Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Rob Paulsen began his acting career in front of the camera, yet in spite of (or perhaps because of) featured roles in Body Double and Stewardess School, he took advantage of the opportunity to shift gears and pursued a career in voice acting instead. This decision was fortuitous: Paulsen has become one of the most recognizable and popular figures in his field, voicing characters in some of the most famous cartoons of the past few decades, including Animaniacs, Pinky And The Brain, The Tick, and, perhaps most impressively, two different heroes on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: first Raphael, and now, in Nickelodeon’s new incarnation of the series, Donatello. He also frequently discusses voicework with other cartoon stars on his podcast, Talkin’ Toons.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1995)—“Raphael”
Rob Paulsen: A number of us—Townsend Coleman and myself, who became Michaelangelo and Raphael, respectively—were working on the animated version of Fraggle Rock with Stu Rosen, and Stu came into work one day and said, “Hey, so I’m casting this thing called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…” I was vaguely familiar with the comic, but not really. But Townsend and I, we went and read for it, along with Cam Clarke, Barry Gordon, and a bunch of other folks. We mixed and matched as far as who was voicing who. In fact, I remember when we got the job, at the first episode, nobody knew who was going to be which Turtle, so we just kind of said, “Well, why don’t you do this one, and why don’t you do that one?” And so on and so on, down the line. And then they hired Pat Fraley to be Krang, Renae Jacobs to be April, and James Avery, a.k.a. Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, to be Shredder. We all went in there and banged it around for a bit, and they said, “Okay, why don’t you guys stay with the Turtle voices you picked?” And that was it. [Laughs.]
We did five episodes that were paid for by Playmates, the toy company, and they were going to be done as kind of a weeklong miniseries during Christmas break. I don’t think they were hugely successful right out of the chute, but I think they decided there was at least enough interest to spring for eight more, so we ended up doing 13 total. Then they came back six months or a year later, and that’s when it really took off. It was just, “Hold on, baby!” It went crazy. We ended up doing over 190 episodes, which is a lot. So just a normal kind of audition, the kind where you get the job and say, “Well, let’s see what happens.” And now here we are, 25 years later, still talking about the Turtles. [Laughs.] Not bad.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012)—“Donatello”
RP: This was one of those things where I can only assume that the stars sort of aligned, because as you know, I did Raphael on the first batch and got a chance to be involved in the iconic show that it turned out to be. I’d heard through the grapevine that Viacom had purchased the Turtles lock, stock, and turtle-van a couple or three years ago, and then two years ago, during the summer of 2010, I got a call from my agent to read for a new Ninja Turtles series. And my first reaction was, “Well, do they know who I am?” Not out of arrogance, but because there have been several iterations of Turtles that were done after our original show that had nothing to do with the original cast. Often, they would change casts from movie to movie. So I said, “Look, man, I’m happy to go read, but I want to make sure they know who I am, so I don’t get there and they say, ‘Oh, shit, he was Raphael on the first batch. Well, the old guy’s here, let’s throw him a bone.’” I just didn’t want to waste their time… or mine, frankly.
But she called back and said, “No, no, no, they know exactly who you are. They love Raphael, but they also love Pinky and Yakko and all that, and they know you won an Emmy, but… they think you would be right for their vision of what Donatello should be in their version of the show.” Of course, they’re all younger guys, but what’s cool about the show now is that it’s all being produced and created by fans, folks who grew up watching it when they were 10, 12 years old, and now they’re 30. So I went in and read, and—lo and behold—I got the gig. Which, as you can imagine, is an incredible thrill, to get another bite of this apple. You don’t often in your career get to work on another version of an iconic show. And my son said, “Man, you’re going to be the answer to a Jeopardy! question: Which goofball middle-aged actor has gotten to do two Ninja Turtles in his career?” [Laughs.]
So that’s how that came about. But man, it was such an incredible joy when I got a callback. I thought, “Well, man, I might be in the running for this!” Never in a million years would I think I’d ever get a crack at Turtles again. And to get a crack at it with a great cast—they’re lovely people, just like the guys in the old group. They’re already wonderful friends. Mae [Whitman] is adorable; the other guys are fantastic. Hoon Lee, who plays Splinter, is just incredible. Kevin Michael Richardson, I’ve worked with on many shows. And I’m working with Sean Astin now, and I worked with his dad, John Astin, on Taz-Mania and The Addams Family. So that’s pretty cool. To be able do this show with Viacom’s juice behind it is just… wow. So with all due respect to Lou Gehrig, I think I’m the luckiest guy on the face of the earth. [Hesitates.] But mainly because I know guys like Sean Astin.
Sean Astin: [Walks up to Paulsen.] Are you being asked actual questions for an actual interview?
The A.V. Club: Theoretically, anyway.
RP: He was just asking me, “What’s Sean Astin really like?”
