Vintage interview: Michael Bell

From the archives, an exceedingly interesting and candid chat with a voiceover giant.

If you listened to our first podcast episode, you heard this fantastic interview with the great Michael Bell.  You can now read it here.

This was just the fourth interview I’d done with Transformers-related creative talent, conducted under the auspices of the RealmCast in the summer of 2009, and it’s one of my favorites.  Bell gave us about a half-hour, about twice the previously agreed-upon time, and was not only generous with his time, but his candor as well.  He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to certain subject matter, and fans are treated to a view of the voiceover industry “from the inside”, as it were.

We discuss his time on cartoons from the Hanna-Barbera classics to the action/toy-oriented productions of the 80s, his work in the video game industry, and his failed attempt to convince IDW Publishing to produce a Transformers motion comic, which would have reunited many members of the classic G1 cast.  Other topics discussed include his appearance as Peter Criss in the KISS TV movie The Phantom Of The Park, his reprisal of All-Star Seaworthy the Snork on Family Guy, and the controversial use of A-list actors in animated movies and the live-action Transformers films, as opposed to hiring talented voiceover people.  Enjoy!

Michael Bell with Austin Welch of Geewunner.com

Austin Welch: We’re here with Mr. Michael Bell, one of the legends in the voiceover industry.  I just want to let everybody know, if you’re not aware of some of the things this man has done, he’s been an on-screen actor for years, going back to the 60s and 70s.  A lot of on-camera stuff like The Rockford Files, M*A*S*H*, Charlie’s Angels, Barnaby Jones, Ironsides, Mannix…a lot of the cop/lawyer-type shows of the 70s…

Michael Bell: …Three’s Company…twice.

AW: Three’s Company!  I’ve got that here…I remember you on Three’s Company as well.  Get Smart, The Monkees, you were on Dallas for several early episodes playing a recurring character, Deep Space Nine, and The Next Generation – you’re a Star Trek alum – and of course his animation work.  A lot of action/adventure stuff, mostly from the 80s.  Transformers and G.I. Joe, of course, first and foremost – multiple characters on both of those shows – you played two characters on Voltron, Superfriends, The Hulk, GoBots.  A lot of more family-friendly cartoons like The Smurfs, The Snorks, Rugrats, The Jetsons.  Other short-lived series like Spiral Zone, Inhumanoids, Centurions.  You were the title role in Plastic Man.

MB:  That’s right, in fact the just interviewed me on that, they’re releasing the first three seasons of Plastic Man [on DVD].

AW: Awesome!  Can’t wait for that.  I just wanted to make sure the readers knew that this isn’t just some schlub were talking to, you’re one of the legends in the industry.

MB: Well, my wife would disagree with you. (laughter)

AW: Okay.  And you’ve also been a voice director on a couple of programs.  On top of all that you’re also a bit of an animal rights activist.

MB: ‘A bit’ is…I’m really a heavy animal rights activist, and  vegetarian to boot.  If it’s got a face and spills blood, I don’t eat it.  Or wear it.

AW: Absolutely.  Maybe I was underplaying it there.  And you’re also a member of the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood chapter?

MB: Not anymore.  I was, and I’m not anymore.  That just aged me, much more than my career.

AW:  And you were the voice of the famous butter commercial, where you just said “butter”, one word.

MB:  Parkay!  Butter!  Parkay!

AW: There you go!  And I’m told a lot of your colleagues – maybe in a friendly way – were disappointed that they didn’t get the gig, because that was one of the best-paying roles for just one word?

MB: A couple people had a hit out on me. (laughter)  And interestingly enough, I auditioned for it again,  two years ago, and didn’t get it.

AW:  Really?  Wow.

MB: And with the commercial coming out, all my friends called me, and said, “That’s not you.”  And I said, “I know.  How did you know?”  Because it’s just “Parkay!”  And they said, “Because I you’re your sound.”  And they got somebody from New York, maybe in-house, I have no idea.  But it’s interesting, you get to the point where you begin auditioning for your own career.

Michael Bell, 2009

AW: It’s not too dissimilar from the live-action Transformers movie, Frank Welker auditioned for his famous role of Megatron, and he didn’t get the part.  Baffling.

