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Mel Blanc Dies; Gave Voice to Cartoon World

July 11, 1989|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, Daffy Duck and countless other animated vertebrates, died Monday afternoon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

He was 81 and had been hospitalized since May 19 suffering from heart disease and related medical problems, said hospital spokesman Ron Wise.

With Blanc when he died at 2:30 p.m. were his wife Estelle and son Noel, who now does most of his father's voices.

Known as "The Man of 1,000 Voices," Blanc was virtually never seen on the silver screen during the golden era of Merrie Melodies cartoons. Yet the myriad permutations of his acrobatic vocal cords have remained instantly recognizable by children of all ages around the globe for more than 50 years.

Among the many lines he repeatedly uttered that arguably rival those of Shakespeare in terms of familiarity, if not intellectual depth: "Eh . . . what's up, Doc?" through the lips of the wiseacre hare, Bugs Bunny; "I tawt I taw a putty tat ," from the tart-tongued canary Tweety, and "SSSSSsssuffering SSSSSuccotash," courtesy of Sylvester the sloppy cat.

Not to mention Woody Woodpecker's signature laugh ("Hee, hee, heh, hah, ho. Hee, hee, heh, hah, ho"); both the laconic train conductor ("Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc-a-monga") and sputtering Maxwell auto of Jack Benny radio and TV show fame, and, of course, the stutter-strewn meanderings of Porky the wistful pig.

Over time, Blanc's reknowned "voice characterizations" became nearly as much a part of his own life as breathing.

In his later years, Blanc would often recount the scene as he lay in a coma at UCLA Medical Center following a nearly fatal 1961 car collision.

Bugs Bunny Invoked

"They say that while I was unconscious, the doctor would come into my room each day and ask me how I was and, nothing. I wouldn't answer him. So one day he comes into my room, he gets an idea, and he says, 'Hey, Bugs Bunny! How are you?' And they say I answered back in Bugs' voice. "Ehh, just fine, Doc. How are you?"

The doctor then said, " 'And Porky Pig! How are you feeling?' and I said, 'J-j-j-just fine, th-th-th-thanks.'

"So you see, I actually live these characters."

For days following the head-on Sunset Boulevard collision, Blanc hovered near death.

But like his dynamic cartoon characters--who so often slammed into walls and shrugged their shoulders or were blasted by dynamite and proceeded to calmly wipe the gunpowder off their noggins--Blanc, after 21 days, finally awoke, picked himself up and went back to work.

Although his lines were primarily written by others, Blanc's performances, like those of the Three Stooges and Marx Brothers, gave life and technicolor to a spirit of wise-aleckness in an era of gray flannel suits and proper manners.

"For the majority of us, the sassiness of our childhood, muttered alone in bed or nursed in sullen silence at the dinner table, had a secret champion in the voices of Mel Blanc," wrote Times comedy columnist Lawrence Christon in 1984.

Blanc, commenting on the personality of Bugs, put it in his own words: "He's just a stinker. In other words, he's more or less of the suppressed desire of what men would like to do that don't have guts enough to do."

Melvin Jerome Blanc was born May 30, 1908, in San Francisco, where his parents managed a ladies' ready-to-wear apparel business.

Even as a youngster, he displayed his one-of-a-kind vocal gift, regaling his classmates and teachers with the piercing laugh he would later develop into Woody Woodpecker's signature call.

"(In) high school, I used to laugh down the hall and hear the echo coming, you know. . . . So that's the Woody Woodpecker laugh," he once told an interviewer.

Blanc, whose family moved to Portland, Ore., shortly after his birth, turned immediately to show business following his graduation from high school in 1927. But for the first five years, he made his living with musical instruments rather than the magic of his vocal cords. An accomplished bassist, violinist and sousaphone player, Blanc played in the NBC Radio Orchestra and conducted the pit orchestra at the Orpheum Theatre in Portland.

In 1933, he married Estelle Rosenbaum, and soon after the couple began hosting a daily one-hour radio show in Portland called "Cobwebs and Nuts." Since management would not spring to hire additional actors, Blanc invented an entire repertory company.

"They wouldn't allow me to hire anybody else because they were too damn cheap," he once said. " . . . It taught me these many, many voices. This went on for two years. Finally my wife said to me, 'You want to continue with the show or do you want to have a nervous breakdown?' "

Opting for sanity, Blanc, accompanied by his wife, moved to Los Angeles, where he toiled as a character actor on radio shows while repeatedly seeking an audition with Leon Schlesinger Productions, the cartoon company that produced the original Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros.

Oral Test Passed

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