When Jim Cummings is sick, Winnie-the-Pooh disappears.
Cummings’ vocal cords give life to Disney’s animated Winnie-the-Pooh, the Bear of Very Little Brain created by A.A. Milne.
“Pooh is not quite a falsetto; he’s kind of like a high tenor, or a low tenor with a lot of rasp in there, just like a wind blowing through the cattails sort of sound,” the voice actor crooned in perfect Pooh timbre. “If I get an allergy or a cold, Pooh goes away, so I have to eat my vitamin C.
Pooh might suggest a remedy that soothes both the throat and tummy: honey.
Agoura Hills resident Cummings, 56, is a cartoon chameleon. He has been the voice of Pooh for Disney since 1988, then took over as Tigger.
Pooh and Tigger, however, are just two of the characters listed on Cummings’ 10-page “voiceography.”
You might have heard him as Kaa the snake in “The Jungle Book 2,” Ed the hyena in “The
Lion King” and assorted characters in “Aladdin,” “Antz,” Babe: Pig in the City,” “Bee Movie,” The Little Mermaid,” Pocahontas,” “Shrek” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
For Warner Bros., he’s Taz the Tasmanian devil (“the anti-Pooh,” he says). Other credits include “Animaniacs,” “Pinky and the Brain,” ”Curious George,” “King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
And wildfire-prone California is proud to call him one of the voices of Smokey Bear.
“I do all the better bears,” said Cummings during an interview at his home.
Next up is his role as Ray, a laid-back, lovesick Cajun firefly in “The Princess and the Frog,” a new, traditionally 2-D animated Disney film set in New Orleans. The film, a musical, will have a score by Randy Newman and, in a first for Disney, a black princess. The movie, also featuring the voice of Oprah Winfrey (as the princess’ mom), is still in postproduction and scheduled for a December release.
This week, however, Cummings’ attention is on a certain boisterous tiger.
As the free-spirited Tigger on Disney Channel’s “My Friends Tigger and Pooh,” which airs each morning, Cummings has received a 2009 Daytime Emmy Award nomination for outstanding performer in an animated program. The winner will be announced Saturday during the Creative Arts portion of the awards at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles; the more mainstream awards (such as honors for soap opera stars and talk show hosts, etc.) will be handed out Aug. 30 at L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre and televised on The CW.
Notice the Emmy category is titled “outstanding performer in an animated program,” not “outstanding voice.”
Cummings and his brethren truly are actors, not just script readers.
Brian Hohlfeld, executive director of “My Friends Tigger and Pooh,” said that, to be a good voice actor, “you have to be an actor. People forget that. It’s not just the voice. There’s such a small group of people who do this because it’s really hard.”
With Cummings, he said, “you can see the physical changes in his face and body as he’s doing the voices.”
Cummings calls his work “acting for the ears.” Cartoons, he said, “are not called ‘animated’ for nothing.
“A lot of people think they draw the movie or cartoon first, but the fact is they record the voices first, then they animate to that,” he explained. “You can’t really draw comic timing out of thin air; you’ve got to hear it and go, ‘Oh, that I can draw.’”
Finding his voices
Cummings started out at the top of the cartoon chain, landing at animation exemplar Disney in the 1980s. Born and raised in Ohio, Cummings said he listened to Paul Winchell (the original voice of Tigger) and Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and many others) as a kid and thought, “Man, they’re having a great time.”
He didn’t have any formal stage or voice training, aside from a book about ventriloquism, but did act in plays as a child.
Onstage, he said, “I would rather be the wizard than the prince because the wizard was a little more interesting and had more cool stuff to do. I was doing accidental research for my career later in life.”
At age 19, after attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Cummings moved to the Big Easy. He worked as a deckhand on riverboats, and fulfilled his artsy side by designing and painting Mardi Gras floats, and performing as a drummer and singer in bands.
In 1979 Cummings, his first wife and their two daughters moved to California, where from 1979-84 he ran a video store in Anaheim Hills. While there, he made a demo voice tape, and was fortunate to get it into the right hands: a customer who was a movie producer.
“I got an audition out of that without an agent,” Cummings said.
He first real role was a plum Disney one, playing Lionel the Lion in “Dumbo’s Circus,” a TV show featuring live-action puppets.