SA: Oh, really. [Pointedly coughs loudly into the recorder.]
RP: That’s Rudy coughing into the recorder, ladies and gentlemen. [Laughs.] Seriously, I was literally just talking about working with your dad.
SA: Oh, yeah? Well, in that case, here’s a quote for you: Rob Paulsen has the perfect attitude to build a lifelong career in this industry. He loves everything, he loves everyone, he approaches his work with passion, and everybody loves him.
RP: God bless you, Sean-y. [Laughs.] How about that? That’s what I’m talking about: He and I have known each other for about a year now, since we started working on the show, and he’s just the nicest kid. He’s got a great attitude himself. And his mom and dad? Patty Duke and John Astin? Come on. And Jason [Biggs] is the same way. Biggs is just so… He’s got such a sarcastic, caustic, witty bent that’s hysterical to be around. And Greg Cipes is Michelangelo. I’m telling you, the guy was born to play the role. I mentioned Mae earlier, but I’ve actually known her since she was six months old, because I’ve known her mom, Pat Musick, who’s a very prolific voice actress. So this is a really great group. Plus, the show looks pretty goddamned cool, too! [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it difficult stepping into the voice of a different Turtle after all these years?
RP: You know, it was pretty effortless, because they still want Donatello to have sort of the brains of the outfit and create gadgets and stuff. Barry Gordon set such a high bar for doing that role years ago. The thing they want Donatello to have now is, he’s got a little more of an edge. He’s not just a nerdy guy who makes machines and tries to figure out global positioning systems. He’s still that, but he’s also a kick-ass brother. He also has this really interesting sort of romantic relationship with April, which is kind of cool. That’s right: an interspecies relationship. [Laughs.] I don’t know that it’s reciprocated by April, but Donny has a huge crush on her. I’m an actor, so it’s not supposed to be that difficult. Once I get the job, it’s supposed to be my job to be as good at it as I can be. And certainly it hasn’t been difficult. It’s been a real cool labor of love, and I like having an edge to Donatello. Before, Raphael had the edge, and he still does with Sean’s version of it, but now Donatello’s got more of an edge, too, so he can be butt-kicking. He gets short with his brothers when they try to hurry him along, and that type of thing. So there’s a comedic edge to all of us, which is really cool.
AVC: But what the world really wants to know is, are they aliens?
RP: [Laughs.] Not as far as I know. One of the things I think I’m most proud of, in regards to [executive producer] Ciro [Nieli] and his team, is that they respect the genesis of the show and the Turtles. Ciro’s really sharp, and you can really see his passion in the show and how much he and his team respect the mythology Kevin [Eastman] and Peter [Laird] created. That these guys were created out of this ooze, that they have this giant rat that mentors them… As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know what Paramount and Mr. Bay have in store for the movie; that’s their business. But man, the whole story of the Turtles is so bitchin’, anyway! I mean, it’s a very cool story, and we know that Krang and some of those guys are from Dimension X and all of that, but the Turtles? No, man, they were created from the ooze and the sewers, and they get to go up and find pizza for the first time, and it’s really neat getting to go through all of that again.
Taz-Mania (1991-1995)—“Timothy Platypus”
The Addams Family (1992-1993)—“Mr. Normanmeyer”
RP: I mentioned working with John Astin on Taz-Mania, but Maurice [LaMarche] and I worked on that show together, too, along with Dan Castellaneta. Fantastic. I told Sean-y this when I met him, but one of the great things about having a long career in this business is the people with whom I’ve gotten to work. On The Addams Family, Grandmama was Carol Channing, Uncle Fester was Rip Taylor, my wife in the show—Mrs. Normanmeyer—was Edie McClurg, and we had a child played by Dick Beals. He recently passed away, but was the voice of Speedy Alka Seltzer and Davy on Davey And Goliath. He was the same age as my parents, and he just passed away. So to be able to work on that show was just a huge thrill all around. But Sean’s dad answered every question I had about The Addams Family or anything else I wanted to know about his career. He was just delightful.
Body Double (1984)—“Cameraman”
RP: Oh, dear. [Laughs.] That is an interesting story, actually. My son was coming along, and I remember that my agent called me—I was still doing live-action stuff at that point—and said, “Hey, Brian De Palma wants you to come in and read for him.” And I said, “Wow! That’s pretty cool!” I don’t know how the hell he knew who I was, but I was happy to do that, because he had actually just come off of directing Scarface, and Scarface had a lot of press that was very… [Hesitates.] Not criticizing, really. I mean, the movie got pretty good notices, and it was a successful movie. But [De Palma] had gotten a lot of reviews that suggested that the violence of Scarface should’ve made it an X-rated movie. Mind you, this was 28 years ago, so the stuff that was considered racy or violent then was nothing compared to what it is now. I read an article in the L.A. Times where Brian De Palma said, “You know what? Screw those people. If they want an X-rated movie, I’ll give ’em one!” And that movie was Body Double.
