|Pantheon of Voice Gods Profiled 1.0|
posted by Mel. on 6/17/01
When it comes to those childhood memories that one never quite loses, the influence of cartoons can never be dismissed. From the moment we plop down before the one-eyed monster for our first eye cancer exposure to the day we cut our hair, put on the tie, and go to work, we are a marked breed; shaped in some amount, large for the geeks and smaller for the waymen, by the infusion of colors and sounds we witnessed on Saturday mornings past.
The cartoons of an individual's youth are almost like the calling card of their eventual personality. Transformers made your world go 'round? You are a geek. Dungeons and Dragons was the absolute shit you couldn't live without? Nerd-boy. And if you dipped deep into the well of anything Filmation or Hasbro spit out, then you've gotta be a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy by now.. provided you've kept true to yourself through even the most avacious mockery and ostracization of those damn teenage years.
But as important as the cartoons themselves are, there's something beneath the surface that has an even deeper importance. It's the soul behind the images, it's the part of those shows that stuck inside your head like a brain splinter even beyond the first time you saw Devastator assemble or He-Man raise his sword. The essence, if you will, the very breath of life puffed into the movements and expressions of your painted-cel heroes and heroines.
The voice actor.
The subtle existence that pulls the strings of the most endearing characters of those forgotten sugar cereal and CBS weekend binges. The unseen face behind the face. Think about it--of course, you remember what Skeletor LOOKED like above all else. But what's the next thing your mind taps on? The way he spoke. The way he whined and groveled and sneered through every shoddy episode of that beloved cartoon, the way that voice gave a skull floating inside a hood a special life of its own.
Oh, yeah. Now think about Megatron. Starscream? Fuck, yes. Soundwave. Destro. The Baroness. Each and every one of them a vital creation with a personality that was indestructable--you didn't HAVE to know the back story on these creeps when you'd plop down to fawn over the latest episode of your poison. Their voices said it all, ensured that it was all upfront. Two minutes into watching Transformers, and you knew that Optimus Prime was in charge of things--nobody had to call him "boss" or genuflect when he entered the room. He sounded like he could kick your ass straight to the next paid holiday. That was all he needed.
The funny thing, the voice actor generally goes unnoticed and without proper acknowledgement for their contributions to every kid's formative years. They are a specialized breed of people, the emperor's royal guard of the world acting corps, vocal ninjas--they don't need to have their mugs shoved up on Extra! to make an impact, don't have to be made celebrities out of to ply their trade. They are invisible, profound talents who do their job in a small glass booth and reach millions of homes on a weekly basis for their troubles.
But the adulation of scattered fanboys and fanatics just isn't enough. So I'm going to bring them here and sing their praises--all except for Jim Cummings, who I've hated since age ten and will never cease raging against. In the name of fairness, he'll get his article in the weeks to come.. but for now, we're going to start at the top. We're going to talk about Franklin W. Welker.
In every circle of social existence, there is a silverback personality who is clearly the bad-ass motherfuckah by which every consequent comer will be challenged. Way, way back in the day, it was voice masters like Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway, June Foray and other Disney-contracted mercenaries who captured the imaginations of a generation.
Yeah, if you thought that your mom and you had nothing in common, then ask her what Captain Hook sounded like. Or the Cheshire Cat. Chances are, she'll bust out a Hans Conreid impression on your ass before she tells you to wash the dishes and quit staying out so late. Voice actors are the phantom zeitgeists, appealing to the demographic neglected by the Hollywood superstars of any era.
But as profound a contribution as the voice deities of Golden Hollywood were, they were almost certainly characters unto themselves--they had one good voice that they were known by, one remarkable personality that they had mastered. It wasn't until Mel Blanc came along that the ball game was blown completely open for the cartoon showcases of Warner Brothers, into the Fat Albert antics of the seventies, and well into the commercialized brilliance of the eighties.
Mel Blanc's star was on the downward angle of its epic parabola when the decade of decadence began. He had defined the voice industry for damn near fifty years with his work on Looney Tunes, virtually carrying the cartoons with his astounding character and comic abilities. And while Bugs and company surpass the concept of cubbyholing them into a specific "era", the televised crack of the eighties and its shrewd marketing tie-ins were a completely different kind of animal--Mel Blanc was the stuff legends were made of, but Kronus was heading into retirement. It was time for a new name to blow the game wide open.
