In this interview from VOICE 2010, Bob Bergen talks about his passion for voice acting, why voice artists need to continually develop their skills, and the excitement he still feels when auditioning for a job… oh, and lots more! In a word, “cool”!
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Transcript of conversation with Bob Bergen
Andy: Ok. So… Continuing my conversations from VOICE 2010, I am now sitting in the garden with Bob Bergen. It’s a lovely evening…
Bob: You, me, and cigars.
Andy: You, me, and cigars.
Bob: That’s right.
Andy: That’s right. It’s… it has a certain…
Bob: Actually, I like it.
Andy: It has a certain ambience.
Bob: I’ve been smoking cigars since I was 14.
Bob: But I looked stupid when I was 14, so I was a closet cigar smoker. Now I don’t care. But I don’t have one. Do you have one?
Andy: No, I don’t. I’m sorry.
Bob: Oh right. So it’s just us.
Andy: I can’t help you with that one.
Bob: It’s OK.
Andy: I should welcome you Bob.
Bob: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.
Andy: It’s great to be with you this evening, and I’d like to learn a little bit of your background, and this is very special for me, because I have a four year old son…
Bob: Oh! My demographic! Cool!
Andy: So… absolutely. So most of … most of the television programming I get to watch is… are animations, and including of course, Looney Tunes animations. So it’s real special for me to be here and, you know, I am thinking of my son whilst I am talking to you, and…
Bob: What’s your son’s name?
Bob: Be nice to Dad!
Andy: Yeah. Listen to that, son. Learn from this man.
Bob: There you go.
Andy: So, Bob, apart from smoking cigars when you were 14, I think that’s about the time your interest in voice overs began, or did it start before then, even?
Bob: My interest started before that. My interested started when I was almost William’s age. I was five when I told my parents I wanted to be Porky Pig. That was my goal as a five year old kid, and I think, you know, when a kid says to a parent, “I want to be a baseball player”, that’s common. But Porky Pig’s odd.
Andy: OK. Why specifically Porky Pig?
Bob: Well, and that’s a question I get all the time.
Andy: It’s a good question…
Bob: That is a fantastic question, Andy. Because I liked the character… I, in some strange five year old way – I don’t know why – related to the character. But I also just cracked the code of his stutter. There’s a formula to the way he stutters, and when I was five my parents bought me a tape recorder when I was a kid, to record cartoons. And I would record these Porky Pig cartoons, and I learned, I figured out the pattern of his stutter. And I would do it, as a five year old, I didn’t sound great because my voice hadn’t changed yet, but there is something about this character that I found endearing. As a five year old, six year old, seven year old, I was just an obnoxious kid in school doing silly voices and getting the teachers angry with me. At fourteen, my dad moved the family to Los Angeles, not for me to be Porky Pig – he’s a nice guy, but not that nice – he moved us to Los Angeles to…. well, he took a job. I took it as an opportunity to learn how to be Porky Pig.
So, I picked up the Yellow Pages, the phone book, and called anything that said animation or cartoon.
Andy: When did you start doing that?
Bob: Oh man! Literally right after we moved right into our house. Well, what happened was – I figured if I am going to be Porky Pig, I should call Mel Blanc and say, “Listen, I know you are old, and it’s time somebody offered you a chance to retire. So I would be happy to do that for you. And I really thought that was something… I thought I was being generous. And I couldn’t find Mel Blanc’s name in my phone book, and I didn’t understand the concept of unlisted number, because I was from the Mid West, and everybody’s in the phone book.
Andy: Sure! Of course.
Bob: So my dad told me that you know LA is huge, and there’s a different phone book around every corner so he went all over town, and he gathered the Beverly Hills, Century City, Pasadena… I had a stack of phone books… and I was calling every Blanc in the book. Every Mel, or M Blanc I could find… and I couldn’t find him. I remembered that his wife’s name was Estelle, so I thought well maybe it’s under his wife’s name. So I started looking for Estelle, or E Blanc, and I found E Blanc in the Pacific Palisades phone book. I called him at his home and I taped the conversation…
Andy: I know…
Bob: Yeah… It’s on my web site – kids don’t do this at home it’s illegal to record somebody without telling them – but I did that anyway, and it’s been thirty plus years, so I think I’m OK.