I remember going to audition for Body Double, and I read for a different role, and when I went in, I read the part, and Brian said, “Put the script down, let’s just improvise.” And I’m comfortable with that, so we did. And by the time I got home, I had a message on my machine from my agent, saying, “Hey, Brian loved you! He doesn’t necessarily want you for the part he read you for, but he really loved you and wants to use you. It’ll be three or four days.” And I said, “Oh, great!” Mind you, I was in my late 20s at the time, Brian De Palma was a big deal, and it was a Columbia Pictures movie, his first movie after Scarface. So they just said, “Your call time is such and such, you’re going way down on Melrose, way past Hollywood. It’s Melrose and Heliotrope, it’s an abandoned warehouse, and you’re going to shoot your stuff there.”
So I drove down there, and they said, “Your scenes are going to be with Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith, the stars of the film.” And I remember Steve Burum was the director of photography, a very well-known and excellent DP, and, of course, De Palma’s there, too. Now, I knew that the movie had something to do with the adult-movie business, but I didn’t know that I was going to be involved in the parts that were directly involved in the adult-movie business. [Laughs.] But when I got down there, they just kind of handed me the script and said, “You’re this guy.” And then the guy that was playing the director in the adult movie was Al Israel, a really intense actor who got a lot of notices for being the chainsaw guy in Scarface. So I was already thinking, “Wow, this is really weird…” And then as I was getting ready to do my scenes, they brought Melanie and Craig in, and then they also had a bunch of extras who were real adult-movie actors, and… It was all just really bizarre for a young man from Flint, Michigan. [Laughs.] I mean, I’d already been out here for about five years or so by that point, but it was still pretty disconcerting. But I didn’t have the guts to say, “I can’t do this.” I don’t think it was purely discomfort. It was a little bit of consternation, but also going, “Wow, what the hell is going on here?”
So these folks were all in various stages of undress, and Melanie was very uncomfortable with all of the people there, so the only crew that were allowed on the set were the DP, Brian De Palma, and… that was it, actually. The rest of us were actors. And it was a very odd circumstance. They shot more than [they] ended up [using]. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. [Laughs.] I was on the movie for three days, and I remember coming home and telling my wife, “Wow, that was a bizarre experience. At least I know I’m making some diaper money, but it was pretty wild.” Luckily, I didn’t have to take off my clothes. Nobody’s going to want to see me naked, anyway. Trust me.
Years later, my son was about 16, he had a bunch of buddies over, and they were watching movies. I’d already gone to bed, and he came in and said [whispers loudly], “Hey, Dad!” He woke me up, and I said, “Yeah! You okay?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Uh… Were you in a movie called Body Double?” And I heard my wife immediately laugh. He and his buddies were watching Body Double, and they saw me. Then he said, “That was so cool!” I said, “It wasn’t really that cool, buddy, but…” [Laughs.] So it came back to haunt me. And it shows up every now and then in articles like this or whatever. But, hey, if you decide to be in show business or politics, your life is an open book. So I have no problem with people asking about it. I suppose it’s a left-handed compliment: When you achieve a certain modicum of celebrity—and I don’t consider myself a celebrity, but other people do—your past is available. Whether it hurts you or helps you, it’s all fair game.
Goof Troop (1992) / A Goofy Movie (1995) / An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000)—“P.J. Pete”
The Adventures Of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002-2006)—“Carl Wheezer”
RP: Oh, Goof Troop was great! An interesting thing about P.J. is that he’s this big, rotund kind of guy, and that voice became sort of the archetype for Carl Wheezer on Jimmy Neutron, albeit not quite so large. I had worked for Disney before on series like Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin, [Adventures Of The] Gummi Bears, and that kind of stuff, but that was, I think, the first show where I had a really meaty role. And I got to work with Jim Cummings, who played my dad, and Billy Farmer as Goofy. A great cast. And then Dana Hill played Goofy’s son, Max, at least in the TV series. As a matter of fact, this evening I’m going to get to hang with April Winchell, who played Peg, P.J.’s mother. April is also Paul Winchell’s daughter, not to mention just an incredibly gifted writer and actress, and one of my dearest friends in the world.
That was a great show and a great group. Just getting a chance to work with Billy Farmer, who’s just an iconic Disney character, but Dana Hill was a terrific actress, and I was a big fan. Several years earlier, she’d done a movie called Shoot The Moon with Albert Finney, and she was really great in that. Unfortunately, Dana was a diabetic, and she passed away as a result of a diabetic incident, so Jason Marsden ended up playing Max in the two movies, A Goofy Movie and An Extremely Goofy Movie. So, yeah, that was a great experience. Everyone was wonderful, and we’re all still friends to this day. I’ve had April and Bill and Jim and Jason on my podcast, so if we don’t still work together, we still hang out when we can.
