Friday, March 2, 2012

(Chris) Rocking the Voice Actors’ World

One of the most talked-about parts of this year’s Oscar broadcast has been Chris Rock’s comic riff on supplying voices for animated characters. Said Rock, “I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.” Obviously, Rock was making a social point – and a good one. But he went on to declare that “voice-acting is the easiest job in the world,” a simple matter of walking into the booth, saying a few lines, and collecting a million dollars. Nice work if you can get it, and a well-known performer like Rock (or Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers or Antonio Banderas or Tom Hanks) certainly enjoys million-dollar paydays that don’t even require him to learn his lines or wear makeup

But Rock’s put-down of voice-acting didn’t sit well with those workaday folks who earn their living supplying voices for commercials, games, and cartoons. On the Voice Acting Alliance site, many pointed out the obvious: that when you’re Chris Rock, you’re hired to sound like Chris Rock. Voice-acting specialists, though, need to be credible in a wide range of roles, covering many moods, age groups, and character types. When a producer is looking to save money, you may end up having a conversation with yourself, even if the scene involves (let’s say) an old lady chiding a little girl. Or perhaps you’ll be asked to play three young boys, each requiring a distinctive sound.

I have special affection for voice actors because long ago, in that era when Roger Corman took time out from T&A to distribute art-house flicks, New World Pictures acquired an animated feature from France. Known as Planète Sauvage (or Fantastic Planet), it was a lush depiction of a faraway world where humans were kept as pets by giant blue creatures, some of them benign. For the benefit of the American drive-in crowd, Roger wanted the characters to speak English. So we translated the script, tailoring the new lines to fit as closely as possible the mouth-positions of the characters, and then looked for a handful of actors who could play all the roles while also meeting the technical demands of a hurry-up looping session. We were lucky indeed to cast veterans of the Golden Age of Radio, including deep-voiced Olan Soulé, who liked calling himself the world’s oldest Batman. Another treasure was cuddly Hal Smith, who’d graduated from playing the live-action part of Otis, the town drunk, on The Andy Griffith Show to re-creating famous character voices for Disney animation.

Then there was Janet Waldo, who began her acting career as a giddy teenager, Corliss Archer, on a popular radio show that debuted in the 1940s. Janet’s first brush with animation came when she played daughter Judy Jetson for Hanna-Barbera’s futuristic sitcom, The Jetsons. Though she continued to star in youthful roles on such cartoon series as The Adventures of Penelope Pitstop and Josie and the Pussycats, she proved equally adept at supplying the voices of crotchety grannies, tough dames, and children of both sexes.

Today, Janet Waldo is enjoying her seventh decade in show business. We’ve just chatted on the phone, and her voice sounds as youthful as ever. So maybe Chris Rock was right: voice acting is easy. Or maybe it’s the challenges involved that have kept Janet Waldo young at heart.


  1. Thank you Beverly for writing about voice-over actors. You hit the nail on the head....or the voice on the mic. I'll tell some of my voice-over colleagues to read the piece. Thanks, Joni Robbins (More versatile then Chris Rock)

  2. Thank you for writing, Joni. I can testify that you and your ilk are far more versatile than Chris Rock, though (alas) not nearly so rich.

  3. Fantastic post! I have a good ear for picking out voices - so I am a huge fan of voiceover actors - even if I don't always know their names. Cheers to all of them - may some Chris Rock-like riches come your way soon!

  4. I'll pass on your good wishes!