Cast in Plastic: Toon Zone Interviews Michael Bell on Being "Plastic Man"
Michael Bell is one of the most prominent actors and voice-over actors working today, with hundreds of roles in films and television that literally far outweighs the careers of his compatriots on the Screen Actors Guild board (as you will understand in a moment). He also lent (okay, sold) his voice to numerous video games, as well as oodles of commercials, with one of the most memorable roles being the talking Parkay margarine tub (“Butter”).
Today, Xum Yukinori cares about only one of Bell’s voice-over roles in particular: the stretchable sleuth, the pliable policeman, the straight-laced (in the chest) superhero, Plastic Man. In this historic and hysterical interview, Bell talks about his work on the Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, and bounces around a myriad of other subjects, including his rise in the voice field, the problem with using big-name stars for animation, the lengths he went through to not see his finished work, and keeping cats in the closet.
MICHAEL BELL: Well, actually, I knew nothing about voice animation. I started out as an on-camera actor since I was a movie baby, and it had been my long-time dream [to become a film star], from the time I was five years old and sang for pennies in the local fish market. Movies defined my life.
I was determined to be an actor. I came from a poor family in Brooklyn, but that was not going to hamper me. I was that “little train that could.” After graduating junior high, I auditioned for and was accepted at the High School Performing Arts in New York. After high school, I was California bound.
This was at a time when the heyday of the big studios (MGM, Warners, etc.) were winding down. The major stars at that time were names like Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and so forth. I didn’t get my first professional [acting] job until I was in my thirties since I came out to California pretty much as a teen, but sadly didn’t look like one — especially Hollywood’s version of one. I was six-foot-one and the largest thing on my body was my ears.
TZN: Was that because you towered over everybody?
BELL: Yeah. I was taller than most of the actors of that time, other than John Wayne and a few other stars. And [Hollywood] didn’t make the kinds of film and television shows that provide [opportunities] for young actors that they have now, so there wasn’t much work for a tall skinny kid with big ears and feet to match.
So I just got jobs to survive. I knew nothing about the business. I didn’t know anybody in the business. I finally got a job as an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, hoping to get discovered. (Laughter.) Talk about innocent. God, I couldn’t have been more naive!
TZN: And so you were discovered…
BELL: Well, I got discovered telling people where they could find empty seats. (Laughter.) Those were the days ushers had power… and a flashlight. I did manage, however, to meet Marlon Brando one evening during the run of Giant. That was a gas. I was so-o-o-o excited. That high kept me going for a couple of weeks.
I took any job I could find. Short-order cook dodging ketchup bottles and drunks at the now defunct Hollywood Ranch Market. Car hop, in a clothing store, cleaning toilets, a soda jerk — I did it all.
And I kept reading for plays at most of the off-off-Hollywood theatres. I finally caught a play called A Hat Full of Rain in a tiny rehearsal studio called the Rainbow Studio (no longer in existence). I played the role of Polo. However, it happened that a producer had come to the show to see someone else, and he cornered me after the show, introduced himself as Burt Topper, and said, “I’m gonna put you in a film.” A year later, sure enough, he put me in my first film, War Is Hell. It was that independent film that got me my SAG [(Screen Actors Guild)] union card and was the beginning for me.
Then things slowed down after that. I went to work in an answering service, and after a few months the owner, who was an actor himself, told me he wanted me to meet Sally Brady, a good friend of his and a TV casting director. During the interview, she asked if I was able to improvise. And I told her, “I studied improvisation at the High School of Performing Arts. Sure, I can improvise.” So she auditioned me and I was cast. The show was called The Verdict Is Yours, and it was live! We’re talking very early television here. I made more money than I had ever seen. I think it was a couple of hundred dollars, and I was, for the moment, a star.
After that I starred for three and a half years in the United States Army. When I was finally released, I did a few little things in TV, here and there. No real major stuff, until I started to connect a little bit. I wound up doing a lot of on-camera commercials. I was going with a girl at that time who had a wonderful career doing voice overs and animation. She had me make a tape of some characters I was working on, and then introduced me and the tape to her agent, Bud Davis, who said, “You’ve got a great voice. Let’s get you started in voice overs.”
She took me to several of her sessions, so I could familiarize myself with the technique, and at one of the sessions was Mel Blanc! “Mel, this is Michael Bell”, she said… and I suddenly felt at home.
Suddenly I was getting hot. A wonderful man who became my manager by the name of Vic Sutton thought I had something. He arranged for me to read for a role in a new series The Bold Ones starring Leslie Nielsen. That led to a contract at Universal Studios.
Ultimately I wound up guesting on a lot of shows besides The Bold Ones. After a while, however, all of the roles that kept coming my way seemed to be the same. I felt I was getting stale. If you look at my IMDB page you will see I did a lot of mysteries, played mucho heavies, but no comedies. I wanted to do a comedy but it wasn’t happening, since Universal didn’t produce comedies at that time. So I asked the executives at Universal to let me out of my contract when the year was up. Now I was clear to carve out my career in the voice-over world.