AVC: The cast of An Extremely Goofy Movie is particularly interesting: in addition to Jason Marsden, you’ve got Pauly Shore, Bebe Neuwirth, Vicki Lewis, and Brad Garrett.
RP: Yeah! I just spoke to Brad two weeks ago. He and I are very close. Of course, he’s had his TV success, but he’s also got his own comedy club in the MGM Grand, which is where David Copperfield has his show. I’m working with [Copperfield] on some projects as well, and he became a buddy of mine through Brad, so there you go! [Laughs.] I get to work with these incredibly gifted people who are way bigger stars than I, and I just love it. I’m so grateful, because what’s really cool is that these guys all have a pile of money, but they’re all looking for… Copperfield is legendary, he’s iconic, and yet the guy’s always looking for the next cool illusion. He doesn’t need the money. And I love that. I love working with people who are driven to perform and improve their gigs, because I don’t count myself in their same category in terms of their celebrity, but I certainly do in terms of my drive. I’m always looking to try and do something cooler and different and not just say, “Okay, I’m fiftysomething years old now, I’m done, I’m just gonna relax.” I want to work until I die and try to keep coming up with new, cool stuff. So it’s really great fun to work with people who have achieved a certain level of success but don’t allow that to stop them from trying to better their gig or improve their gig. I love that.
The Tick (1994-1996)—“Arthur”
RP: Oh man! Another show I just loved. Ben Edlund was the creator of The Tick, but I didn’t really know Ben or his comic book. I knew it was kind of similar to Ninja Turtles, in that it was a well-known comic, sort of underground, but it had a pretty devout following. When I got hired on it, though, I read for it with a bunch of other actors, but my Ninja Turtles buddy Townsend Coleman—Michelangelo on the original show—was hired to do the voice of The Tick and I was hired to do the voice of Arthur. A few days before we were set to record, I got a call from the director, Sue Blu, and she said, “Sweetie, I hate to tell you this, but the producers decided they want to have a celebrity do Arthur.” And I said, “Oh, okay. That happens. It’s not the first time that’s happened to me.” “But they really want you, so they’re going to bring you in to do all of these ancillary characters. There are lots of bad guys and all these other wacky superheroes.” And they did, and I did most of the first season in that capacity. But I said, “So who’s the celebrity?” And she said, “Micky Dolenz.” I said, “Micky Dolenz?” I mean, I was a huge fan of the Monkees, but… Micky Dolenz? It turns out he did a good job, but I don’t know that that necessarily drew people to the show, y’know? But, anyway, my job isn’t to question. My job is to be grateful and show up.
So I worked with Micky, and that was cool, because, hey, I got to work with a Monkee. But after the first 13 episodes, Micky decided to go on the road with some theater show, so Sue came to me and said, “Micky’s leaving. We really would love for you to fill in and do the next season.” And I said, “I would love to, and that would be great, but if you wouldn’t mind, can we just have a gentleman’s agreement that, if he comes back, this is still my gig? Because I got it initially, and then you changed your mind, and you’re entitled to do that because this is show business. But just promise me that, unless I suck, I will be Arthur, even if he comes back. And she said, “Okay, we’re cool with that.” So I did the next 23 episodes over the next two seasons, and man, what a show. The people on that show… Ed Gilbert, who’s since passed away, the guys from the Firesign Theater came in, Jess Harnell and Maurice [LaMarche], Kay Lenz. And then getting to work with Ben! Just an incredible show, and one that still holds up. To this day, it still has a devout following. When I go to Comic-Con, people know the things for which I’m most known, like Animaniacs and Pinky and Turtles, but they find out about Arthur and they freak out all over again. [Laughs.]
New Kids On The Block (1990) / ProStars (1991) / Where’s Waldo? (1991)—Various characters
AVC: You must be very proud to be able to say you had a hand in New Kids On The Block’s animated series.
RP: Um… was I in that? [Laughs.] If I was, I don’t remember. I probably did it, though. You know, I’ve done over 2,000 half-hours, probably approaching 2,200 by now, but especially back then… There’s all sorts of things I did, like Jem. And ProStars, which was Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Bo Jackson, I did a few of those. There was a Where’s Waldo? cartoon, and I did a few of those, too. But I’d never be able to remember all of them. So, yeah, I probably did do a couple of nondescript thugs or goofball kids or something. I don’t remember it, but I won’t deny it, either. [Laughs.]
