Kelly Jane Torrance, The Washington Times
July 3rd, 2009
Talking to Jim Cummings is like being in a reverse “Enchanted” — you feel like a real person who somehow has stepped into an animated world.
Mr. Cummings has been a voice actor for a quarter-century, playing some of animation’s best-known characters. He just received a Daytime Emmy nod for his work as the gregarious Tigger on Disney Channel’s “My Friends Tigger and Pooh” — he also voices Pooh. He was Darkwing Duck on the series of the same name and has appeared in films from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to “Shrek.” In “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” his voice brought a number of characters to life, including Abe Lincoln. In this fall’s highly anticipated “The Princess and the Frog,” he voices a “lovesick Cajun firefly,” as Disney describes his sidekick role. He does movie trailers, commercials and video games.
The genial Mr. Cummings sounds like a man who loves what he does. But how does one get into such a distinctive line of work?
“You start by getting kicked out of class a lot when you’re in grade school. You’re back there doing dolphin noises in the back of the room,” he says. “Sister Mary Agnes knows who that is. Next thing you know, you’re out in the hall.”
He loved cartoons as a child. “I was the guy watching and thinking to myself, ‘This Mel Blanc guy sounds like he’s having a pretty good time. It usually gets me in trouble when I act like that,’ ” he says. “I always knew as a kid I’d be doing something like that. I knew I wouldn’t have a time clock in my future.”
He did at first, though. As he says, “You gotta eat.”
Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, he started in a steel mill as soon as he graduated high school. “It must have been three in the morning; I was walking down with snow up to my thighs, and it was 20 below. It was as if God was saying, ‘What do you want, me to drop a piano on your head? Get out of here.’ ”
So he hoofed it to New Orleans, where he created Mardi Gras floats and worked as a riverboat deckhand. It was the perfect place for a voice actor and musician. “It was where I heard so many accents,” he says. “I just treated it as fertile ground for the imagination, accidental research. You put all that together, and you get something new. Besides, if you do a terrible impression of somebody, you get a brand-new character.”
He finally made his way to California, where his very first demo tape made it into the hands of his idol. “It was the sweetest thing,” he recalls of having a friend who shared an office building with the late Mr. Blanc play the tape for him. “He looked up at the ceiling, shut his eyes, and smiled. At the end of the tape, he said, ‘Tell the kid he’s got it.’ I wasn’t there, but I’ll never forget that one.”
He’s been working steadily ever since.
If you’ve seen anything in animation, chances are you’ve heard Mr. Cumming’s voice — even when you think it’s someone else’s.
“I jokingly refer to myself as a stunt singer,” he says. “A lot of great actors don’t sing, and I’m a pretty good singer and a pretty good mimic, and I put those two together and sing in character for them.” He’s sung for Ed Asner, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd. When Jeremy Irons’ voice gave out while recording “The Lion King,” Mr. Cummings filled in for him — seamlessly.
He gets to combine his love of music and acting again in “The Princess and the Frog.” It sounds as if the Cajun character Ray was pretty easy for Mr. Cummings to create, having lived in New Orleans for most of the 1970s.
“Randy Newman, the poet laureate of New Orleans, he’s doing the music. It’s set in the jazz age. It’s so up my alley, I can’t even begin to tell you. I’m a jazz guy,” he says. “I’ve been singing my whole life. You combine that with Cajun culture, my favorite city, the first African-American princess in a Disney movie ….” He really knew he had to get the part, though, when he realized his children would be watching the DVD for years to come. He reportedly beat Harry Connick Jr. for the role.
That the film features Disney’s first black princess has put the movie under intense scrutiny – the heroine’s name was changed when critics thought “Maddy,” short for Madeleine, was too close to “Mammy.”
“Some people are in the business of taking themselves too seriously,” Mr. Cummings comments. “It pushes us apart; it doesn’t draw us together.”
Incredibly, one columnist even called Disney insensitive for setting the story in New Orleans, “the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”
“Can you believe that?” Mr. Cummings says. “Where would you set a movie that was the birthplace of jazz if it wasn’t going to be in New Orleans? My hometown of Youngstown would have volunteered, but it just wouldn’t be the same.”
Mr. Cummings has played many memorable roles, but his favorites have been the musical ones — he loved playing King Louie. “Speaking of New Orleans jazz, Louis Prima was the original,” he says of the great who first voiced the character in “The Jungle Book.” He also loved doing Don Karnage of “TaleSpin,” “the first Monty Python character in a Disney cartoon” and Darkwing Duck.
He’s enjoying playing Tigger and Pooh, too. “Pooh is kind of the eye of the storm, and Tigger is the storm, so I can keep them separate that way,” he says. “It’s just an honor to me; I feel like I’m a torchbearer for a new generation of kids.”
His own younger daughters, 4 and 2, love it — though his older daughters, 27 and 22, weren’t always his biggest fans. “I remember when the oldest was 5, I was reading voices, and she’d say, ‘Dad, it’s getting late; don’t do the voices, just read.’ ‘That’ll put you through college, missy!’ ” he’d respond.
It isn’t just his own children he talks to in character. One of the joys of the job is getting on the telephone as Tigger or Pooh a few times a week. “I can call up little kids in the hospital over Christmas or their birthdays if they’re ill and put a smile on their faces and make their mom and dad happy again,” he says.
Mr. Cummings has seen a lot of changes in the industry. There’s one that affects him more than any other.
“A lot of big-time celebrity movie stars are throwing their hats into the ring, that’s for sure,” he says. Case in point: Three of the five nominees in his Daytime Emmy category are Hollywood heavies — Amy Poehler, Joan Rivers and Vanessa Williams. Mr. Cummings has a simple solution to the problem plaguing him and his colleagues. “I’ll make a deal with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. If they don’t do any cartoons, I promise I won’t be the lead in any blockbuster films. Is that too much to ask for?”