MB:  He was ‘wrong for it’.  Can you imagine Frank being ‘wrong’ for Megatron?  When I called Tom DeSanto – I don’t know if I talked to Michael Bay, but I spoke to Tom DeSanto, one of the producers of it.  I saw him on television, he was talking about the fact that they were going to be looking at some of the originals, and I said, “Well, I know we’re not going to do on-camera, but for voices?  Why not?”  I’m quoted as saying, “Our asses have dropped, but our voices have pretty much remained the same.”  And I asked him if he was going to use the original cast.  And he said, “Well, Probably, we’re going to audition everybody,” and they did audition a lot of the original cast, but he wound up getting just Peter.  And I asked Frank, and he said, “No, they’re not interested.”  But I think he did something in the second movie.

AW: Yes, he played another character that he originated.

MB: I don’t know if you know, [but] Frank is doing Transformers, the television series.

AW: I don’t believe so, not the current one.

[Editor’s note: at this point in the interview, there was apparently some confusion.  We thought Bell was referring to Animated, and we now realize that it may have been in reference to Prime, which we weren’t yet aware of, and which was likely in early development at the time.  Still, he goes on to mention Prowl, so he likely had the two mixed up as well.]

MB:  Because I read for that one as well, and they said, “You’re wrong for Prowl.  We love you, but you’re wrong for it.”

AW: [laughter] Baffling.

MB: And I said, [in an old man’s voice], “Wait a minute!  If I sounded like this, yeah, I’d be wrong for it.”  But I don’t sound like that, I still sound pretty much what I sound like.  Very funny.

Michael Bell with Austin Welch of Geewunner.com

AW: Unbelievable.  What’s the latest project that you’re working on now – what has you pumped up right now, in your career right now?

MB: I do a lot of interactive games, as you’re probably aware.  And I just finished my third – or fourth – Ratchet & Clank, which is one of the most…absolutely funny roles, just delicious roles, really a chance to play.  And nicely enough, the producers and directors give me that opportunity.  And now I’m also working on a motion comic – what they call a graphic motion comic – that you can download to your iPhone, iTouch, and we’re hoping now to get into iTunes.  It’s called Sparks, and it’s very dark, very edgy.

AW: Yes – I read all about that.

MB: I co-directed, I’ve got a voice in it, and I cast it, because I just wanted to cast good SAG actors to do it.

AW: Awesome.

MB: Absolutely.  And then, right now – we’re looking at another project, I’m not sure how I’ll be involved, but I guess I will be – for a company called Boom.  I think they’re planning to do this, again, it’s semi-animated, with lots of sound and special effects and things, so it’s not total animation, but nobody else has been doing it but us.  The show’s called Irredeemable, and it’s from a comic book.  I think I’ll be involved in casting, and I’ll probably do some voices in that.

AW:  So it’s almost like a Clutch Cargo thing, where it doesn’t move too much, but there’s enough movement and some sound in there?

MB: Yes, there’s just enough to move, but it’s not as static as some of others I’ve seen.  I’ve seen others that are very static.  In fact, we put together a demonstration for IDW Comics, for Transformers.  And I told them, I can get you the actors – the originals.  Which I thought the fans would probably love.

AW:  I was just going to ask you about that – feel free to go on about that.

MB: Yeah, that was exciting, and we went to San Diego, and we met with them.  They didn’t say no – they said, well, let’s see what you got.  And we put it together, and it’s a dynamite little piece, I think somebody – I don’t know who – put it on YouTube, they found a piece, and put it on YouTube.

AW:  It’s already off of YouTube, unfortunately.

MB: And then they took it off.  But it had 22,000 hits in a couple of days, and everybody’s going, “Wow!  That’s great!”  The next thing you know, IDW put out their own, in-house, at probably very little expense, but it’s nothing – and I can say nothing – like ours, it doesn’t have the animation, it doesn’t have the sound, it doesn’t have the excitement, the excitement, the music.  We really put a lot of energy and money into ours.  Which is fine, that’s their right, they have the license for it.  But I just it would have been a great idea.

AW: Very disappointing for huge fans like me, to have something like that almost happen, and then be taken away.

MB: And we felt bad, because we were under the impression that we were real close to it, that they were going to consider it.  And we were going to work out whatever deal we could work out that was amenable to them.  If it meant that we would have to pay [for] it up front, to do it, we would, and they would take less of an interest, less of a percentage.  Or, if they wanted to share with us, we would share percentages, or if they wanted to foot the bill, we’d take less of a percentage.  We just wanted to get it going.  But like all great things, in many cases, it doesn’t happen, so we’ve just got to move on.  So Sparks is the next step.  William Katt, Chris Folino are very much involved.