Jonny Quest (1986-1987)—“Hadji”
RP: Oh man, that was really cool. That was the first big show I got before Turtles. Like most people my age, I was a huge fan of Jonny Quest—it used to be a prime-time show on ABC in the mid-’60s—when I was probably 10 or 11. The first voice of Jonny Quest was Tim Matheson, and the original Hadji was a guy named Danny Bravo. But then there was a second iteration of the show at Hanna-Barbera in the mid-’80s, when I was just starting to do a lot of animation, and Gordon Hunt, who had hired me for a couple of things over there, brought me in to read for Hadji. I got the job. And for me, that was a big deal, because everybody knows who Hadji and Jonny Quest and Bandit and Race Bannon are. If they’re a fan of ’60s cartoons, anyway. So that was a big deal for me. I was basically matching Danny Bravo’s original voice. [Goes into his Hadji voice.] “Sim sim salabim! Careful, Race, it’s a pterodactyl!”
It was cool! And one of the things that was really cool about it was that the original voice of Dr. Quest, Don Messick, was the voice of Dr. Quest in our version, too. So man, I’m telling you, the first day I was recording for the show, as soon as Don Messick broke into his voice and said, “Come on, Jonny, we’re going to blah-blah-blah…” I was like, “Wow! That’s Dr. Quest!” [Laughs.] It was very cool. Don and I became very good friends and worked together on so many shows. He passed away years ago, but he was absolutely delightful. He was the voice of Boo-Boo and Papa Smurf and Scooby-Doo. I mean, come on. He was just amazing. Oh, and he was Hamton on Tiny Toons, too! So that was a very cool thing.
Scott Menville, who is now working every now and then with us on the new Ninja Turtles, I met him when he was 12, because he played Jonny Quest. And [Granville] Van Dusen was the voice of Race Bannon. We’re still buddies. But yeah, that was a big deal for me, because that was the first major recurring role I ever had. I’d done work on G.I. Joe and Transformers, and that was kind of recurring, but then I got this job where I was a regular and it was a semi-iconic role. Plus, it was a job where I was hired for a voice other than my own. I was getting quite a bit of work with my regular young-superhero voice, but that was the first one where I had to use kind of a dialect. So yeah, Jonny Quest was a big deal for me.
The Mask (1995-1997)—“Stanley Ipkiss / The Mask”
RP: Oh wow. That was right after the hit movie, and I was a big fan of Jim Carrey’s. Who wasn’t? So it was very flattering and a big vote of confidence to be hired, because it was a CBS network show. That was a big feather in my cap that the network would hire me to essentially be Jim Carrey on their show, albeit for a whole lot less money. [Laughs.] It was a great cast. I had a dog named Milo, and Frank Welker did his voice. Tress MacNeille played the manager of my apartment building. Tim Curry played the bad guy, Pretorius. Neil Ross was on it. It was great. And I got to sing the theme song! “The Mask Song” was written by Christopher Neal Nelson and Keith Baxter, two guys I’d worked with on Taz-Mania and a bunch of Warner Bros. stuff. Wonderful writers and composers. They were gonna hire Jack Sheldon, of “Conjunction Junction” fame, and he was gonna sing it, but I sang the demo. And Judy Price, who was the head of children’s programming at CBS, heard it and said, “God, Rob, that would be kind of cool to have the real actor sing it as well! You’re a pretty good singer!” I’d been a singer longer than I’d been an actor, and I guess they thought I did a good job, because they let me sing it! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the theme song, but it actually opens my podcast, which is really cool. It’s a great song. Lots of brass, very similar to the movie.
There was a little bit of difficulty at the beginning, though, and you can probably imagine this, but what was happening was because it was a hit movie, they wanted to keep this moving, so there were a lot of chiefs in the recording studio. Ginny McSwain, I believe, was our director, and I adore her. She was great, but then there were people from New Line Cinema, there were folks from the toy company, there were folks from CB. Of course, they all had their say. I’d record a couple of lines, and they’d say, “Okay, that was great, Rob, but, y’know, in the movie, what Jim does is…” That got to be a little bit disconcerting because it makes you nervous. I thought, “Well, they want me to be like Jim, but…” It wasn’t about ego; it was like, “How do I impersonate him?” Maybe the first couple of half-hours, that’s fine, but by the time we get rolling, if the show goes for a couple of seasons, we’ll be doing 26, 39, 52 half-hours. Jim only did 90 minutes or maybe two hours’ worth of The Mask. I can’t refer to him all the time! So when they said, “You said it like this, but Jim said it like this in the movie,” I mean, we’re gonna run out of source material!
I remember Tim Curry said, “God, you’re going to have to say something to them.” And I didn’t want to overstep my bounds and be a diva, but it was kind of difficult, because I was getting nervous. So I remember that, after about two or three episodes, I asked if I could speak to those guys before we recorded the next session, and I said, “Look, I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth, I feel very grateful and very flattered and humbled that you would ask me to do this, but you’re continually asking me to ‘do it like Jim,’ and once we get done with a certain amount of stuff, I will have his sensibilities, but once Jim puts on the mask, he becomes all these different characters, and that’s what’s going to happen in the subsequent episodes. So if I put on the mask and I become a pirate, Jim didn’t do that in the movie. Are you going to trust me with my own judgment? I expect you to direct me, but I don’t know how to handle this. Do you want me to put more money in the meter? Or maybe you’ve got the wrong actor. And that’s possible, too. But I just think that if you trust me, now that we’ve got some ground rules, I’ll be able to do the show justice.” And from then on, everything was fine.
