The First Lady of Voice Actors : June Foray has injected her comedic flair into a memorable career in the public ear for film, radio and TV.
A newsstand customer asks the vendor to direct her to a specific magazine.
The vendor obliges, but curiosity compels him to say to her:
“I hope you don’t feel insulted, but you sound like Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Have you ever seen that?”
With a twinkle in her eye, the customer replies: “Well, I am Rocky the Flying Squirrel!”
June Foray (“For-AY”) tells the story with bursts of child-like enthusiasm usually radiated by those who listen to her without knowing that those myriad voices she plays on film, TV and radio are really hers, or that she’s widely regarded as “the first lady of voice actors.”
Her voice heard by millions but her face seen by no one on movie or TV screens, Foray has forged a long, successful Hollywood career aimed at making us laugh, hiss, squirm, think or even buy cereal or fast food.
She has performed in more than 150 animated short films and features, countless radio and TV spots and more than 100 comedy and children’s albums.
Pick a cartoon character--and the voice is June Foray’s:
* Rocky the Flying Squirrel, who helps make our world safer for lampooning sacred cows in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”;
* Jokey Smurf of “The Smurfs”;
* Lena the Hyena and Wheezy Weasel in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”;
* Lucifer, the snarling, villainous cat in “Cinderella”;
* Millicent, the fat Russian bunny and suitor of Bugs Bunny (played by the late Mel Blanc) in “Rabbit Romeo”: “I want marr-i-age (‘marry-AHHGE’) with Bugs”;
* Nell Fenwick, who fends off Dudley Do-Right’s advances: “Oh, Dudley, you are too good for me.” Dudley: “For you, Nell, I would rotten up.”
Or, tune in to producer-satirist Stan Freberg’s 1950s blockbuster recorded parodies of the popular “Dragnet” TV series (based on Los Angeles Police Department cases). Freberg cast Foray as “Little Blue Riding Hood” and as a “maiden who had almost been devoured” in “St. George and the Dragonet”:
Freberg (as St. George, mimicking “Dragnet” producer-star Jack Webb’s laconic voice): “8:22 p.m. I talked to one of the maidens who had almost been devoured. . . . I understand you were almost devoured by the, ma’am, is that right, Dragon?”
Foray: “It was terr-i-ble. He breathed fire on me. He boined me already.”
Freberg: “How can I be sure of that, ma’am?”
Foray: “Believe me, I got it straight from the dragon’s mouth!”
If June Foray finishes writing her autobiography, she could title it “Lady Make-Believe.” That’s also the main character (and title) of 300-odd children’s radio dramas Foray wrote (but never sold) at age 18--Lady Make-Believe encouraging youngsters to read by introducing them, in scripts, to characters in “Robin Hood,” “Treasure Island,” “Jack the Giant Killer” and other tales. She plans to turn them into a library of audiocassettes.
Foray’s career in the public ear ranges from having dubbed coughs, screams and hollers into movie soundtracks for Paramount during her late teens to taping a fast-food audio commercial with Tom Poston as recently as two weeks ago.
She also has worked alongside some of the heavyweights of American comedy: Red Skelton, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen and Freberg, among others.
Foray played a regular for Carson on TV’s “Carson’s Cellar” (pre-"Tonight Show”), “Junie the Girlfriend” on Allen’s radio show “Smile Time” and helped Skelton entertain millions on television by playing a variety of roles.
“It was scary for the actors,” Foray recalls of the Skelton show. “You memorize your own lines, and then he’d start ad-libbing, gagging everything up. You say to yourself, ‘Oh, God, what am I supposed to say? When do I come in?’ A nice man, however. He always thanked the cast afterward.”
Soon, Foray will play a return engagement in an occasional role--as voice-over teacher. “The Art of the Voice-Over” is a three-hour course she’ll conduct on April 3 at Learning Tree University’s Chatsworth campus.
“She’s seen it all, got it all and knows it all,” says David Webb, chairman of Learning Tree’s performing arts department. “When Mel Blanc died, she became the leading voice-over talent left in the industry, so it made sense for us to seek out the best.”
Voice-over--which includes not just impersonation or animation dialogue but narration and commercials--looks deceptively easy, she says.
“Every amateur picks up a script and reads it in a monotone,” says Foray, who also taught voice-over for seven semesters at USC during the 1980s. “Or, they stop in unconscionable places.
“And I say, ‘Why are you stopping there?’ They say they don’t know. Then I take the copy away from them and say, ‘Now what did you say?’ Then, without reading, they do a perfectly wonderful commercial because they realize they’re talking naturally. . . . You have to read a persona into the line. You have to have a character delineation. Many wanna-bes can read lines, but there’s no transition to what they’re reading. There’s no light or shading or feeling.”