Frank arrived at our homes in a big way. Big. Very big.
Have you ever been a to an urban car show? The swap meet kind? If you wander around long enough, chances are that you'll come across some incredibly restored La Bomba with fat chrome effects and a waxed coat of paint that reflects the sun with enough potency to blind a guy. Usually, you'll find some locced-out veterano hanging nearby with his grandkids--you know the guy. He's got tattoos, he's got scars, he's got his arms folded and he isn't saying much, but you know from one glance that this man has CREDIBILITY. Street cred. The kind of respect that midget white punks limping through their quiet suburbs think they have.
If this could be translated into terms conducive for this piece, then this man would be Frank Welker. Nobody has more credibility in the cartoon 'hood. Nobody's more respected. In the Pantheon of Voice Gods, there are Gods, there are Demigods, and then there is THE God--just give Frank a marble throne and dump that face on the floor, because you've reached the top. It's all downhill from here.
If you've never heard OF Frank Welker, then I can assure you that there's no way in hell you haven't heard his work--his resume covers three decades of the most endearing and impressive characters of the Gen-Why times, and reads like a who's-who of the greatest cheese and classics of the modern kid's childhood.
Fred from Scooby-Doo.
Megatron. Soundwave. Rumble. Frenzy. Galvatron. Lazerbeak.
Uni from Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, and that little bastard, the Dungeon Master.
Bigtime and Baggy Beagle from Duck Tales.
The list goes on and on and on--you can view the cold, hard facts here--but the fact that the guy did Stripe's "voice" from Gremlins should be reason alone to drop a jaw and accept him as your personal messiah.
Like many voice acting talents, the best parts of Frank's history are shrouded in cool mystery--he grew up in Colorado, has a brother named Norm, and did hard time on the standup comic stage before finding his voice talent niche.
And good lord, what a niche that is.
Frank is one of the few voice-over artists whose range is actually so versatile that you can hear two of his characters conversing and not make the connection--a rarity, even among the expansive market of current industry gurus like Billy West and Rob Paulsen. He is the quintessential chameleon in that regard--witness his credits for Disney's Aladdin. If you knew that Frank was doing both Abu and the Cave of Wonders in its freaky feline form, then buy yourself a cigar and smoke that sumbitch up; your powers are far beyond those of mortal men. As astounding as his capacity for bending the spoken word to his will is, he's achieved a startling crossover success into the realm of live-action cinematic fare.. not as a presence on screen, but as the most highly sought provider of animal sounds in the business today. You hear a bird chirp, it's Frank. You hear a gorilla thump its chest and bellow, that's Mr. Welker. You hear a rare Togalian flat-tail beaver impart its unique mating gurgle, and I've got five bucks that says you-know-who has done the honors.
I consider Frank an institution of Gen-Why pop culture because he -is- what the core of growing up in the eighties was all about: the scifi renaissance. The days when Saturday morning wasn't just about weekends, it was the pit stop between tedium, the cornerstone of the scholastic week... when we limped back onto the playground and to our desks on Monday, we brought the adventures we'd sparked off of a half an hour of commercially interrupted bliss to share with our friends.
Hell yes, first grade was about trying to imitate Starscream at recess and plotting the downfall of the Earth on the giant, foul-smelling tires we had erected in the sandpit. But it was also about how we knew those characters, how they came alive in our eyes and minds. Frank isn't a god because some tall, goofy bastard with a fractured journalism degree says he is.. he's a god because he deals in children and their happiness.
And that's worth a standing ovation.
Thank you, Mr. Welker. We all owe you a prostrate half-gainer to the floor for your contributions to our fading youth and our increasingly warped experiences of growing up. Thank you for being our voices, thank you for bringing us laughter for the good guys and scowls for the bad guys, and thank you most of all for giving us those vivid memories to the old school.
There ain't another like Frank.
Frank had this to say about Mel when he read this article.