Halfway through his 120-episode stint on “Dumbo’s Circus,” Cummings hired an agent and started working in radio and TV. (He also does voice-overs, movie trailers previews and commercials, everything from J.C. Penney to AutoZone.)
He moved from Anaheim to Westlake Village and the Santa Rosa Valley, then to Agoura Hills about three years ago. He and his wife Stephanie, who’ve been married for eight years, have two daughters, Gracie, 4, and Lulu, 2; Cummings’ older daughters are in their 20s.
Ducks and dust bunnies
Cummings is proud of some of his lesser-known roles, such as the title character in “Darkwing Duck,” an Emmy-nominated animated Disney program that aired in the early 1990s. Darkwing, “the terror that flaps in the night,” was a bumbling superhero in the town of St. Canard.
He’s also fond of a monster named Mr. Bumpy from “Bump in the Night.”
“He was this funky little guy who lived under the bed and thought eating dust bunnies was a delicacy,” Cummings said. “He was as cool as he could be, and ate dirty socks.”
In 1995, Cummings received an Annie Award nomination for voice acting as Mr. Bumpy but was beaten by Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.
The competition is stiff for this week’s Emmy Award, too, with celebs better known for their live-action work nominated in the animation category. Cummings is vying for the award with Amy Poehler (as Bessie Higgenbottom in “The Mighty B!” on Nickelodeon), Joan Rivers (Bubbe in “Arthur” on PBS), Vanessa Williams (Mama in “Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies” on PBS) and Jim Ward (Eyemore in “Biker Mice from Mars” on Fox).
“This year I’m going with either Vanessa or Amy,” Cummings said, summing up his competition. “I think folks go down the line and go: ‘Jim Cummings? I don’t really know who that is. Oh, Joan Rivers, Vanessa Williams, I love her; let’s vote for her.’ You can’t fight that. I understand why they do it.”
What does he think about the trend of celebrities taking on the lead voice roles in animated movies?
“I have some calls out to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Eddie Murphy,” Cummings said, laughing. “I said, ‘I won’t star in any blockbuster films if you stay out of animated films.’ They just won’t call me back.”
Cummings does get feedback, however, from another telephone venture, this one for charity.
Hundreds of sick children each year receive a phone call from one of the Hundred Acre Woods’ (and Agoura Hills’) famous denizens, Winnie-the-Pooh or Tigger, aka Cummings. He works with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses, and Famous Fone Friends, which connects sick kids to entertainers and athletes via phone.
Cummings recalled one such phone session with a little girl with cancer, not quite 3, who had been on chemotherapy for six months. “I had to gear up for that one,” he said. “‘I love you, Winnie-the-Pooh,’ she said. Stuff like that is so rewarding; it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Keeping it fresh
Cummings models his Pooh and Tigger voices after the men who first voiced the characters: Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell, respectively.
(Holloway died in 1992. Winchell, a Moorpark resident when he died in 2005, lived in Ventura County for more than 15 years.)
“That’s one thing I think Disney is right on the money with — they keep their characters sounding the same,” Cummings said. “They could run a Winnie-the-Pooh from the ’60s and one from 2008 and have the consistency there.”
Still, he said, “you don’t want to stagnate. You ad lib and do different things to keep it fresh.”
“My Friends Tigger and Pooh” director Hohlfeld said Cummings is “true to Sterling vocally, but he’s made it his own as well. Pooh is still the befuddled bear. Jim just brings more heart to it; his Pooh has a little more warmth.”
One thing you might not want to hear, however, is Pooh as pugilist.
Cummings “does a fantastic Mike Tyson imitation,” Hohlfeld said. “Sometimes he’ll do Pooh’s lines using Mike Tyson’s voice.”
He doesn’t even need to alter Pooh’s “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain” line.
Jim Cummings holds daughters Grace, 4, and Lulu, 2, near a garden statue of Taz the Tazmanian devil — he calls him “the anti-Pooh” — for which he also provides the voice.
Jim Cummings, a voice actor who´s done numerous animated characters since 1984, carries his daughter Lulu 2, out of their Curious George playhouse July 23, 2009.
Voice actor Jim Cummings rehearses a current project in his home studio in Agoura Hills. He’s been the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh for Disney since 1988 and does Tigger, too.