TZN: But you continued to do some live-action roles for television…
BELL: Oh, yeah. I went back and forth. I remember being on the set and saying, “Can I get out between 12 and 1 ’cause I have a VO to do?” And I’d rush down to the recording session, do the gig, and then I’d rush back to the set. And that was a period of time when I would just get TV scripts in the mail. It wasn’t even a matter of, “Michael, we want you to read for this.” It was, “Okay, you’re doing a Mannix, or “You’re doing an Ironside.” Or, “you’re doing M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H was a crowning moment for me. The great radio and TV actor, and friend, Herb Ellis, mentioned my name to his friend, the executive producer of the show, Gene Reynolds, during a baseball game when Reynolds complained that they couldn’t find a really good actor to guest on the next show who hadn’t already been on it. Reynolds agreed to cast me since he was familiar with my work, and that was that. That was near the end of the M*A*S*H series.
TZN: Just like that. Wow.
BELL: That was the way we used to work. I would just get a call from my agent who would say that they want me to do the role. They trusted that an actor who was working regularly would be able to deliver without having to read. It’s not like that now though. Now they have you read for one-liners and the occasional one word.
TZN: And they audition like 500 people for some of these roles?
BELL: Well I’m not certain if it’s 500, but they certainly audition a lot. In terms of voice over, in my case, my agent sends me the copy. I send the audition back to them in an MP3 file, and hope there aren’t 300 other people reading for it. Sometimes, the producers like a particular agent, so they audition all of their talent first. And if they don’t find anybody in that group, then they’ll move to the next agent. So your chances of getting work these days is a lot smaller. There are so many skilled people out there; it’s just a matter of who they hear first.
TZN: But surely all of your experience would count for something.
BELL: It doesn’t make any difference at this point. I went out [to audition] for the [latest] Transformers television series [a few years ago]. And the producers and everybody fell over themselves because they grew up with me [in my 1980s Transformers series]. They were like, “Oh my god, it’s you! Blah blah blah.” So I read for the role of Prowl, which was my original character, and read for one or two other characters — and I didn’t get it. I had finally been subjected to reading for my old career!
I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve been in this industry for close to 40 years. I mean, you talk about longevity, how many on-camera actors can you point to that can say that they’ve been successful in this business for over 35 or 40 years?
Not too long ago we were at the Screen Actors Guild. I was on the board, and we were in contention with the board from New York and the board from the outlying districts in terms of voting power. They wanted equal voting power. One of our people got up and said, “Okay, I’ve just IMDB’ed everybody on the Screen Actors Guild board, every single board member. Here’s your list,” she said to the district reps, and she held up this tiny little packet. “And here’s your list,” she said to the New York board, and produced another small packet. “Here’s the Hollywood list.” and flashed a very large packet of credits.
Then she said, “And here’s Michael Bell.” And trying to lift it up, she said “Can someone help me with this?”
BELL: It took two people to hold up the printed copy of my IMDB credits. She said, “Look at this list. Can you believe this list? And you in the districts and New York want equal voting power?” It was really very, very funny.
TZN: You sure showed them.
BELL: Well, she showed them really. I was as surprised as everyone else. I never bothered to look at [my IMDB]. I mean I look at it, but I’m certainly not gonna download it. Imagine if they also listed my radio and TV commercials.
TZN: Right. I recognize your voice from the Parkay and Zales commercials especially.
BELL: Yeah. I’m not doing Zales any longer, but I do Peoples [Jewelers], which is Zales out of Canada.
TZN: And it’s pretty much the same job?
BELL: Same company, different country, yeah.
TZN: Let’s get right to your work on the Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show.
BELL: Sure. First of all, he was one of my favorite characters in comic books.
TZN: You read the Plastic Man comics?
BELL: Absolutely! I was a “comic book creepo.” I loved comic books. There was Plastic Man, the Sub-Mariner, and young Billy Batson who became… “Holy Moley!” Captain Marvel. Those were my faves. But I loved Plastic Man. I just thought he was so great. It was so amazing all the stuff he did. Really imaginative. So when I got cast in the series, I said, “This is fabulous! I’m playing my childhood hero.”
TZN: What was the first Plastic Man comic you have read? Do you remember?
BELL: I don’t recall. I used to imagine being Plas and doing all kinds of great stuff. Next to being invisible it was my favorite [super-power]: to be able to change my shape and stretch around and be paper thin, because that was like being invisible. And the stuff you could do. I could latch onto a plane and go wherever I wanted to go… stretch my head into someone else’s house and watch a girl get undressed…
TZN: (Laughter.) And the world is safe to know that you are not Plastic Man in real life…
BELL: Oh, the world is real safe. Let me tell you. (Laughter.) You know, I gotta tell you: I’ll never forgive my mother for throwing away my comics. All moms [at that time] would go, “Okay, that’s enough of this crap, time for homework!” As I got older, she eventually tossed them along with my Eisenhower jacket. So every now and then I had to b!+¢#-slap her (when she was sleeping).
TZN: (Laughter.) I can’t believe I’m laughing at that. Back to the Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, I know it’s been 30 years since the show was on the air.