Andy: …and you don’t have the whole telephone conversation any more.
Bob: Well, I don’t because the tape broke. I had the tape for two weeks and I listened to it every day, played it for all my friends. I was like, “Oh my Gosh. That was me with Mel Blanc”, and it was a cassette tape, and it broke, and it got stuck in the wheels of the cassette, and I threw it away. I thought, you know, what’s the point? And my mum retrieved it, and she thought maybe someday people can fix these things. And literally – just like maybe seven years ago – my mum was cleaning out her dresser draw, and she found this tape, and she called me up, and she said, “Do you remember what this is?”. And I tool it to a friend at KABC radio, and he spliced it back together, and he digitally enhanced it… So that’s the… that’s the tape that I have on my web site. But you know a good chunk is missing from that conversation.
Andy: But it’s still… I listened to it the other day, and I’ll put a link at the end of the blog… It’s still an amazing conversation.
Bob: He was nice. He was generous. He was nice. I found that everybody I dealt with who were successful whether they were actors or producers or agents, everybody was so generous with their time… and supportive. Casey Kasem, he for years he had a radio show called “America’s Top Forty”, but he was also… he did a show called Scooby Doo. He played Shaggy. And I had a friend of the family who knew Casey, and asked Casey to send me an autographed picture for my high school graduation, which he did, and I sent him a thank you note. And he called me up – and this was when I was 18 – and he said “You know, do you have a demo? Do you have an agent?”. I said, “No”. And he said, “Look. Make me a home made demo. If I like it I’ll give it to my agent. I made the demo, did about 85 different voices. Sent it to Casey. He gave it to his agent, and his agent signed me, and I went… I took a bottle of wine to the studio where he was recording America’s Top Forty to thank him, and I said, “Thank you so much. Why are you doing this?”. And he said, “Because you’re going to promise me that you’ll pay it forward, that you’ll do it to other people. This is the only way that the next generation can thrive, is that we have to help each other”. And that stuck with me. And that’s the only reason I started teaching is because… I took his advice, but I also do enjoy that part of this business.
You know we’re here at the voice convention, where you’ve got people who… they are just itching to do anything and to see that enthusiasm – which I never lost… my home studio’s where I spend most of my day, and when my email “click”, audition, I’m the same giddy, “Oh my God! What do I have?” that I had when I was eighteen – which I hope people never lose because if you do, you get jaded and what’s the point. Why go into something that’s so difficult if you’re not going to have the same enthusiasm and passion – am I talking too much?
Andy: No! It’s quite interesting that… Do you think it was precociousness, or naivity?
Bob: My phone call?
Andy: Your phone call, yeah.
Bob: I think, you know, the two most common questions I get are, “Why Porky Pig?”… and, “How did you ever have the nerve to call him?”… and honestly? I didn’t think it was odd to call him. I mean…
Andy: So, naivety…
Bob: Sure! I mean, hey, if you want to be a banker, call the bank. If you want to be a baseball… I mean, when I was… when I moved to LA… the Dodgers, Steve Garvey was on the Dodgers. Hey! I figured if I could find Steve Garvey’s phone number, and I want to play baseball. I want to play first base, I’m going to call Steve Garvey. And say, “Hey! I just moved here. What do I do?”.
Andy: It’s a very special community. Isn’t it?
Bob: Voice over?
Bob: It’s awesome. It’s funny because… I find that the voice over industry as a whole are the most generous… you know, if you’re an on-camera actor, very rarely do you get a phone call from a colleague saying, “Hey! I was just at Paramount reading for the lead for this movie. You’re perfect for it”. But in our business, oh my gosh, at least once a week either I’ll make a phone call, or I’ll receive a phone call from a peer. “Hey! Did your agent get you in to Kalmenson & Kalmenson for that KFC spot? You’re perfect for it”. It’s a very tight group of people. It’s a very small group of people. I’m fortunate. I count my blessings every day.
