“The ‘secret’ of Donald Duck’s voice is really just muscle control that you have to develop, like lifting weights or whatever,” explains voice actor Tony Anselmo. “You have to contort your mouth in a certain way, and the muscles have to be strong enough to stay contorted, so you can lock into it and concentrate on acting, rather than ‘doing’ the voice.”

Anselmo has been providing Donald’s semi-intelligible quacks for more than two years. His commentary as Donald ties together “Down and Out With Donald Duck,” an hourlong special made from re-dubbed bits and pieces of old Disney cartoons that airs tonight at 8 on NBC.

Clarence Nash, who died in 1985, did the voice for more than 50 years, starting with “The Wise Little Hen” (1934), Donald’s debut film. He began grooming Anselmo as his successor shortly after the young artist joined the Disney animation staff in 1980. Both an animator and an actor, the 27-year-old Anselmo talked about his work in a recent interview, answering some questions in his own voice and some in Donald’s.


“I was always doing crazy voices and distracting my classmates in school, and when I was at CalArts I did the voices for almost everybody’s animated films,” he says. “But Donald was one I couldn’t do--Clarence explained how, but it took me about a year to get it. Every time I saw him on the lot, I’d say, ‘How’s this?’ and he’d say, ‘No, a little higher--keep practicing.’ ”

At a time when most actors want to make their work distinctive, Anselmo tries to avoid adding any individual touches. He concentrates on making his performances match Nash’s as perfectly as he can:

“I really feel like I’m the keeper of the keys. We established that voice and we want to keep it the same--it can’t sound like an imitation. So instead of making it my own, I try to do it the way Clarence would or, better yet, the way Donald would. I’ve got a photographic ear: If I hear something twice, I’ve got it. I’ve seen all the old cartoons a million times, so when I have a problem with how to say a word, I can remember how Clarence said it in another cartoon.”

Anselmo’s careful mimicry stands in marked contrast to the less satisfactory performances by the new artists who dubbed the voices of the other classic Disney characters in “Down and Out.” Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Black Pete sound only vaguely like the old cartoons, and Ludwig Von Drake, Donald’s eccentric Viennese uncle, isn’t even close.

When Mickey starts to recount all the trouble Donald’s temper has caused, the Duck gives the best line in the show: “Uh-oh, Big Ears is gonna snitch on me.” Anselmo sounds exactly like Nash: It’s the Donald Duck audiences know and love.

But voices are only a sideline for Anselmo. Recently promoted to full animator at Disney, he worked on “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and “The Great Mouse Detective” and is beginning to animate on the studio’s next feature, “Oliver and the Dodger.” He also provided voices for some incidental characters in “Mouse Detective” and “Oliver.”

“Donald is my only real voice love and the one I really concentrate on,” he says. “The others are something I do if I can. They use Donald so seldom that I can animate 8 to 5 and just do a night recording session once or twice a week: It’s really sort of an extra-credit assignment.”

Working with Donald and the other famous Disney cartoon characters is the culmination of a lifelong interest in animation. A self-styled “Disney nut” with a large collection of artwork and memorabilia, Anselmo says he became interested in the medium “not in the womb, but right after that.”

“The first movie I ever saw was ‘Mary Poppins,’ when I was 4,” he recalled. “I was so amazed by what was up on the screen that I remember--even at that age--saying, ‘I want to know how that was done, and I want to do it.’ I’ve never really changed my mind since.”