TZN: So I realize it’s a long time to think back, but do you recall how the role of Plastic Man came to you?
BELL: Yeah. I think Joe Ruby and Ken Spears approached me on it, because I worked with them before on another show, The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy. [Ruby and Spears are] good guys. Really great guys. They said, “We think you’d be right for Plastic Man.”
TZN: So you didn’t have to audition for the role?
BELL: I don’t recall auditioning for it, but I may have. I think it was my ears that convinced them.
TZN: (Laughter.) How did you approach playing the character?
BELL: I tried several different approaches. At that time, Don Adams was very successful with Get Smart — so [the director] said, “Can you do the Get Smart character [Agent 86]?” And that’s what I ended up doing. It was that kind of clipped phrasing.
TZN: I know you’ve done a variety of different voices over the years. I find it interesting that Plastic Man’s voice sounds like you in “real life.”
BELL: Yeah. There are [other] characters that sound most like me. They are the easiest to do. [Playing Plas] was just a matter of adding a little bit of a squeeze here and there and phrasing [your lines].
TZN: Of course, you had also done a multitude of voices on the show.
BELL: Right. [The producers] said, “Okay, this is going to be a show with ‘visiting guests’, but we don’t have major bucks. Can you do other characters? Bystanders? Bad guys? Occasional dogs, etc.?” And I said, “Sure.” So I wound up doing all those guest characters, and Ruby Spears really let me play! Unlike [animated shows] today, they let me go the distance. I had the most fun because I had so many heavies to do that I had to keep changing [my voice]. I did some lame impressions, i.e. [Jack] Palance, [Rod] Steiger, etc., and all the other big heavies I could muster up in that period. It was really great fun and a chance to stretch (no pun intended).
TZN: When I watched the show when it first aired, I couldn’t tell that you — as well as your co-stars Melendy Britt (Penny, The Chief) and Joe Baker (Bad Luck Hula) — had been playing double, triple, and quadruple duty on the show.
BELL: Well, that’s great! That’s the best thing I can hear. I love it.
TZN: Well, I managed to see the show again in the 1990s when Cartoon Network reran the Plastic Man adventures. I’d listen to a bystander voice and say to myself, “Well, maybe Michael Bell did that role.” Or, “That guy sounded like Duke from G.I. Joe, so he definitely voiced him…”
BELL: Well, you know, you run into yourself. You literally do. I mean, the way I did shows at that time, one show after another. It was kind of like old radio. Olan Soule and Herb Ellis, who were famous even when I was a kid listening to radio, would run from one radio studio to another. NBC to CBS and back. I mean, no one was under contract [with a station], so they did many shows often in the same day — from The Green Hornet to Nero Wolfe to Dragnet to Batman to Superman to Archie Andrews. All those different shows, and they played many different characters. So eventually you would see yourself coming and going.
BELL: So when I wound up doing G.I. Joe and Transformers and The Inhumanoids and Thundarr the Barbarian and The Smurfs… Oh, boy! I was creating [voices] on the run. I was driving in my car creating totally different voices so somebody wouldn’t say, (mimicking) “Wait a minute! That sounded an awful lot like…” You really had to reach.
TZN: You literally had to stretch yourself for the role (my pun was most likely intended).
BELL: Constantly. With voices, you were always imposed to create approaches to similar characters. You pulled from your family, from regions, character actors, etc. Example: If you had a rural character to portray, you might figure, “Who would do this? Chill Wills? Walter Brennan?” You would think of what actor would possibly be cast in this [role] if this was an on-camera gig, and you would try doing that voice.
TZN: You definitely had the talent to pull that off.
BELL: I worked at it day and night and on the weekend. You always worked at it. I mean, sitting around, you always listen to people. I call it vocalbating. As actors in a session, we’d often be sitting around vocalbating, just talking to each other, and every now and then tell a joke or a story. That was when we would employ voices for all the characters. You would also shamelessly pick up tricks from other actors (which is still being done). I remember when I was asked to play a John Wayne-type character.” I’d never tried to do Wayne, but one of my friends used to do him beautifully. I figured I would do do his impression of Wayne.” So I pulled that out, held my breath, and the director said, “Yeah, yeah. Do that.”
And then years later it was Clint Eastwood, which of course is just whispering (mimicking Clint Eastwood) while keeping your teeth closed. (In normal voice) And not modulating too much. Not too much acting. Just a straight whisper. And then Jack Palance. There’s a lot of heavy breathing involved with recreating Palance. You have to breathe in through your teeth and sound menacing. So that always worked for me. There are some really talented people in the VO business to emulate and learn from.
TZN: Getting back to Plastic Man, I believe that, back in the late 1970s, it took about a year from voice recording to the airing of an episode.
BELL: To get it done, yeah.
TZN: So, how much production artwork had you seen before you did the initial recording? Did you have an idea of how your character was going to look, for example?
BELL: Oh, yeah. [The producers] gave us drawings of character prototypes. And we got to see the storyboards to get the general idea [of the story], because you have to know why you are straining and screaming and falling, etc. It’s not in the taping script, so the storyboard helps.
TZN: The storyboard must have also given you an idea of the overall look of the show.
