Profile : His Voice Carries in Hollywood
Dan Castellaneta may be TV’s biggest unknown superstar.
Certainly he’s familiar to viewers of “The Tracey Ullman Show,” as a member of the defunct Fox comedy’s versatile repertory company. But hardly anyone watched that show.
And many agree his performance as an oily accountant is the best reason for tuning into ABC’s new “Sibs.” But that sitcom has only been airing for five weeks.
Few know Castellaneta, yet the masses love his voice: The soft-spoken, admittedly “shy in social situations” actor supplies the buffoonish booming voice of Homer Simpson in Fox’s “The Simpsons.”
“By and large people don’t know I’m Homer,” Castellaneta said during a “Sibs” rehearsal break. “But a few more do now. I was walking in the mall and a man pointed out to a kid I was Homer. This little girl comes running after me and she goes, ‘Are you Homer Simpson?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ She said, ‘Prove it. Do the voice.’ I said, ‘What if I don’t prove it?’ ”
But Castellaneta, 33, gave in. “I did the voice and kept walking. Then I felt the presence of two girls following me and they said, ‘Please, please do the voice.’ So I did the voice one more time and said, ‘Bye.’
“If it had been a group I might not have done the voice because you can’t get out of there because they want autographs. I always sign autographs Homer Simpson and then I put my name underneath it. I have a long enough name so it would take me all day to sign autographs.”
Castellaneta originated Homer when the Simpson clan first appeared as part of “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987. He came up with Homer’s voice right after creator Matt Groening showed him Homer’s picture. “Matt says it took him 15 minutes to draw up ‘The Simpsons,’ and I worked on the voice just as fast.”
Because he did voice-overs for commercials in Chicago, Castellaneta had a repertoire of voices from which to choose. For Homer, he first played with a Walter Matthau-type voice. “But then Homer had to yell and scream, which was not within the range of me doing Walter Matthau,” he said.
“It became this voice,” Castellaneta said, breaking into the blustering Homer. “It was a voice I use to goof around with with my friends in college. I had forgotten that one. It emerged as we did Homer more and more. It was so easy to do that voice for me, to sustain over a half hour than the other.”
Castellaneta, who also is the voice of Saturday morning’s “Dynamo Duck” on Fox and Doc Brown on CBS’ “Back to the Future,” said he loves doing the voices for animated characters. “You’re playing characters you would never be cast in a movie or TV show,” he said. “It’s very melodramatic and it can be larger than life. It’s like sitting around being fanciful with your friends at a dinner table, but you have microphones in front of you.”
Castellaneta has a definite affection for the Simpson patriarch.
“He’s a dumb ox, but he really loves his family so much,” he said. “He really depends on Marge. He has nothing but his family. He’s not very good at his job. He hangs around drunks at the bar. His family is his life.”
Though some viewers and educators have criticized “The Simpsons,” Castellaneta said the show is pro-family.
“Some people come out and say it’s anti-family,” he said. “Someone was doing their master’s thesis on media and this person monitored ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘The Simpsons’ and said the Simpsons said more reassuring, more positive things toward each other than the (Huxtables). And the Simpsons actually did more things together, while on ‘The Cosby Show’ the kids are sort of autonomous.”
If Homer Simpson loves his family, Warren Morris, whom Castellaneta plays in “Sibs,” loves power. Warren, he said, is “a stereotype of what people think of Nixon. He is the kind of wormy, sweaty guy plotting and planning at every turn and planning himself into oblivion. Warren is crazy; he’s a little bit nuts.”
Heide Perlman, executive producer with James L. Brooks and Sam Simon of “Sibs” and its creator, said Warren initially wasn’t going to be a regular character.
“But then writing the character, it was such a fun character, I thought it would be great for Dan,” said Perlman, who worked with Castellaneta on “Tracey Ullman.” “He’s so talented, and I think he’s talented in a special way. He’s funny and easy to work with and willing to try things and go any way and have fun with stuff.”
As producer and writer with (Brooks and Simon) of “Tracey Ullman,” Perlman discovered Castellaneta when he was a member of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe.
“He just stood out,” Perlman said. “He has that little face. Tracey says he has a clown’s face and it’s true.”
“George Wendt is an alumni and he comes back to Second City,” Castellaneta said. “When Heidi was looking for someone he gave her names and one of them was mine. I had no idea what ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ was about, but I was really wanting to get out of (Second City) after four-and-half years and eight shows a week.”
Although “The Tracey Ullman Show” won numerous Emmys and was the darling of the critics, it never cracked the Top 50 during its four-year run. Castellaneta admitted it was frustrating that the series, which is now in repeats on Lifetime, never found a mass audience.
“In retrospect, though, it was my first major TV show,” he said. “I think it allowed me to learn and not have the added extra pressure of having the spotlight on the show.”
“Sibs” airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC . “The Simpsons” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox . Repeats of “The Tracey Ullman Show” air Mondays-Fridays at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Lifetime.
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