Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Ren and Stimpy. Bugs Bunny. Philip J. Fry and Professor Hubert Farnsworth on Futurama. Sparx. Bi-Polar Bear. Popeye the Sailor Man. Woody Woodpecker. You may not think you have ever heard Billy West, but chances are on a television program, a movie, a commercial, or as Howard Stern’s voice guru in the 1990’s, you have heard him. West’s talent for creating personalities by twisting his voice has made him one of a handful of voice actors—Hank Azaria and the late Mel Blanc come to mind—who have achieved celebrity for their talent. Indeed, West is one of the few voice actors who can impersonate Blanc in his prime, including characterizations of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and other characters from Warner Bros. cartoons.
What is the fulcrum in Mr. West’s life that led him to realize a talent to shape personalities with his voice, and how did the discovery of that gift shape him? Wikinews reporter David Shankbone found that like many great comedians, West faced more sour early in life than he did sweet. The sour came from a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father (“I could tell you the kind of night I was going to have from the sound of the key in the door or the way the car pulled up.”), to his own problems with drug and alcohol use (“There is a point that you can reach in your life where you don’t want to live, but you haven’t made the decision to die.”).
If sin, suffering and redemption feel like the stages of an endless cycle of American existence, West’s own redemption from his brutalized childhood is what helped shape his gift. He performed little bits to cheer up his cowed mother, ravaged by the fact she could not stop her husband’s abuse of young West. “I was the whipping boy and she would just be reduced to tears a lot of times, and I would come in and say stuff, and I would put out little bits just to pull her out of it.”
But West has also enjoyed the sweet. His career blossomed as his talent for creating entire histories behind fictional characters and creatures simply by exploring nuance in his voice landed him at the top of his craft. You may never again be able to forget that behind the voice of your favorite character, there is often an extraordinary life.
Below is David Shankbone’s interview with renowned voice actor Billy West, who for the first time publicly talks about the horrors he faced in his childhood; his misguided search for answers in anger, drugs and alcohol; and the peace he has achieved as one of America’s most recognizable voice actors.
David Shankbone: You’re known for speaking about the use of famous actors to do voice-over. What is your central problem with their use?
DS: What standards are those?
DS: Like Robin Williams?
DS: Jerry Seinfeld as well in Bee Movie?
DS: What’s the solution? Not to do characters around stars?
DS: They’ll have you come in, or someone of your caliber come in, and actually shape the voice around the character and then they’ll present it to the celebrity as the template?
DS: Are you paid for that?
DS: Are there legal remedies that you could pursue for that?
DS: There was a similar issue involved with Crispin Glover. They had taken a likeness of one of his earlier roles. I think it was Robert Zemeckis Then they tried to pass it off later as him and he sued them for doing that. Are you familiar with that situation?
DS: He did.
DS: Has your speaking out on this issue hurt you in any way?
DS: In your career?
DS: There’s no reaction against it from the studios or from the ….?
DS: You discussed in an interview issues about the weight of the character’s legacies, such as Pop-Eye or Bugs Bunny. You had said that every time they do one of these they say, ‘this time it’s going to be different. We’re putting the teeth back in those characters. Nobody is going to tell us what we can’t write and what we can write.’ And you said they always blow it. How do they blow it?
DS: How do you choose a project, or does the project choose you?
DS: Where do you think voice acting is going? It doesn’t seem like it’s ever an art that’s going to lose its place, but do you see it diminishing? Is it on a downturn? Is it on an upturn? Is it idling?
DS: With computer animated voices?
DS: Do you remember a time in your life when you started recognizing your talent for being able to shape your voice into memorable characters?
DS: You had a talent that seemed very trite to you, but very few other people could do it and you didn’t recognize that?
DS: You would feel a compulsion to do the plays in a voice?
DS: I’m not a voice actor, but there’s times I’ll hear a person say a phrase. I covered the Iranian president speaking at Colombia for Wikinews and I watched these dueling ideologues who were normal citizens. One of them was this large black woman with a Bible yelling at this secular Jewish guy. I recorded these voices. She had one of those voices that I just couldn’t get out of my head. She just kept going, “You’re evil. You’re going to burn in Hell.” I found myself saying it aloud over and over and over again because her voice and what she said made such an impression on me that I wanted to imitate it. There was such a history behind that voice. She probably could have just said, “Buy Tide detergent,” and I would still be saying it over and over and over again.
