Toon Zone News Interview Series: "A Life in Voice Acting" with Bob Bergen (Part 1)
“A Life in Voice Acting” will be a semi-regular interview series at Toon Zone News, digging into the lives and techniques of the actors who primarily make their living providing voices for our favorite animated cartoon characters.
As far back as he can remember, Bob Bergen wanted to be Porky Pig. However, rather than just entertaining his friends and family with impersonations, Bergen opted to go straight to the top authority on voicing the stuttering pig: Mel Blanc himself, who received a cold call from an audacious 14-year old Bergen. Today, Bergen has provided the voice of Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales for the newest Looney Tunes movies and video games, and has worked on dozens of the top animated feature films and television shows from Disney, Pixar, Warner Brothers, and DreamWorks.
This interview was conducted over a few sessions with Bergen, in person when he was in New York City, and also over the phone.
TZN: You wanted to be Porky Pig specifically?
BERGEN: I specifically wanted to be Porky Pig when I was 5 years old. My mom said, “You can’t be Porky Pig. You’re Jewish,” and I didn’t know what that meant. Because we weren’t really Jewish, we were Jew-ish. But yeah.
TZN: Why Porky in particular?
BERGEN: Because I could do it. I would watch the cartoons and I was able to crack the code of his stutter.
TZN: When did that dream of being Porky Pig translate to wanting to be a voice actor?
BERGEN: Not until I moved to Los Angeles, and I had no choice. My dad took a job in L.A. when I was 14, and I thought, “OK, if I’m going to pursue this…” I didn’t know the voice-over industry as an entity. I just knew I wanted to be Porky Pig, so I figure, “I’ll just call Mel Blanc and say, ‘Listen, I know you’re of retirement age, and I’d be happy to help out.'” So, I started looking in the phone book under “Mel Blanc,” and I couldn’t find him because he wasn’t listed in the phone book under “Mel Blanc,” but I did find his number under his wife’s first initial, “E. Blanc” in Pacific Palisades. So I called and I bugged the conversation. I have it on tape.
Throughout that conversation, I realized, “OK, this is an industry, this is something that you have to pursue as a whole, you can’t just go after a character.” And the odds were against me to go after one character, but my goal was to go after one character. So I wanted to get into the business.
TZN: You have the recording with Mel Blanc on your website, but the recording cuts off at the very end.
BERGEN: Well, the tape broke. I listened to it every single day and the tape broke. It wasn’t just “break,” it was like, “machine-eating ripping and pulling and stretching,” and I threw it away. But my mom retrieved it, and put it in her dresser drawer. In fact, 4 years ago, she called me up and said, “I’m cleaning out my drawer and I found this tape. It says, “Conversation with Mel Blanc.” Do you know what it is?” Oh, my God (laughs) of COURSE I know what it is!
TZN: (Laughing) It’s a conversation with Mel Blanc!
BERGEN: Oh, yeah. I took it to a friend who worked at ABC Radio, and he was able to splice it back together and digitally enhance it, but a chunk of the conversation is missing because it broke. But what’s left is pretty cool.
TZN: What was in that chunk of the recording that’s missing?
BERGEN: In that chunk that’s missing was when I said to him, “Are you still doing voices for Warner Brothers?” and he said to me that the animation department shut down in the 60’s. I said, “Well, what are you doing these days?” and he said, “Well, we do the occasional commercial, toys, and this week, we’re finishing up the recording sessions for an Ice Capades show with the Looney Tunes.” And I said, “Oh, you’re recording that this week?” and he said, “Yeah.”
I said, “At Warner Brothers?” and he said, “Well, actually, it’s a place called Hollywood Recording,” and I said, “Oh. All right.” So I called Hollywood Recording and I got the receptionist and I said, “Hi, I’m calling to confirm Mel Blanc’s appointment for this week …uh…Thursday at 9.” And she said, “Well, we actually have him on the books for Wednesday at 11, do we have a mistake?” and I said, “No, no, it’s my mistake. I’m looking at the wrong book, thank you.”
So I told my mom, “He’s going to be at THIS STUDIO Wednesday. I’m skipping school, we’re going to go,” and she said, “OK.” So I went and watched him work. I told the receptionist that we were friends of Mel Blanc, and I told his producer that we were friends with the receptionist, and got to sit in and watch him work.
TZN: Were those the only two times you got to interact with Mel Blanc?
BERGEN: I met him one more time about 6 months before he passed away. He was signing his autobiography.