We did three seasons, I think, and the network loved it. It was great. It was also a great learning experience for me. There comes a point when you can say, “Look, we need to talk about this,” from a very respectful standpoint. You don’t need to be an asshole. You don’t need to say, “Hey, wait a minute, goddammit, I don’t think you know who I am!” That’s not how I operate. I’m like, “Look, you mind if we talk about this for a minute? ’Cause I want to give you what you need, and I know that I can’t unless I have a certain amount of freedom. I also know that if I don’t give you what you need, then you’re going to fire me. So how do we work this out?” And that was the first time I had to kind of stand my ground, but in a very respectful way. I learned a lot. And I got to sing a network theme song. [Laughs.] That was cool!
Biker Mice From Mars (1993-1996, 2006-2007)—“Throttle”
AVC: So when you got the call to do Biker Mice From Mars, surely you got the impression that someone along the line had probably said, “Hey, if the guy can do a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle…”
RP: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, there’s no question that it was an unabashed… not a knockoff, but certainly sort of a mouse-themed homage to Turtles. And Rick Unger, who was the producer and creator of that show, along with a guy named Tom Tataranowicz, they called me in and they knew that I was on Turtles. I think part of what they were thinking was, “Jesus, man, if we’re even a quarter as successful as Turtles, we’re gonna make a pile of money!” And, yeah, I think Turtles opened the door for a lot of stuff, because that old adage about how work begets work is true. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily a better actor a month after I got Ninja Turtles than I was a month before, but when it became a hit, I was on a freaking huge show, and it opened a lot of doors. The cool thing was that Throttle sounds nothing like Raphael. And frankly, nothing like any of my other characters. It’s kind of my knock-off of a young Clint Eastwood. That was a cool thing for me, because I’d never been hired for anything like that before, where I was [Throttle voice] really doing kind of a badass like this. [Laughs.]
That was another one I did with Brad Garrett [who voiced Greasepit], and it was also with Ian Ziering [Vinnie], who was still on [Beverly Hills] 90210 and was very hot. Great guy, another one who became a good friend, but he also ended up bringing a bunch of his buddies on the show: Jennie Garth, Luke [Perry] and Jason [Priestley] were all on. Jason and I were already buddies, because we’d been playing hockey together for a while. Jess Harnell also came on that show. We did a few seasons, but then it took several years off, and when it came back, it was almost entirely the same group. Brad was doing [Everybody Loves] Raymond by then, so he wasn’t available. But Dorian Harewood [Modo] came back, who’s just a brilliant talent and now does all the network promos for NBC drama. What a wonderful actor. If you look him up on his IMDB page, he’s done a lot of great live-action stuff, too. So yeah, Dorian, Ian, and I all came back, and it was really cool. And there’s no question that it was a unique situation for an actor, because I’d been on Ninja Turtles, which was pretty iconic, and then I got a job on a show that was trying to ride on the coattails of that show. That was pretty wild.
By the way, quick Brad Garrett story that I should’ve mentioned earlier, but now I’ve got another chance to tell it: My parents were huge, huge Raymond fans, and they came to visit when that show was… I think they were in their last season, and I called Brad and said, “Hey, is there any chance that my mom and dad could come and see the show?” He said, “Sure!” And I’m telling you, he had my mom and dad on the front row, center—you’ll recall that it was filmed in front of a live audience—and he brought ’em down and they met everybody. Patty Heaton, Doris Roberts, Ray [Romano]… Everybody came out and was just really lovely and treated my parents like gold. There are a lot of lovely people in Hollywood, and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with and become friends with many of them.
Stewardess School (1986)—“Larry Falkwell”
AVC: Beyond Body Double, is there any other live-action experience in your filmography with a story worth telling?
RP: Well, I did a movie—again, this is years ago—called Stewardess School, which is an awful, awful movie. But, you know, no one sets out to make a bad movie. It was great because I got to work with people who I’d seen and enjoyed on TV. Donny Most was on that and we became buddies. I used to watch him on Happy Days. [Most played Ralph Malph on Happy Days. —ed.] And there was a beautiful girl named Mary Cadorette who was on the sequel show to Three’s Company, called Three’s A Crowd, with John Ritter. I just had an enormous crush on her. And Sherman Hemsley, God rest his soul, he was on it. And so was Judy Landers. She was just as cute as she could be. Very nice girl. And Brett Cullen, whom I just saw in The Dark Knight Rises. He had a very nice role in that. He and I became golf buddies. [Stewardess School] was a long, long time ago, but I played my character as just a prototypical screaming gay guy. My brother is gay, and he called me up after he saw the movie and said, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Yeah, I know.” He said, “You set me back 20 years with my friends!” Because my brother and his friends aren’t exactly mincing characters. But hey, man, my checks cleared for 12 weeks, and it was a great gig. I made some money, and it was a lot of fun. But an awful, awful movie. That’s another one that comes back to haunt me. [Laughs.]
