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A Voice for All Seasons, Characters

Movies* David Ogden Stiers has become the "go to" guy when Disney has an animated challenge.

June 24, 2002|ROGER MOORE | ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. — For David Ogden Stiers, there's a form of sweet revenge in his long association with Disney cartoons.

A voice-acting veteran of five animated films and six Disney characters, the actor, 59, relishes anything that separates him from "the green show," that 1970s and '80s TV series that formed his public image for so long.

"Last evening, at the parade, I saw this family," he says on a visit to Walt Disney World. "The dad referred to me by the character name, which makes me cringe. And he's urging his daughter to go up and get my autograph.

" 'You want his autograph, don't you?'

"And she grabs her mother and glares at him.

" 'No! You do!'

"Hahaha! He was way busted. So I beckoned her over and said, 'You don't know who I am, do you?' She's hiding behind her mother's skirt. And I started doing the character voices for Ratcliffe [from "Pocahontas"] and Cogsworth ["Beauty and the Beast"]. And the joy is to see that mouth drop open as they try to put the voice of that tiny clock with this tub of lard--me. It isn't adoration; it's a moment of learning. And that, to me, is a little slice of heaven."

He's become Disney's "go to" guy. Need an evil governor, and the evil governor's sidekick, for "Pocahontas"? Or an officious archdeacon in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"? Call Stiers.

But for him, voicing Jumba from "Lilo & Stitch," his latest Disney assignment, was just one more remove from the TV series that, unhappily for him, America has yet to get over. It's not that he hasn't left "MASH" and the snooty Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III behind. The problem comes from everybody else.

"Even today, people call out the name of my character from that show, and I cringe," he says. "That's why I walk so fast and kind of disguise myself. I just can't have the same conversation 85 times a day."

He appeared on the recent "MASH" reunion special, something you might have had trouble talking him into years ago.

"I actually wanted to do it because Harry [Morgan, who played Col. Potter] is not getting any younger. And talking about it with those folks was fun. The thing I took from it was that 'nobody lives there.' We've all moved on, each in our own way. Life is ahead, not behind you. I'm not ashamed of it, but I'm not going to rest my life on it. Otherwise, I should simply quit."

He hasn't. He's in the new USA cable TV series based on Stephen King's "The Dead Zone." Stiers has appeared in lightweight comedies such as "Doc Hollywood" and "Tomcats," and in Woody Allen films. But perhaps his greatest post-"MASH" fame has come from Disney, where his voice is heard in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Pocahontas," "Atlantis," "Beauty and the Beast" and their video sequels, as well as in the "Fantasmic!" Walt Disney World live show.

"He is one of my favorite voice actors--that narration from 'Beauty and the Beast,' just lovely work," says animator Alex Kupershmidt.

Kevin McDonald, who voices Pleakley, Jumba's "Lilo & Stitch" sidekick, describes Stiers as "the master. I wish I'd called him before I started recording. He's plainly got this figured out."

How?

"Find the 'work,' " Stiers says. "The work all starts in the same place--Shakespeare in the Park, a car commercial and everything in between."

For instance, he was told to give Jumba a Russian accent. "I had met a Russian emigre, Pasha, back when I was working on a series called 'Love & Money.' I gave him some of the lines, gave him a tape recorder and got him to record the lines. I listened to it, got him to give me pointers, polished it. It's not really Russian. It's pretend Russian."

Why does he keep coming back? The checks, which pay for things like "a terrific diving vacation I took on the Great Barrier Reef," are nice. But he's had plenty of work. And when he's not acting, he conducts symphony and pop orchestras across North America. He likes the way Disney makes him look.

"Disney doesn't insult you by offering you stupid stuff. The characters are always interesting. There is some [acting] problem to solve, something I haven't done before, maybe a song. A song is good.

"You can do any face, dress in any costume you want. Any contortion, to get the sound you want out, is allowed. Nobody says, 'What're you doing? Why did you waste all that energy?' Because the screen doesn't care how you got it or how silly you looked saying something.

"There are moments in 'Lilo & Stitch' where I have never heard sounds like that come out of me. That's the best kind of work there is, when you lose track of 'that's me up there.' No, that's Jumba."

*

Roger Moore is a writer at the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune company.

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