Foray, a petite woman with luminous brown eyes and appropriately animated features, speaks in a rich, resonant near-tenor that she’s nursed, rehearsed and sculpted into what she says are “thousands” of voices including “males up to 16 or little old men.”
It’s an art that came naturally, she says, relaxing over coffee in the Woodland Hills home she shares with Siobhan (“Shi-VON”), her 8-year-old pit bull. (Her second husband, Hobart Donovan, who wrote the screenplay for “Escape to Burma,” a 1955 feature film, and scripts for radio dramas, died 16 years ago.)
As the middle of three children in her native Springfield, Mass., Foray cultivated an ear for dialogue during the pre-TV 1940s. She says she grew up “an omnivorous reader,” memorizing Shakespeare and poetry, studying drama from a radio actress at age 12 and performing character voices on “WBZA Players,” a local radio show.
“I impersonated everybody I’d hear on the radio,” she says. “My mother,” an accomplished pianist and singer, “took us kids to the theater every Saturday and to the movies. I used to impersonate everybody there, too.”
When the Forays relocated to Southern California before World War II, June quickly took the first small steps toward living out her childhood dreams. At 18, she not only dubbed those coughs and screams for Paramount, she performed a studio technique called “looping"--watching the screen carefully so she could audibly replace snippets of an actor’s dialogue that had been ordered scrapped by the director, or performed off-camera voices. She says she earned as much as $100 a week.
“I told my dad that if I can make $100 a week the rest of my life, I’ll be happy,” she says.
Her giant leaps professionally occurred during the mid-1950s, when Stan Freberg--with whom she had worked on a series of short films entitled “Speaking of Animals"--tapped her to perform with him and Dawes Butler (also known as the voice of Yogi Bear) on those “Dragnet” parodies the two men had scripted.
Almost overnight, “St. George and the Dragonet” and “Little Blue Riding Hood” became smash pop recordings--even landing Foray, Freberg and Butler a nationally televised Sunday night gig on CBS’ “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Jack Webb made everybody on ‘Dragnet’ read everything the same way,” Foray recalls, her voice rising in exasperation. “It was a natural for us .”
Soon, Walt Disney’s producers beckoned. In “Peter Pan,” Foray performed the voices of two mermaids and an Indian squaw. For a Donald Duck cartoon, “Trick or Treat,” she gave the role of Witch Hazel more than ample wit.
Then, while she worked also for Warner Bros., producer Jay Ward tapped her in 1959 for a fledgling cartoon series on network TV. Ward’s co-producer, Bill Scott, would play a character named Bullwinkle, with Foray in the role of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
“They always had so much fun at those recording sessions that their work seemed more like play,” recalls Ward’s widow, Ramona, proprietor of the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, which merchandises Jay Ward cartoon memorabilia in Hollywood. “June was always ‘up'--she was very professional in every way.”
Today, at home, Foray good-humoredly impersonates for a visitor the voice of Rocky, speaking to Capt. Peter Peachfuzz, who flies a plane backward but has run out of fuel: “You need fuel? Why don’t you get out the Congressional Record? You got a lot of hot air in there to fly that airplane around the world!”
“We offended everybody--congressmen, sports people, every strata of society,” Foray says of those early years before the show went into syndication. “The children loved it because of the voices and the concept, but their parents laughed at different times because they understood the humor, the sophistication.”
Humor nowadays, Foray says, is a tougher sell because “people have lost the trait of laughing at themselves. Maybe it’s because of the societal problems that we have and with others all over the world. That’s why I appreciate humor.”
Work and humor consume Foray’s life so much--by choice, she says--that she concedes, “I don’t know what else I’d do.”
She paints character-study faces and designs some of her clothes, but she adds: “I couldn’t paint for a living , and I’d hate to make clothes for a living.”
Beyond these activities, she sits on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors and on Turner Broadcasting’s newly appointed Cartoon Network advisory board.
She advises her voice-over students (whom she describes as “college age to people in their 50s and 60s, including some who are retired”) simply to “read out loud. Today, too many people don’t have the sensitivity for the words on paper.
“I tell them, ‘You want to be in the communications business, so you’ve got to be articulate. Your best friends are a tape recorder and a dictionary. Take your best friends to bed with you.’ ”
Rejection slips, Foray says, are inevitable in voice-over acting--a field she says “everybody wants to get into because they know the money is good.”
She says she tells her students words of advice that Winston Churchill is said to have spoken in a commencement speech: “Never, never give up.”
“If you can be there at the right time and have the right type of voice, maybe you won’t get far, but you might get that lucky break,” Foray says. “I never discourage anybody .”
After all, she adds, a twinkle in her eye again: “Sometimes they’ll fool you.”
WHERE AND WHEN
What: “The Art of the Voice-Over.”
Location: Learning Tree University, 20920 Knapp St., Chatsworth.
Hours: 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. April 3.
Call: (818) 882-5599.