But there’s also a very cool story that comes to mind with that one, too, and that’s that my mom came out to visit a bit while I was making it, and I got to take her to the set three or four times— and she and Sherman Hemsley sort of hit it off. As you can imagine, that was kind of a big deal for a nice middle-aged lady from Michigan. Because, I mean, it’s George Jefferson! And he could not have been nicer. That was my fondest memory of that experience. Sherman would show up on the set, and—my mother’s name was Lee—he would show up on the set and go [Sherman Hemsley impression], “Where’s Lee at? Where’s my girlfriend? Lee! Lemme get you some coffee, baby!” And she was so enamored by the fact that he was so sweet to her. Sherman has passed away, but he was just delightful to my mom, and I’ll never forget it. An awful movie, but what a great memory.
Fish Police (1992)—“Richie”
Capitol Critters (1992-1995)—Various characters
The Blues Brothers Animated Series (1997)—“Benny Fingers”
AVC: During the ’90s, every network that wasn’t Fox wanted to try and reproduce the success of The Simpsons with its own prime-time animated series. They all failed, but you still ended up getting a fair amount of work out of it all. Did you have a sense that any of them might be the next Simpsons?
RP: Yeah, I didn’t think any of them would. [Laughs.] Capitol Critters, that was a Steven Bochco show, so they gave that one a crack for obvious reasons. I mean, he’s Steven Bochco. Fish Police… I think Charlie Schlatter was on that. I only did a few of them. The Blues Brothers, though, that was a mess. I think it was because of the producer. I forgot the guy’s name. [Greg Antonacci was the creator. —ed]. I thought he was kind of a dope. It was cool, because I got to work with Jim Belushi and Peter Aykroyd and Mark Hamill, and in one of the episodes I got to work with Taj Mahal, which was pretty cool. But it was a mess. I didn’t see that one going anywhere. They had live-action folks producing it, but it was a cartoon. And I’d done a lot of cartoons by then, and it just didn’t seem to me that they knew what they were doing in terms of an animated show. Fish Police and Capitol Critters were fine, but The Blues Brothers I thought, “Oh, this is just a miserable experience.” That’s probably the only one I can say that about, because cartoons are, by and large, a blast. So for me to say it sucks, it had to have been really sucky to stand out like that.
I don’t know if you know that they tried airing Pinky And The Brain as a prime-time show for awhile on The WB. Which I thought was a mistake, because they put it opposite 60 Minutes, on Sunday night at 7. It was a guy named Jamie Kellner who was the head of the network at the time, and I just thought, “What an idiot!” [Laughs.] I mean, putting Pinky And The Brain on at 7 p.m. on a Sunday? I mean, I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but when you’re already the fifth-place network, you’re gonna put a cartoon like that—which may be well-known to a certain segment of the audience—opposite 60 Minutes? Why don’t you just put a gun in your mouth? Even I knew not to do that! But c’est la vie.
Tiny Toons (1990-1992)—“Arnold The Pit Bull” and others
Animaniacs (1993-1998)—“Yakko” / “Pinky”
Freakazoid! (1995-1996)—Various characters
Pinky And The Brain (1995-1998) / Pinky, Elmyra & The Brain (1998-1999)—“Pinky”
Histeria! (1998-2000)—Various historical characters
RP: Oh, Jesus, man, Animaniacs was a life-changer. Turtles was a career-changer, but Animaniacs took my career to another level. Turtles was an unexpected hit. Look at us now, it’s 25 years later and I’m doing it again, but when we started, nobody knew what it was going to become. It’s something that everybody knows, all around the world. Animaniacs was the follow-up to Tiny Toons, and I don’t think there was anybody, at least here in town, who was aware of that show who didn’t think Animaniacs was going to be a hit, because it was the same group, including Steven Spielberg again as an executive producer. Everybody who worked in the field wanted to be part of the show for obvious reasons. Tiny Toons was no slouch, and I did about 40 of those. But, anyway, from the beginning, we knew [Animaniacs] was a special thing, because it was Steven, it was Tom Ruegger, Andrea Romano. The cast was Tress, who’d already been cast with me; Maurice, who I’ve worked with on so many things; and Welker. It was the first time I’d met Jess Harnell; it was his first cartoon. But just with the people we already knew, including Jim Cummings, Bernadette Peters, Nancy Cartwright, all of those people were regulars. And then when you had Steven, Tom, and Andrea on the production team, along with Jean MacCurdy, who was the head of Warner Bros. Animation. And Andrea had already won a couple of Emmys for directing Tiny Toons, so it was just incredible.
