You can't bump into Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird or Porky Pig without hearing their distinctive "What's up, Doc?," "I t'ot I taw a puddy tat" or "That's all, folks!" For that, we can thank the late Mel Blanc many times over. He gave them more than voices: The premier voice actor gave them personality. As did June Foray for Rocky and Natasha of "Rocky and Bullwinkle," Sterling Halloway for Winnie the Pooh; Howie Mandell for "Bobby's World," and Nancy Cartwright and Julie Kavner for Bart and Marge Simpson, respectively.
They all have made it sound so easy, that viewers may not realize how tough it is for actors to make animated characters come alive without the luxury of facial expressions or physical business. Along with the general breed of actor, there's a legion of voice actors trying to carve names for themselves through the mouths of others. But not all are able to breathe life into characters with the style of a Mel Blanc.
"There are only a few voice actors you call on, cast and count on to carry a show," says dialogue director Ginny McSwain, who has overseen several hundred cartoons to the small screen. "There are a core few who do a lot of work and who you can rely on to do a series."
Three who are in demand for weekly series, whose voices you probably recognize but whose real names you might not know, approach the challenge individually.
In his Baltimore home, Kevin Clash is struggling to keep his 2-month-old daughter, Shannon Elise, happy.
Getting the squirming bundle on his lap comfortable feels a bit more stressful than operating and manipulating Elmo and Hoots the Owl, his "Sesame Street" alter egos on PBS. The 32-year-old Clash has been their puppeteer and voice for the last nine years. Someone listening to the high, sweet and somewhat shy voice of Elmo might never guess that the wise, old saxophone-playing Hoots is also played by Clash. And on yet another network, Clash serves up the precocious voice of Baby Sinclair for ABC's popular "Dinosaurs."
Splitting your personality into so many distinctive pieces, often simultaneously, might seem daunting to some, but not to Clash.
"It's actually easy," Clash says. Elmo originally was performed by two other Muppeteers who never really quite clicked with the fuzzy red Muppet, Clash says. "The environment and the puppet really do it for you. If your puppet is a dinosaur and you are in a studio, that studio becomes a cave to you and it just happens."
For the energetic Clash, Baby Sinclair proved an easy characterization: "He has all this energy in his face; it was easy coming up with a voice for him."
As Baby Sinclair, Clash works in California. Clash himself is now a tri-city person. He and his family live in his hometown of Baltimore; he commutes to Manhattan for "Sesame Street" and to Los Angeles for "Dinosaurs."
"It's rocky," he says of his coastal commute, "but I am a Muppeteer and won a Daytime Emmy for Elmo, so I didn't want to give up this job" on "Sesame Street." Luckily for Clash, "Dinosaurs' " producers have been able to accommodate his busy schedule.
Clash's big break came when Bob Keeshan, TV's Captain Kangaroo saw a tape of Clash at the Children's Television Convention in New York in 1978. Clash moved to Manhattan, where he began doing guest shots on "Captain Kangaroo'; there he met Kermit Love, one of the creators of Big Bird. Eventually, Clash got the roles of Elmo and Hoots. Now he also does an occasional cartoon and guest spots as Elmo on "The Frugal Gourmet."
When Shannon Elise gives a little squeal, Clash apologizes. "My wife Genia's a nurse at Johns Hopkins and she had to go out for an appointment, so I'm watching the baby."
Shannon may find herself meeting more than Dad, Elmo, Hoots and Baby Sinclair on occasion. "Sometimes," Clash says, "I find myself doing voices at her. I narrated a video I shot in the delivery room. I'm hoping to do that every year at her birthday."
In a big, insulated room in a Studio City recording studio, Jim Cummings talks loudly to himself.
For the engaging Cummings, talking to himself is nothing new. He's been doing that for some time now as the voice for both Tigger and Winnie the Pooh, as well as Darkwing Duck and Herb Muddlefoot.
And now he's going "Bonkers!" for the syndicated show of the same name, which premieres on Sept. 6 on KCAL as the newest show on the "Disney Afternoon." The 40-year-old Cummings will be both Bonkers D. Bobcat and Sgt. Lucky Piquel, the series lead toons.
Whereas some voice actors record each voice separately, Cummings likes splitting himself into pieces and recording his many characters live, just as they crop up in the script.
"It really isn't hard," he says persuasively. "I just get into arguments with myself and do it all at once. I just barrel through it."
For "Bonkers!," Cummings gets highly animated (pardon the pun) in the quickest, tooniest voice imaginable. Piquel, his human counterpart, drops a step below Cummings' own octave.