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.