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Cartoon Voice History, Parts 2-3


Don Messick

William Conrad

The subject again this week (and next) is Cartoon Voices.  And if you think what I had to say about them previously was trivial, these next installments make last week’s look like Must See TV.

But to my knowledge — what little I have — the stuff I’m going to cover has never been discussed anywhere in any book or article about cartoons, and maybe 5% of you will find it a revelation.  That’s way ahead of my usual average.

Before I can go into it, I have to make sure you know four things.  One is what a “session” is.  That’s the time period you have an actor for the purposes of recording…but it’s a unit of measure that stretches in different ways.  As you’ll see, one actor can do ten sessions in the same number of hours in which another actor is doing one session.  An actor can even do several sessions simultaneously.

In any case, most actors are paid by the session and, in most cases, what they receive is union scale.  There are a few “stars” who get more than scale but most don’t.  So if union scale is X and an actor does three sessions in an afternoon, his pay for the day is three times X.  This will all make sense before we’re through.

The second thing you need to know is what an “incidental” is.  In any cartoon series, there are recurring characters who appear in all or most episodes.  There are also one-shot characters who appear only in that one story.  These one-shot characters are called “incidentals.”

Thirdly, you should know that not all cartoon voice actors are equally versatile.  Some are able to do a seemingly-endless number of voices.  Mel Blanc could play a dozen different roles in each film.  So could Daws Butler, so could Paul Frees, so can June Foray.

The term that is sometimes used for such a thespian is a “multi-voicer” and it doesn’t mean they can do 2 or 3 different voices.  It’s more like 20 and up.  The top multi-voicers of today would include June, Frank Welker, Maurice La Marche, Tress MacNeille, Jess Harnell, Joe Alaskey, Gregg Berger, Greg Berg, Greg Burson, Jeff Bennett, Corey Burton, Neil Ross, Charlie Adler, Billy West, Bill Farmer, Kath Souci and many others.

There are, however, actors who only have one voice.  They can occasionally “double” and contribute a few lines as Man #2 but they are hired for that one great voice.  They’re sometimes called “one-voicers” and it’s not an insult at all because that one voice is usually very special.

The superb Hans Conried — who played Captain Hook in the Disney Peter Pan and Snidely Whiplash on Dudley Do-Right — basically had one voice.  Gary Owens brought pretty much the same wonderful voice to Space Ghost, Roger Ramjet, The Blue Falcon (on the Dynomutt show) and Powdered-Toast Man (on Ren & Stimpy).  Lorenzo Music lends his one voice to Garfield.  Most celebrities who get hired for animation jobs are one-voicers.

And the last thing you have to know is this: The companies that produce animated cartoons are incredibly cheap.  They’re not quite as cheap as comic fans but they’re really, really cheap.

In many…make that most cases, they are penny-wise and ton-foolish, trying to save nickels on the important elements of the show — the script, the voices and the artwork.  (And there’s an almost inviolate rule of thumb here: The producer who hurts the show to shave $50 off the budget for one of those three things will, 9 times outta 10, turn around and make a $25,000 mistake by mis-scheduling the sound effects recording or something of the sort.)

I don’t know why they’re willing to skimp on the voices.  The voice work on a TV cartoon is of vital importance; can’t have a good show with poor voice work.  But skimp they do.

In the early days of TV animation, virtually all cartoons that were not produced for prime-time were 10 minutes in length or less.  An episode of The Huckleberry Hound Show, for instance, consisted of three 6-minute cartoons and a batch of interstitial wrap-around segments.  A half-hour of Rocky and His Friends consisted of two Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, one Mr. Peabody, a Fractured Fairy Tale, a Bullwinkle’s Corner and maybe one or two other quickies — each clocking in well under ten minutes.

You’d assume this was because of some theory involving the attention span of the tiny tots watching out there…and that may have been a factor.  But a more significant reason probably was the S.A.G. contract.

Cartoon voiceover work comes under the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild and is paid according to their agreed-upon pay scales.  Prior to 1967, a producer could save a few bucks (but only a few) by keeping cartoons short.