TZN: Were you Porky Pig by then?
BERGEN: No, he passed away in 1989, and I got my first gig in 1990, which was Tiny Toons.
TZN: So you weren’t ever able to talk to him about the job.
BERGEN: No, because Mel’s dying wish was that his son take over, and his son was with him at this autograph signing. And as far as I knew, his son would take over because they wanted a huge PR campaign that, “Mel Blanc’s son will take over.”
TZN: I think I even remember that.
BERGEN: Yeah, in fact to this day, people say to me, “Didn’t Mel Blanc’s son take over? Isn’t he doing his voices?” And, you know, there’s a handful of us that share the characters. There’s not one official voice thereof, we all take over toon duties.
After that, I started studying with anybody who offered a workshop. Primarily Daws Butler for animation.
TZN: Was Daws just offering lessons?
BERGEN: Daws had a weekly workshop that was 10 bucks or a handshake, whatever you had, and over the years, his class had people like Nancy Cartwright, Corey Burton, Mona Marshall, and Brian Cummings. Lucille Bliss, of all people, would come and work out with us. Daws lived in Beverly Hills, he had a guest house in the back and it looked like Hanna and Barbera had vomited in there. (laughter) It was just tons of stuffed animals and animation cels and the original Beany puppets and he had a big long table and a file cabinet of copy. He wrote all the scripts. And his whole thing was all about the acting.
TZN: What would you say are the most valuable things you learned from Daws Butler?
BERGEN: That it’s all about acting. It’s about character and acting. It just happens to be on a cartoon. This is my #1 mantra that I teach my students. It came from Daws, which is that if you physically play the characters, the voice will follow. Watching Daws do Yogi Bear, he became Yogi Bear. Watching Daws do Snagglepuss, he became Snagglepuss. From head to toe, his face, everything. He physically became the characters.
TZN: Did you have any other formal training as an actor beyond the discussions you had with Mel Blanc and the workshops you did with Daws Butler?
BERGEN: Yes, but not then. Afterwards. I studied voice-over work for about two, two-and-a-half years, and then I realized “OK, I’m spinning my wheels, I need to study acting.” So then I studied acting and improvisation and movement — everything that goes with a good solid acting foundation.
TZN: How old were you at this point? Because you started in the business when you were 18, right?
BERGEN: Well, I got my first agent and gig at 18, but I was studying acting consistently from age 17 to…about 25, I guess. I didn’t stop taking voice-over classes, though. Daws’s classes were on Wednesday nights.
TZN: So what did formal training as an actor entail for you?
BERGEN: For me, it meant finding a teacher with the technique that I connected with. For me, that was the Meisner technique, and I studied pretty intensively over two years. I was also studying with the Groundlings Improv. But it was pretty intensive, twice a week for 2 years acting technique.
I’m right now in the process of writing a book on voice-over agents, and I’m interviewing every voice-over agent in the country. The biggest problem they have with the demos that people send is that everybody’s trying to be a voice-over person and very few people are actors. You really need to be a solid actor before you ever step into a voice-over class.
TZN: I’m not too familiar with the Meisner technique. How would you describe it?
BERGEN: Sandy Meisner, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler basically all were the top acting teachers of modern acting. Meisner’s technique in acting could be summed up in one sentence, which is “Being truthful under imaginary circumstances.” So his goal was to teach you to be as believable an actor as you possibly can be.
TZN: And that’s your underlying philosophy to the acting, then?
BERGEN: That’s pretty much it. Whether you’re playing Hamlet or a cartoon character, the audience has to believe you.
TZN: Your biography also says that you used to be a tour guide at Universal Studios?
TZN: Was this while you were taking classes with Daws Butler?
BERGEN: No, I was a tour guide from ages 18 to 23. I got my first agent about the same time I got the job at Universal, but it took me about 5 years before I was able to work as a full-time actor. I wasn’t making the kind of money where I could quit my day job, so Universal was my day job.
TZN: Pixar’s John Lasseter has said he learned a lot about comic timing from when he was a guide at the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. Did you pick up anything from your time at Universal that has colored the way you act?
BERGEN: Probably nothing on the job. I think the fact that I had been studying voice-over and acting for several years before I got the job made me a better tour guide. It made me a better storyteller, and that’s what being a tour guide is: drawing the audience in, telling stories as seen from the back lot.
