Some exceptional actors, such as Michael Caine, can portray hundreds of varied characters all while using their own, natural speaking voice. Voice actors don’t have this luxury.
Unless you’re sought after for one style of delivery à la H. Jon Benjamin, being in the voice artist business means you have to learn to diversify. No one wants to hear the same tired deliveries that have all become cartoon clichés. This demand for originality makes creating a unique voice difficult.
To prevent themselves from copying animated character tropes ad nauseum, voice actors will often look to performances from the golden ages of movies, TV, and radio that they grew up with for inspiration. Usually, a voice actor will employ a subtle combination of past experience and a mental history of cinema to delicately craft a one-of-a-kind character.
Either that, or they just steal.
Call it what you will, but some of the most iconic and memorable voice performances are exact duplicates of earlier characters that already once made it big on the radio or screen. Here’s a couple of “borrowed” voices that have re-discovered their way into popular consciousness…
King Candy (Wreck-It Ralph) = Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter
This one would seem just plain lazy if it wasn’t a great characterization to begin with. Also, Alan Tudyk of Dodgeball and Tucker and Dayle vs. Evil fame does a spot-on duplication of Ed Wynn’s unforgettable Mad Hatter voice. I could listen to this voice all day, and mixing it with a Mel Brooks-esqe villain was a winning combination.
Stimpson J. Cat (Ren and Stimpy) = Larry Fine
When auditioning for his role on Ren and Stimpy, Billy West chose a voice he had already practiced for the everyman sidekick Stimpy. West claims he enjoyed Fine’s voice because “everyone wants to do a Curly or Moe impression,” and he always identified with the shlubby but loyal and oft-overlooked stooge.
Stimpy’s character took on a life of his own as the series progressed, but one can easily hear the connection, especially in West’s old Howard Stern bits.
Dick Dastardly (Wacky Races) = Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate
The entire Wacky Races series was actually a shameless adaptation of the 1965 epic screwball comedy The Great Race. Most of the Hannah-Barbera show’s characters were direct reinterpretations of the film’s main cast, not the least of which was the main villain.
Dick Dastardly is a perfect clone of Jack Lemmon’s cartoonish mustache-twirler Professor Fate. Many of the catchphrases are even the same, including “Drat!,” diabolical laughing, and invariably blaming his downfall on his partner in a loud shriek.
Wakko (Animaniacs!) = Ringo Starr
Need I say more?
Brain (Pinky and the Brain) = Orson Welles
I actually wrote a whole article about this before.
Foghorn Leghorn (Looney Tunes) = Kenny Dulmar as Senator Beauregard Claghorn
Mel Blanc hated being asked to do impressions. When he took over the reigns for Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd he eventually steered the characters away from their original, popular influences into distinct personalities in their own right.
Likewise, Bugs Bunny started out as a Brookly-accented imitation of Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. The scene where Gable talks nonchalantly while munching on a carrot provided Bugs’s personality trait – one that later led to the inaccurate stereotype of rabbits’ dietary preferences.
The one character Blanc didn’t seem above cribbing from, right down to the punchlines, was Kenny Dulmar’s energetic and unreserved Southern Senator character from radio’s The Fred Allen Show. Aside from the name and the drawl, Blanc also borrowed the one-liners “Pay attention, boy!”, “Ah say! Ah say!…”, and “That’s a joke, son!”, which was actually the title of Dulmar’s album and film based upon the character.
Half the Town of Springfield (The Simpsons) = Various
This entry could constitute it’s own article, but for the sake of brevity I’ll cherry pick the ones with the strongest resemblance (that aren’t direct impressions or spoofs à la Ranier Wolfcastle).
Professor Frink = Jerry Lewis as The Absent-Minded Professor
Lewis’s uncontrollable outbursts and wacky inventions are ported over to Hank Azaria’s contemporary interpretation.
Quimby = JFK
I, er uh, think the less said about this one the betta!