BELL: To some degree, yes. Absolutely. And we didn’t have the script for a long time. I don’t recall getting the script in advance. Eventually we get them in advance for other shows, but more often than not, throughout the bulk of my career, you went to the studio, you sat down, and you were given the script. You do one table read, and then you went in front of the mike.
TZN: So you had no idea what you needed to have Plastic Man do when you entered the studio.
TZN: What was your first reaction to actually seeing Plastic Man animated on the television screen?
BELL: I absolutely loved it. Boy, it was a mini-dream come true. Seeing myself representing the character at least to some degree — because you have to give a great deal of credit to the artists and the creative team that put [the show] together — to see myself as part of that team was very, very exciting. I imagined — and I don’t know, I really can’t say — but I imagined that film stars who played iconic characters must have said, “Wow, I got to play that.” Whether it was [Jack] Nicholson or the late Heath Ledger [portraying the Joker], or the actors who played Batman, or Wonder Woman, etc. — you get to play an iconic character and it’s you up there [on (or off) the screen]. And that’s how I felt about [being on] the Plastic Man show.
TZN: I know it’s been a long time, but do you remember if you had a favorite Plastic Man episode or scene from the show?
BELL: You know, I don’t recall.
TZN: I understand. I saw it as a teen myself. Before Cartoon Network re-aired the episodes in the 1990s, I only remembered bits and pieces, like the scene when Plas got stuck in a taffy machine, or…
TZN: Or fought the guy dressed like a giant carrot. Or was changed into a fly. Little unexpected moments that were so unique.
BELL: Absolutely. But I don’t recall. You know, I was thinking about this not too long ago. When an actor does a show, that show becomes their life, and they have great memories of it. I did so many [different roles and shows]. In a really bizarre and dark analogy, it’s kinda like a porno king who has had several hundred different women he’s been in films with. You can’t ask him, “Well, how was Samantha Fox?” “Samantha who?”
TZN: (Laughter.) Right. I understand completely, with all of the voice-acting roles you have done, and it has been 20 years.
BELL: I don’t even remember the segments. I just have visions of myself standing there with Joe and Melendy and doing [the voices] and enjoying it. Every now and then, something flashes by and I see a segment here or envision a character there. But that’s pretty much it. Of course when I watch the show, then I could turn to you and say, “Oh yeah, I recall that.”
I’m just sorry that my voice has changed so much. It’s softer now, so I won’t be available for the adult film version [of Plastic Man].
TZN: (Laughter.) Seriously, though, there were plans to bring Plastic Man to the silver screen in a live-action feature. The Wachowski Brothers wrote a script way back in 1995 (with Paul Reubens considered for the role).
BELL: I know Paul, and as funny as he is, he’s wrong for it. Actually, Ryan Reynolds would be super. I’m sure they’ll do [a] Plastic Man [film eventually]. They are doing all of the iconic characters. I mean, everybody short of Little Lulu will wind up on screen.
TZN: I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Little Lulu movie.
BELL: I sure eventually they will. And I’m sure they’ll cast Whoopi Goldberg in the role. Totally CGI and the voice of Whoopi Goldberg. And everybody will go, “Now why did they do that?”
TZN: Well, see, you can play Plastic Man, then, because Plas would be pure CGI.
BELL: Oh yeah. Absolutely! You know, what I would love to do is to play a role in the film that was a bad guy, or one of the heavies, or even the head of the CIA or something. So that, when the credits came up, and it said “Michael Bell as…”, the fans would say, “Holy $#!+! That was the voice of Plastic Man! We saw him on camera!”
TZN: (Laughter.) I think the first time I saw you on camera, and actually knew it was you, was on the Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere.
TZN: And I’m sure I’ve seen those Ironsides and other shows you were on.
BELL: Oh, I’m sure you did. M*A*S*H and Star Trek and Get Smart. I also did two segments of Three’s Company.
TZN: I’m sure they’re on DVD somewhere.
BELL: Oh sure. They’re out there. I’m not getting a dime for them, but they’re all out there.
TZN: Will that be the same for the Plastic Man DVD?
BELL: Well, I should make enough to buy a Mallomar. There’s not a tremendous form of residuals for DVDs. Unless it sells like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, then I’ll really make some bucks… and I’ll have my ears done.
TZN: (Laughter.) Maybe you should buy a few copies, autograph them, and sell them on eBay.
BELL: Yeah, I guess I could do that. Or, at the next Comic Con, people can bring the pack to me and I’ll charge them 20 bucks to sign my name. It’s more money than I would make [from a residual]. (Laughter). [Fans] can take a photo with me as well. In fact, I’ll wear the outfit. It just sags a bit here and there.
TZN: The Plastic Man outfit?
BELL: Yeah, I got the outfit. I usually wear it on my wedding anniversary. [My wife] loves it. It frightens the cats, though. They won’t come out of the closet — which is unusual for Hollywood cats.
TZN: (Laughter.) Since you also portrayed Zan the Wonder Twin and Gleek, you can also autograph the recent Super Friends DVD that came out in August, which are the so-called “lost” shorts that never aired in the U.S..
