Being Patrick Star: Toonzone Interviews Bill Fagerbakke on "SpongeBob SquarePants"
Bill Fagerbakke has managed to land not one but two incredibly iconic supporting roles in his long acting career: first as the loveable but dim Dauber in the sitcom Coach, and then as the equally loveable and possibly even dimmer Patrick Star in Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants. The 6-foot-6 Fagerbakke started college at the University of Idaho in Moscow in the football program, but a knee injury ended his athletic career after his sophomore season. The football department’s loss was the theater department’s gain, as Fagerbakke became a theater major, and went on to multiple roles on stage and screen. In addition to Dauber and Patrick, Fagerbakke can be seen in HBO’s Oz as Officer Karl Metzger, and has a recurring role as Marvin Eriksen, Sr., in the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. He has also earned accolades from the Juilliard School of Performing Arts for roles as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
In conjunction with the new SpongeBob SquarePants episode “SpongeBob, You’re Fired!”, Toonzone got to speak with Bill Fagerbakke over the phone, where his thoughtful, considered answers quickly revealed him to be the exact polar opposite of many of the characters he plays on TV.
TOONZONE NEWS: The first question I have for you is a clarification on how you got into acting. Do I understand that there was a crush on a girl involved in this, or was that high school?
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Oh, that was in high school. I did a couple of plays and musicals in high school but that was just because I had a crush on a girl.
TOONZONE NEWS: Going from football to theater isn’t a jump I would have expected. What drew you to theater in college?
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Well, theater in college was a direct result of a fellow named Chris Bieter. He had also quit football, and we used to sing top 40 in the showers and drive everyone nuts. So he had also quit and I ran into him the semester immediately after I quit, which was the fall of ’77, and he said, “Hey, they’re doing a musical here, we should go and try out.” And I didn’t even know they had a theater. I just went and tried out for the musical and got in…we both got in actually, and (laughs) it was great. About the second week of rehearsal, I just went, “This is AWESOME! I’m going to give this a shot.” Chris Bieter is now a judge in Boise, Idaho, and I see him every couple of years and I always thank him for that rousing offer (laughs).
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Absolutely. And I had been singing since high school. That was one of the things that made it easy in high school in shows, was that I was in choir because I liked to sing. I always enjoyed choral music and singing, so it was always sort of my weird sidebar when I was primarily defined as a jock, I guess.
TOONZONE NEWS: Would you say that your experience in football helped you in getting that theater degree? Do you find that there’s a lot of crossover between those two skill sets?
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Absolutely. It really is the foundation of the approach I take in all elements of my job, whether it’s voice work or on-camera work or doing theater. The immersion into teamwork, and into the ensemble focus, to take the focus off yourself and really lend yourself to what is best for the ensemble. It’s such a key part of theater, and I just extrapolate it into camera and voice work and stuff. I’m always looking to do what’s best for the project, and asking what can I do to make this better and to support my fellow players in telling the story, but that absolutely enhanced my approach to work. Also, the one thing that struck me immediately was that the discipline of practice is very much also the same dynamic. So I think that there are enormous similarities. For all the aches and pains I have from my very brief football career, I am very grateful for the disciplines and perspectives that I picked up when I engaged in that stuff.
TOONZONE NEWS: What drew you to doing voiceover work?
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Mostly just opportunity. Having a background in choral music, I always had an interest in the voice and what happens with your voice, and I certainly always enjoyed cartoons when I was a kid. But it was actually kind of strange. I was doing Coach and it was in its third or fourth year, and my agent calls me and says, “Hey, we just got a breakdown, they’re trying to do a voice in this cartoon, and they want the character, who is a dog…in the breakdown they want him to sound like Dauber from Coach,” and she said, “You should go in.” And I said, “OK, fine, but what if I don’t get it? Wouldn’t that be depressing?” But I wound up getting it. That was Beethoven. I think we only did one season of that. It was a half-hour Saturday morning cartoon based on the movies about the St. Bernard. Joel Murray played Beethoven, and a couple of other interesing actors were in there. So that was my initial foray into the field, and I had a great time, and it just kind of led to other opportunities in TV animation. For me, it’s almost been exclusively television animation. A couple of features here and there.
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Yeah, Steve Hillenburg actually played for me a portion of Tom’s performance as the character, and they were looking for a counterpoint. And I do the big dumb stuff. That’s my deal…that’s what I do, Ed (laughs). It was such a neat experience. Typically, when you audition for any kind of voiceover stuff, you’re in a studio, but as I remember it, this was, like, in a weird conference room somewhere, and he had one of those little old cassette decks that’s about half the size of a shoebox, and there was something so endearing about it.
