That's Not All, Folks!
Mel Blanc (1989)
After being attended to all night by a team of eight doctors at the nearby UCLA Medical Center, my chances of survival were put at a scant one thousand to one. With odds like that, it was no wonder why the next day's Honolulu Herald carried my obituary, claiming voice-man Mel Blanc, fifty-two, was dead. The paper wasn't that far off. Comatose, and entombed in a heavy full-body cast, it indeed seemed that Porky Pig's signature "That's all, folks!" was about to become my epitaph.
For three weeks I lay there, breathing but silent, though my throat had miraculously been spared from injury. Doctors spoke in hushed tones about the prolonged semicoma possibly leading to brain damage. Meanwhile, my wife, Estelle, and my twenty-two-year-old only son, Noel, kept vigil at my bed side. With anguish etched on their faces, they tried desperately to rouse me out of my unconscious state, calling my name over and over, but to no avail.
That was until the twenty-first day, when Dr. Louis Conway glanced up from my medical chart to see my most popular animated creation, the irrepressible Bugs Bunny, cavorting across the room's black-and-white TV screen. Inspiration struck. Had this been a Warner Bros. cartoon, a light bulb might have blinked on above the neurosurgeon's head. Leaning over the bed, he asked, "How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?" And from within the thick mass of bandages swathing my head came the reply, "Eh, just fine, Doc. How're you?" The voice was faint but unmistakably Bugs's. Then he inquired, "And Porky Pig, how are you feeling?"
"J- uh-ju- uh-just f-fine, th-th-thanks!" I stuttered. It was as though Bugs and Porky, into whom I had breathed life three decades earlier, were returning the favor. I may have been on the verge of death, but they were very much alive inside me. (2)
After more than sixty years in show business, this "Man of a Thousand Voices" has a million memories to share with you. And here's a switch: I will do so using my own voice which, for the record, sounds like Sylvester's, but without the thspray. (4)
My talents were not appreciated by all, however, in particular a crotchety old teacher by the name of Washburn. When I broke up a classroom discussion by giving an answer in four different voices, she reprimanded me sternly; too sternly, if you ask me. "You'll never amount to anything," she said scornfully. "You're just like your last name: blank." Her stinging insult so shamed me that when I was sixteen, I started spelling my surname with a c instead of a k. Later, as an adult, I changed it legally. After I became a familiar name on national radio programs and in cartoons, I often wondered if Mrs. Washburn associated Mel Blanc with that young student she'd ridiculed so many years before. (10)
I accidentally discovered Woody Woodpecker's voice in a high-school hallway. Obviously, adolescent boredom has its practical applications. (58)
Porky's voice was tinkered with accordingly. The pig's stutter was Friz's idea, one for which he initially tolerated a good deal of criticism. But he wanted to distinguish Porky from the many homogenous animated-film characters, and in hindsight the distinctive speech impediment did just that. Originally the role went to Joe Dougherty, a debonair actor whose film credits included The Jazz Singer. Talk about typecasting: Dougherty stuttered. For real.
It must have seemed ideal at firstneed a stammering cartoon pig, hire a stammering actor. But problems unfolded. Recording was still done on expensive optical film, and Dougherty's inability to come in on cue wasted a lot of it, irritating a budget-minded Leon Schlessinger. (66)
To help capture the characters' facial expressions and to match lip movement to the sound track, the animators kept a tape recorder and a mirror on each of their desks. Repeating the prerecorded dialogue aloud, they used their own reflections, as models. And physical movements were often acted out for accuracy. (81)
As you know, Bugs literally helped save my life after my near-fatal 1961 car accident. But he's gotten me out of other scrapes as well. Some years ago I was driving on Interstate 10 near Tucson when a policeman pulled me over. The car, a brand new Rolls-Royce, handled so smoothly that I hadn't even realized I was speeding.
The officer peered down at my license, then at my face. "Are you the Mel Blanc?" he asked warily.
About the best proof I could offer was to reply affirmatively in Bug's voice.
His face broke out in a grin.
"Well, I guess I'm going to have to let you off with a warning," he said. "My kids would never forgive me if I gave a ticket to Bugs Bunny!"
Thanks again, old buddy. (84)
A tough little stinker, ain't he?" Hardaway remarked while admiring his portrait of the new Bugs.