Under the contract then in force, an actor in a cartoon of ten minutes or less could be required to do an unlimited number of voices for one session fee.  If however, the cartoon was more then ten minutes, then the actor received one session fee for every three characters he or she voiced.

What this meant was that most cartoons were cast with their regulars — usually no more than 2 or 3 actors — and then those folks did every other voice that came along…all the incidentals.

For example, the first show produced for TV by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera was Ruff ‘n’ Reddy.  Daws Butler did the voice of Reddy, Don Messick was Ruff…and the two of them (two of the all-time great multi-voicers) did all the incidentals.

Their second show was Huckleberry Hound.  In the title character’s cartoons, Daws was Huck…and often, he did every single role in the episode.  If there were a number of them, they might bring in Messick or one other person.

In the Pixie & Dixie cartoons, Messick played Pixie, Daws played Dixie and their eternal nemesis, Mr. Jinks…and they divided up all the other roles.  For the Yogi Bear films, Daws was Yogi, Don was Boo Boo and the Ranger…but there were also some that had just Daws.

The Quick Draw McGraw cartoons had Mr. Butler playing both Quick Draw and his sidekick Baba Looey.  If the cartoon had a lot of incidentals, they might bring in Messick or Hal Smith for the session…but even if the script called for 18 speaking parts, they didn’t hire six actors.  (Today, as you’ll see, they would.)

The Snooper & Blabber cartoons had Daws in both title roles.  Again, if there were a lot of other parts, they might hire Messick or Smith.  The Augie Doggie cartoons had Daws as Augie and Doug Young as his dear ol’ Doggie Daddy.  There are a few where they needed a trick voice — a baby duck — that neither Daws nor Doug could supply so Jimmy Weldon was hired for that one part.

Later on, they didn’t rely as heavily on Daws.  The Magilla Gorilla shorts were voiced by Allan Melvin and Howard Morris.  The Squiddly Diddly cartoons had Paul Frees and John Stephenson.  The Secret Squirrel cartoons featured Frees with Mel Blanc…and so on.

What this meant to the cartoons was this: No matter what kind of villain the writers came up with for a Secret Squirrel cartoon, his voice would be done by Mel or Paul.  That was the extent of casting.

It also meant something else: Almost no females.  The writers were told that, unless one of the regular characters was being voiced by a lady, the incidentals all had to be male.  Oh, once in a while you can hear Howie Morris or Don Messick doing a line or two as an old lady.  And every so often, Bill and Joe would break down and spend the bucks to bring in Jean Vander Pyl or Janet Waldo or Julie Bennett to play a female but that was rare.

Some guy with a calculator once claimed that, in the first ten years of Hanna-Barbera, 92% of the speaking parts were male.  I can’t guarantee that statistic but it was probably in the ballpark.  The reason was that the recurring characters were almost all male and the studio didn’t want to hire more than two actors if they could avoid it.

(One other exception: There’s a gentleman named Dick Beals who has done countless cartoons, almost always playing a very young boy.  I have no idea how old Dick is…but he’s been playing ten-year-olds for something like half a century.  He’s so good at it that, once in a rare while, even H-B would spring for his services when a script called for a little kid.)

The situation was the same at other studios, as well.  In 1958, Larry Harmon Productions began production on 156 five-minute Bozo the Clown cartoons.  The voice cast consisted of Larry Harmon, Paul Frees and almost no one else.

In 1960, King Features commissioned 210 five-minute made-for-TV Popeye cartoons.  The voice cast consisted of Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, Jackson Beck and almost no one else.  Since the show’s mythos required the presence of Olive Oyl, an actress was engaged — and Ms. Questel also played Swee’Pea and Alice the Goon, a few other ladies and even an occasional male.  Again though, the idea was to issue the fewest number of checks possible, so a tiny group of actors had to play everybody.

Some studios were really, really, really cheap: In 1960, Trans-Lux Productions produced 260 five-minute Felix the Cat cartoons.  The voice cast was Jack Mercer.  Just Jack Mercer.  Meanwhile, a fellow named Lionel Wilson did every single voice in Terrytoons’ Tom Terrific cartoons.