I was at session at Warner Brothers yesterday with Rob Paulsen and Jess Harnell, and we were just waiting to go in to record, and talking about how blown away lucky we feel… and blessed we feel to do what we do. We were talking… Rob and Jess were talking about when they did the Animaniacs, they would go to autograph shows. You know, they go to the Warner Stores, and they’d sign, and how… it shocked them that people knew who they were, appreciated what they did, and the people were so blown away that they were so available to them. I mean, you know, we’re voice people. Nobody knows what we look like. I can go to a restaurant and eat, and be a successful actor, and nobody bugs me. But to have that appreciation is really nice… and we were just, like, bragging about how fortunate we are to do what we love. We’ve… all three of us have been doing this have been doing this… I’m mean I’m in – for money, you know – almost thirty years. Yeah! Oh God!
Andy: You started very young!
Bob: I did… But Rob and Jess, about as long, or a little bit less… but the bottom line is we’re all just really lucky. We’re very, very lucky to do what we love.
Andy: That’s the key… the love for the performance.
Bob: Well, so many people, you know – and even people who make a good living – they’re 65 one day and they’re like, “That sucks”.
Andy: What have I done with my life?
Bob: I’ve got a great house. Now I’m tired…
Andy: Or they retired to do what they really want to do.
Bob: And maybe they’re past their prime, or maybe they don’t have the… maybe they’re not physically able to… for what ever reason. You know… Artists, whether it’s acting or sculpting, dance, recording… special breed. You know it’s a special person who says, “No. I know the odds. I don’t care. It feeds my soul to do this”.
Andy: James, when I was talking to him before, said “the overnight success comes after 20 years”…
Bob: You betcha!
Andy: … and you were talking with people who are newly interested in voice overs earlier this evening, and explaining just how much work you’ve had to put in alongside developing your voice over career.
Bob: And still do. I mean the networking, the philosophy of taking your career to the next level continues. It’s a constant. If you feel like you’ve ever made it. I’m here. I’m there. Well, you’re not! Because if that’s all there is, it’s just downhill from there. So you always have to look at yourself – no matter how successful you are as, “What’s the next thing I can do? How do I take it to the next level?”. Because if you don’t, your peers – the people I’m teaching – they’re going to pass me by.
Andy: That’s a really interesting… a really interesting comment, because when you look at somebody who has a level of success like your own, you kind of think, well, jobs are just going to fall into your lap…
Bob: Wouldn’t that be nice?
Andy: And life would just continue, and you can continue doing this forever. But you’re not saying that. You’re saying you’ve got to continue developing.
Bob: Listen. I’m doing a series right now called “The Looney Tunes Show” – which is a very appropriate name for the Looney Tunes – I had to audition for it. It was the fourth time I’ve had to audition for Porky Pig in 20 years.
Andy: So, you’re not just porky Pig until you’re sick of it?
Bob: Oh! listen. I mean Mel Blanc was the voice of everything. When he passed away, they were stuck with a catalogue of characters. Now, there are a lot of us, myself not included – I can not do every character Mel Blanc did – but a lot of people can come close, but they don’t want that at Warner Brothers. In fact, nobody who does a classic character has a contract. We’re day players.
Bob: Yeah. Yeah. They own the characters. We’re actors for hire.
Andy: OK. I understand that.
Bob: So… there’s no job security. I mean, I will tell you that over the years I’ve done, I would say, 95% plus of the Porky Pig gigs. But there’s a non-union stuff I can’t do. There have been times when they haven’t come up to my asking price – which sometimes it isn’t a lot, but you do… it’s a business. You have to set a certain level. If you go backwards then it’s hard to go forwards again… And there have been circumstances where I didn’t do the character for certain things. For this particular project… new producers wanted to see who else was out there. And Andy, I went to the audition. I auditioned. I got a call back, and I went to the call back with the same butterflies that an actor has at any call back. I hope they like me. I hope I do… What’s my motivation? I’m thinking, “I’ve played this character for 20 years. I’m going to go in there, and I’m going to have fun. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, but I’m not going to let nerves get in the way of this job”.
