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Pantheon of Voice Gods Profiled 3.0

posted by Mel. on 6/21/01

Profiling one of the art's most villanious retro-talents

The eighties were a hurricane of change for the methods of the voice-acting industry and the way that voice actors were used by commercial companies. Since the dawn of animation, the studio system had applied to the talent behind the characters of any specific cartoon division as well as those familiar faces of Hollywood's allegedly Golden Era of celluloid superstar. Disney had its stable of characters behind the characters, often using greats such as Jerry Cologna and Sterling Holloway for their child-oriented live action fare as well as their animated blockbusters. It was a good time to have a guaranteed action clause in your contract, and other studios like Warner Brothers and the Fleischman Productions House followed suit.

It wasn't until the crossover between the fifties and sixties, and the ascension of Hannah-Barbara as a viable animated superpower until the politics of the voice acting profession began to mold themselves more after production than person. Hannah-Barbara did something that no successful studio before it had: it escaped the crushing umbrella of Warner Brothers and Disney cartoon superiority by smearing the market with product. Moving past promising series like the Jetsons and the Flintstones, H-B suffocated their competitors with dozens of new series produced on a shoestring budget. Animation sucked, but the production house found a way around spending boku bucks on cells and artists by regurgitating specific action sequences for their shorts. Chances were, if you saw a Wacky Racer go off a cliff or slip past another car in one serial, you'd see the exact same shot with a recolored background in another episode. It was a brazen manuever, but one that fit dwindling attention spans and the new medium of color television. Hell, the kids usually didn't even notice at the time.

Hannah Barbara also had their own secure roster of voice talent, but with one specific difference: These studio actors played a LOT of characters for the buck. A lot. Many. To give you a general idea of how things worked, an average episode of Scooby-Doo would have ten to twelve characters played by five voice actors. Frank Welker was one such talent, echoing the ability of another Industry superman who had hoisted Warner Brothers from runner-up to Disney peer with his brilliant abilities.. Mel Blanc.

Blanc was an abomination at the time. It was unheard of for a voice talent to handle more than two or three characters before Hannah-Barbara, but here was Mel, bombing through and breathing life into the studio's entire roster of creations. Mel occasionally got a lift from fellow icons like June Foray, but such an occurence was rare. It's been often wondered why the trend didn't spread to save both time and budget dollars, but the reason is simple: Mel Blanc was better than anyone out there. He had more range, more timbre, more improvisational talent and more work ethic than his peers of the era, and Warner Brothers knew that they could build something astounding around him. Also, Blanc's unmolested speaking voice was the perfect guise--he sounded like everyone until he took on the task of doing Taz, or Bugsy, or Marvin the Martian. It was once noted by voice forensics experts of the later seventies that Mel's range was so astounding that he could, quite literally, almost overcome the fingerprint aspects of the human voice by dramatically altering little things in his delivery.

Blanc's dynasty stretched well into the eighties. When he finally did hang up his full-time tonsils, he left behind a voice actor and television animation Industry that had fully converted from entertainment to commercialist indulgence of the ridiculously blatant sort. Parents had never worried about Wil E. Coyote beaming the wrong message into their kids' skulls twenty years earlier, but now they had a reason for furor: the Hasbro Action Theater cartoons were the design of the new decade. They were loud, they were violent, and they were armed with consumer ammunition the likes of which no one had EVER seen.

The new face of cartoons also subscribed to the Hannah Barbara method of employment. It became more and more important for studios to hire talents who had the ability to contort their vocal cords into unrecognizable varieties of characters. Shows like Transformers would have one actor punching out four series regulars as a general rule, and many others followed obedient suit. And while nobody with a surplus of talent in the industry went hungry from lack of work, it certainly was a different story from the glory days of Ed Wynn--one good voice just wasn't good enough for changing times. That voice had to be spectacular.

Enter Tony Jay.

Jay's ship didn't pull into the animation industry until long after the heyday of the eighties cartoon landscape, but little had changed as far as animation on the small screen went when he arrived in 1990. Chosen to lend his growling bass to Shere Khan on Disney's Tail Spin (Replacing the magnificent bastard who had brought him to life in the Jungle Book twenty-three years earlier, George Sanders), the medium proved to be a perfect fit to Tony's unmistakeable vocalizations. The industry took quick notice, and Jay's cartoon resume' consequently exploded: while a broadway and live-action TV actor and member of the Royal Shakespere Company first and foremost, Jay's forays into the world of animation have been of the exceptionally memorable sort.

After bouncing to a role in the wretched Tom and Jerry: The Movie (Where the violence-addicted mouse and cat got voices of their own, beyond screams of agony) Jay went back to Disney to make an impression as Monsieur D'Arque in the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast. The character had mere moments of screen time, but enough to make an impression as he growled deliciously over the idea of dumping the heroine's crackhead father into an extended stay in his asylum for the deranged.

After the first few years of the nineties had been stuffed through the wringer, Jay nailed the role of Megabyte on the seminal Canadian-produced adventure series "ReBoot". A phenomenal cartoon that was crafted entirely in CGI graphics medium, Jay relished the role as the villianous viral overlord of the CPU domain Mainframe. No word went delivered without some gutteral bellow, simple pronunciations were contorted into basso profundo snarls, and the younger siblings of Generation X were given the closest thing they'd ever see to a Megatron. ReBoot bit the bullet in 1997, unfortunately, but Jay had already made his presence felt elsewhere: Disney's version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The movie was known to the public months before it even hit theaters. Heralded as Disney's long-awaited arrival into more mature fare, the studio was allegedly seeking to give Victor Hugo's work the representation and vivid translation that it had been screaming for since the bleak Lon Chaney version in the thirties. When the movie was completed, polished, and finally offered to the public for consumption, it became painfully obvious that the press packets were dressed finely in bullshit: save for Jay's phenomenal Judge Claude Frollo, the drama was completely smothered in slapstick antics and wasted opportunities. Jay was the man for the job, and every time Frollo meandered on the screen with his anus lips and spiderwebbed fingers, it was like you'd been teleported from the theater and into an alternate dimension where Disney was still making GOOD films based on a formula that actually worked. Jay did himself proud, but Disney let the hype build for a stolid letdown from which they're still trying to recover.

After Hunchback, Jay returned to a balanced diet of films and voice work. He lent his talents to Rugrats and Xyber: 9, the well-crafted Superman animated series, and found another medium which simply thrives from his abilities--video games. His last spate of work was in the Soul Reaver series and Planescape as well as others, but recently dropped his intense schedule to focus on the stage and his musical compositions.

Jay recently released a CD of spoken-word performances based on the work of Broadway deities such as Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter along with his "Sentimental Journey" album of big band and swing music. He continues to pursue his other interests beyond the realm of the silver and small screen, and it has yet to be determined by fanboys worldwide as to whether or not Megabyte will be returning in the upcoming ReBoot: Daemon Rising feature.

Hopefully, Jay won't stay away from cartoons for too long. In a fucked-shebang world where a guy like Jim Cummings finds consistent work, the cartoon loving public needs all the real talent it can get.

Check out Tony's Official Homepage and get your fix.

-m.


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