Saturday, January 11, 2020

Rob Paulsen’s 'Voice Lessons' on Yakko, Pinky, Raph and Overcoming Cancer

Based on an article written by JeriAnn Geller for BookTrib.

To describe Rob Paulsen as a guy so nice that he’ll give you the coat off his back is more than a metaphor—it’s an actual fact.


In 1990, hot off his success as the voice of Raphael of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, he was signing autographs for adoring fans in Canada when he realized he hadn’t brought enough for the staggering number of kids queued up for his signature. That’s when he saw a small boy in a wheelchair at the end of the line. Chad had come with his family to meet his hero, Raphael. Paulsen, in a moment of impulsive generosity, took off the specially made varsity jacket that had been a gift to the cast members, signed it, and handed it to Chad. That jacket would become a touchstone in the life of a boy fighting muscular dystrophy, even accompanying Chad into the operating room. But Paulsen knew nothing of that in the moment. All he knew was what a cast mate said: “Hey, idiot! What are you going to do for a coat? This is Canada. You’re going to freeze!”

This combination of heartfelt kindness, wise-cracking humor, and on-the-spot improvisation characterize Paulsen and his new memoir, Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life (Viva Editions).

A Danish-American son of the Midwest, Paulsen was a fairly typical Michigan teenager—he loved rock and roll, ice hockey and his family. But he had little interest in following his immigrant grandfather into engineering or his father into the automobile industry. Paulsen wanted to be an actor. “I’m the first person in my family to have a non-traditional career,” he says.

This is where Paulsen’s gift for personal reinvention first started to show up. Unhappy with college, he joined a sort of biblical road show and got a hands-on lesson in how to perform. He ended up in California, but his first attempt to break into Hollywood didn’t go so well. Back home in Michigan, he returned to his first love, rock and roll. Just as he was gaining recognition as the front man for a rock band, he realized he needed to give acting another try. He packed his bags and headed west again; this time Hollywood loved him back.

His middle-American appearance and natural effervescence helped him land commercials and then guest roles in television series. And then one day, Paulsen’s agent asked him if he ever thought about doing cartoons. His first was Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, which began his education in the world of voice acting. He slowly realized that acting without a camera had some tremendous benefits for a family man—the ability to come home for dinner every night and be a part of his son’s life.

The parts that came after that are practically legendary, including—Raphael of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Animaniacs’ Yakko Warner and Pinky, of Pinky and the Brain. To this day, people see him at conventions to tell him what his work means to their family. It's safe to say that Paulsen’s brilliant lunacy on Animaniacs has cemented fans' lifelong love for his work.

Paulsen’s third reinvention as a voice actor reached a zenith in 1999, when he won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program. Receiving the award was pretty much a blur, although he did get a big laugh when he admitted, “I’m the only person up here I don’t recognize.” His time up, he was ushered off the stage and suddenly realized he had forgotten to thank his partner in crime, Maurice LaMarche (Futurama), the Brain to his Pinky. As he looked around for a payphone (yes, it was that long ago) to apologize to his friend, a man came up to him and said, “Young man, congratulations. Your parents must be so proud of you.” It was Fred Rogers.

It was an indelible moment, Paulsen says. “I was 43 years old at the time, but this really contextualized it for me. I often wondered if I was behaving in a way my mom would approve. Fred was telling me that I had done right by my parents—and Mr. Rogers noticed it. As a parent myself, I really get it.”

Pinky and the Brain won Best Animated Program at those 1999 Emmys, and then, with the usual logic-defying reasoning so often found in show business, Animaniacs was cancelled. Paulsen went into a tailspin—until his gift for personal reinvention asserted itself again. He went back on stage with a one-man concert of music and mayhem. He also took an early leap into the podcasting world, and began Talkin' Toons featuring his voice-acting pals. Paulsen was enjoying himself, being creative and making people happy, when he found a lump on his neck while he was shaving.

It was cancer.

Voice Lessons doesn’t shy away from what it’s like to battle throat cancer, especially by someone who uses his voice for a living. Paulsen, a wiry former ice hockey player, lost weight precipitously—dropping nearly 50 pounds. He found himself on the other side of the patient/celebrity relationship as visitors, former patients and well-meaning family and friends tried to cheer him up.

After months of treatment and “throat flambé,” Paulsen began to heal and rediscover his voice. “Things were a little ‘stretchy’ for awhile,” he says, “but you adapt.” He went through hell to save his life and his voice, but it’s a story with a happy ending—“I can still do 95 percent of the key changes.” Here’s the sweetest triumph—Paulsen singing “Yakko’s World” post-recovery.


Soon the president of Warner Brothers Animation wanted to talk to him. Announcements were made that Animaniacs will return on Hulu in the fall of 2020. “Our fan base has grown exponentially, and we have an entirely new generation of fans,” Paulsen says. The new episodes will feature Animaniacs in all their glory. “Spielberg made it happen with the original crew, great new songs and a full orchestra. It was a bit of a challenge at first, but I realized I needed to give myself a break. I’m so fortunate that I can do this.”

In addition to new Animaniacs, Paulsen has also been busy at Nickelodeon, including voicing Donatello in Nickelodeon's 2012 revival of TMNT and becoming a voice director for network's current iteration of the iconic franchise, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

With the release of his memoir, the prospect of a new show, and the continued love of the fans, Paulsen is once again the Ambassador of Silly, bringing smiles to people’s faces. “I started as a live performer so I could touch people,” he says. “And now, thanks to the book, I get to talk to everyone, hear their stories, and make them laugh. It’s such an honor to be able to bring the joy of silliness into people’s lives and let them know we’re all in this together.”

Voice Lessons is now available for purchase.

About Rob Paulsen:
Born in Detroit, Rob Paulsen spent his childhood in Livonia and Rochester, attending Junior and Senior high school in Grand Blanc, Michigan. Rob loved cartoons like most kids but aspired to be a professional hockey player. “Fortunately, thanks to some big, strong, kid from Winnipeg who drilled me so hard my ears are still ringing, I learned around the age 18 I had neither the talent nor the temperament to make a living playing hockey. So, I turned to my other passions: singing and acting.”

The goal of bringing absolute believability to a character, live-action or animated, is what every actor strives for. Those who are committed to their career and who combine experience, passion and skill are likely to succeed.

With over 2,000 half-hours of animation credits, Rob’s versatility shines in his starring roles as the voices of Donatello (Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Yakko Warner, Pinky and Dr. Scratch ‘n’ Sniff in the Peabody and two-time Emmy award-winning series Animaniacs.

As passionate about “paying it forward” as he is about his lucrative career, Rob supports various charities, particularly those benefitting children and military veterans. In his leisure time, Rob enjoys golf, cruising the PCH, and occasionally lacing up his skates for another chance to relive his past glory on the rink. He spends the majority of his free time with his wife, Parrish, and their Yorkshire terriers, Pooshie and Tala.

Rob Paulsen around the web: robpaulsenlive.com | Talkin' Toons podcast | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Cameo.

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