To most people, May 30th has no special significance. For the voice over community however, it’s different. One of the greatest voice actors who ever lived, was born on that day in San Francisco, California:
Melvin Jerome Blank.
Yes, Blank with a “k.” When Mel was 16 he changed that “k” to a “c” because a teacher once told him that he wouldn’t accomplish anything, and be like his name, a “blank.” Boy, did Mel prove that teacher wrong!
ASK THE PUBLIC
Before I tell you more about this remarkable man, imagine for a moment that you are conducting street interviews in one of the busiest cities in the United States. First you ask passers-by if they can name at least five famous actors from the movies and TV. I bet you a thousand dollars that 99.99% of those interviewed can rattle off the names of at least five celebrities.
Now, here’s the next question: “Can you name at least five VOICE actors?”
Here’s what I predict will happen. Either people will draw a blank, or they will give only one name. The name of Mel Blanc.
Mel is not only known in the USA, but all over the world. That’s why, thirty-three years after his death, I got a call from Dutch National Radio asking if they could interview me about “the man of a thousand voices.” It had been about twenty-five years since I was last on Dutch radio as a presenter, so I couldn’t say no to their request.
At the end of this blog I’ll post a link to the video of my interview, but since most of you don’t understand Dutch, here are some of the things I wanted to say. I began by telling my interviewer that it’s easy to find people who hate one or two Hollywood actors (if not more), but I have yet to find one person who doesn’t like Mel Blanc. Whether we realized it or not, all of us grew up with him, and as we speak, new generations are growing up with Mel.
Here’s a second thing I’d like you to imagine.
You’re watching the Looney Toons, but WITHOUT any sound. Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Silvester, Tweety, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, and Woody Woodpecker have lost their voices.
I ask you: Would these cartoons have been as successful without Mel Blanc’s voice characterizations, as they were called?
Of course not!
One of the questions my Dutch interviewer asked was this:
What makes Mel Blanc so great?
There are so many reasons, but let me mention a few. Number one: You could show him a sketch of a cartoon character and give him a brief storyline, and Mel would create an iconic voice on the spot. In his days, the voices were recorded before they drew the cartoons, so his voice characterizations were literally the inspiration for the entire cartoon.
Not only did he give the characters a voice, he gave them an entire personality. His son Noel (who was also a voice actor and director) said that even with the sound off, he could always tell which character his father was voicing because he was acting them out in the sound booth with his entire body. Mind you, Mel never had a single acting lesson in his life.
Mel was, as they say, an original. The rest is imitation. He once told David Letterman that he voiced about 400 different characters in 5000 cartoons. That’s something no one has ever done, and it will probably never be repeated. These days, even the most prolific voice actors in Hollywood “only” do thirty to forty different characters.
Blanc’s voice had an enormous range. He could do a high-pitched Tweetie as well as Yosemite Sam, who had a very low, loud voice. His vocal folds were made of steel, and people have compared them to the folds of opera singers. He could go on for long sessions without getting hoarse, even though he was quite the smoker.
Mel was musical. He played the violin and tuba, and he loved to sing (he even made a few hit records). When you’re voicing cartoons, timing is everything. Not many people know that at the age of 19 he was America’s youngest conductor, touring with his own orchestra. Between musical numbers he did some comedy routines, no doubt showing off all the voices he could do.
Usually, voice actors are invisible, but Mel became one of the most visible VO’s when the radio shows he worked for moved to television. He loved making Jack Benny laugh during live tapings.
Mel was always a supporting character actor, and some weeks he taped fourteen TV shows and only recorded cartoons on Tuesdays. Another reason Mel Blanc became a household name had to do with credits.
It was unusual for voice actors to get credits, because the studios wanted to preserve the illusion that their cartoon characters were somehow real characters, instead of being voiced by humans. But Mel was the first voice actor who negotiated that his name would appear in the credits. This gave him tremendous name recognition. He truly was a trailblazer for our profession.
He became known as “The man of a thousand voices, all of them… Mel Blanc.”
Click here for the video of my interview with Dutch National radio.