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Calabasas Actor Speaks for Many in the ‘Toon World

You may not know Charlie Adler’s name, but you have almost certainly heard him perform, especially if you are a devotee of Saturday morning cartoons.

Indeed Adler’s wit and protean voice make him a kind of Lon Chaney of the cartoon world. Able to create one distinctive character after another, Adler does it without makeup, without costumes, without props. All he needs is his talent and a microphone.

Adler is, for example, Cow, Chicken and the Red Guy in the cult series “Cow & Chicken.” He is Ickis in “AAAHH!!! Real Monsters,” Baboon in “I Am Weasel,” and both Ed and Bev Bighead in “Rocko’s Modern Life.”

“I sit in a room and talk to myself,” Adler says, laughing, as he enjoys the view of the mountains from his sprawling Calabasas home.

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So versatile is the 42-year-old actor that he was recently named one of the 13 top voice actors by Animation Magazine. He shared the honor with such legendary performers as June Foray, who was both Rocky and Natasha on “Rocky and His Friends,” and the late Mel Blanc, who gave voice to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and other Warner Bros. immortals, as well as Fred Flintstone’s pal, Barney Rubble.

Sarah Baisley, editor-in-chief of the Agoura Hills-based industry trade magazine, says the major criterion for inclusion on the list was having created a large number of memorable, original animated characters. Mel Blanc notwithstanding, the people who excel at this are rarely household names, a situation that Baisley deplores.

“It’s consummate acting,” Baisley says of the artful work by Adler and other top-notch voice actors. “They’re originating and creating a character that lives on and is immediately identifiable as that character.”

It irks her that big-name actors tend to garner most of the praise when they contribute to an animated series or film, overshadowing the professional voice actors.

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“I really wish they’d get more attention for what they do, not these celebrities they bring in for their marketing value,” Baisley says.

Adler’s ability to limn a character with a few words is uncanny. When asked what role he plays on “Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toon Adventures,” Adler effortlessly slips into the part.

“I am Buster Bunny,” he says, doing Buster Bunny doing Gloria Swanson doing the faded movie star in “Sunset Boulevard.” “I am big. It’s the cartoons that got small.”

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Few youngsters start out dreaming of being voice actors when they grow up. Adler’s own journey began when he fell in love with the theater and its power. He was about 13 when he was taken to see the musical “Purlie” on Broadway.

“Besides being in the fourth row and developing a psychotic crush on Melba Moore, I couldn’t believe how she made me feel,” he recalls.

The young New Yorker began going to as many shows as possible and was soon acting himself. His life changed forever, both personally and professionally, when he was cast as the Prince opposite Imogene Coca’s Princess in a production of “Once Upon a Mattress.”

“She was in her 60s and I was 19,” he recalls. They have been dear friends ever since, linked by such durable, intimate bonds as a shared sense of humor.

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“She’s my parents, she’s my confidante, she’s my mentor,” he says.

Although she is best known as Sid Caesar’s co-star on “Your Show of Shows,” Coca, as Adler calls her, did much more than help him perfect his comedic skills. The actress, he says, is the kind of person who is stopped in her tracks by the beauty of a hibiscus along the side of the road.

“Philosophically, she’s given me a reverence for things that I never knew existed. She’s given me my eyes. Professionally, she’s given me this incredible work ethic.”

On Broadway, Adler succeeded Harvey Fierstein in “Torch Song Trilogy,” then toured with the show’s first national company. He played the emcee in “Cabaret,” among other roles, worked in television and appeared in hundreds of commercials.

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“I’ve been the Hamburglar. Oh, yes, I’m very big,” he jokes.

Then, some 14 years ago, Adler auditioned at Hanna-Barbera. Before he knew it, he was a Smurf.

Playing a little blue gnome put Adler on a whole new career path. That year, he had roles in eight animated series. His series total now stands at 80, and he is more and more in demand as a voice director. Currently, he is putting Susan Sarandon, John Lithgow and Debbie Reynolds through their vocal paces in the second Rugrats movie. (He voice-directed the first as well.) He also directs the new series “Nickelodeon Rocket Power,” premiering Aug. 17.

“Very few things have used my talents so thoroughly,” Adler says of voice acting. In his view, it is every bit as demanding as other forms of the performer’s art. Because tight taping schedules are the norm, voice work requires an unusual degree of focus. As Adler says, “You have to be present, you have to listen, and you have to be on fire.”

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Several years ago, Adler wrote and starred in a one-man show, “There Used to Be Fireflies,” which won a Dramalogue award. He played all 11 characters, including a pregnant teenage skinhead, a former stunt man in a wheelchair and the African American owner of a doughnut shop. He is now trying to find funding for a film version to star Eileen Brennan, Brock Peters and Dom DeLuise.

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Although even some casting directors can’t quite fathom what voice actors do, Adler says he is beginning to develop a kind of reverse snobbism about his under-lauded craft. After all, it has required him to reach deep inside himself and pull out some pretty weird stuff.

“I’ve played stains on stoves,” he says. “I’ve played toilet bowls.”

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Voice actors have to stretch in ways other actors can only imagine. You can’t play a toilet bowl as an inert piece of porcelain. You have to find its anima, its soul. However bizarre the character he plays, Adler takes a craftsman’s pride in making it live and breathe.

“I never think of them as voices. They’re really personalities or people to me. If they were just voices, people could be doing them right and left.”

Although Adler loves bringing Ickis and the Red Guy to life, he admits that his chosen profession poses unusual challenges. He recalls working with Jonathan Winters on the series “Monster Tails.”

“There were four of us playing 12 characters,” Adler says. “I had to check my driver’s license at the end of the day to see who I was.”

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