Over at Jay Ward’s operation, the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons were narrated by William Conrad.  Yes, this is the same William Conrad who starred on the TV show Cannon and later had the title role on Nero Wolfe and the wider of the two title roles on Jake and the Fatman.  Before that, he was an actor and announcer, best known for having played Matt Dillon on the radio version of Gunsmoke.

Rocky’s voice was done by June Foray, who also did Natasha.  Bullwinkle’s came outta Bill Scott, who also did Fearless Leader.  Paul Frees played Boris Badenov.  Frees and Scott switched off playing Cap’n Peter “Wrongway” Peachfuzz.

That was the whole cast.  No matter what other character came along, that character’s voice was done by Foray, Scott or Frees.

Mr. Ward, as you can see, was a comparative spendthrift among cartoon moguls.  Look at it: Four whole actors to do a five-minute cartoon!  And he even hired a woman!  (There isn’t a single Hanna-Barbera short of the period with more than three actors and 95% of them had but two.)

Some of those Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons are loaded with one and two-line incidental parts, all well-juggled by the stock company.  I tallied one in which June played six roles, Bill played seven and Paul played nine.

Bill Conrad usually supplied only his one, marvelous voice.  It occasionally frustrated him that Jay Ward, who directed the sessions, didn’t think he was capable of contributing more.  One day, he told Jay, “Hey, I can double.”

Jay was skeptical but he decided to give it a try.  He assigned Conrad a bit part in an episode set on a tropical island.  The role was a native named Sam who had only one or two very short speeches.  When the proper moment came, Conrad screwed up his mouth, pitched his chords high and spoke in a voice he was sure did not sound like the Narrator.

“Cut,” Jay said.  “Bill, that sounds too much like the Narrator.”

So they did another take.  Conrad strained, tightened his larynx and performed the brief dialogue in a voice he thought sounded nothing like the Narrator.

“Cut,” Jay yelled.  “Too much like the Narrator.  Try it again.”

So Conrad tried it again and again and again.  Ordinarily, actors in Jay Ward cartoons got it on the first take or, at worst, the second.  That day, William Conrad set the house record.

Just how many attempts it took, no one is certain.  Bill Scott used to change the number every time he told the story.  Sometimes, it was eight.  Sometimes, ten.  Whatever, by the time Jay Ward was satisfied, Bill Conrad was hoarse and drenched in perspiration.

Jay, however, felt the situation was too humorous not to make worse.  He called his publicist — a fellow named Howard Brandy, who was properly in tune with the Ward sense o’ humor.  The next day, Variety and Hollywood Reporter announced that Jay Ward Studios would soon commence production on a new series, spun off from the Bullwinkle series.  It was called Sam the Native and the press release proclaimed it would star William Conrad as the voice of the title character.

Conrad knew it was a joke but none of his friends did.  For weeks, people stopped him and asked, “Hey, congrats on Sam the Native.  What does his voice sound like?”  The one time I met him, it was twenty years later and I immediately told him I was still looking forward to the Sam the Native show.

Mr. Conrad’s reply cannot be repeated here, this paper having certain standards relating to profanity.  I can tell you though that he sounded just like the Narrator.

As I mentioned, it is really no shame for a voice artist to have but one voice, as long as it’s a good one.  In fact, it is not unusual for a one-voicer to be envious of the multi-voicers — as Bill Conrad probably was — while the multi-voicers are saying, of the one-voicer, “I’d trade all of mine for his.”

And these days, the one-voicers are not even at much of a disadvantage, vis-à-vis the more versatile folks.  Union rules and trends have changed.

Remember that five minute Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon I just mentioned which required 23 roles?  Back then, Jay Ward had to pay four sessions fees — one each to the four actors.  Today, S.A.G. rules would require a minimum of eight actors, more likely ten or so, each doing 2-3 characters.  Or they could do it with four actors, each doing six or so…but that would cost the same as eight actors.

(In actuality, the situation would never come up.  Today, if you wrote a five-minute cartoon with that many speaking parts, you’d be fired or told to rewrite it.  But before ’67, they’d let you do it because then, it didn’t mean they’d have to hire ten actors.)