Apu = Peter Seller as Hrundi V. Bakshi
Sellers gives a wonderful performance as an Indian actor in 1968’s The Party despite the fact that we now know better than to cast a white comedian in brownface as a racist caricature. That is, unless Rob Schneider counts. Seller’s voice and Azaria’s delivery of Apu are almost identical. Also, Apu was the name of Bakshi’s pet monkey in the film.
Barney Gumble = Frankie Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim
Dan Castellaneta takes the town-drunk Barney in a throatier, more voice-breaking direction than Fontaine’s wacky portrayal of a man slowly poisoning himself to death with booze, but you can still hear the resemblance in the sing-songy cadence and tendency towards babbling.
Chief Wiggum = Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar
Wiggum is far from the criminal mastermind and Cagney-wannabe that is Robinson’s brilliant performance in the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar. Idiocy aside, the guttural mobster-meets-muppet voice is an almost exact match for Azaria’s venerable police chief, just slightly less expressive and high-pitched.
“Yessssss” guy = Frank Nelson as Yessss Guy
This character is a clear-cut example of show writers finding something so hilarious that they decide to transplant it wholesale into their show, context be damned. The recurring one-note joke character voiced by Dan Castellaneta remains one of my favorite gags from the series, though, so good call on their part.
Moe = Louis “Red” Deustch
Hank Azaria has gone on record stating that Moe is mainly influenced by Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon. While you can definitely hear Pacino in Moe’s erratic, tough-boy New York accent, the writers based Moe upon a certain real-life ex-boxer-turned-bartender working in Jersey City.
Louis “Red” Deustch was the target of a series of prank calls in which his tormentors would trick him into calling out fake names like “Jim Nasium” and “Mike Unstinks” in a voice that sounded like a gravel-crusher. Then he would catch on and threaten to murder the callers and mutilate their corpses. Now that sounds like the Moe that we all know and love.
Stewie Griffin (Family Guy) = Rex Harrison as Prof. Henry Higgins
If I had seen My Fair Lady when I was a kid, this one would have seemed obvious. Instead, I stumbled upon the correlation years after having Family Guy ingrained in my brain. Imagine my shock when I saw a fully-grown Stewie Griffin gallivanting in a vainglorious musical.
Seth Macfarlane’s love of musical theater and poppycockery shines through in his uncanny imitation of Rex Harrison’s aloof and slightly-femme Professor Higgins. The juxtaposition of Stewie as a baby makes the irony even sweeter.
Macfarlane even goes so far as to have an episode parody My Fair Lady and another one feature “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Stewie undoubtedly proves that just because someone sounds the same and has similar mannerisms, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be explosively dynamic and an unparalleled character unto themselves.
Betty Boop = Helen Kane
Imagine you’re a young, pretty actress like Emma Stone or Jennifer Lawrence. Imagine your unique combination of charm, sex appeal, innocence, and confidence grants you unparallelled popularity as a rising star.
Then imagine that someone makes a shameless ripoff caricature of you with the exact same voice and mannerisms and it actually becomes more successful than you. Now the cartoon version is a thousand times more recognizable, and while they’re getting merchandise deals out the wazoo you’re doomed to an obscure trivia factoid.
The above paragraph perfectly describes Helen Kane’s life. She exploded onto the scene in the 30s with her distinct, high-pitched voice and cutesy but sexually-aware persona. When Fleischer Studios struggled to come up with a marketable character, they accidentally stumbled upon success when they romantically attached a Helen Kane cartoon parody with their main star at the time, Bimbo the Dog. Betty Boop soon skyrocketed in popularity and cultural significance, while Bimbo and the real Kane faded into obscurity.
Kane eventually tried to sue, but Max Fleischer denied the similarities up and down and claimed that Boop was actually a mixture of Clara Bow and other “flapper girl” characters of the time. One listen to Kane’s singing voice, though, immediately proves otherwise.
Got one in mind that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
Jarrod Lipshy is a freelance writer and recent graduate. He collects old video games and does a mean Stewie impression.