DS: Is how you developed your talent when you were younger based upon imitating others? You would hear things that would leave impressions on you and you would want to imitate them? But why would you want to imitate them?
DS: It was escapism …?
DS: So when you would escape into those voices, you felt a sense of safety?
DS: And things that you could control through your own voice.
DS: Whereas you couldn’t control what an alcoholic authority figure was going to do.
DS: What was your dad’s reaction to your doing voices?
DS: Where was your mom during all this?
DS: It doesn’t sound like she was very successful.
DS: When did you come to a realization that your voice was something that you wanted to turn into a career?
DS: Did you say fay or faggot?
DS: Do you think that’s had any lasting effect on you?
DS: They say that all great comedians typically have extraordinary tragedy in their lives, and they develop their humor as a response to it.
DS: Even though you were hurting, it would hurt you to see her hurting over you.
DS: What made you the whipping boy?
DS: What would make you the one that he would unleash that upon as opposed to your brothers?
DS: Like what?
DS: An oedipal issue?
DS: What is your relationship with your brothers like? Did they see this going on? Did they feel bad for you?
DS: You said your father was a victim of abuse himself and that pattern often repeats. How did you stop that pattern? Was it through your voice work?
DS: How so?
DS: How did you stop the fights and the drugs?
DS: Are you still sober?
DS: Were you at a point where you didn’t necessarily want to die, but you just didn’t care if you lived?
DS: Whatever happens happens.
DS: And that would almost egg you on?
DS: Now it’s all electronic.
DS: Are you in some way glad that you went through the drug and alcohol abuse?
DS: Do you believe in a higher power?
DS: Me too.
DS: I didn’t know the mass in Latin, but I was an altar boy and I had Catholicism shoved down my face, but I’m 33, so Vatican II had happened.
DS: The priest at my church got a nun pregnant and my mother, who was the president of the PTA at my Catholic grade school, helped deliver the baby and keep the whole thing hidden.
DS: Yeah. And he’s still the priest.
DS: Where do you see yourself now in your career?
DS: At what point was that for you?
[continued from previous section]
DS: Well they are. It’s just things have changed.
DS: Who are you talking about?
DS: It’s confusing because you look at somebody like Dick Cheney, who has this lesbian daughter, who’s in a gay marriage [Poe and Cheney have not entered into a formal union – ed] and now has a baby with her partner, and you just don’t know how the situation exists. It’s hard to comprehend. That Mary Cheney exists in the Republican party, and that she seems to be fine with that existence and even works for it.
DS: Has the Iraq War affected you much as a person?
DS: Teach the controversy. Make it appear there are two sides to every fact.
DS: Do you think we live in a fear-based society now?
DS: What is the reasoning behind questions like, ‘Aren’t you afraid of saying such-and-such thing?’
DS: Are you optimistic?
DS: And you think that they are equal?
DS: You’re saying in today’s culture they are equal?
DS: I don’t have cable, so I know how you feel.
DS: It’s amazing when you hear the BBC interview British politicians. We find it shocking that they’ll say things like “Aren’t you essentially lying when you say that?”
DS: That’s an argument on Wikipedia: people make the argument, ‘let’s present the information out there and let the reader decide.
DS: Exactly,and it can be difficult to decide what to believe when reasonable minds can differ, but I think it’s very problematic to ever argue “just let the reader decide.” I don’t know if Wikipedia is the place for that fight, but in the news media, that is the place for the fight. I interviewed Gay Talese, who quoted Norman Mailer who said the media is like a donkey, and you must feed the donkey every day; the donkey will eat anything: garbage, tin cans, slop. And report on whatever they are fed.
DS: Are your voices an attempt to understand reality?
DS: No you are.
DS: Well it’s good.
DS: That’s perfect. I will send you a link to the interview when it is published.
DS: It doesn’t say anything negative about the Stern show. It just mentions the characters that you did and that you were on there. And the only thing it says is that “Billy has since claimed that he left the Stern show because WXRK management refused to give him a sufficient pay raise.”
DS: There’s a link to your official web site on there. And there’s also a link to Voicechasers database and a link to Internet Movie database and a link to an interview with you on CNBC.