Next week in this spot, we’re going to go over the Screen Actors Guild contracts since then and see what else has changed.


John Stephenson

Frank Welker

Okay…third and final in this batch of columns about Cartoon Voices.  Before we plunge back in, let’s compile a brief glossary of some terms we introduced last time…

Session: The time period in which one cartoon’s voice track is recorded.  An actor is paid one fee — usually union scale plus 10% for his agent — for each session in which that actor performs.  If he does four cartoons in one afternoon, that’s four sessions, meaning the actor receives the current fee times four.

One-Voicer: An actor who is hired for one voice, usually a spectacular one.  Most one-voicers cannot “double,” meaning that they can really only play one role. (e.g., Lorenzo Music, Sterling Holloway, Gary Owens, most celebrities.)

Multi-Voicer: An actor who can sound like dozens of different people and who can fill a multiplicity of roles. (e.g., June Foray, Frank Welker, Daws Butler, Mel Blanc.)

Incidental: A non-recurring character.  Every show has a certain number of regular characters and then the one-shot characters and bit parts are referred to as incidentals.  If the actors cast to play the regulars are able to do multiple voices, they will generally do as many of the incidental roles as possible.  Sometimes, additional actors have to be hired so that all the incidental roles are filled.

Cheap: Determined to spend as little as possible on actors. (e.g., Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, DePatie-Freleng, any other animation studio) Syn: Frugal, parsimonious, stingy, miserly, “like a comic book fan.”

As noted last week, prior to 1967, the Screen Actors Guild contract for voiceovers decreed that in a session for a cartoon of under ten minutes, an actor could do as many voices as the producer requested.  If the cartoon was over ten minutes, the actor would be paid one session fee for up to three voices.  Then, if he did a fourth voice, he’d receive another session fee, which would also cover voice #5 and #6.  Then a seventh voice would kick in yet another session fee…and so on.

This led to most studios sticking with short cartoons and with actors who could do an unlimited number of parts.  To illustrate, let’s look at Hanna-Barbera’s Secret Squirrel show, which went on the air in 1965.  Each episode consisted of three 6-minute cartoons…

Secret Squirrel (all voices by Mel Blanc and Paul Frees)

Squiddly Diddly (all voices by Paul Frees and John Stephenson)

Winsome Witch (all voices by Jean Vander Pyl and one male guest artist per episode, usually Don Messick)

Once in a rare while, a third voice was deemed necessary for one cartoon.  But for the most part, this format and casting pretty much ensured that H-B could get by with paying only six session fees per half-hour of Secret Squirrel.  No matter how many incidental speaking parts might have turned up a Squiddly Diddly episode, Frees and Stephenson did them all for one session fee apiece.

And you may also note that, with one or two exceptions, there are no female characters in the Secret Squirrel and Squiddly Diddly cartoons.  They wrote them that way so they wouldn’t have to spring for too many session fees for actresses.

I picked this series as an example because Winsome Witch was Hanna-Barbera’s first female lead character.  Perhaps someone woke up and realized how overwhelmingly male their films had been.  The exceptions were almost all supporting characters — Wilma Flintstone, Betty Rubble, Jane and Judy Jetson — on prime-time shows.

The prime-time shows, which purportedly targeted a slightly-older audience, seemed to demand episodes that ran the full half-hour…so the “under ten minutes” rule could not apply.  And as The Flintstones and The Jetsons were conceived as family situation comedies, they required female characters.

They also seemed to need actors who evoked the image and style of those starring then in live-action sitcoms.  George O’Hanlon and Penny Singleton — who voiced George and Jane Jetson, respectively, were in that category and were also “one-voicers.”

As a result, an episode of one might require — shudder! — 8-10 session fees.  But as these shows had over-all higher budgets, I doubt that Mr. Hanna or Mr. Barbera were too upset.  They still, however, kept their daytime shows to cartoons of under ten minutes, each voiced by two actors.

Then things changed.

On November 13, 1967, the Screen Actors Guild signed a new Television Animation Agreement with the companies then producing cartoons.  At the time, that roster consisted of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, Inc.; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.; Walt Disney Productions, Walter Lantz Television, Inc.; UPA Pictures, Inc.; DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, Inc.; Hanna-Barbera Productions, Format Films, Inc.; FilmFair, and Grantray-Lawrence Animation, Inc..