BELL: Those were my shorts. Shannon Farnon took them off me. It was a wonderful, wonderful session…
BELL: Did you know that Zan was the last voice heard at Hanna-Barbera before they closed down?
BELL: They called me in to do a promo for something. And I went into the booth, and the place was pretty clean. They couldn’t find Liberty Williams, who played the original Jayna. Liberty’s living out here now, but they didn’t know how to reach her at the time. So they brought a young girl in [to play Jayna], and she was pretty good. [When we were done, the directors] went, “Okay, wrap it up.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And they said, “That’s it. Last voice heard at Hanna-Barbera.”
BELL: Then [Hanna-Barbera] closed the studio. So I called up Frank Welker and I said, (mock-smug) “F#¢* you, Frank! I was the last voice [at Hanna-Barbera]! Not you. It was me!”
TZN: (Laughter.) I take it he laughed as hard as I am now.
BELL: Oh, he did. You know, Frank and I are friends. Frank got back at me though. He turned down a movie [called Race to Space] to do the voice of the chimps. He said [to the casting agent], “Why don’t you ask Michael Bell?” So my agent said to me, “Well, Frank doesn’t want to do it. Do you want to do it?” And I said, “Sure, I’m a voice slut. I’ll do it.”
BELL: I lost my voice doing every chimp in the movie!
TZN: Oh my gosh.
BELL: Yeah. It was revenge. But I got him back recently.
TZN: Getting back to Plastic Man, are there any “in-house stories” you can share?
BELL: When we do voice overs, there’s not a lot to talk about, because you are not moving. You’re in front of a mic. There’s not a great deal happening. It wasn’t as if somebody hit the mic by mistake and it landed on my head and put me in the hospital. None of that occurs.
TZN: No, but I’m sure there were memorable bloopers or funny situations during a recording session. When I interviewed Shannon Farnon, she told me that you were absolutely hilarious on several outtakes on the Super Friends show.
BELL: Well, that’s because I had to work naked.
BELL: I usually let [Shannon] spread the butter and rice on me, and then I get in front of the mic.
BELL: Yeah, I think I was kind of wacky. I think some people followed in my wake at being crazy. I guess that was part of my personality, to loosen everybody up, and myself at the same time. Someone once said to me that I “didn’t have an unexpressed thought.”
TZN: (Laughter.) That almost sounds dangerous.
BELL: It was dangerous, and sometimes I’d get in trouble. But more often than not, I managed to get out unscathed.
TZN: I’m sure you threw a few zingers during a Plastic Man recording session.
BELL: Oh, I’m sure I did. I mean there was just no way I could keep it going straight for long without poppin’ on something. I’m sure at one point [Melendy, as Penny,] said “Oh, Plas.” And I’m like, “Was it good for you, honey?” or something like that. I’m sure to throw something in. Every now and then, Joe would fall over the mic, and then say, (mimicking Joe Baker) “C’mon. Let’s get goin’!” And then I would have to get back in stride.
TZN: And that was just the mild humor.
BELL: Just the mild humor. There has got to be a blue tape of Plastic Man around. I doubt very seriously that it will ever be released.
TZN: (Laughter.) Let’s talk about the style of comedy for Plastic Man, which was fairly unique at the time. You mentioned how your portrayal of the character is based on Don Adams from Get Smart, and I remember scenes and dialogue on Plastic Man that paid homage to that show. For example, there was a scene (in “The Horrible Half-Ape”) where Hula is accepting phone calls in a hotel from various contacts under different aliases, and the same bellhop is bringing him the phones, going, “I thought your name was…”. That was based on a similar scene from a Get Smart episode (“A Man Called Smart, part 1″).
BELL: That’s right. [The producers and writers] were actually able to do that. You just brought that back to my mind. Yeah. Absolutely.
TZN: To be honest, I saw that scene on Plastic Man first then saw that syndicated episode of Get Smart, and I thought, “Oh, they stole that bit from Plastic Man…”
BELL: Oh no, no, no. (Laughter.) I doubt anybody said (mimicking), “Waitaminnit! I’m watching Plastic Man and this would be great for our show!” (Laughter.) I can’t imagine that happening.
TZN: (Laughter.) Right. Plastic Man also paid homage to Three Stooges routines
BELL: I don’t know if it registered or whether anybody thought it was a breakthrough here, but [Plastic Man] was much more “adult” in many ways than other shows that the kids were watching [at the time].
TZN: I’ve noticed that cartoons over time have become more sophisticated and more adult, even though they are claiming to target young kids.
BELL: Well, cartoons are becoming more outrageous and over-the-top. Some of it works and a lot of it doesn’t. There have been some animated shows that were hip and funny. I don’t know. I don’t watch animated shows at this point in my life. I don’t bother. I don’t even watch the anime shows that I sometimes re-voice.
TZN: You used to watch cartoons when you were doing the voice-overs?
BELL: Yeah. I love to see my work. And I also like to see what else is going on. I was so ambitious. I had to see what everybody else was doing. Of course now I’ve [done voices for] interactive games. So I have to see some of those. I don’t really [play] interactive games however. Not dexterous enough.
