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Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Sufferin' Succotash! Looney Tunes Voice Actor Joe Alaskey On Bugs Bunny, Geraldo, & Why He Wasn't In 'Space Jam'

Bugs Bunny. Daffy Duck. Yosemite Sam. Marvin the Martian. These animated icons would have been silenced years ago if not for Joe Alaskey, the multi-talented voice actor behind the lion's share of Looney Tunes productions over the past few decades (including but not limited to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and the Steven Spielberg-produced Tiny Toon Adventures). Alaskey's résumé also includes vocal stints for such varied projects as Forrest Gump, Rugrats, Duckman, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, but let's be frank — you really only wanna know about his work on D.C. Follies, right? Joe was kind enough to speak with me recently about his experiences on that infamous political puppet show. He also enlightened us on how he became Mr. Looney Tune in the first place, why he was absent from that franchise's mid-nineties tent pole film Space Jam, and his live action work on the early '90s syndicated cult hit Out of This World.

Growing up, did you always feel your career path was going to be through Hollywood, or did you have other professions in mind?

I guess you could say show business was always in my blood. Even at three years old, I was always looking for a pair of sunglasses or people's cigar butts to grab to do characters, and that lead into me working on impressions, and that lead into theater. I had other careers I thought about for sure, though — for instance, I became really interested in archeology at age ten. A little while after that, I was interested in becoming a priest, which became wanting to be an english teacher.

Your résumé makes it seem like things took off for you acting-wise pretty quickly. Is that the case, or did you have to work for a while in other fields for supplementary income?

Well, I moved to New York City in the early '70s, and you can't just jump into a career there no matter how talented you are. So I worked for insurance company while the acting was getting started. I was also apprentice to diamond cutter.

You know how to cut diamonds?

No, but I was very close to the process.

So the legend goes Warner Bros. Animation caught wind of you because you had a stand up act where you did some of the Looney Tunes voices. What was the context there? Were you just kinda throwing them out there, or what?

If you're asking if I ever worked blue, the answer is a resounding no. I never worked blue as an impressionist, and I certainly wouldn't have gone that way with the Looney Tunes voices because I held those characters in such high regard. I mean, I wouldn't do impressions of someone I didn't like, unless I wanted to make a point. Occasionally in my career I've made Bugs or Daffy say sort of risqué things, but never out-and-out blue. So anyway, back when I was starting, I was always looking for a good closer for my stand up act. For a long time I did Jackie Gleason, just to do, really.

Pardon me for interrupting, but didn't you eventually end up doing your Gleason for some kind of Honeymooners home video release?

Yes! Although I never met the man, Jackie Gleason hired me himself to replace his voice on some deteriorated tracks for the so-called "lost" Honeymooners episodes. The one I did in particular was "Lawsuit." You know, one of the great disappointments of my career involves having been cast by CBS as Gleason to do biography shortly after he died only to watch the project get shelved. The movie's source material became unavailable — the guy who wrote the story didn't own it, figure that one out! — and the whole thing was put on hold. Eventually it became 2002's Gleason and Brad Garrett did it. Anyway, I was doing Gleason in my act, and then I thought, "I can do a fairly good Daffy Duck, why don't I try that instead?" Before I knew it, I was doing all the Looney Tunes characters.

And this is where Warner calls you out of the blue?

Yes. I was scouted by Looney Tunes creator Friz Freleng himself, if you can believe that. This guy calls me on the phone in 1981 and says, "It's Friz Freleng. I heard your act. We're looking for replacements. Mel Blanc is not going to live forever." [laughs] He then proceeded to give me a critique on all my impressions, telling me which ones needed work and which ones were up to snuff.

Which Looney Tune was most difficult to master?

Oh, Bugs Bunny was hardest voice to learn, by far. It took me two years. [What made it so tough was] Mel Blanc, he was such a good actor, and he made such an impression with his delivery. There was also the matter of the accents, the Brooklyn and the Bronx mixed together. It's very tricky, but I eventually got it down.

You sorta jumped right in the fray there in that your first big project was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Did you have any sense of the enormity of that movie going into it? How did it look from your end?