The dollar amount of a session fee went up to cover cost-of-living increases.  The big revolution, however, was to do away with the notion of unlimited voices for one price.

On a cartoon of ten minutes or less, the actor would thereafter receive a session fee for doing up to three voices.  For each voice over three, he would receive one-third of the amount for a session.  (For cartoons over ten minutes, the counting method did not change, though the session fee also went up.)

In other words, before the change, if Daws Butler did nine roles in a short, he received one session fee.  After the change, he got three session fees.

Better example: Last week, I made mention of a Rocky & Bullwinkle episode I’d clocked in which William Conrad narrated, June Foray did six roles, Bill Scott did seven parts and Paul Frees spoke for nine characters.  Under the pre-’67 pay scales, the whole cartoon was done for four session fees.

Had it been done after the ’67 contract…well, William Conrad was the Narrator.  For that, he would get one session fee.  June would receive two and Paul would receive three.

Bill Scott would technically be entitled to two plus one-third but, in reality and because he was also a producer, they’d probably look the other way and pay him for two.  Or they’d cut him to six and give the seventh role to Conrad, who could do it without any pay increase.

Either way, we’re talking about a leap from four session fees to eight…and that’s just for one cartoon in the half-hour.  There were four shorts in an episode of Rocky and His Friends (aka The Bullwinkle Show).  So for the whole 30 minutes, we might be moving from 14 session fees to 30 or so.

But, delving even further into reality, this situation would not likely take place after ’67.  An animation producer — even a generous one like Jay Ward — would not pay eight session fees (8 times scale) for a five minute cartoon.  He would instead tell the storyfolks, “Write fewer speaking parts.”

Which is what they did.  Most of us who write cartoons have, at some point, been told, “Too many characters…take some out.”  On some shows, we have to be cautious about adding a character who has one line.  So it changes, at least a little, the way the shows are written.

And the 1967 change had a few other effects.  Previously, it had been cheaper (usually) to fill a half-hour with three cartoons.  Since then, it’s generally cheaper to fill the time with one cartoon, which has become the trend.  Most Hanna-Barbera shows produced before that year featured three shorts.  Most after that featured one long episode.  Scooby Doo, whose original mystery format necessitated the longer form, started in ’69.

It also became rare to do a cartoon — even a shorty — with two actors.  That has meant more opportunity for the “one-voicers.”

And since most shows wind up hiring 5-10 actors for a half-hour cartoon, it’s more likely that the cast will include some women.  Given societal evolution and advertiser trends, we might have seen more feminine characters anyway…but the ’67 S.A.G. contract eliminated a financial consideration that was keeping some ladies out.

During the seventies, the session fee was adjusted slightly upwards but the “three voice” rule went unchanged.  Then, in the 1986 contract, that was altered.  There was a strike that year — one which most news coverage treated as a humorous filler item, suggesting The Smurfs were walking the picket line.  For the actors, it was dead serious, of course.  A strike always is.

They didn’t get all they wanted — few unions ever do — but they settled on several demands, one of which dealt with multiple voices.  Effective with shows produced for the 1988/1989 broadcast season, an actor in a cartoon of over ten minutes received a 10% bonus for performing a third voice.  So it worked like this…

1 or 2 voices — one session fee

3 voices — one session fee + 10%

4 or 5 voices — the 3 voice compensation + an additional session fee

6 voices — two session fees + 10%

…and so on.  On the cartoons of under ten minutes, the earlier rule applied: A session fee entitled the producer to three voices and then each additional voice paid one-third more, so actors were being paid per voice.  No actor was doing unlimited voices for one fee.

Insofar as I can tell, the main impact the new 10% bonus had on the cartoons themselves was to make producers even more wary of having someone do four voices.  A show pretty much had to be cast in multiples of three.  Given the talents of the actors at your disposal, you might otherwise have cast a show like this…

Actor #1: Joe, Fred, Cop, Fireman

Actor #2: Pete, Mike

And if you did, some Associate Producer or someone would come running in and say, “No, no!  You must switch one of Actor #1’s roles to Actor #2 so we don’t have to pay Actor #1 two session fees!”  I have even seen scripts rewritten — to change a character from male to female or vice-versa — to achieve this.