TZN: Sounds like a good excuse to convince your wife to buy a video game player.
BELL: Right. But I got a Playstation 2 as a gift from a producer [after I worked on Legacy of Kain: Defiance]. I played Raziel, a vampire. She said, “Here, so you can play your character.” I was curious to see what Defiance looked like. But I couldn’t get to the movie segment because I couldn’t get through the game. I couldn’t get my character to jump a rock. I didn’t realize four hours had gone by. I said to myself, “I’ve been sitting here for four hours trying to get my friggin’ character to jump a rock?!”
BELL: So I shut it off and put the whole thing away.
TZN: The pains you have to go through to be able to see your finished work.
BELL: I just wanted to see what it was. The artwork was sensational! It was really super. But I never had a chance to see [the movie segments] until they were on YouTube.
TZN: But when you see the video on YouTube, you’re probably not seeing it in all its pixilated glory.
BELL: Absolutely right. And there are a lot of games and shows that I voiced that I have never seen. I did an Avatar [the Last Airbender] recently and never got a chance to see it. You know, I just don’t sit in front of a set and watch these things [anymore]. I’ve been watching the old Voltrons, which are kinda fun. And kinda silly. And when Plastic Man comes out [on DVD], I’m going to watch the old Plastic Mans. There was something special about that show. That’ll be fun.
TZN: The second season introduced the character of Baby Plas, the son of the now-married Plastic Man and Penny. Various websites credit actress Clare Peck as the voice of Baby Plas, but that was actually you, wasn’t it?
BELL: Yeah. [When the producers] said we’re gonna have Baby Plas, I said, “Okay, we’ll bring in a girl.” Because normally girls do the voices of babies [on cartoons]. And they said, “No, can you do Baby Plas?” And I thought, “Oh, wow.” I mean, everything in my body had already dropped; I wasn’t sure I was able to pull that out of my hat.
So I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” I wound up doing a kind of strange little voice that my friend Joanie Gerber had taught me years ago. It was kind of a: (as Baby Plas) “O-kay! What do we do nowww?” That voice was sharp and clear at the time. I did that voice, and [the producers] said, “You’re on!”
TZN: The Plastic Man/Baby Plas Super Comedy Show created a radical shift in the show format, with the “spy mission” stories being overshadowed and eventually replaced by adventures of Baby Plas and the “Plastic Family”. That season also did away with what I thought was one of the most charming running gags of the first season: where Penny was constantly pining for Plas, who only had eyes for the Chief.
BELL: Don’t have a memory of it. You could be sitting here talking to some guy from the motion picture home.
TZN: Well, it seemed pretty sudden for this viewer that Plas was married to Penny.
BELL: You know, I think at that point I made jokes about that. I said, “Are we gonna do a scene on their honeymoon?” And the response was a caustic “No, we’re not, Mike. Let’s just continue with the script.” “But I just have these great things that he could do…” And they, more sternly, repeat, “Yes. We got it, Mike. Let’s just move on.” And then I said, “And right after the honeymoon, they find her dead!”
BELL: Because there is no way you would be able to stop him. Y’know, kinda like Superman. I mean, what do you do to protect [Penny]? And the director finally blew, “We got it, Mike! We got it! Let’s just move on!”
TZN: (Laughter.) Well at least you are approaching this situation very analytically.
BELL: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I looked at it for the truth, as an actor who studied the Stanislavski Method, I was looking for the truth.
TZN: (Laughter.) You sound so earnest when you say that.
BELL: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I wanted Penny to say to Plas, “Okay you can stop now.” (As Plas) “No, I can’t!” (As Penny) “Wait a second. Ouch! That smarts!” (As Plas) “Happy, honey?”
TZN: With the extra role of Baby Plas, I take it you had to cut one of your “visiting character” roles.
BELL: Yeah, if I recall, we had a maximum of three voices per actor [per episode]. But we often did crowd scenes. We didn’t mind doing crowds. We didn’t mind voicing a heckler or a beggar, etc.
TZN: It didn’t really count as a voice?
BELL: It counted, but we always gave that to the producers. Because you had the role and you were the star, so you didn’t care.
TZN: That’s nice.
BELL: We were not going to push that. This was before we had a strike and demanded money for the third voice, which wound up being ten percent of scale. Because it was animation, [the producers] wound up getting three actors for the price of one, which put two other actors out of work. So at the very least you saved the company two other salaries. So we finally came to the conclusion that the least they could do is to give us some money for the second voice, which they refused to do. And then we asked for money for the third voice, and they just refused to do that too. And I was striking to get us ten percent of scale for the third voice. Plastic Man was way before that, so I wound up doing [all the voices] for one fee.
Sometimes it’s worth it [for the producers] to have the talent do the third voice at 10 percent of scale. Or, if it’s a really different voice, and they want really major separation, they’ll bring in a guest [actor]. But nowadays you have so many TV stars doing the leads that most of us [voice actors] who were playing the leads all those years are now brought in to do ancillary voices — workmen or a cowboy or whatever the hell it is — and the stars are getting a hell of a lot more compensation then we did or currently do.