The word around the industry was Roger Rabbit would be a big money maker but would also be pretty risky as it was mixing live action and animation. They didn't know how audiences would react. There was some concern there. Of course, it became this huge hit and, in a way, it reinvented the genre of animation. I don't think Warner Bros. is willing to make animation now without live action, like Space Jam or Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

Now Space Jam you weren't in, which seems curious considering your involvement with Roger Rabbit and Back in Action. What's the story there? Was that a case of Warners just wanting to try out different people?

JWell, when it comes to casting at Warner Bros, very often they'll defer to [the project's] producers. They'll let him or her hire who they think sounds best. I auditioned for [Space Jam's producer] Ivan Reitman, and he proceeded to put me and all the other voice actors through a grueling set of auditions that lasted several months. I went to nine auditions before I told my agent, "Enough. If this guy can't make up his mind…" I backed out, even though Ivan called up and begged my agent to have me come back. Now, for Back in Action, I actually came in to patch up some bad decisions on the part of the filmmakers, including, I'm sad to say, the casting. That was a case where they were handing me script revisions as I was stepping into the booth.

Jumping back a little and outside the Bugs Bunny pool, do you remember exactly what characters or famous people you voiced on everyone's favorite late '80s puppet show D.C. Follies?

JI believe I did the voices of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, possibly Henry Kissinger, and Geraldo Rivera. Geraldo was hard to learn. He wasn't really terribly famous at that point…but y'know, he's got that broad Long Island sound [imitates every Long Islander you've ever heard], stretching out his words, so I did that.

Is there a specific reason, perhaps a legal thing, as to why the characters on Tiny Toon Adventures were sort of these junior replicas of the Looney Tunes and not the actual iconic characters from way back when?

If you've done any research on this, and it sounds like you have, with Tiny Toons the problem was the classic era of Looney Tunes didn't have any female characters. So they created some girls, and along the way they said, "Why not make them all prototypes?", I'm sure partially for some legal reason. I'd like to point out that I got to rename one of my characters on Tiny Toons. Plucky was originally called Mucky Duck. I did not like that name. The producers said, "Can you think of a different name?" "Well, how about Plucky?" That worked two ways, you know — Plucky as in he's brave, or he thinks he's brave, and also what do you do with a duck before you eat it?

Did you have a lot of creative liberty on Tiny Toons?

Yeah, I got to ad lib quite a bit, rewrite lines, and in one case I even sang a song badly on purpose just to get a laugh. It was great.

Is there one project of yours that's closer to your heart than anything else you've worked on?

Oh, Duck Dodgers is closest to my heart. I was handpicked to play the part by the producers and writers, they didn't want to hear anybody else for that. It was an excellently written show, really smart and funny, and after a year and a half of doing it I ended up winning an Emmy. I didn't have to lift a finger to win this Emmy! Usually you have to campaign, but the producers did all that on my behalf. I won Best Performer in an Animated Series against — how's this for competition? — Walter Cronkite, Bart Simpson, Henry Winkler (he's the guy I voted for), and John Ritter. John Ritter had just died, actually, so everyone thought he would win. Even my mother said, "You're not going to get it."

My immediate reaction is, what the heck was Walter Cronkite voicing?

[Laughs] Some thing they rerun on PBS all the time, Liberty's Kids. He played Ben Franklin.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about your experience on the syndicated classic Out of This World, one of your few live action acting gigs. How do you look back on that program these days?

Out of this World was probably not the most prestigious project or even the best career move for me, but for the first year at least I had a tremendous time doing it. I'd say I enjoyed myself four of the five years. It was a learning experience, for them and for me. [laughs] I got along with everybody except the producer in the fifth season. I eventually found out he was the one writing all the fat jokes about my character that I was asking to let my character counteract. I ended up leaving the show over "creative differences." But everyone else, they were all wonderful to work for, Donna Pescow, Doug McClure, and the kids, the kids were amazing. I regretted quitting almost immediately. I thought I had better things coming.

What's been the most challenging part of your career? Have you ever looked at anything and thought, "Man, this is just gonna be a struggle the whole way though"?

I think that every time they hand me something to sing!

James Greene, Jr. is a freelance writer who has actually been paid real money by places like the New York Press, Geek Monthly, Crawdaddy.com, and Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. A visit to his personal blog should eat up at least two minutes of your day.

  • Matt Killeen

    This was great. I was a big fan of Alaskey when he started out as a stand-up/impressionist. He seems like a good guy; I'm glad he's a big success now.