AW: A lot of the same production staff, if I’m not mistaken, on those two projects.

MB: Exactly.  Chris Folino, wonderful producer-director, who produced and directed the film Gamers, which I did voices on, which is the quintessential nerd film of the 2000 era.  Yeah, it’s really wonderful.  He’s just moving ahead, he’s just saying, “Let’s go ahead and do another one.  Let’s get somebody’s interest.”  I don’t know.

AW:  Hopefully someday IDW will wake up and bring that project back.

MB: It sure would be nice

AW: One more question about that, if you don’t mind me asking, can you give me some of the names of some of your colleagues that were thinking about being involved with this?

MB: Well, as I said, Chris was involved.  I called Dan Gilvezan, and I called Gregg Berger, and I spoke with Arthur Burghardt, who played Destro in G.I. Joe, but also did other stuff.  I haven’t talked to Corey Burton as of late, but I know Corey would probably jump on board.  Almost anybody who does this stuff, my buddies, would do it.  I don’t know if Frank [Welker] would, at this point, but I think I could corner Frank, and get him to do it.  I think if the environment was correct, because Frank just wants to play golf.  He just does it for his own…

AW: It just seems like, to this day, he’s just constantly working.  How does he find time for it?

MB: Well, guess what?  Frank’s doing an on-camera.

AW: Really?

MB: I’m told – or I saw something on a website.  Frank is doing a film with Matt Damon called Mr. Whiteacre.  [The finished film was retitled The Informant!]  Frank’s always had the bug for on-camera.  And it’s so amazing that he finally is getting this opportunity.  And I’m told it’s a decent role.  Good for him.

AW: Fantastic.  We’ll be looking out for that.

MB: Mr. Talent.  Absolutely.  An enormously talented man.

Michael Bell, 2009

AW: You brought up video games – that was one of my questions; you do a lot of work in the video game industry.  A lot of [your] colleagues from years past seem to be doing that a lot these days.  Is that something that you find to be rewarding creatively, and does it pay well?

MB: It’s very rewarding creatively.  Financially, it’s not that particularly great, because there are no residuals or royalties attached to it.  So an actor that is creative, and does have the ability to create a number of characters, with dialects, etcetera, and different age categories, winds up doing three voices for the price of one voice, which is not even a grand.  I think it’s about 780 dollars, that’s it.

AW: Wow.

MB: And if a game is enormously successful, like Halo, and even Defiance of Kane, which is one of my shows, and Metal Gear Solid – you don’t get any remuneration at the back end, as you would if you did an animated television show, or an animated movie that’s sold for DVD.  So it’s a one-shot deal, your only hope is that you get a lot of them, and subsidize your career.

AW: Well, why would someone of your ilk even get involved in that sort of thing?  Is it just the need for work in between other things, to stay busy?

MB: You know, we love doing it.  We love acting.  Thankfully, I’m at a point in my career where I get my pension, my social Security.  My daughter is embarking on her movie career, so maybe she’ll take care of me.  At this point, there’s not that many worries.  I just love doing it.  And that’s the reason I’m doing Sparks, is because – although I have a small thing in there, and I really wasn’t interested in doing too much of the voice, but I have  something to do in there – I really love directing.  I mean, I don’t know too many actors that don’t love directing.  The difference is, I’m really good.  Because I know VO actors, and I know how to get the best – because I teach voice animation.  I teach it, I know how to get them where they have to be, from an acting standpoint.  Because when people say to me, “I have a great voice,” that really doesn’t mean anything to me.

AW: Well, you’ve got the experience, too – I’m sure that’s a huge thing.

MB: Yeah, I’ve got the background for it.

AW: And on that same subject – because a lot of, for lack of a better word, “classic” voice actors from maybe the last twenty, maybe even up to thirty years, are working in the video game industry, do you find yourself crossing paths with a lot of old friends, and is it always enjoyable to work with those guys again?

MB:  Yeah, not as much as I’d like.  I can’t say they’re ego-less, but they’re not as desperate to show you what they can do.  They just do it.  When we were younger, it was a little bit different, of course.  I can tell you, I wish they had filmed the sessions of The Smurfs.  We probably could release it on the adult film circuit.  Because it was…I mean, the talent was unbelievable.