We knew that we had a heck of a group. And we started recording them in March of ’92, but we didn’t have to have them ready ’til September of ’93. That’s an enormous luxury. It’s one we’ve had on this Turtles, too, and I think that’s one of the reasons the show was able to have to have such a huge buildup. We had 12 million total viewers on the first Saturday, which, as you know, is huge for cable. But we had a year and a half to get ’em ready. Same thing on Animaniacs. And the first Pinky and the Brain episode [of Animaniacs] was “Win Big,” which was written by Peter Hastings, who went on to win a pile of Emmys for Pinky and Animaniacs. A couple of years ago, he was an executive on Kung Fu Panda, and is now the executive producer with Ciro Nieli on Turtles. A terrifically gifted guy. And Andrea Romano is directing Ninja Turtles. So me, Peter, and Andrea were all together on Animaniacs, and now we’re back together. That’s pretty amazing.
But when Animaniacs came along, one of the very first episodes had “Yakko’s World” in it, the one where he sings all the countries of the world. And that became an iconic cartoon. I wouldn’t say it’s up there with “One Froggy Evening,” but I’m telling ya, man, it’s got six or seven million views, I think, on YouTube. [Laughs.] And millions of people around the world know it. I recorded that as one of the first things we did for Animaniacs. Randy Rogel, who wrote that, and I now are working together on live shows, which we’re going to be doing on behalf of Warner Bros. People still love the music.
I remember when Jean MacCurdy saw the cartoon after it was done. She called me in my car, and I’ll never forget that. That’s a big deal, for a studio head to call you in your car when you’re just a rank-and-file actor. But she said, “Hi, Rob, it’s Jean MacCurdy!” I said, “Oh, my God, hi! Am I fired?” [Laughs.] You know, typical actor’s angst. She said, “No, my God, just the opposite! We’ve just done a screening of the first episode of Animaniacs, and ‘Yakko’s World’… Rob, it’s fucking ridiculous!” I said, “Well, uh, yeah, it is, I guess.” I mean, you know, the song was, anyway. I just thought the song was a miracle. It’s an amazing song that Randy wrote. But when it’s put into the production, with an orchestra, and set to animation… well, we thought it was pretty special. And we were right.
I remember telling the producers at the time, and it was the only time, either before or since, that I’ve gone to the producers and said, “If you don’t hire me for this, you’re making a mistake.” It was not out of arrogance, honestly, but out of really extreme confidence that I was ready and responsible enough to do something that was going to be that big. I was just confident. I don’t know that it really helped them decide to hire me, because it was a long audition process, probably four or five callbacks until I luckily got the job. But I knew it was going to be a life-changer. I didn’t know that on Turtles. But on Animaniacs, I did. And I ended up winning an Emmy and was nominated for a bunch of other ones. I won a bunch of Annies… all of us did. All of us won Emmys and Peabodys and Annies. We worked for virtually seven or eight years, spending two or three days a week at Warner Bros. It was the beginning of that whole run with Animaniacs, Pinky And The Brain, Histeria, Freakazoid!, Batman, Superman… it was an amazing run. So, yeah, it was every bit the life-changer I knew it was going to be.
AVC: Which do people ask you about most, Animaniacs or Pinky And The Brain?
RP: It’s kind of a toss-up. Although I think maybe Pinky a little bit more, because they love the Brain as well. People love Maurice. [Laughs.] And how can you not? He’s incredibly talented and such a great guy, so reverential and just brilliant. He just won his second back-to-back Emmy. An incredible talent and one of my dearest friends in the whole world. So I think in that respect, because they love the relationship, it’s Pinky and the Brain. But, y’know, people love Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, too. So for me, it’s kind of a toss-up. To get to work on an iconic show and get to have two characters for which I’m known out of one show, it’s quite astonishing.
G.I. Joe (1985-1986)—“Snow Job” / “Tripwire”
The Transformers (1985-1987)—“Air Raid” / “Slingshot”
RP: G.I. Joe and Transformers were two of my first recurring roles. I did Snow Job and Tripwire on G.I. Joe and Air Raid and Slingshot on Transformers. I did those… Jesus, almost 28 years ago. Unbelievable. And now, having done this for a long time, my good friends are Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, and all these guys who are doing the Transformers movies. Not everybody gets to hang out with Optimus Prime and Megatron, you know? [Laughs.] But those led to auditions at Hanna-Barbera and roles on Jonny Quest, Smurfs, and a couple of other things, and it just sort of snowballed. I’ve been at Nickelodeon a lot lately, with Fairly Oddparents, Danny Phantom, Jimmy Neutron—and its spin-off, Planet Sheen—Back At The Barnyard, and now Turtles. Like I said, I’m just an incredibly lucky guy.