That said, what I got out of being a tour guide as a career was that on my days off, I would go on the front lot and I would watch movies being made and I would knock on casting director’s doors because I had access to the lot. I was able to get a lot of acting work doing that. The actual hands-on job itself didn’t really contribute to my skills or my acting skills. I had that going in.
TZN: If anything it sounds like it was going in the other direction, where you brought your acting to the day job.
BERGEN: Exactly. Exactly, and it was a very fun job. I mean, I’m a fan of movies, I’m a fan of Hollywood history, so to be able to share that with an audience four or five times a day was terrific. It was a lot of fun. After five years, it got tedious, but it’s a nice gig for people who are interested in being in show business, whether it’s a summer job or a seasonal job or a full-time job.
TZN: You also spent some time at the Hollywood Christmas Parade as an interviewer and as the master of ceremonies.
BERGEN: Right. I would interview the celebrities as they went down the parade route for the people in the grandstand.
TZN: Sort of the same question — did that color your acting skills?
BERGEN: There was no script. I would say to my producer, “Who’s coming next?” and they would say, “Sammy Davis, Jr.” or “James Stewart” or “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” So I would have to go up and interview them, and you can’t just say to each person coming by, “Merry Christmas, what are you doing for the holidays?” You had to have conversation, so, it’s sort of like doing a little mini-Johnny Carson or Jay Leno interview, but the car’s moving. (laughs) There were many times where the car’s moving and I’ve got to continue talking and I’m losing my mike cord — nothing was wireless those days — so we had lots of, uh…FUN mishaps. But that’s where the improvisational skills come in handy. You just have to go with whatever flow’s happening.
TZN: What kind of prep work do you do to prepare for a role?
BERGEN: None. You don’t have any time to. You talking about in voice-over?
BERGEN: You get the script, and five minutes later, you’re recording. There is no prep work. Voice-over actors are the best cold-readers in the world because there is no prep work. When you get an on-camera part, in a movie or a TV show, you’re going to have the full script before you ever screen test for it. You’re only going to shoot about one or two pages a day at the most, and you’ve got the luxury of all day there, with your acting coach in your trailer, to prepare yourself for this one scene. In voice-over, you get the script for five minutes, you have to make a choice, and you just do it. So, there is no preparation other than being as sharp and as quick of an actor as you possibly can be. This is why acting classes and technique are so important.
TZN: Is that why you mentioned improv training as an important skill to be a voice-over actor?
BERGEN: Well, improv, I think, is the best training no matter what kind of acting you want to do, because what improv does is teach you how to make decisions immediately. And the only rule, the major role of improv, is you can’t deny.
TZN: You mean the “Yes, and…” trick, where you can’t say “No” to anything in an improv sketch.
BERGEN: Exactly. So with improv training, you’re taught to think on your feet and just go for it, as opposed to being in your head and trying to decide what is the right choice. Just making the choice and going with it.
TZN: Since voice-over acting doesn’t have to worry about sets and lighting and the set-up that on-camera work needs, do you get more opportunity to play around with different readings? Does that become the prep work for you?
BERGEN: It depends. I mean, in Los Angeles, 99% of your auditions are in your agent’s office. Every voice-over agent has a booth and they call you in to read, and they decide what you’re right for. I myself have a home studio, so most of my reads are done at home. So the luxury of reading at home is that I CAN take more time with it. If you go to your agent’s office, you’re one of maybe 40 people waiting in the lobby to go in and read, so you don’t have as much time. That said, if you overwork the script too much, then it’s going to become stale and stiff, so you really want to be as extemporaneous and as spontaneous with the words as possible. The goal of any performance, whether it’s voice-over or on-camera, is that when the audience hears it or sees it, they feel these words have never been spoken before. They’re fresh. They’re brand new. Even if you’ve prepared, they have to sound like they’ve never been said and they’re extemporaneous. That’s the hard part.
TZN: Now, one of the big things from the Mel Blanc tape was a comment that it’s really important to have distinct personalities in all your roles.
TZN: If you’re getting the script five minutes before you have to record, what sorts of things do you do to get into character?
BERGEN: Well, I’ve got the script. The script has a picture of the character, a description of the character, and the dialogue. I take all that information and I process it in my head, and every voice actor has a Rolodex of characters that they’ve done in the past, so the first thing I do is I think, “OK, what character have I done vocally that fits this character?” And I think of a voice for the character, but then I have to adapt the personality for what they’re asking for in this new script. If it’s an elf, I can take my little elf voice that I can use for any film or commercial and adapt it for what they’re asking for in this particular script. Based on all the information, you process it and come up with what you hope is something that is unique and memorable, and something that they’re looking for.