AW:  So the Smurfs recording sessions got a little blue?  No pun intended!

MB: Good!  Yes, it got purple, actually.

AW:  In the short-live Speed Buggy series in the early 70s, you worked with someone who many consider to be the greatest voice actor of all time – of course, I’m talking about Mr. Mel Blanc.

MB: Oh, he was wonderful.

AW: Did you learn much from him, since that was fairly early in your career?

MB: I don’t know if I set out to learn anything – I don’t know if anyone sets out to learn something, but if you listen, and you hear an actor that you really appreciate, and you wonder how he got there, I think you can’t help but learn something, maybe via osmosis.  He was not just a voice – that was my classic example – people say, “Well, I do voices, like Mel Blanc.”  And I go, “No, see Mel Blanc was an actor.  Mel Blanc – he acted those characters.”  If you listen to Mel’s characters, there are derivations, obviously, but the basic resonance is under all of them.  And you can’t say, “Oh I don’t know – that sounds like Mel.”  It sounds like Mel Blanc, except it’s that character, and you forget that it’s Mel Blanc.  He doesn’t have to work that hard, because he’s an actor.  And that’s what I have to tell people.  That’s what I try to explain to young actors when they want to get into the business.  It’s not a matter of [in a rough voice] sounding like that, or [in a baby-like voice] okay, sounding like that, you know, changing your voice.  It’s a matter of what’s behind it.  And Mel, I thought he was amazing.  I don’t know too many today that are as good as Mel, because, as you know, Mel did all those characters; they have seven or eight actors doing those characters [today].  Not just one actor.  And he did them all.

AW:  The only time they brought in other people in those old Warner Brothers shorts was maybe  June Foray to play a female character once in a while, and once in a blue a guest star.

MB: That was it. Absolutely, most of the time, it was him.  And, you know, now of course, we go back to what you didn’t ask me about, which of course is a bone of contention with most of us that do voiceovers, is the use of stars, and celebrities to do voices.  I can’t believe that that is what is going to sell.

AW: It’s been a point of contention with people like myself, and most of us that work on the website, and a lot of my friends that are into the same stuff.  It’s just baffling to us that they think just throwing a marquee name – oh, I don’t know, off the top of my head, like a Tom Cruise – is going to get somebody to go see a cartoon.

MB: Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise.  Or Tom Hanks!  Did the whole movie Polar Express – what, Tom, you couldn’t hire anybody else?  You had to do everything?  And who cares?  The film wasn’t that successful, as I understand.  The film that Brad Pitt did with Demi Moore wasn’t that successful.  Because those stars – it doesn’t mean they’re any better than the actors that make a living doing that.  I don’t expect they’d  go, “Gee, I’m not going to take that role, because I want Maurice LaMarche to do it, or because I want Tress MacNeille to do it.”  I don’t think they care about us, particularly.  I think they do it, because they want their kids to see them in a film where they haven’t flashed their boobs or their butt.

AW: And they think the parents are going to be more apt to take their kids to the cartoon movie if they see a name they recognize from some on-screen work.

MB: Yes, I think that’s pretty much it, and they say, “Oh, that’s great.”  And kids don’t know the difference.  And even young adults don’t.  They don’t care!  Is there anybody on The Simpsons, when it started, that was a famous person?  And look at the success of The Simpsons – great scripts, funny animation…

AW: They’re just extremely talented people.

MB:  …talented people.  And they didn’t need any superstars on it.  When we did Rugrats, we had no superstars.  Show lasted and lasted, and lasted.  And then when we did the movies, hot first movie, really hot, major money…and then they had to tinker, they bring in Whoopi Goldberg, and then they bring in Bruce Willis, and they bring James Spader, and I’m going, “Why did you bring in these people?  For what?  What is the purpose of that?”  For little cameos.  It makes no sense to me.  And you paid a fortune for them!  They didn’t do it for scale, trust me.  I didn’t get it, but I guess they don’t care.