TZN: That doesn’t seem right.
BELL: Yeah, we feel it’s wrong, but we’re in the minority. I don’t understand why they do it ’cause, quite frankly, from my point of view, I don’t think that a star is necessary. I don’t think they bring anything more to the project than a good actor — who most of us [voice actors] are — does, and for scale. I think it is unnecessary to have a star to do that, even for a Disney animation. I mean, [MGM] did a motion picture called Igor with nothing but stars doing voices, and it went into the toilet. So what was the value in that? Kids didn’t go [to watch an animated film] to see the stars. They are not interested in hearing Brad Pitt in an animated movie.
TZN: I’m sure it wasn’t the first, but Titan A.E. was the first animated movie that I recall having mostly major Hollywood stars in it, and it didn’t work for me.
BELL: It doesn’t work. I mean, if you have someone like Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams, yeah, it’s gonna work. Or John Lithgow, who’s marvelous, yes, absolutely. But… when I was doing Rugrats, we did the movie Rugrats in Paris, and there was no need to have Susan Sarandon play the French woman [Coco LaBouche]. She’s wonderful, but she was wrong for [the role]. There are a number of [voice] actresses that could have kicked more laughs out of it. They didn’t have to pay for Susan Sarandon. What was the purpose? What was the purpose of bringing in Whoopi Goldberg and David Spade to the first Rugrats movie? Or Bruce Willis as the voice of the dog [in Rugrats Go Wild]. There was no need for it. It could have been any wonderful actor.
TZN: Perhaps “big” stars were used to generate media buzz for the project.
BELL: It may be, but [the producers] also had to pay through the nose for it. You can’t get [stars to work] for scale. It doesn’t make any sense because the [Rugrats] product itself was [already] selling like crazy. Listen, we did the pilot for a [show] called Captain Planet years ago for DIC. And they brought in Neil Ross to play Captain Planet. And I played Looten Plunder in the series. Kath Soucie was in it, and Lynette Mettey played the “aura” or the “princess” or the “oracle” or whatever it was [named Gaia in the series]. We did the pilot, and then [the producers] decided, “Let’s bring in stars.” So they brought in Tom Cruise, his wife [at that time], and Whoopi Goldberg, and none of them [except Whoopi, who played Gaia] could do it after the first [episode], and [the producers] had to replace them all anyway. But they didn’t go with the original cast [from the pilot]. They did use Kath and they may have used one other person, but they certainly didn’t go with Neil or myself or any of the other people. They used David Coburn [for Captain Planet]. James Coburn came in to replace me. I mean, What are they using stars for? It’s dumb! What was the purpose? There are a lot of VO actors out there and this is our only source of revenue. I used to joke about that. When somebody said to me, “I heard that Tom Cruise took the place of Neil for Captain Planet”, I said, “Yeah, and I don’t understand it. You know, they offered me Born on the Fourth of July and I said, ‘I don’t do that! Give it to Tom Cruise!’”
BELL: I was up in arms about it for a long time. I finally gave up the fight. If they ever do Plastic Man today, trust me, they’ll get some young star to play him. Like “Chad somebody” or “Chance somebody.”
TZN: Getting back to your Plastic Man show, did you ever have a preference between the “spy mission” stories of season one and the Baby Plas/Plastic Family format of season two?
BELL: Y’know, never having really seen them together or watching them, I’m not sure I had that kind of finite concept. It was, “Whatever Charlie [Nichols (director)] asked for.” Whatever the guy wanted, I did. It never occurred to me that there was a difference in concept, because you think of it as a kid’s show. Unless it becomes so radically odd and so strange, unless the artwork is so different, and the stories are so skewed, then you go, “Well, I think you fixed something that wasn’t broken.” I’m not sure if there was a problem. I’m just sorry it didn’t go for ten years.
TZN: I noticed that Joe Baker’s character of Bad Luck Hula wasn’t featured as prominently in the second season, but given the “triple-voice” duty, was he still involved with the show?
BELL: He probably was. I thought he was in there. But I guess he… I think he called me every now and then and he’d say “God, my character’s not in there.” And I said, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Joe was a really sweet man. So charming. A very dear guy. He looked like the character [Bad Luck Hula] and was really funny.
TZN: It’s too bad that his character was essentially written out of the show.
BELL: I used to joke about that when I was doing G.I. Joe. B.J. Ward played Scarlett, and after about a season, I noticed that B.J. wasn’t back [in the recording studio] a lot. She’d come back every now and then. She said, “Well, I haven’t been in a lot of scripts.” And I said, “‘I think it’s because your doll isn’t selling.’”
BELL: Everybody broke up and we all fell on the floor. We all laughed because it was so funny that all of our careers were predicated on whether our dolls sold.
TZN: That was at the time when cartoons were based on toy lines and the show served as a marketing tool.
BELL: That’s right. I don’t think there was such a thing for Plastic Man. Wouldn’t that have been great. Especially if they came up with the kind of material that you could stretch.
