Entertainment

I Asked My Childhood’s Most Prolific Voice Actor About Overcoming Throat Cancer

‘I now have this sense of empathy that I never would have had if not for that experience.’
November 10, 2017, 4:26pm
Sources: Wikipedia Commons | Art by Noel Ransome

When you imagine the average voice actor, you’re thinking of a performance; some man or woman adjusting their pitch to sound distinctly for an animated role. When I imagine a voice actor, I’m thinking “super power”—the ability to wield character range and impressions on a level that I still don’t understand.

Rob Paulsen was apparently that man. With over 30 years of voice acting experience, Rob has a hefty 482 roles under his belt during a career that was a huge part of my childhood. Characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joe, Transformers, Animaniacs, and The Tick, among several others, were the staples that coloured my TV set on Saturday mornings when traditional TV was still “that thing.”

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So fast forward to years later, to Rob himself reaching out to me, partly to speak on his re-commitment to voice work after a bout with throat cancer, and to also express his appreciation for still being on top of his game. He more than lived up to the man I imagined behind the voice.

VICE: I want to begin with your throat cancer. You were of course the voice my childhood for a good portion of my life; I’m talking Animaniacs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pinky and The Brain, The Tick, and suddenly, you’re diagnosed with thing that seems to target the very talent that you love. Tell me what that was like, to hear the news.
Rob Paulsen: Yeah, thanks for asking about this…it was pretty tough. This is what I do for a living, so it really got my attention. It started with a knot on the left side of my neck for about a year. And listen, you’re a guy, most guys, unless they literally can’t walk, or their legs are just bent in the wrong directions, will rarely go to a doctor. I’m no different. I did the typical thing and looked it up on Google, and saw that it could be lymphoma, cancer, or some low grade infection—who knew. It’s not like I felt bad, and it didn’t seem to affect my work, and on top of that, I don’t smoke. So I said screw it, it’ll go away, because you couldn’t even see the thing, if I placed your finger on it, you would've said, holy shit, it’s like a walnut, but it never stuck out. So I go in for my yearly physical, and not five minutes in, my doctor tells me, this isn’t good, I don’t like that. Within 10 days, the day my wife got the phone call, I told my doctor to tell me it straight. I didn’t need to wait to be told the bad news. And of course he says, ‘I think it’s throat cancer.’

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I don’t want to assume that you took anything for granted, but elaborate on what that whole experience did to your perspective on things.
I’ve kept in touch with many of the families whose children have ultimately died, and that opportunity really put my own cancer into perspective. I wasn’t 25 with a bunch of little kids. I was 59 years old, and even if they had said, look, you’re about to punch your ticket, this is it, I would have thought of myself as still having had one hell of a run. Relative to the struggles of millions of people around the world at this moment, it was my turn to take a punch. The doctors were clear. You may not die from this, but you’re gonna wish you did. The treatment…it’s pretty brutal. And it’s a lot of radiation. A lot of chemo, with no surgery attached. It’s very painful for obvious reasons. This thing we’re doing now, talking, swallowing, or drinking and eating, it’s virtually impossible for a few months. But they still saved my voice.

Damn, thanks for sharing that, I can imagine how hard it is to put that sort of experience out there. Let’s go positive. You obviously chose a niche career path. How does someone like you get here?
Honest to god, I didn’t even want to do this from the start. When I was a kid, I just wanted to be a hockey player. I really did. Then reality hit me, and I learned pretty quickly that I had neither the talent, temperament or dental insurance to make a living doing this. The second passion of course came from performing, singing primarily for my own enjoyment. We weren’t church people, and we didn’t have a church choir, but my parents were involved with community theatre. I was young at the time, so Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who were my favourites. My parents of course said I could listen to all that, as long as I also took in Shostakovich, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer among others. That all cultivated a huge, deep love and respect for all facets of music and helped shape my ear. Other names like Jonathan Winters, The Pythons, Lucille Ball and others entered the picture. And I started to create my own characters just for the fun of it. And let me tell ya. Most people who do what I do, even down to writers like yourself, find this thing they’re unexplainably passionate about. And they end up doing it, because they can’t not do it. It becomes a part of their DNA, and that’s how it was for me. I never thought I’d find success from my voice. Fast forward to the moment when I tell my parents to stop wasting money and their time on me so I could enter the entertainment business. And fast forward, to where I got my first big, with the opportunity to audition for GI Joe and Transformers in 1983.

Now you’re getting to my shit.
Man, I’m with Peter Cullen who's from Montreal and voices Optimus Prime and Frank Welker who was and still is Megatron. And I’m saying, holy shit, these actors are unbelievable. They’re so talented. And the list of things I did since then, Darkwing Duck, The Mask, The Tick, Mighty Max, Biker Mice from Mars, Tiny Tunes etc etc. I’m so fortunate. When I travel around and talk to people, it’s then when I realize how much of an impact I’ve had on people, more than I would have ever imaged. The thought of these voices makes everyone smile, and it’s just a damn blast.

