It’s a Living : Voices From Within : HOW ROB PAULSEN GIVES LIFE TO HIS CARTOON CHARACTERS
Having lunch with Rob Paulsen is like sitting across from a TV that keeps switching channels. For Paulsen, every TV show is a cartoon. A voice actor who’s now heard on more than 10 animated shows, Paulsen knows how to entertain.
One minute, Paulsen charms with the popular “Yakko’s World” tune from WB’s “Animaniacs.” The next, he’s the network’s perky Pinky, pacifying the Brain.
In another instant, he’s toilet-dwelling Squishington from ABC’s “Bump in the Night.” Then, channeling over to CBS, Paulsen is doubly animated, leaping between downcast Stanley Ipkiss and the whirling dervish known as “The Mask.”
Those characters--and many more--are all Rob Paulsen, 40. The man has an amazing gift of gab. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say audiences may have heard Paulsen’s voice a thousand times. He’s worked on about 2,500 animated episodes. That can mean juggling up to six shows per season.
“He’s brilliant, a one-man show,” offers voice director Ginny McSwain, who has directed Paulsen in about 175 episodes in 15 years, including “Bump in the Night,” “The Mask” and TV’s upcoming “Casper.”
“He’s a fabulous technician, phenomenal singer and actor who can keep up the pace, energy and style,” says McSwain, who adds she can always count on Paulsen. “He masters all sides of animation voice-over.”
Paulsen, a Flint, Mich., native, began as a musician and aspiring actor who headed to Los Angeles in 1978 to seek fame and fortune.
Paulsen’s “average-looking white guy” look landed him in commercials for McDonald’s, Ford, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Small roles in television and film followed. “I really wanted to do animation voice work, but it was a very difficult field to break into,” Paulsen says. Finally, an on-camera Jack in the Box TV commercial included voice-over radio and TV work.
“I don’t care if it’s your voice or your face,” he says, “it’s still all acting.” The voice-over agents at his talent agency started to take notice. His first animated show was 1983’s syndicated “G.I. Joe,” followed by NBC’s “Smurfs,” CBS’ “Rude Dog,” and HBO’s animated “Fraggle Rock.”
Paulsen’s workload grew, and today he’s established himself as a stalwart in the elite animated voice-over industry. In the U.S. animation field, there are probably 30 to 40 actors who work consistently, Paulsen says.
Like many artists, Paulsen can’t really identify exactly where his characters come from. Sometimes creators give suggestions “And then we try everything ,” he says. “Animaniacs’ ” Yakko was like that, even though, Paulsen says, a Groucho Marx-type voice was what the show creators were looking for. “It was callback after callback, an 8-week process, really unusual for a cartoon.”
Sometimes he’s given specific directions. When he took on Hadji in the mid-'80s syndicated version of “Jonny Quest,” he duplicated the original voice of Hadji from the ‘60s. It was created by an actor who, “No one remembers! Isn’t that sad?” Paulsen says. “But I’m really not an impressionist.”
With “The Mask,” he invokes the spirit of Jim Carrey, with doses of Paulsen thrown in. It’s the most difficult role he’s taken on. “It requires so much mental and vocal dexterity,” he says. “The whole secret is to convey bouncing off the walls.”
For other characters, he’s shown a drawing. On occasion a voice becomes similar to his. Raphael from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Max from the syndicated “Mighty Max” are really variations of Paulsen.
Often he’s asked to create something based on an idea the creator has for the voice. There’s just no secret, Paulsen says. With a laugh, he explains, “I steal things from other people. There is some [Monty] Python stuff thrown in ... but like most actors, I’m a sponge. I hear things and see things I remember that I try to use in situations.”
Andrea Romano, voice director for Warner Bros. TV Animation and who directed Paulsen as Pinky, Yakko and many others, offers: “He also has the ability to ad-lib to enhance a script. And he can talk to himself convincingly. He has an uncanny ability to think like his character, which is kind of scary.”
Paulsen lives his life with as much passion as he puts into each of his characters. He lives in Agoura Hills with his wife Parrish, a photographer, and son Ashton, 11. He’s also devoted to a number of charities and causes, including the Hollywood Celebrity All-Stars hockey team, Famous Fone Friends, the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. of Southern Alberta and Futures for Children.
GIFTS OF HIS GAB
Voice actor Rob Paulsen (at right) currently can be heard on no fewer than 13 shows. (Not all of his characters are listed.):
Bump in the Night (Squishington)
Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs (Yakko and others)
Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky & The Brain (Pinky)
The Mask (The Mask and Stanley)
Biker Mice From Mars (Throttle)
The Tick (Arthur)
Mighty Max (Max)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Raphael)
Sonic the Hedgehog (Antoine)
Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toons Adventures (various)
Goof Troop (P.J.)
Darkwing Duck (Steelbeak)