You may not recognize the face of Maurice LaMarche, but you most certainly know his voice – or, more precisely, voices, as he’s been one of the most prolific actors in animation for the past three decades.
“Pinky and the Brain’s” Brain? That’s LaMarche. “G.I. Joe’s” Destro, “The Real Ghostbusters’” Egon Spengler and the Tasmanian Devil? Him too. At various times Fred Flintstone, Yosemite Sam, Doctor Doom, “Frozen’s” the King of Arendelle and an endless array of supporting roles on “Futurama”? All LaMarche.
Gifted with a facility for celebrity impressions that often find their way into his animated roles, the voice artist’s latest high-profile role came in a teeny-tiny package, fitting a sped-up version of his flawless Marlon Brando-as-Don Corleone into “Zootopia’s” diminutive but ruthless arctic shrew Mr. Big.
LaMarche joined SPINOFF in the sound booth for an intriguing look at how he melds a familiar-sounding vocal to an animated image to bring a fresh, funny new role to life.
Spinoff Online: There’s a long, great cartoon tradition of taking pop-culture figures and incorporating a take on them into some new cartoon character, and you’ve certainly done that more than once. When you do it for a character like this, how do you come at it? How do you get from Brando to Mr. Big?
Maurice LaMarche: Well, this one was easy because Rich Moore had a “Godfather” tribute in mind for this character. I mean, he basically called me up on my cell phone and just said, “Hey, you got a Godfather?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Good, expect a call from your agent.”
He and I have worked together so long – we worked together on “The Critic” like 21 years ago. He kind of knows what’s in my wheelhouse and what isn’t. So I just kind of got the job on a silver platter with this one. He knew what he wanted. He knew I could deliver it. I think, hopefully, I did. So that’s kind of cool.
Did you know you had a decent Brando in your back pocket?
I’ve been doing that character since I saw it in first run in the theaters when I was 15, 14-15 years old — I was already doing voices at that age. So I knew he was in there. It just was a lot of fun. What was a surprise to me was I didn’t know how small he was going to be.
The visual of the reveal of him after Kevin, the last and largest polar bear. I love the idea that his hand comes into the shot, and he’s got a wedding ring on. That to me was just like, “Oh, he’s married – not only he’s got to do this enforcer job and then go home to a family.” But anyway, that’s the type of intricate, beautiful thing that they do in the animation here.
Nonetheless, when it’s revealed that he’s this little shrew, and they told me arctic shrew, arctic shrew, and I went, “Oh, OK, arctic shrew.” I didn’t know what that was. Then one day I looked it up and I found out it’s the most vicious creature in the world. I just found out today that if you take five arctic shrews and put a bucket over them and leave it overnight, when you come back, only one will survive. One will kill the others. He’s the Bruce Lee of arctic shrews, that one. They’re vicious. They’re just horrible creatures.
When you discovered your facility for voices and characters, was it celebrity imitations that you started out with? Or did you just start out with fun voices that amused you?
Fun voices that amused me first. I didn’t know who was a celebrity and who wasn’t. When I first started doing this, yes, I remember being in grade school and just loving certain commercials that were on the air, especially animated commercials. So I would do like the guy from the Turkish Taffy commercial, which was an Ed Wynn impression.
Prior to that I would do, I remember I loved the dog, the big old dog in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. [In character] “Which way did they go, George? Which way did they go?” That might have been the very first impression I ever did.
I just stared pulling them out of cartoons and commercials that I liked. Then later on, I kind of recognized celebrities. The first real celebrity impression I did was Peter Falk as Columbo, when that show was, like, fresh on the air.
You used to do standup comedy before you were doing the voiceover stuff.
I did, I did. I was a standup comedian. My first professional thing was from 1977 — ’77 to ’87 were my years to really do standup. Yeah, prior to that it was just for fun and parties and to keep the hoodlums from beating me up.
Have you ever done one of your celebrity impressions for the actual celebrity?
Don Adams, I did do, when I was working on the second season “Inspector Gadget.” They recast everybody because they had done the first season in Canada because Don was shooting a sitcom up in Canada. The sitcom wrapped and we got renewed, so he came down here and they recast pretty much the whole deal. So I was the Season 2 chief, his boss.
So they would have time-travel episodes where Gadget went back in time and met his ancestors. Don had in his contract he only had to play one character: Gadget. Even an iteration of Gadget, he didn’t want to do. [changing voices to Adams sound-alikes] So I did Cave Gadget. Or Ancient Rome Gadget, which we gave him a big Italian accent. “Don’t worry Gadget, I help-a you out. You look-a like me. I like-a you.” That kind of thing.
In “Zootopia,” you had direction to go in the Brando territory. With a character like, say, The Brain, I hear a little Orson Welles in there. When you decide to add a celebrity into a voice, tell me about that process. Where do you get that inspiration?
Very often it just comes from what does the character look like, and therefore what does he sound like? In the case of the Brain, I thought they had drawn Orson Welles. They had not. They’d based him on a writer at Warner Bros. TV Animation named Tom Minton. But I’d never met Tom Minton up to that point and hadn’t ever heard his voice. Otherwise I would have done an impression of Tom Minton, who talks in this kind of flat, monotone, speaks very, very quickly, and is highly intelligent.
So when I saw that sort of arched eyebrow and that pronounced, furrowed brow sort of whole affect, I just thought, “Oh, they’ve drawn me an Orson Welles character because they know I do Orson Welles.” I presumed the job was mine, so I gave them Orson Welles and was sort of the last thing they were thinking of for this little tiny lab mouse was this booming, resonant voice. I’d love to lay claim to some genius inspiration. It was just simply me and my big fat ego thinking, “Oh, yeah, of course, this is in the bag. It’s mine. They want me to have it.”
Well, you certainly have a facility for small rodents with grandiose plans.
Disney’s “Zootopia” it out this week on Blu-ray.
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