TZN: And as you’re going, you’re trying to do a mix and match on the spot to come up with something different, or new from something you’ve already got?
BERGEN: Well, see, that’s where it’s all in the acting. In the big picture, the voice is important, but it’s secondary to the acting choices and to the personality. For instance, Nancy Cartwright, who does Bart Simpson…that’s her standard little boy voice, that had she done for cartoons and commercials for years. But then you add the personality and the script for The Simpsons and what the producers’ intent is for this character. Put that all together, add that layer to her standard little boy voice and you’ve got Bart Simpson, whose personality is unique and specific to that character. The voice, she can still use, to this day, for dozens and dozens of other projects, but no other character will be Bart Simpson because of the acting.
Mel Blanc was not the man of a thousand voices, as people have nicknamed him. I like to call him the man of a thousand characters, because his acting changed. But in his vocals, most of the characters were in his nose. (imitates) Bugs Bunny’s in his nose, Tweety’s in his nose, Speedy Gonzales’s in his nose. It’s all the same sound, it’s in the same placement, but the acting…the accent might change. The acting completely changes.
TZN: Do you study the voices of other voice actors in your down time?
BERGEN: When I was a kid, I did. When I was studying growing up, I would study everybody, including June Foray. June was over at my house about two weeks ago, and I said to her, you know, I studied you, and she said, “Why would you study me?” I said, “Because, put gender aside, your acting and your character choices, and the uniqueness of your characters helped me in pursuing my career as a kid.” And being able to maniplate my voice.
Today? I don’t study other actors, because my goal is not to imitate. My goal is to be as creative and…I guess, give it my stamp rather than their stamp.
TZN: You don’t usually voice female characters, do you?
BERGEN: I’ll play a witch. Or I’ll do an old lady, but that’s about it. I do babies of all shapes and sizes, and that mixes sexes and whatevers, because when you’re doing a baby crying, you can’t tell what it is. But, no, vocally, I can’t do “female” believably.
TZN: Do you think that there’s much difference between the regular voice-over acting we think of, like being Porky Pig, versus, doing overdubbing or ADR (automated dialogue replacement or additional dialogue recording) for anime or for airline or broadcast movie retakes?
BERGEN: Well, acting is acting. It still has to be believable. The technique is different. With anime, with dubbing, you have to do several things at once. You have to read the line, match the sync, and act all at the same time. And quite often, the restrictions in anime that you have to fit the sync basically takes the acting freedom away from you. You have to act under their parameters.
TZN: How do those demands affect your performance?
BERGEN: The restrictions of staying in sync from somebody else’s performance do hinder your creativity. You’re not able to give the performance of what YOU would do, because you’re limited to the parameters of matching sync. That said, you have to be a superb actor to be able to do that because you’re not able to be as creatively free as you would in, say, an American animation. And I think anime actors are some of the best voice over actors out there because of this. The sad thing is that they’re not paid for their expertise. They should be paid, I think, double what American animation pays because of all the restrictions and all the technical nuances that you have to perfect.
TZN: Do you ever catch yourself repeating an older character when you’re recording?
BERGEN: All the time. All the time, but see, that’s not a bad thing because if it’s working for this project, it’s working for this project. It can’t be as specific as Porky Pig. I can’t go to Disney and start stuttering. But I can take the genesis of his voice, take the stutter out, add the personality that they’re looking for in the script, and create a completely different character, borrowing from a voice I’ve done in the past. Again, that’s what Mel Blanc did. That’s what Daws did. That’s what June did. Everyody does. But again, it’s the acting choices, it’s the personality that really makes it original for the project that you’re doing right now.
TZN: Even though technically, if you sat down and looked hard at it, it’s really the same voice.
BERGEN: Sure. I mean, if you listen to the ladies that do the Rugrats, and watch all the other shows that they’ve done, playing little kids, you’re going to go, “That’s the same voice they did on Rugrats!” But what’s the personality like? Well, the personality is totally different. And that’s the nice thing about this business. Once you do a voice, you’re not banned from ever doing that voice again. You can’t copyright a voice. It’s impossible, because every voice has a different voice print. Actually, Mel Blanc tried to copyright his voices, but it was thrown out of court because even if you sound exactly like Mel Blanc, you’re going to have a different voice print.
TZN: One of the other things I think Mel Blanc said to you was that it was important to have a distinctive laugh for each character.
