Voice actors sound off by Joe Neumaier (Daily News, May 26, 2005 )

Voice actors sound off
By (Daily News)

May 26, 2005 . It’s scary hearing an animated voice actor get angry.

But that’s what happens when some of the most prominent names in voiceover acting discuss the celebrity voices who are taking their jobs in animated movies.

“What the producers of animated features are doing is indefensible,” says Tony Jay, a 40-year veteran best known as the voice of the villainous Frollo in Disney’s 1996 “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

“What they’re doing is putting actors like myself out of work because they think it affects the box office.”

Consider:

  • “Madagascar” opens tomorrow, “starring” Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith.
  • Next month Disney releases the Japanese anime “Howl’s Moving Castle,” starring Christian Bale, Uma Thurman and Billy Crystal.
  • In August, “Valiant” arrives with Rupert Everett and Ewan McGregor (who also voiced the main character in this spring’s “Robots”).

And, says Jay, there’s little evidence to support the idea that big names return big box office: “Look at failures like ‘Treasure Planet’ (Martin Short, Emma Thompson) or ‘Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas’ (Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones).

“Yes, there are exceptions where the voice is unique, like Robin Williams in ‘Aladdin’ or Eddie Murphy in ‘Shrek.’ But for every big success, I can name a failure.”

It was Williams’ work in 1992’s “Aladdin,” in fact, that reversed a long tradition that cast actors for voice talent, not name value. But after Williams’ performance, the genie was out of the bottle.

“‘Aladdin’ put a light bulb over producers’ heads. From then on, we were toast!” says James Arnold Taylor, a voice of Fred Flintstone, among other characters.

“It’s become about celebrities wanting to get easy money,” says Taylor. “They all say they ‘want to do something for their kids.’ I want to do something for my kids, too – put them through college!”

Debi Derryberry, the voice of Jimmy Neutron on TV and in the movies, says that when it comes to feature films, “Audiences really can’t tell between a star or not.

“Sometimes it’s the name that sells the actor to the studio, not the voice,” says Derryberry. “And while Eddie Murphy was worth every penny, there are a lot of voice artists who offer just as much humor and variety and don’t require the major money.”

“The pay at Disney is pretty commensurate between celebs and voice actors,” says Rick Dempsey, a co-director and producer of “Howl’s Moving Castle” and a senior vice president at Disney’s Character Voices division.

“We go with celebs because we want to home in on a certain acting style. We can grab onto how this person is going to do the role. You recognized Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in ‘Toy Story,’ but you bought it because they were perfect for those characters.

“I empathize with voice actors who say there’s been a shift, but … some voiceover talents do good voices but are not great actors.”

Still, many voiceover actors, like Billy West (voice of many Warner Bros. characters, including Bugs Bunny), Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh) and Thurl Ravenscroft (the voice of Tony the Tiger and many classic Disney characters, who died Sunday at age 91) are legends to newcomers like Derryberry and Taylor.

But today, it’s common for actors like them to audition for and get lead roles – only to be bumped for a celebrity.

“There’s a joke we say: ‘Gee, I wonder who’ll replace us?'” says Arnold.

“I heard Chris Rock once say something like, ‘Voiceover is the best job. You just go in and read.’ Don’t say that, Chris. That hurts. What we do is about subtlety and pauses. It’s not just doing squeaky voices.”