. He thought it meant something to station managers who might buy the series and, even if it didn't, he liked the idea of being able to go to parties and say, 'I hired Ed Asner.'"

Seibert is of two minds about celebrity casting when it comes to his shows, but explains a smart give-and-take attitude: "Clearly, I want the best people for the part, whether they have a recognized name or notand unlike some of my counterparts, I love cartoons and cartoon voices. As far as I'm concerned, those great voices I've heard over the last fifty years are some of the reasons I like my favorite characters so much."

"On the other hand," Seibert concludes, "stunt casting can work very well to get attention for the films with which I'm involved. If it can be done correctly -- weirdly enough, Isaac Hayes in South Park comes to my mind -- it gets you ink, and it works for the picture."

The bottom line is: "Producers are looking for really good acting -- as well as a name for the marquee," states Bergen.

Kilmer's grand voice as Moses brought an epic feel to The Prince of Egypt and is a good example of wise casting. © DreamWorks LLC. All rights reserved.

Added Value?
Many voice talent feel that kids have no idea that they are hearing a celebrity or not. One voice actor who asked to remain anonymous says, "The casting of celebrities promotes the cartoon to adults more than it does kids. A kid watching a cartoon isn't going to jump up and down and say, 'Oh boy! It's Danny De Vito doing the voice!' I read a quote from a casting person at one of the big companies that said that the days of the Mel Blancs and the Daws Butlers are gone, and that they cast well-known celebrities because they want 'real' actors, as if Mel and Daws were not 'real' actors, which of course they were."

However, some of the most financially successful films of the late '90s have been cartoons. Therefore, it is obvious that the adults are attending as well as the kids. Here again though, their draw power is questionable. Bergen doesn't think "that the average adult says to himself, 'Hey, let's go see that Val Kilmer cartoon.' But the producers would hire someone like Val because of his acting skills, as well as his box office appeal. By the way, his acting in The Prince of Egypt was outstanding."

Casting Agents
Some casting directors resist the pressure to cast celebrities. Barbara Wright is one of them. "A good actor is a good actor," she explains. "Actors bring to a role a little bit of themselves no matter what genre they were trained in, be it stage or film or both. That's something I listen for. Do they sound real? It is great to work with a celebrity if they are right for the part, but I don't cast anyone just because they are a celebrity."

"On Garfield and Friends," Evanier explains, "we employed some fine actors best known for their on-camera careers -- James Earl Jones, Harvey Korman, Tracy Scoggins, etc. -- but the spine of the show came from voice-over specialists such as Lorenzo Music, Gregg Berger and Frank Welker."

Bergen also attests that perhaps some of his fellow voice actors are over-reacting. "Not all feature animation work goes to the celebs. I've had the pleasure to have worked on A Bug's Life, Hercules, Hunchback of The Notre Dame, and Tarzan, to name a few. And I'm by no means a celeb! So, there is work for all!"

Out in the Audience
Many fans when asked say they detest the stunt casting big studios like DreamWorks and Disney do: Mel Gibson in Pocahontas, Woody Allen in Antz, or Val Kilmer in The Prince of Egypt. They have a hard time distancing themselves from the actor's personality and getting into the character. Others say some of the celebrities sound as if they are walking through the role; that they are not giving their full energies to the performance because it is only a "cartoon."

"What was worst of all was James Earl Jones as Mufasa in The Lion King. I kept thinking about Darth Vader and the, 'Luke! I am your father' line in The Empire Strikes Back. Very distracting," says Michelle Klein-Hass, creator of Animation Nerd's Paradise website.

Animation fan Beverly Martin agrees. "It's all in who and how they are used," she says. "For instance, right now my daughter and I are watching Charlotte's Web and there are several celebrity voices...charmingly done. I'd forgotten that Paul Lynde was the rat. He did a nice job since his already known irascible personality was perfect for the part." Martin continues that in well cast cartoon shows, "I can be in another room and still know what's happening on screen. The emotions from their voices come through in a fashion that has on more than one occasion brought me to tears."

Indeed, many so-called "hardened" animation fans agree they are sometimes surprised by a celebrity. "Who would have ever expected Mark Hamill (of all people!) to give us the definitive Joker?" laughs Martin.

Henry Corden is the current voice of Fred Flintstone, a role originally handled by Alan Reed. Courtesy Henry Corden.

The Hard, Cold Truth
Henry Corden, who has spent the last quarter century as the voice of Fred Flintstone, feels, "If they were doing a half-hour Flintstone show today, they'd still go with me. 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. I hate it but I understand it."

Celebrity voices are now used in commercials as well to help sell the products. "Even if the audience can't tell it's Donald Sutherland, they know it's somebody famous selling them that car," says Corden. "I know a lot of guys who used to make a living doing commercial voice-over that are now out of work, and they resent it."

When asked, most full-time voice actors express dismay over the trend toward celebrities, and feel left out of a process they've devoted their creative lives to because animation has become too big a business with too much money at stake. Evanier concludes, "They feel threatened by this trend. It's got to be disconcerting to learn your craft and then to lose out, not because the other guy's better but because he was once on a sitcom. I don't see this trend being reversed any time soon...or perhaps ever."

If celebrities are here to stay, hopefully intelligent producers and creative casting personnel will mix and match voice-over only actors and celebrities to the part -- not the marketing scheme.

Joseph K. Bevilacqua, a protégé of Yogi Bear voice artist Daws Butler, is a veteran radio comedy writer, producer, and actor, as well as cartoonist. His programs have aired on public radio stations nationwide since 1980 and have been honored by The Museum of Television and Radio as part of their "Contemporary Radio Humor" exhibits. He is currently developing animation scripts with his wife and creative partner, Lorie B. Kellogg. Their comedy can be heard in RealAudio and seen in comic strips on their website, Joe & Lorie's Comedy-O-Rama.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.