BERGEN: Yeah, I tell my students at an audition, whether it’s in the script or not, add a laugh, because it adds vulnerability to a character. It shows that you’re thinking. You know, the script is a skeleton. Your job as an actor is to give it a body, and adding a laugh or adding something other than what’s written on the page to bring that character to life is what’s going to make you memorable. A signature laugh, a distinct laugh…it doesn’t have to be a knee-slapping, “Oh, you just told the funniest joke on the planet” laugh, it just has to be something that is owned by that character.
TZN: Also because laughs and what makes you laugh are such personal things.
BERGEN: That’s what I mean by “vulnerable.” It makes the character, if you’ll pardon the expression, human.
TZN: What sorts of things do you think of when you’re trying to come up with a distinct laugh for a character?
BERGEN: It’s making it as organic as possible without sounding forced. And laughing for the sake of laughing, it’s going to sound wrong, so it’s gotta be unique. It’s gotta be organic to the personality. And honestly, I don’t think that much. I read the script, I read out loud, and I let the creativity flow. If you overthink it, it’s going to sound stiff.
TZN: How often do you get to work with other actors in the studio?
BERGEN: If it’s a television series, pretty much every episode. If it’s an animated feature, rarely. The animated features have to work around so many schedules and it takes so long to record the entire soundtrack that quite often, you just do your lines wild and they edit the whole thing together and create conversations. If it’s a series, they try to get as many of the cast members together as possible into the room, so you can work off each other.
TZN: When you’re doing the features, how do you compensate for the lack of other actors?
BERGEN: Well, again, this is why the voice actors are really good actors, because they have to be. They have no choice but to be able to compensate for that. I saw Tom Hanks on an interview saying that Toy Story was the hardest acting job he’d ever done because he didn’t realize how much, as an actor, he relied on a look or a gesture or a glance, which has to be vocalized in a cartoon. Everything on-screen has to be animated, so he had to learn how to vocalize that performance rather than physicalize that performance.
It also depends on the director. When you’re dealing with people like John Lasseter and the people at Pixar, they have ideas about the characters, but they’re also very open to yours. It’s a playground, so there’s no limits to what you can do with these characters and with these lines. You never know what they’re going to use in the finished product, but they’re available to whatever you have to offer. Not every director or studio is like that.
TZN: Do you think there’s such a thing as voice actor typecasting?
BERGEN: Sure! There’s also studio typecasting. “He does a lot of work for Disney. Well, we don’t want him over at Hanna-Barbera.” “Well, he does a lot of work for anime. We don’t want him for animation…for American animation.” Because people think, “Oh, this is what you do, and this is what you do well, so therefore you probably shouldn’t or couldn’t do anything else.” This is also why a lot of anime actors have a difficult time breaking into American animation. Because the American animation people are saying, “Oh, we don’t want that ‘anime’ sound.” These people don’t realize that anime recording is so specific, unique, and difficult to do that if you put a script in front of those actors, they can still act without having to dub.
But it’s difficult. Once you get established in a certain area, it’s very difficult to break out. It’s like a soap opera actor. A guy in a soap opera who’d love to do a sitcom. “I’m sorry, but you’re just a soap actor.” Person on a sitcom trying to do a feature, “Well you’re just a television actor.” It’s easier nowadays for TV actors to do movies, but you still get typecast. It’s not just in voiceover, it’s everywhere.
TZN: Has typecasting ever damaged your career, or prevented you from getting roles?
BERGEN: I would say it’s not damaged it, but like everybody else, it’s been an obstacle. You know, I’ve had people say, “Well, we don’t want Bob because he does Porky Pig. We don’t want our character to sound like Porky Pig.” And I’ll say, “I swear to God I won’t make your character stutter.” But, you know, a producer’s job is to get the best possible people for their project, and it’s easier to go for who you think would be right rather than who you think can adapt to make it right. Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s their job. Now, it’s not hurt me financially and it’s not hurt me as an overall career. I’ve been able to work steadily, and do quite well. I also don’t dwell on what I’m not doing. I don’t care. But, absolutely it’s an obstacle.
Go on to read Part 2 of “A Life in Voice Acting” with Bob Bergen, where he talks about being Porky Pig and Luke Skywalker, what really happened at the Space Jam premiere, how he got to host a kids’ version of Jeopardy!, and how Daws Butler was related to Bergen’s popular voice acting seminars. Also, make sure to check out Bergen’s home page for his teenage questioning of Mel Blanc, his full resume and demo reels, and more.