AW: I’m going to be thirty-five next month, and ever since I was a kid, pretty much once I started getting into my teen years, and I started paying more attention to the business side of things, and the behind-the-scenes – when you’re a little kid, you just watch the cartoon, and it’s fun – but when you start getting older, and you start realizing, “Wow, there’s talented people behind the scenes.”  For the last twenty years, it’s been baffling to me that really, truly talented voice actors are so underappreciated and undervalued in the industry, when, again, they’d just rather throw a marquee name up there.

MB: For the most part, you’re correct.  I guess the only people that have gone against that, or I should say, have said, “Yes, these kids are worth something.” Have been Matt Groening and…I’ve forgotten who the other producer is, had said, “Yeah, these people are worth a lot of money, because the show is making so much money.”  So I’m not sure exactly what they get per session, but I’m told it’s close to a mil per session.

AW: Well, they went through some turmoil about ten years ago, there were a couple different points where they kinda were sketchy about whether they were going to maybe go on strike, or they were going to get another cast…

MB: Well, that was a ploy.  They wanted more money, because the show was successful.  This was a nighttime show.  Don’t forget, I did Rugrats, which was a very hot show, but it was a daytime show.  So, to get money out of them was a killer, because they didn’t have adults listening as much as they had kids.  But when you have the adults listening to a show, they’re not going to put up with secondary voices, no matter how good they are.  And we know so many people that could replace everybody on The Simpsons – trust me – really wonderful actors…sound like them, be as good as them, but they weren’t going to take that chance.  So they gave them grief for a while.  So they held out.  And they gave them more money.  And the next time they asked for more money, they didn’t hold out, they gave them more money.  So they went from thirty to forty, to sixty, to a hundred thousand, to three-hundred thousand, and we’re going, “Three-hundred thousand dollars a session?  Oh my god!”  And then they went to four-hundred and fifty, we went “Oh my god!”

AW: “That’s disgusting!”

MB: And then they went to five-hundred, and I said, “Oh my god!”  And then a million, I said “Oh my god!”  We’re all looking at each other, saying, “I can’t believe that!  That is extraordinary.”  In the meantime, there are people doing daytime series that are very, very successful, and maybe getting seventeen hundred, or if they’re lucky, five thousand for a session.

AW: Wow.  Did you hear about the brouhaha with Futurama?  Similar story.

MB: Yes, I think that that’s a red herring.  I really do.  They’re not going to get rid of Billy West and Tress MacNeille.

AW: Well, they’ve actually, just yesterday, signed all of them.  I don’t know if “buckled” is the right term, but due to online petitions and fan outcry.  I mean, it lasted two weeks, from the time they said they were going to get ringers, for lack of a better word.

MB: Of course!  And c’mon, Billy was at Comic-Con – I don’t know if Tress was – but the Futurama people were there on the panel…why would they be there if they didn’t know that, “Hey, we’re going to bring you back, don’t worry about it.”

AW: Those are some of my favorite people in the industry, just tremendously talented.

MB: Oh, yeah – Billy’s a talent.  We did the new Voltron together.

L-R: Austin Welch, Michael Bell, and George Cordero of The RealmCast.com

AW: Awesome.  It’s the nature of the business that you occasionally do freelance work that doesn’t end up being credited.  Your unmistakable voice was dubbed in place of KISS drummer Peter Criss in the TV movie, KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park.  A lot of people don’t know that.  Apparently, such a replacement was necessary due to his poor performance on the set.  Do you have any memories of that gig that you can share with us?

MB: Yes.  Not being a rock fan at all, when I was called in…I’m a voice slut.  You know, if it’s work, I’ll do it, I don’t care what it is.  And they said, “You’re going to replace Peter Criss in KISS.”  I really wasn’t quite sure of what KISS was at the time, I’m sorry to tell all the fans, but I really didn’t know what it was.

AW: I’m not a fan myself, so you’re not hurting any feelings here.

MB:  And I went in and heard his voice, and I said, “Okay, I understand why you want me to dub it.”  And it was an easy job, it was standing in front of the mic, and having a good time.

AW: ADR, as they call it sometimes?

MB:  Additional Dialogue Replacement.  So I wound up looping him, particularly.  Just totally looping him.  Most ADR generally, maybe A voice, or might be a crowd of people, sitting in a restaurant, in the streets, screaming, yelling, talking, whatever it is.  But this was hardcore, looping him entirely through the film.

AW: So it was just pretty much grunt work, here’s a paycheck, go in, do this work, in-and-out kind of thing?

