Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hearing the Last of Janet Waldo, aka Judy Jetson (R.I.P.)

The last time I spoke to Janet Waldo on the telephone, she sounded like a sixteen-year-old girl. This seemed remarkable, because she must have been in her 80s at the time. Waldo, who passed recently at the ripe old age of 96, was an actress best known for her youthful voice. Her voice is what earned her the breakthrough role of Corliss Archer, a perky teenager who was the title character in an amiable radio comedy I faintly remember from my childhood.

Janet played her share of live-action roles in movies and on television. She’s remembered, for one thing, for appearing on I Love Lucy as a teenaged fan enamored of Ricky Ricardo. (She was 28 at the time.) But she truly made her mark as a voice actress, especially for Hanna-Barbera Productions. It’s hard to believe now how many households tuned in each week to watch The Flintstones, a Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom set in a tongue-in-cheek version of the Pleistocene. The Flintstones, on which Waldo played a battle-axe mother-in-law, was so popular with audiences of all ages that it spawned a similar series with a futuristic slant. This was The Jetsons, and Waldo’s portrayal of rock ‘n’ rolling daughter Judy Jetson was to be her most iconic voice role.

Janet specialized in voicing effervescent young women like race-driver Penelope Pitstop and the lead singer in Josie and the Pussycats. But as a thoroughgoing professional she could handle any voice, from that of a small child to an elderly crone. For an animated TV series based on The Addams Family, she took on six different voices, including those of Morticia and Granny. As she insisted to me when I interviewed her for an article in Performing Arts magazine, “I don’t do voices; I do people.” Still, like most voice actors she was an excellent mimic, one who could respond with ease to a director’s request for a sultry Mae West voice, or  a sweet Billie Burke, or a sexy-tough Barbra Streisand. For Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law, she reached back into movie history and came up with “an exaggerated Marjorie Main.”

I first met Janet when I was working for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. Roger, who had just begun distributing prestigious European art films like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries in Whispers, picked up a charming French-language animated feature set on a faraway planet. The original title was Planète Sauvage, but we re-named it (with a nod to several American sci-fi classics) Fantastic Planet. In order to screen our movie in the heartland, we dubbed it into English. Since I was involved in both casting and the dubbing process, I was lucky to work with voice actors from the golden days of radio. Janet was one of them, and from the start I found her delightful.

While we worked on Fantastic Planet, Ralph Bakshi was heating up Hollywood with R-rated animated features like Fritz the Cat. Of course Roger Corman wanted a piece of that action. Someone came forth with an outrageous cartoon project called Cheap: we all knew Roger would respond in Pavlovian fashion to said title. After much dithering, Cheap became a raunchy piece of animation called Dirty Duck. Sweet, wholesome Janet Waldo was hired to do some of the voices. She told me she had a ball. But she was too embarrassed to put her own name in the credits.

Janet had a long happy marriage to Robert E. Lee, who with writing partner Jerome Lawrence created Broadway and Hollywood favorites like Auntie Mame and Inherit the Wind. He died in 1994, so I guess she’s rejoined him now.  

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