Steve is such a lovely guy, and I had absolutely no feeling for the material whatsoever. I was just going in for another audition, and I had no idea what was in store there in terms of the remarkable visual wit and really the kind of endearing child-like humanity in the show. I couldn’t pick that up from the audition material at all. I was just kind of perfunctorially trying to give the guy what he wanted. Just trying to find some tone that seemed appropriate. I didn’t have it initially, even when we did the pilot. I remember seeing the pilot of Star Trek and in Leonard Nimoy’s performance, he didn’t have Spock yet. When you look at the pilot, he’s a little more excitable. It takes you a while sometimes to find a character, and when I watch the pilot for SpongeBob, I feel like I’m still looking for Patrick, a little bit.
TOONZONE NEWS: That’s interesting because I was going to ask if you’ve changed your approach to being Patrick over the years. I mean, on one level, Patrick isn’t really a very complex guy. Part of his appeal is that he’s kind of simple.
BILL FAGERBAKKE: I approach the performance of the character in much the same way I would do any kind of character. Whether you’re doing a run of a play or a long-run performance of an on-camera character, you’re always trying to find little nuances or little flickers of discovery and change, and when you have material that is always offering up new, weird, twisted (laughs)…just stuff where you can go somewhere new, that’s always exciting. I think that is revealed in the vocal performance, typically, and hopefully adds another little layer of something that makes the show enjoyable to watch. I consider that as an integral part of the job. The key thing is that the layers have to be germane. It can’t just be laid on to try and make it interesting. It has to be germane and something personal, coming at it from an acting perspective.
BILL FAGERBAKKE: (laughs) No, no, it’s not the same guy. He was a good guy, I wish him well wherever he is. No, Patrick is less of a specific person and to me, more just the essence of a 7-year old boy. It’s like a weird Peter Pan complex for me, I guess. I can plug into eternal youth whenever I go to work because I get to pretend I’m a kid (laughs) and just discover that, kind of, elixir of imagination and curiosity and openness, and all that stuff. That’s a real treat for me. I really enjoy that part of the job.
TOONZONE NEWS: You seem to split between voiceover and on-camera work. Do you do voiceover stuff other than the cartoons?
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Man, I can’t book a commercial to save my life, Ed. I just pretty much gave up auditioning for them (laughs). I don’t think I have that “narrator security” in my voice? I don’t know. I can’t examine it too much, just gives me a knot in my shoulder. Every once in a while I’ll audition for something that’s more character-y or goofy or, if you will, cartoon-y. I’ve done one commercial. It was some Internet thing for Farmer’s Insurance, and I played a pirate. So that was the only voiceover commercial I’ve ever done. I don’t look to that as a source of employment for me.
TOONZONE NEWS: Well, you know, pirate…Patrick. That feels right.
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Yeah, it felt pretty familiar (laughs). I did my best Mr. Krabs.
TOONZONE NEWS: What are your top audition tips for up-and-coming actors, either for voiceover work or for the live-action stuff, either on-camera or the theater?
BILL FAGERBAKKE: Well, an auditioning principle that is important to me is to try to have a level of preparation along with the vital sense of performance. I guess the single most important thing, for me, is to understand the material and what the material needs from you and how you can best realize that, to bring your own uniqueness to that. That’s probably as concise as I can make it.
BILL FAGERBAKKE: I hope to do another episode of How I Met Your Mother in December, and I’m looking at a sweet little recurring gig hopefully on a new series, where I’m going to get to play the brother of one of my oldest friends. Isn’t that cool? I’ve been friends with J.K. Simmons for…Lord, over 30 years. Very nice man, wonderful to watch his career bloom from the time he moved to New York. I believe he moved to New York the same year, but I had met him before in Montana, so it’s been great to see his career really take off because he’s so talented, and so versatile. What a lot of people don’t know about him is you would have trouble finding a better bass-baritone for musical theater. He’s got a phenomenal voice. But he’s doing a sitcom, I think it’s for NBC, and the working title at this point is Growing Up Fisher. He plays a blind attorney and it’s created by D.J. Nash. I hope to do…who knows, 2, 3, 4 episodes. That’ll start production in December. That’s really all I got that I can think of. There might be other things that I’ve done that I’ve tried to forget (laughs).
Toonzone would like to thank Bill Fagerbakke for taking the time to talk with us, and Katelyn Balach and the team at Nickelodeon PR for arranging the interview. “SpongeBob, You’re Fired!” premieres November 11, 2013, at 7:00 PM (ET/PT); check out details and a clip here.