An Animated Life
As Rob Paulsen prepares to publish his memoir, the Hollywood veteran and voice behind some of the most iconic cartoon characters of the ’80s and ’90s, reflects on his life from humble beginnings in metro Detroit to beating throat cancer with a sense of humor
Rob Paulsen, photographed near his current home in California
On Growing Up in Michigan
I was born in Detroit, lived in Livonia, Dearborn, Rochester, and graduated from high school in Grand Blanc. Every summer vacation we spent in Grayling. I am, as they say, “Pure Michigan.” It gave me a sense of stability that I think is inherent in a lot of folks from the Midwest, especially the Rust Belt folks.
Music was always prevalent in our home. When I was a kid, I was really inspired by The Pythons, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball. People who created characters. I would sing in character. It made my soul happy. My high school music teacher insisted that I learn to read music, which made a big difference when I moved to Los Angeles. It set me apart from other actors, because I was able to read music at the spur of the moment. Little did I know, that sweet old lady from Grand Blanc High School gave me a gift that would ultimately pay my rent.
About a year into studying at the University of Michigan, I said to my mom and dad, “I’m wasting your money and my time. I really want to be in the moving picture business.” Sometimes it comes to a place where the pull or the push, or whatever it is, is so strong that you say, “I can’t not do it.” I’ve just always felt most at home when I was performing. It was 40 years ago that I packed my little Honda and left my sweet mom standing on the porch of our home in her bathrobe crying as I drove away, just like in the movies. I drove out to California, and I’m still here. I’m still fooling them.
On Making It in Hollywood
When I moved to L.A. at 22, I’d had a large amount of experience with respect to what it’s like to screw up on stage in front of a bunch of people and realize it’s not the end of the world. Nothing that ever happened to me was anything that surprised me. The door was slammed in my face a thousand times.
— Rob Paulsen
I started singing jingles and doing music, and then I was doing on-camera commercials and radio commercials. I got my Screen Actors Guild card pretty quickly, and I was doing television and a few movies. When I first came here, cartoons aired Saturday mornings on three major networks. My timing was good, because I didn’t come out here for animation, but I loved cartoons. I started getting jobs doing animation with people whom I’d grown up watching on television. Wonderful actors, who were much older than I, were instrumental in saying, “You got a shot here to do something that you maybe didn’t expect. You’re versatile, you can sing, you can create characters, you’re a wonderful improviser, a good solid actor. You’re only going to get better. You might want to consider jumping on this animation train.” I’m glad I did.
Paulsen pictured with playful figurines. One of Pinky of Pinky and the Brain, and the other a replica of his most intimate character — himself!
On His Characters
You can make the argument that at least one or more of the characters that I’ve been fortunate to provide a voice for is known by probably all of the English-speaking world and maybe the rest of it. The first things I auditioned for that I got were G.I. Joe and Transformers. The first big one was Ninja Turtles. If that show changed my career then Animaniacs changed my life. Then I went to Jimmy Neutron and Fairly Odd Parents, The Tick, The Mask, Biker Mice from Mars, Smurfs, and on, and on.
As a singer, you can imagine that when I got the gig on Animaniacs, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Every episode had a 40-piece orchestra. Because I was the main character, Yakko, I got to sing pretty much every song. It’s impossible for me to put into words how grateful I am. A lot of people would have been very fortunate to get one or two of these characters and that would be pretty cool.
On the Craft of Voice Acting
I’m really good at being un-self-conscious. I have the ability to divorce myself from my physicality, which really is a big deal when you’re trying to
manipulate your voice and come up with characters and not worry about looking like a complete idiot. You’re limiting yourself by going, “Jesus, I must look silly when I do this.”
My process has not changed, but the technical aspects of recording have changed incredibly. It’s more streamlined and quicker than it used to be. Tape is practically as old as dinosaur bones now.
I see people on television or on the street, and I’ll hear them chat and sometimes they have a little
affectation that makes me think, “Oh, that might be an interesting character.” I’ll create stuff and stock it away in my mental rolodex. I’ll be at an audition one day and I’ll think, “This thing I’ve never had a place for, let me try it here.” And boom, I’ll get a job.
On Laughter as Medicine
I was diagnosed with throat cancer in my late 50s in February of 2016. It was stage three. It had spread to a lymph node in my neck from the primary tumor, which was in my throat at the back of my tongue. What my doctors told me is, “You’re going to die someday but not from this. We’ve got it.”
Because I’ve got a good sense of humor, when I was diagnosed, although it was incredibly serious, I kind of chuckled and said to myself, “OK, smart guy, everything you have in your life is paid for by money you earn with your voice. So, the fact that you’ve just been diagnosed with throat cancer — that’s kind of an interesting cosmic joke, isn’t it?” I do a podcast, and at the end of every episode I say, “Laughter is the best medicine, and the cool thing is, you can’t OD and the refills are free.”
I’ve talked to sick and dying children around the world probably around 500 times. I was talking to kids as Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the late ’80s on the phone, or I’d visit them. I had these great teachers who gave me examples of how to deal with something that could have been maybe not the end of my life but the end of my career. My book, Voice Lessons (Start Publishing), will probably be published fall of 2019. It’s about the lessons I’ve learned as a result of being able to use my voice. It’s a way in which I can let folks know how grateful I am to continue to pay joy forward, and you never know when my experience with cancer might be able to inspire someone else to get through it. Just like the children did for me.
On the Future
There’s a new version of Ninja Turtles coming out this fall, which I just so happen to be directing. I’m getting another crack at it, this time as Donatello. Turtles is as big as it’s ever been, and the fan base for Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain is larger than when the show premiered. The gentleman who wrote most of the songs and I got a licensing deal with Warner Bros., which allows us to perform the music of Animaniacs around the country. Every event we do, we have people who are 8 years old and people who are 70. It was on Netflix some time ago, and it just exploded. Then, executive producer Steven Spielberg pitched it and Hulu bought it. Now, the original Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain are on Hulu. In the fall of 2020, there will be 26 new half hours of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain with Mr. Spielberg running it again.
There’s a lot of good stuff coming up. I’m very fortunate, but, I cannot wait to get back to Michigan. One of my goals is to have a place in Traverse City, and I’m going to figure out a way to do it.
For more information, visit robpaulsenlive.com