MB: Yeah.  Because it’s what we do.  There’s many cases, that you’re not aware of, that stars can’t say certain things, or the star has indeed said some really heavy pornographic words, or laced his words, according to the script.  And you have to change it for movies, or change it for television.  So what started out as “homina-homina” turns out to be “pee-pee caca-doodoo”.  And he doesn’t want to come in and say “pee-pee caca-doodoo”, because he’s got his own feelings about it, or he doesn’t have the time.  And so they bring in an actor that sounds like that person.  I’ve replaced a lot of well-known people over a period of time, and done a line or two of theirs that had to be replaced.  And we do a lot of that in Japanese films as well.

AW:  Of course.  In recent years, you were called in to reprise your Snorks role of All-Star Seaworthy on Family Guy, and Zan the Wonder Twin for Harvey Birdman.  These are pop-culture, Generation-X kinds of shows that wanted to recapture something.  Did they specifically go after you, saying, we need the original guy?

MB: Oh, yeah.  Seth McFarlane called us.  Nancy Cartwright was brought in also, because she also played All-Star’s friend, or whatever it was that we did years ago.  And so Seth had his crew around, and he was glowing, he was so excited, and he goes, “This is Michael Bell, who did this, that, and the other thing.”  And he’s so excited, and I knew the success of Family Guy.  And he said, “You’re an icon.”  And I said, “Yeah, but I’m an icon that hasn’t worked for you.  Is there a reason for that?”  He just went woop-woop-woop, bright red.  Never worked for Seth McFarlane since, or prior to, that one little thing.  And there’s kind of a little wrinkle to it.  You know, if you really feel that way – hire me.  I haven’t changed.

AW: Put your money where your mouth is.

MB: Put your money where your enormous mouth is, with your millions of dollars.

AW: Oh, he’s making sick money.

MB: I mean, major, sick money.  And he’s talented.  He’s a very talented voice himself, which is another bone of contention with me.  If you’re a producing a show, and you want to throw in a voice or two, fine, but don’t take work from a VO actor.  You know, it’s hard enough out there, doing this work.

AW: Or by the same token, because he’s one of you, he should recognize that you should be brought in more for that sort of thing.

MB: Absolutely.  When I am in charge of a production, when I’ve cast and I’ve directed, and they always say to me, “Well, you did-“ I say, “No, I’m casting actors, I’m not going to do a role in this.”  I want to get other actors to work.  I want actors to work!  I want them to make their insurance [payments].  That’s the big thing.  When I was a youngster starting in this thing, who thought about insurance?  Pension?  What is that?  That’s for old people.  And now, young people are saying, “I’ve got to make my insurance.”  And so, when I’m a position – which is not often – I want to hire actors.  I’m not going to do the role.  It’s unfair.

AW: Well, when the younger folks work with experienced professionals, do they give them advice?  Like “Hey – put your nuts away for the winter, because I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m not in a good place.”

MB: Oh, yeah.  I do.  I don’t know about anybody else, but I do.  The first thing I say is, “I know it looks good now, but it’s not going to last forever.”  For me, it lasted forty-some-odd years, but for some people, it might last ten.

AW: You’re a rare case.

MB: Yeah, it’s very rare.  Because I know people that started after me, that were very young, and that are still struggling, having reached their sixties, yet are having a hard time.  And they’re good.

Michael Bell, 2009

AW: In Transformers and G.I. Joe, arguably two of the biggest productions you’ve ever worked on, you worked with a pool of talent that worked together in various combinations dating back as far as fifteen years prior to that, going back to Scooby Doo and a lot of the early 70s Hanna-Barbera stuff.  People like alan Oppenheimer, John Stephenson, Don Messick, Frank Welker, Jack Angle, Casey Kasem…just to name a few.  Was it always good to work with those guys?

MB: Yeah.  It was a small group of people, when you really think about the talent pool.  I feel like we were at the beginning of a kind of Golden Era, and we saw the end of the Golden Era, as it were, at least of that kind of talent pool.  And it was great working with them.  In fact, I talk to Jack Angel quite a bit, and I talk to Neil Ross, I haven’t seen Casey for a while, and Frank every now and then.  But for the most part, yeah it was great because…you know what it was like?  It was like a good improv group.  I used to say a long time ago, “I’ll go to bed with a stranger, but I won’t do an improv with one.  Because that’s much too intimate.”  [laughter]  And everybody that worked said, “I know what you’re saying!  I don’t trust anybody else, because you know where I’m going, and I know you’re not going to try to top me in terms of this line.  And I know you’re going to listen, and I know I’m going to feed you.  And that was pretty standard.

