In her eight decades in show business, June Foray has performed countless voices for film, TV, radio and toys. She’s performed such iconic cartoon characters as Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Jokey Smurf and the cackling Witch Hazel for both Disney and Warner Bros., so it’s not surprising that the 95-year-old voice actress will be honored with a Governors Award by the Television Academy Arts and Sciences at the Creative Arts Emmys this year.
But what is surprising is that Foray won her very first Daytime Emmy just last year for voicing yet another witch on “The Garfield Show,” making her not only a legend, but still a very active performer. In a business that has traditionally favored youth at the expense of experience, voice acting is a corner of the market where age really isn’t a barrier to the kinds of roles you can perform.
“I was performing witches and grandmothers before I was old enough to be a grandmother,” Foray said during a recent conversation at her Woodland Hills home.
It’s not just elderly characters, which Foray has been performing since the early 1950s, but also young children, such as Cindy Lou Who, a character whose voice Foray can still re-create perfectly despite the fact that she performed just one line as the character in the 1966 TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
It’s that versatility that has allowed Foray and other older voice performers to continue to land a variety of roles.
“You’ve got to be malleable,” says Bob Bergen, Foray’s friend and the current voice of Porky Pig. “An on camera actor may need an hour in their trailer with their acting coach to get into the mood. A voice actor has to be immediate.”
Bergen first performed Porky Pig in 1990, the year after the man most closely associated with the voice, Mel Blanc, died. (He has re-auditioned for the role four times since winning it.)
Many voice performers, such as Blanc and Daws Butler, voice of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound, among others, continued to play the roles right up until their deaths.
“There are sometimes in voice-over sessions where I’m 51 and I’m one of the younger people in the room,” said Tom Kenny, most famous as the voice of the ever-youthful SpongeBob SquarePants.
Frank Welker, who has voiced Fred in the Scooby-Doo cartoons since 1969 and currently voices the evil Transformer Megatron on “Transformers Prime Beast Hunters” (a voice he’s done since the mid-1980s) credits a voice actor’s ability to perform multiple roles successfully as a simple economic advantage.
“If I can be hired as the father, the brother and the family dog, well, one actor doing all these parts saves time, expense and leaves more doughnuts for everybody else,” he said.
In the case of Foray, her willingness to do anything got her a job on everything from the early Disney classics “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan” to ADR work as children playing at the beach in “Jaws” and the voice of the killer Talky Tina doll in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” (She got that role because she had also been the voice of the real life Chatty Cathy doll).
So what keeps these performers employed doing the same characters over years and decades? It’s the ear of the audience, who can see that though the character may be drawn the same, any changes in the voice are instantly recognized.
“I think the audience does notice. I don’t think they like it,” Bergen said.
“The fans know what’s happening,” Foray said. “I get letters from all over the world and they know precisely what I’ve done.”
Which isn’t to say that the actors can’t run afoul of studios. Though she first voiced the Witch Hazel character for the Disney short “Trick or Treat,” she later went over to Warner Bros. to perform another Witch Hazel for the Looney Tunes shorts.
“Disney never talked to me after that,” Foray said. Eventually, all would be forgiven and Foray has done voices for the “DuckTales” animated series and the Disney feature “Mulan.”
And while the actors have long careers on TV, there’s been a steady encroachment on the big screen from bigger names voicing the characters.
“Suddenly, there’s this whole country you’re not allowed to go into,” says Billy West, whose four-decade career has most recently seen him voicing the ever-youthful Fry on “Futurama.” “We get hired for alchemy – coming up with characters, creating gold. The celebs come in and leave and it’s still lead.”
But what the voice actors lack in big-screen clout, they make up for in enthusiasm and volume, volume, volume.
“It’s fun to work,” Foray says. “Thank goodness. I don’t have to work.”
And what keeps her going after all these years?
“Making money,” she says, with a laugh.