The most important change made in the ’86 contract had to do with the length of a session.  Previously, it had been defined as up to eight hours.  If a studio engaged a voice artist for a cartoon, they could keep him for that long, but almost no one did.  Most directors managed to record a half-hour cartoon in 2-4 hours, and shorter ones could be done in much less.  When I was voice-directing Garfield and Friends, we usually did a 6-and-a-half minute episode in 20-30 minutes.

This led to most of your top voice actors booking several different sessions in a day.  For instance, an in-demand guy — a Frank Welker, a Lennie Weinrib — might accept an engagement to do a cartoon at 9 AM for Hanna-Barbera.  Then the actor would be booked for a 1 PM session at Marvel and maybe even a 5 PM session at Filmation.  Sometimes, to get the best people, a voice director might promise the agent, “I’ll get him in and out in an hour.”

(Welker, it is said, once went to six different studios in one day…and at some stops, he did multiple sessions.)

Doubling, tripling or even quadrupling-up one’s workday became quite customary.  A session may have technically been eight hours but everyone understood that it would actually run no longer than four…everyone, that is, but for a few directors who simply couldn’t — or wouldn’t — complete a single cartoon in eight hours.

One fellow in particular was notably unable to do it in less, partly due to incompetence, partly because he liked to play power games in his sessions.  He would order actors around, forcing them to read one line 30 times, treating them like vassals.  In fact, Hour Eight would sometimes come and go without him finishing and he’d try to keep the performers longer than that.

Such behavior complicated many lives.  He directed for several studios and an actor engaged for a morning session never knew: Was it safe to presume he’d be out in four hours or less?  Or should he turn down any afternoon jobs, just in case Captain Bligh was in command?  One could easily halve ones income, playing it safe.

So when voice actors went on strike in 1986, this was a key issue, and they won on it.  Thereafter, a session was four hours, and a rate was established for automatic overtime pay if actors were kept after.  (There are a few exceptions.  For instance, the session for the first episode of a new series can be eight hours, since everyone’s getting acquainted and key decisions are being made.)

And yes, when the new rule came in, the directors who previously needed 8+ hours to direct a cartoon suddenly, miraculously, became able to do it in four.  But just barely…

That’s how it is today.  Most shows cast what they think are the best people, regardless of whether they can double in other roles.  If they can, great.  But only the utterly cheapest of studios take that into consideration.  There are also roles for women.

And when the decision is made as to whether a given show should be comprised of shorts or one episode per half-hour, it’s made based on what’s best for the program.  There is no more real financial advantage either way, at least with regard to the voice budget.

This may all seem like trivia…and unless you have a vast interest in animation voicework, you’re probably feeling like you’re loopy on NyQuil about now.  My apologies…but insofar as I’m aware, this has never been discussed anywhere, in any article about animation.

Next time I write about cartoon voices, which will be in a month or three, I’ll be itemizing some of the less-well-known credits.  For instance, you all know who Mel Blanc was.  How many of you know the name of Dave Barry?  This is Dave Barry, the impressionist and stand-up comedian — a frequent performer on The Ed Sullivan Show — not the current syndicated columnist of the same name.

Well, Mr. Barry, who is still (happily) with us and still performing, was all through the Warner Brothers cartoons of the 40’s and 50’s.  He’s the guy who did Humphrey Bogart almost any time Bogey encountered Bugs Bunny, and he did dozens of other impressions and characters.  He was Elmer Fudd briefly after Arthur Q. Bryan passed away and he even played Bluto in some of the Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons.

We’ll spotlight Dave Barry and other unsung voice performers…and I’ll introduce you to a brilliant gent named Keith Scott, who’s playing Bullwinkle in the forthcoming Rocky & Bullwinkle movie.

That’s all coming up in the future.  Next week, we discuss the difference between a comic book and a McDonald’s hamburger.  And no, it isn’t because the comic tastes better…


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