A tough little stinker ... In my mind I heard a Brooklyn accent; not to insult the integrity of those living there. But to anyone living west of the Hudson River at that time, Brooklynites were associated with con artists and crooks. Without a doubt the stereotype was derived from the many motion picture gangsters who always seemed to speak in Flatbush Avenue-ese. Consequently the new, improved Bugs Bunny wouldn't say jerk, he'd say joik. And the boisterous laugh I'd originally given him no longer fit. It was redeposited in my memory bank, to be withdrawn several years later for another Ben Hardaway creation: Woody Woodpecker. Likewise, a hepcat such as Bugs wouldn't say, "What's cookin'?"which originally was to be his singular phrasehe'd employ something more contemporary.
"What's up, Doc?" became the most famous ad-lib of my career. It was incomplete, however, without the sound of the rabbit nibbling on a carrot, which presented problems. First of all, I don't especially like carrots, at least not raw. And second, I found it impossible to chew, swallow, and be ready to say my next line. We tried substituting other vegetables, including apples and celery, but with unsatisfactory results. The solution was to stop recording so that I could spit out the carrot into a wastebasket and then proceed with the script. In the course of a recording session I usually went through enough carrots to fill several. (87)
To further emphasize his battiness, he was drawn with mad, gleaming eyes and a long bill. The latter characteristic figured prominently in creating Daffy's voice. It seemed to me that such an extended mandible would hinder his speech, particularly on words containing an s sound. Thus "despicable" became "desthpicable." (95)
While recording Sylvester cartoons, my scripts would get so covered with saliva I'd repeatedly have to wipe them clean. (102)
Because the Roadrunner's scripts, such as they were, didn't change the least bit from cartoon to cartoon, I had to tape "Mbeep-mbeep!" but once, for the second Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote short, Beep Beep (1952). In the duo's debut, 1949's Fast and Furry-ous, sound-effects man Treg Brown used an electronic horn called a claxon. But in the nearly three years between cartoons it had been misplaced. When production for Beep Beep was under way, he nabbed me in a Termite Terrace hallway to ask if I could mimic the sound vocally. I could, I did, and I never had to do it again. (106)
Far more triumphant with the opposite sex was my final Warner Bros. leading character, Speedy Gonzales the Mexican mouse. In his second cartoon a handful of rodents are discussing his romantic exploits.
"Speedy Gonzales friend of my seester," says one, prompting another to add, "Speedy Gonzales friend of everybody's seester!" (115)
As is true of most success stories, several factors contributed to the cartoons' everlasting appeal: obviously the writing, the animation, and the characters themselves. However, I think it's chiefly the playfulness and irreverence with which we approached our work. Hell, compared to the staff at Walt Disney's production house, we were downright anarchists. Just compare the characters most associated with each studio: Disney's ingenuous Mickey Mouse and our shrewd Bugs Bunny. (122-4)
Between all the shows and rehearsals, sometimes the pace became so dizzying I'd forget which brand of tobacco I was smoking. That may not sound terribly important, but with many series sponsored by savagely competitive cigarette manufacturers, believe me, it was. Lucky Strike sponsored Jack Benny's show; Chesterfield, Bing Crosby's; and Camel, Abbott and Costello's, as well as "Blondie." To play it safe, I used to keep a pack of each on my Packard's dashboard.
Absurd, isn't it? Especially since this was radio; who could tell which brand you were smoking? But the companies were so insistent that actors comply, they even hired inspectors, who carried out their duties with gestapo-like zeal.
"Excuse me, Mr. Blanc, but what are you smoking there?" an inspector at "The Jack Benny Program" asked me one time.
"Uh, Pall Mall," I replied absentmindedly, engrossed in studying my script.
"Dammit, Mel," he snapped, "this is a Lucky Strike show, and you sure as hell had better have that Lucky green in your pocket the next time I come around." It becomes even more preposterous when you consider that both brands were manufactured by the American Tobacco Company. (133-4)
In spite of the war America maintained its sense of humor; even Jack L. Warner. With the mighty Lockheed Aircraft plant located close to his Burbank studio, the Warner's vice president had his set painters inscribe a twenty-foot arrow on a soundstage roof. And painted in giant block letters was "Lockheed: That-Away," for the benefit of any incoming Japanese pilots. (196)