Andy: And that’s pretty much a sound approach for any auditioning…
Bob: I think so… yeah, I think so. A lot of times you’ll go for an audition, and you’ll think, “Oh my God! This was not my day”. And then you get home, and you agents calls, “You’ve got the job!”. And you’re like, “But I sucked”… well, you know what? Not to them. Or, you’ll go to an audition, and you’ll think, “Well, I aced that. I’m great!”, and you call your agent. “Not even a call back? Nothing?!”. Well, you can’t… there’s no formula. There’s no rule. You just have to kind of enjoy the journey. And if it works in your favour, terrific. If it doesn’t… and there’s a lot of reasons why we don’t book a job. Quite often it’s they went celebrity. They decided to use somebody they used last week. They used their mother-in-law. But, if you are good, the casting director will remember you for the next job.
Andy: Yeah. They may even change the requirement for the part. There was an example…
Bob: That happens on time.
Andy: … the other day when they were casting I think for a bar maid, and ended up hiring a cowboy.
Bob: There you go.
Andy: So, anything can happen.
Bob: We did a panel with Bill Holmes, earlier, and Bill told a great story of how, you know, you just go in there and be yourself. You know, just go in there and be the best you, you can be. Don’t try to be what they want. Just be yourself… and if you’re really good, and if you’ve got something about you that’s organic, and unbelievable, and natural, you might talk them into changing the specs of the project because you’re so right for that moment.
Andy: OK. Now there’s just one last thing I’d like to ask you, Bob. One of things I admire about you is you’ve got a fantastic web site…
Bob: Thank you.
Andy: …that documents your biography, your autobiography and has got some great resources on there for people who are interested in a character career, seeing how you’ve done things. Your résumé is there, of course, you’ve put – it’s a huge résumé – but a lot of that, a lot of the stuff… is… maybe isn’t stuff… things that we would recognise immediately, because, for example, one of my favourite films that I watch with William is “Cars”. And you were in “Cars”.
Bob: I was in “Cars”.
Andy: But where were you in “Cars”?
Bob: I was a pit-stop car.
Andy: OK. So, if you are a background character like that, what sort of thing might that involve?
Bob: Well, I am fortunate. I… It took me a lot of years to get in with Disney, and I’m not Tom Hanks. I’m not Tim Allen. I’m not going to play the lead. They hire celebrities for that. But they have tons of parts for the non-celebrity… We call ourselves “utility players”… who can do multiple parts for the film. So for years – and there’s one particular casting person who was doing all the Disney films, and you know, if they don’t know you don’t want you – and a casting director has to prove themselves every time they hire actors for a film. If the producer, the director, doesn’t like the actor they get another casting director. So the casting director…
Andy: So their neck’s on the line, as well.
Bob: Exactly. Always. And they are going to always hire the people they know are reliable. So, oh my goodness, for like nine years I was trying to get into Disney. And one day an actor was sick, and my agent recommended me. I did an audition. It was for “The Hunchback of Notre dame”, and I went there and it was a whole group of actors that I knew, but I’d never worked with on a Disney feature, and we’re doing everything from babies crying, to goats, to incidental things. And I proved myself. And from that day forward I then did “Tarzan”, and “Hercules”, and “Treasure Planet” and then Pixar came in, and “Toy Story 2”, and “Cars”, and “Bugs life”, and “Monsters Inc.” and “Finding Nemo”. So because of that one wonderful opportunity in that one film, I’ve created a relationship. So, “Cars”… we get to Disney and I think it was John Lasseter was the director of “Cars”. John will give us a page of the script and there’s specific dialogue for some characters. For some scenes he just gives us an idea, and says “Let’s see what you guys do, and play”.
