Cast of Characters: Ep. 8: Rob Paulsen

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This week, John Rocha (@therochasays) and Yuri Lowenthal (@yurilowenthal) welcome the voice of many childhoods, the great Rob Paulsen to Cast of Characters! We discuss Rob’s upbringing in tomorrow, his infamous on camera roles and get a very in depth look at the many decades he’s spent in the VO world. This is not one that you want to miss!

Maybe you’ve never heard of Rob Paulsen.  But you’ve heard him.  A lot.

Maybe you don’t know Rob Paulsen, but you know Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius, and most of the other animated projects that Paulsen has been part of as a voice actor for nearly three decades.  With over 2,000 (yes, that’s right) half-hour programs and dozens of films, video games, and other animated media to his credit, Paulsen has been one of the hardest working, most in-demand, and most beloved voice artists in the industry.  A Daytime Emmy, Peabody, and three-time Annie winner, he’s also launched a successful podcast (“Talkin’ Toons”) about the animation industry and art of voice acting, and has started performing “Animaniacs Live!”, a traveling live show that brings the magic of the legendary series to symphony orchestra halls and comedy festivals all around the country.

Born in Detroit and attending high school in Grand Blanc, the proud Michigander soon realized that he “didn’t quite have the talent, temperament, nor dental insurance to become a professional hockey player.”  Paulsen quickly turned to his second love, music, as a way of making a career for himself.  “Fortunately, my parents were very supportive of me wanting to be a singer,” he remembers today.  “But they insisted that if I listened to rock and pop music, I also had to listen to classical music.”  More than just a would-be rock band frontman (although he did discover that “chicks dig rock singers”), Paulsen listened to a wide variety of music and learned how to read music.  That time and dedication to the craft, he believes, started to train his ear, eye, and voice to work together in a wide array of styles.  

He didn’t realize it at the time, but those are exactly the kind of skills that makes for a great voice actor.  Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he intended to pursue live action work, and indeed appeared in guest roles on shows like St. Elsewhere and MacGyver, and in Brian DePalma’s Body Double.  He also studied at the Groundlings, Los Angeles’ legendary comedy/improvisation troupe, where he befriended and had the opportunity to work with some of the group’s notable members like Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, Lynne Marie Stewart, John Paragon, Cassandra Peterson, and Laraine Newman.  The training added to Paulsen’s comedy skills, and allowed him to pursue a passion he had harbored since childhood.  “I had a pretty good ear as a kid, and was always interested in comedians like Pat Paulsen, Foster Brooks, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and Jonathan Winters, people who weren’t only funny, but great at doing characters,” he says of his influences.  “Then I discovered the Goon Show, with Peter Sellers, and eventually Monty Python – that’s when I started working on dialects.”  That British influence would provide the inspiration for the unlikely voice of the lab rat, Pinky, whose foolish, good-natured British twang is the perfect counterpoint to the Brain’s sinister, dead-on reimagining of Orson Welles as voiced by Maurice LaMarche.

While Pinky and the Brain was still a ways off, some early voice work on series such as the animated G.I. Joe brought Paulsen in contact with the world of professional voice actors at a time when the profession and the industry was just about to explode.  Along with industry vets like Frank Welker, Tress MacNeille, Billy West, John DiMaggio, and LaMarche, Paulsen became a part of the “next generation” of great voice artists following in the tradition of Mel Blanc, June Foray, Arthur Q. Bryan, Hans Conried, Don Messick, and Bea Benadaret.  G.I. Joe lead to an audition at Hanna-Barbara for a revival of the classic series Jonny Quest.  Paulsen landed the role of Hadji, Jonny’s Indian-born adopted brother, and he knew he had found a career.  “I’m an average-looking white guy from Michigan,” he says incredulously.  “In real life I would never get to play that character, or a teenage turtle, or whatever.  This was a gig where I was really only limited by my own imagination, not by my type I was or the way I looked.  Now I was playing this iconic character, and nobody cared what I looked like.”  Paulsen credits veteran television director Gordon Hunt for casting him and mentoring him at a key point in his career.  “I quickly learned about how to be creative and think on your feet, and not be encumbered by how you see yourself.  That is absolutely integral to my success.”

That early success came right at the advent of the cable revolution and the millennial baby boom, and there was suddenly a demand for family-oriented programming that would enchant young viewers as well as their parents – parents who had their own connections and memories to animation from years of growing up watching cartoons on Saturday morning.  Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbara all started reviving old series and creating new ones, while networks like Nickelodeon and syndication outlets began demanding more original daytime programming.  Paulsen and his colleagues have worked for all of them, using their incredible talents to literally bring to life some of the most beloved original characters of a generation while simultaneously bringing back to life the classic characters of yesteryear.

Paulsen’s credits are too numerous to detail, and he has a strong, intuitive emotional connection to many of his more beloved characters.  But it’s only recently that he’s begun to realize how much his work has shaped the lives of viewers in unexpected ways.  “I was almost a victim of my own ageism,” he says.  You see, Paulsen was the original voice of Raphael on the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series – an early project that unexpectedly became a pop culture sensation.  A quarter of a century after that original series, Paulsen was approached about doing the reboot of TMNT – but to audition for Donatello.  “I wondered – did they know that I did the original Raphael?  Are they sure they wanted me to do the job?  I’m a white guy in his late fifties.”  It turned out that the new producers had been raised on the original series and were thrilled that Paulsen might be available to work with them.  That generation of millennials who grew up in the world of Paulsen’s characters are now his colleagues.  “And it reminded me again – nobody cares what you look like, and how much that makes me more passionate for my job and having fun with it.”

Beyond that, Paulsen has also been made deeply aware of the impact of his work beyond the industry.  “People come up to me all the time, and tell me stories about watching Pinky and the Brain with a sick family member in the hospital, or how Animaniacs kept them laughing when their parents were going through a divorce,” he reflects.  “The emotional remuneration is so above and beyond what I ever imagined or expected.”  That’s one of the reasons Paulsen has been more active recently in reaching more people and reminding them of the ways in which being passionate about your career can provide a lifetime of happiness.  His podcasts features chats with the many industry professionals he has worked with over the years reflecting on the personal and cultural value of their work.  He’s also been given permission by Steven Spielberg and Warner Brothers to produce “Animaniacs Live,” which Paulsen performs with the Emmy-winning writer of series’ most beloved songs, Randy Rogel.  That program, which can be performed with a full symphony orchestra or as a cabaret-sized two-person show, features Paulsen singing some of the series’ memorable musical numbers with live accompaniment while the cartoon plays on a screen.

And then there’s his day job, which is just as exciting as it was three decades ago.  “I’ve always known that whether or not I ended up making money as an actor, I would approach it with passion, and I still have the same passion for it as I was when I was 17.  I’m part of a community of people who share that passion and we get to work together every day – people like Maurice, and Tress, and Billy, it’s the same with them.  We get ourselves, to the studio, and we lose ourselves in the passion to create.”