AW: It’s interesting that you should say that, because it seems like a lot of that crew wasn’t interested in trying to outdo each other, they were interested in just everybody collectively working together on a quality product.  And that was my next question: do you feel that the ongoing chemistry with a lot of those people contributed to the quality of some of these shows?

MB: Absolutely.  Absolutely it contributed to it.  Because I can’t even tell you what the writing was like; because as far as I was concerned, I’d sit down, and say, “This is great; what a great character,” or, “This is fun, this is a better character,” or “This is a stead character, I’ve always played this guy.”  But everybody came up to the mark.  We didn’t have to push anybody into anything.  And when somebody new stepped in to the group, we’d all look at each other and say, “Who’s this?”  And if they matched us, we were, “Hey, welcome to the club.”  Absolutely.  Because it wasn’t about makeup and hair, it was about, “How good are you?  Can we work together?”

AW: Did you ever just kind of step back once in a while and say, “Wow – that person’s really talented,” or, “I’m lucky to be working with these people?”

MB: With Mel, yes, particularly.  Always the people that are talented.  Always.  When/if somebody is really talented, I said, “This is such a treat.  This is so good.”  I wish I’d had that kind of luck in my on-camera career.  I might have learned more, than just sort of blundering ahead.  And I was fortunate, because I worked a lot of on-camera.  But I didn’t work with as many people that were as good as I’d hoped to work with, unfortunately.  They were just mostly contract players, really handsome, really beautiful, but that was as far as it went.

AW: One last thing here.  Do you have any interesting or humorous stories from those days, working with Marvel/sunbow, or any other production?

MB: I’m not sure.  I know the story of Mel is very famous, it’s already on YouTube – my working with Mel Blanc on Speed Buggy.

AW: That was hilarious.

MB: In fact, I reminded Oppenheimer of it not too long ago, he was laughing, I said, “I’m going to send you to YouTube to remind you of what I did to you.” I can only tell you that during the taping of G.I. Joe there was moment after moment after moment, where it just never stopped, because everyone was so funny.  I do remember Wally Burr – and I think we talk about this on the DVD of G.I. Joe – Wally Burr, who was our director, and also a voice, was committed to keeping us there as long as possible, and we had an eight hour day in those days.  And we’d have twenty people in a room, doing all these different voices.  There was no auditioning.  “You’ll do this also, Mike.  In fact, you can do this character.”  And, “Satch, you’re gonna do this character, and you’ll do this other character.”  And we just did it.  We just said, “okay, what can I do that you didn’t do?”  And we would all talk about this, and we were there for hours.  And then, at a point Frank started to work a little bit more, and Frank says, “Look, I gotta leave.”  And we’d all look at him, because the eight hours weren’t up.  And it finally got to the point after about the third session, where he was leaving after the fifth hour, he [Burr] would say, “Frank is going to do all his stuff first, because Frank’s got to leave.”  [laughter]  And we’d look at each other, we’d all be lying on the floor, and BJ Ward would be, “Oh, god – get me out of here.”  And I walked over to Frank, and I said, [in a vaguely Eastern-European accent] “This is a picture of me, would you give this to my children and my wife, and tell her that Wally Burr has me.”  [laughter]  And everybody broke up.  I mean, it was so funny.  I mean, it was true – we were, like, incarcerated.  But we look back on it now, and say, “Oh, to have that time again,” to do a hundred and some-odd shows, lined up like that

AW: And for a fan, like us, just to be a fly on the wall would have just been a treat.

MB: And that’s funny.  I never thought of the success of that.  We just worked.  People say, “Gee, I had no idea it was going to be a success,” for us it was just…I thought Inhumanoids was great!  I loved Inhumanoids.  I loved doing that show.

AW: Well, speaking on behalf of fans everywhere, we really appreciate all the years of hard work and all the talent put into pretty much everything that you’ve ever done.  And we really thank you for spending a few minutes with us today.  It’s been an absolute pleasure.

MB: It was a pleasure.  You’re welcome.  Absolutely.

Saluting Duke

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