TZN: Yeah, they had Stretch Armstrongs at the time, and I’ve heard stories from fans that would take a red permanent marker and draw Plas’s costume on a Stretch Armstrong figure.
BELL: I think a real stretch Plastic Man [toy] would have been sensational. But what do I know? And unlike my friends on The Simpsons, I never got any merchandising money anyway. So, what do I care?
[Note: Xum discovered that the Mego Corporation actually released an "Elastic Plastic Man" figure in 1979 as part of their "Elastic Heroes" line. This figure was extremely rare because Mego made a short production run right at the time when they lost a lawsuit from Kenner (maker of the Stretch Armstrong), which resulted in Mego being ordered to remove and destroy any unsold "Elastic Heroes" figures.]
TZN: Can you tell me what you liked best about working on the Plastic Man show?
BELL: Hard to say. Just working, you know. I think possibly in the final analysis, being able to play all of those characters. I was kinda like the… do you remember Wild Wild West, the series?
BELL: I was kinda like the Ross Martin [Artemus Gordon] of animation. I got to do all of those different characters. I didn’t know anybody that was doing all of the characters in their show, plus playing old ladies, if necessary.
TZN: Can you tell me what you liked least?
BELL: I don’t think there was anything I liked least. Quite frankly. It was all good. It was all one big Foster’s banana split. Loved it.
TZN: Thank you very much for your time.
BELL: My pleasure.
TZN: Are there any current projects you’d like to plug before I let you go? Are there any commercials out there where we can listen for you?
BELL: No commercial voice overs other than Peoples. I don’t do a hell of a lot of commercials anymore. There are a lot of young tigers out there. A lot of young talented turks pushing their way up. And some of the people I used to run alongside of that were younger than me, and are still working. And that’s fine with me. I’m okay with that. It’s always nice to have ancillary money coming in, but I’m pretty well set at this point.
I still do video games. I just finished the latest Ratchet and Clank, and I’ve got a lot of other games coming as well as ADR. I’m called in every now and then to do the voice of a character in a movie that needs to be replaced. I just did some looping for a Wes Craven film, and looping for The Astronaut’s Wife. I keep pretty busy doing that.
I also teach voice animation. I did a two-day seminar with Lynneanne Zager, who is one of the top queens of ADR and a major VO artist. We did the seminar out at RH Factor, a studio out in the Valley. It’s a good class. I work basically with actors, but every now and then we bring in somebody who may not have had a lot of background and get them started.
TZN: Someone who has a good voice?
BELL: It’s even more than a good voice. Because having a good voice really isn’t enough. Everyone has got a good voice. You know, back in the old days they said a good voice was a deep, resonant, powerful sound. It doesn’t make a difference anymore. No matter what your voice is, now it’s, “You got good acting chops? You got a chance at work.”
But what I am doing now is very exciting, I’m directing as well as voicing Graphic Motion Comics. The latest is called Sparks. [Catastrophic Comics] put out our second one, Sparks Part 2. William Katt is one of the producers along with Chris Folino, who is a producer/director I had met a couple of years ago. He wrote, produced and directed a film called Gamers. Which you might want to see. If you were ever into “Dungeons and Dragons,” you will absolutely love it. Wear Pampers when you watch it because you’ll wet yourself. It’s so funny.
I’ve directed the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth episode of the Sparks series. And I play one of the heavies. We got Michael Paré as the voice of Sparks, and Charlie Brill, who is one of the top VO people out here, and Courtenay Taylor, another major VO person. And my daughter, Ashley, whose career has been taking off in all directions. She just completed a film in Louisiana. A lot of top talent is involved, including the really marvelous animation and sound people. [Sparks is] just absolutely amazing. It’s very dark, and wa-a-a-a-ay too sexy for kids. This can be downloaded to your iPod Touch and your iPhone.
TZN: The motion comics I’ve seen usually take the existing comic book artwork and cut it into pieces so when it’s “animated,” it looks like a bunch of 2D paper marionettes.
BELL: Right. Exactly. However, Sparks goes much further. We have lips syncing, background movement, and more. If you download Sparks, you’ll see.
[Catastrophic Comics] will be releasing up to six [episodes] and then they will be doing The Mythology Wars, which is another approach to the graphic motion comic. I’ve also just finished directing the first episode of BOOM! Studio’s Irredeemable graphic motion comic, with more [episodes] to come.
TZN: That all sounds great. Before we “sign off,” I know you have a seminar that people pay for, but can you offer a little free advice for aspiring voice actors and actresses?
BELL: Just to take improv classes. To study at the Groundlings, which is a wonderful little improv class out here. To study to be actors. It’s very, very important to be an actor. And if you don’t have one, try to develop a funny bone. And also to plagiarize, “don’t shade your eyes, that’s why God made your eyes.” If you hear something you like, plagiarize it. It’s bound to sound a little different coming out of you, anyway.
You can check out Michael Bell’s performance as Plastic Man on DVD in Plastic Man: The Complete Collection, which will be available in stores on October 20, 2009. You can also purchase Sparks and Sparks Part 2 right now for 99 cents each at the iTunes Store (keywords: “Sparks,” “Catastrophic Comics”).