Andy: Animations are all… the audio is done first, isn’t it? And then…
Bob: Unless it’s dubbed in a foreign language the animation is always done to the voice, and the soundtrack. Yeah. Now, at the end of the process they do ADR. Where you’ll watch the film… if they want to change something or sweeten something then you do see the picture, but early on it’s just you and the mic. I don’t even remember what the lines were in “Cars”… But you know, there was the pit stop scene, and John would be like, “You and you. Come up to the mic. Let’s see what you’ve got”. That sort of thing. So it’s a combination of established relationships, to get that opportunity to keep working for them. But Pixar, they take our picture with every job, they’ve got a big old book… They know exactly what we’ve done in the last film. They take notes. They’re very particular about who they call in. They know what we’ve done. When you do an animated feature they film you. They’ve got cameras all over the sound stage. And that film is given to the animators as inspiration. So… and I always forget because I’m – look at me right now. I’m not shaved. I wear baseball caps usually. I mean! I’m a voice guy. I don’t have to look good. And I go to Disney, I pull in to the lot, and I’ll, “Oh! They’re going to have cameras! And I look like a bum! Oh well… OK”.
Andy: At least you don’t have your pyjamas… You don’t have your pyjamas on, do you?
Bob: No, but I gotta tell you it’s voice over, so you dress comfortable – so maybe sweats and a T shirt. Whatever doesn’t make noise, you don’t want clothes that make noise. But you know, I’m unfortunate, but I… for nine years I couldn’t get arrested at Disney. I auditioned for stuff, but the stuff I auditioned for always went to celebrities. So, I got lucky.
Andy: We’ve been talking about how you developed your career, but so many lessons in here… You were talking about how your parents helped you, how you approach every job as a stepping stone, as a learning experience, and how the relationships, especially, are leading on to help you develop your career. And that’s just fantastic… really exciting.
Bob: Yeah, and it starts that way, and it continues that way.
Andy: And that’s the other thing… that the journey… to drive a car down the road you have to keep putting petrol in it.
Bob: Absolutely. The journey does not end. And you’ve got to love that journey. Every bump in the road you’ve got a really love it. You’ve got to learn from it. You can’t dwell on it. But you really have to love… You look down the distance and see the rest of that road, and that has to give you some kind of like excitement. You know the thought of the unknown – you know, we are gypsies – I don’t know where my next job… I do know where my next job is today, but beyond that I don’t know where my next job’s going to be. I have a mortgage. I’ve got bills. I chose this career. But to me, that’s part of the fun of what we do, that you know, I can be a fly one day. I could be a stuttering pig the next. I could be selling toilet paper the next. That’s fun. I’m not going the same job nine to five, wearing a suit and tie, shaving, crunching numbers. That’s not me. That might be a passion for somebody, but it’s not me. I’m doing what I love.
Andy: That’s fantastic.
Bob: Thank you.
Andy: Thank you so much, Bob.
Bob: Thank you. It was fun.
Andy: It’s been a pleasure to get to know you a bit better.
Bob: This was fun.
Andy: Can I be naughty, and ask you to wind us off with a, “That’s all folks!”?
Bob: Wow. That’s after a glass of wine, too… I did learn that Porky’s… I lose the stutter when I drink.
Andy: Oh, really?
Bob: I didn’t drink that much. I’m OK. So…
Porky Pig: Well, Andy… this was fun. It’s getting late, so I’m going say, that’s all folks!
Andy: Thank you, Bob.
Bob: Thanks, Andy.
About Bob Bergen
Bob Bergen has been honored to be one of a handful of actors who share voicing the classic Looney Tunes for Warner Brothers, including Porky Pig, Tweety, Sylvester, Jr., Speedy Gonzales, Marvin The Martian, and Henry Hawk. From movies such as SPACE JAM and LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, to television’s TINY TOON ADVENTURES and LOONATICS, to The Six Flags theme parks, toys, commercials, games, recordings, and more. He’s an Annie Award nominee for playing Porky/Eager Young Space Cadet in the twice Emmy nominated series DUCK DODGERS. Bob is also one of the most in demand animation voice-over instructors in the US and Canada.
Cool Clips from Bob Bergen, including the telephone conversation with Mel Blanc
William Boyns – William’s personal website
This interview was recorded in the garden of the Hyatt Regency during VOICE 2010. For this reason there is an amount of background noise which I trust does not detract from this interesting conversation. My apologies for any deficiencies in sound quality – this is entirely my fault, and lessons have been learned! Thanks for listening – enjoy! Andy