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So let’s break down a few personal favourites of mine for the reader, I’ll list them off, and you can give me the background. Starting with the most underappreciated of the bunch.

The Tick - Arthur (1993)

Oh man, boy you got that right pal. What a great show. And the first script, right out of the shoot. Ben Edlund, who I think is one of the executives on the new Tick, created that show. Townsend Coleman, who was Michelangelo on the original TMNT played the Tick. And I was hired to be Arthur. The first time I read the audition, I thought, holy shit, now we’re talking. This is so great and so not a kids show. It’s smart, oh my god, it’s smart. God dammit, what a show. That’s one that holds just holds up beautifully.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Raphael

This was so fun, and I worked on many shows that never became one hundredth of the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With the reboot, I’m working with some gifted people and they’re so down to Earth. Completely, utterly approachable. John DiMaggio, Seth MacFarlane, Seth Green…there’s no arrogance behind all these voices. But when the whole TMNT thing started, to see it rise was pretty remarkable. I’ve never had that experience. And to see something literally go from a clean sheet of paper to become iconic…look, people come up with this idea and the next thing you know, 25 years later, you’re walking through a Toys R Us and it’s like, holy shit, I was there from the very beginning, before this toy was an idea. You can make an argument that some people in the world don’t know who Brad Pitt is, but I’ll be damned if you’re gonna tell me that no one has heard of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The Mask - The Mask, Stanley Ipkiss. (1995)

This was great. An opportunity to work with a film franchise, and it was one of those roles that complimented by improv background. The most challenging issue of course was making this character interesting over the course of 26 or 39 episodes. Because the movie of course was two hours of Jim Carrey being a genius. But the cartoon was of course less expensive to produce and the challenge of trying to maintain these two characters over several hours was huge fun for me. I in fact did voice work for Jim on the side in a few of his films. Naturally when you had to remove swear words and things of that nature, they called on me because we had similar voice tones. But the best part of the show for me, as much as I enjoyed the actual episodes, came from the fact that I got to sing the opening title theme song, which is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, especially for animation. It’s killer.

The Animaniacs - Yakko

This started as one of those very long, six-week auditions. And by that I mean, you’d get a call every four or five days to come back and try again. They’d pare it down. We like this guy, not that guy, no you come back, blah blah blah. Team wise, I had never known Jess Harnell (Wakko), but Tress MacNeille (Dot), I had known her since she was a cocktail waitress, and she is unarguably the most prolific voice actress in the history of Hollywood, period. She’s done over 600 episodes for the Simpsons alone, not to mention, Babs Bunny, Dot, Daisy Duck—just forget it, it’s crazy. An impossible amount of work. So I remember us calling each other, with my, did you hear anything? Because we knew it was going to be huge and music driven. So I they already already knew I could sing from Tiny Tunes, and they loved the whole helium thing I do with my voice, where I squeeze from my throat. The character was of course written, as a smart-ass sort of guy and again, you’re seeing a pattern here. I got hired to be a smart ass. Life imitates art after all.

The whole thing was pretty remarkable. It’s the only time I ever recall in my career, walking up to a producer and saying, if you don’t hire me for this, you’re making a mistake, and it was utterly not meant to be arrogant. I just felt it. To this day, I still get pretty excited about the whole thing. It makes me so happy, I can’t even properly explain to ya.

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Pinky and the Brain - Pinky

I’ve known Maurice LaMarche who plays the Brain for a while now. And I remember the story about how he just walked into an audition, did this Orson Welles impression and basically cancelled all the other auditions for the day. He hammered it out of the gate. So they get their Brain and begin auditions for Pinky. And I have a deep love for the Goons and The Pythons, and that all came to me in that audition. It was like, let’s try something different, what the hell. This is a cartoon, and I’ve already done enough in the sense that I’m not limited by my looks. Only my imagination. So knowing what my counterpart was doing, I figured I’d try this wacky, quasi combination of a British nut, and what the hell, it worked pretty well.

I gotta say. You’re talking about all these characters with differing personalities. You guys literally have a super power. To be able to be someone else so effortlessly like that. I gotta ask, have you ever used these powers for something that wasn’t all that professional?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, especially with my son who’s 33 now. He loves it when I order pizza as TMNT’s Raphael. Or those times when they were having happy meals with Animaniac characters, and I’d go up to drive throughs and order my meals as Yakko. It was a blast having my son be eight or nine when TMNT was just blowing up. And to this day, when people find out what I do; whether a restaurant, mall, or whatever, I’m being seen in some way. It’s an absolute incredible joy.

And I’ve seen people, men and women get tearful whenever they hear one of these characters. Something about that nostalgic element hits them right where they live and it’s just a surreal experience. I hope it never stops, and I don’t think it’s possible for me to take that for granted. I want to ride this pony for as long as I can because there are plenty of reasons for me to be pissed off every day. But to be involved in things that make people happy…just for its own sake, that’s a great feeling.

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