Everybody has that friend who does the voice impressions. You know him. He's the one who thinks he has the best Gollum voice this side of Andy Serkis, and loves talking like Donald Duck at the drive-thru. He's not even that good, but he loves putting on voices anyway. Yeah, I'm that guy.
Even when I'm no good at them, I still enjoy doing voices. So when I watch a cartoon, whether it's the newest Disney movie or the latest episode of Steven Universe, I obsess over the voice actors and what they're doing with their voices to give their role a unique sound — from tones to speech patterns to accents. Sometimes I know most of the actors and sometimes I've never heard their voices before. Usually, I'll look up one or two of the actors and compare all their roles to see how wide a range of voices and personalities one person can give to different characters. I love the capabilities of the human voice.
How well do you know the men and women behind your favorite cartoon characters? Did you know Jim Cummings voices Winnie-the-Pooh and he also sang Scar's last couple lines for "Be Prepared" in The Lion King after Jeremy Irons threw his voice? Do you know how many characters in Gravity Falls are really Alex Hirsch? Would you be surprised if I told you Russi Taylor was not just Minnie Mouse, but Huey, Dewey, and Louie, too?
Some actors have only voiced a handful of characters, others dozens, and still more have voiced hundreds. Classic voices like Mel Blanc and June Foray are household names, or should be — believe me, their voices have been in your house more times than you could count. Yet, somehow, voice actors seem to go largely unheralded. Because you don't get to see their faces, they're not remembered. I don't think that's fair. I think the incredible scope of most voice actors deserves a lot more appreciation than it gets.
So let's take a moment to appreciate a mere three of the most iconic voices in animation.
3. Frank Welker
In the late 1960s, Welker was working as a stand-up comedian when a producer found him and put him in a Friskies dog food commercial. The producer's girlfriend had other ideas — she was casting for Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and she thought he had the perfect voice for the dog. Welker auditioned for both Scooby-Doo and Shaggy before winning the role of Fred. After that, Hanna-Barbera started putting him in almost every show they produced, from Smurfs to Super Friends. Since then, he's voiced hundreds of characters, and in addition to Fred, he's still voicing Curious George, Garfield, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And most Transformers fans will recognize him as Megatron, as well as an assortment of more than twenty other Autobots and Decepticons, including Soundwave, Skywarp, and Mirage.
One of Welker's specific talents is the ability to make believable animal vocals. In an interview with Collider, Welker described how he discovered his talent for vocal gymnastics:
"At a very young age I found I could irritate people with this born ability to mimic just about anything I hear. I listened to sparrows outside my bedroom window and then could talk to them and other birds, and squirrels, horses, cows, and an occasional human."
Welker has been doing every Disney animal pal from Abu and Rajah in Aladdin to Mochi the cat in Big Hero 6. You can bet that pig in Moana is going to be Welker. He's done the growls and screeches Man-Bat in Batman: The Animated Series, and Totoro's groans in the English dub. He gets around, and no wonder — there are precious few voice actors in that niche, and none of them have the talent or experience Welker possesses.
But for me, Frank Welker is Fred Jones before he's anyone else. It's not just his most famous and longest-running role, but it's his best. With one exception — A Pup Named Scooby-Doo — Welker voiced Fred in every television series, movie, and video game since 1939. Now, I'll admit, his static performance in the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was nothing special, but it's amazing to see how his voice has evolved over the years. In the gem of a show that was Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, Welker, a man pushing seventy, voiced a more than believable teenaged Fred, and breathed fresh life into a 50-year-old character. This year he was awarded an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement, and if you ask me, it was long overdue.
2. Kevin Michael Richardson
Since the eighties, Kevin Michael Richardson has been known for his deep, sinister voice. Much like Frank Welker or Jim Cummings, he's a stock voice, earning him that "additional voices" credit in a number of direct-to-video and TV films, including Scooby-Doo, DC comics, and Disney productions, as well as shows like Adventure Time, Simpsons, and Samurai Jack. His is a voice that, once you know it well, you'll start to hear everywhere. Just a few of his credits include a number of Star Wars and Star Trek video games, and TV shows like ThunderCats, Young Justice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Some know him best as Cleveland Brown Jr. of The Cleveland Show, and who wouldn't recognize Gantu's voice from Disney's Lilo and Stitch? Meanwhile, anyone who watches Gravity Falls will remember the voice of Sheriff Blubs. One of his most shining roles, however, was as the Joker in the 2004 series, The Batman. Richardson does a great job of pulling off a voice that eerily resembles Mark Hamill's famous Joker, while adding new layers to the classic voice. Richardson doesn't try to change the voice and he doesn't try to replace it — he expands it and delivers a unique Joker performance all his own.
1. Tara Strong
Much like Grey DeLisle, Strong is one of few women who have dominated in the voice acting arena. She's had a voice in almost everything animated in the past twenty years. Another "additional voices" go-to, she's worked with Disney, Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon — you name it, she's voiced it. Bronies would know her best as Twilight Sparkle, while Teen Titans fans will recognize Raven's voice. '90s kids might know her as Dil Pickles from Rugrats. In addition to television, she's had many video game roles, as a regular in Final Fantasy, Skylanders, Marvel games, and the Arkham series as Harley Quinn.
Another one of her many comic book roles is Batgirl, a character she's voiced since the final season of Batman: The Animated Series, technically dubbed The New Batman Adventures. Her latest performance was in the new animated adaptation of The Killing Joke, a movie filled with veteran voice juggernauts, including Strong. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are legendary, but Strong keeps pace with them and delivers the best Batgirl voice I've ever heard. Catch some of her voice acting work in the clip from The Killing Joke below:
Some of Tara Strong's most impressive roles are the ones you wouldn't recognize if you didn't know it was her. The voices you wouldn't even guess were a woman if you didn't know it. My favorite is Timmy Turner of The Fairly Oddparents. Whether or not you're a fan of this quirky show, it proves Tara Strong's astonishing range. Similar roles include Ben Tennyson of Ben 10, and big brother Terrence of Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends.
You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet
Friends, we've barely scratched the surface. It was nearly impossible for me to narrow this down to an arbitrary selection of three masters. I could go on for hours about dozens more actors — this is just the sample. There's a great wealth of artisanal voices out there. Every time I watch an animated movie or TV series, there's some new voice for me to discover, and I might just be a huge nerd, but to me, it's a thrill. I hope I could give you just a taste of that enthusiasm, to show you how much there is to appreciate in the voice actor's craft.
Are you a bit of a fanatic about voice acting, like me? Or are the wonders of what people can do with their voices still new to you? Let me know in the comments down yonder!