Maybe you don’t know Rob Paulsen, but you know Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius, and most of the other animated projects that Paulsen has been part of as a voice actor for nearly three decades. With over 2,000 (yes, that’s right) half-hour programs and dozens of films, video games, and other animated media to his credit, Paulsen has been one of the hardest working, most in-demand, and most beloved voice artists in the industry, earning (so far) a Daytime Emmy and Peabody, three times winning the Annie Award (for voice actors).
But he’s also just won the biggest fight of his life – defeating cancer of the throat after a grueling year of aggressive treatment – and with a renewed passion for his craft, he’s finding some new challenges and some old familiar faces there to guide him into the next phase of his career. In addition to continuing his immensely popular podcast and video series Talkin’ Toons on Nerdist, and having just set a slew of new dates for Animaniacs In Concert! which is performed with live music and voices in symphony halls and theatres. The other franchise with which Paulsen has been associated for two generations – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – will also return, with Paulsen for the first time assuming the role of director, getting to work on the other side of the glass.
News of Paulsen’s lengthy illness and forced hiatus might come as a surprise to some, as upon the news of his diagnosis, Paulsen chose to keep his cancer private except for family and those closest to him in his professional career. “Everybody’s got their own stuff to deal with, and this was my turn,” he recalls today, now still recovering but officially cancer free. “I’ve had a damn good ride up to now, and if the worst had happened, it was okay, I had a 35 year run, so I didn’t feel the need to say anything.” That’s not to mitigate the particularly ironic horror of one of the industry’s top voice actors getting a disease that attacked his very livelihood: but the same success that was now in jeopardy is the same thing that afforded him a healthy perspective.
“It was the people who I met throughout my career who were affected by cancer that were my inspiration,” he explains. Because of his beloved characters, he’s frequently met or spoken with hundreds of infirm children who had their wishes come true via a conversation with Pinky or Donatello. “Their parents keep in touch with me when those kids pass away,” Paulsen says, “saying ‘we can’t tell you how much your shows mean to our kids.’ That opportunity, to bring that into their lives, that gave me the example to deal with my own pretty intense circumstances. I had these great teachers.”
Born in Detroit and attending high school in Grand Blanc, the proud Michigander soon realized that he “didn’t quite have the talent, temperament, nor dental insurance to become a professional hockey player.” Paulsen quickly turned to his second love, music, as a way of making a career for himself. More than just a would-be rock band frontman (although he did discover that “chicks dig rock singers”), Paulsen listened to a wide variety of music and learned how to read music. That time and dedication to the craft, he believes, started to train his ear, eye, and voice to work together in a wide array of styles.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but those are exactly the kind of skills that makes for a great voice actor. Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he intended to pursue live action work, working a bit on series television. He also studied at the Groundlings, Los Angeles’ legendary comedy/improvisation troupe, where he befriended and had the opportunity to work with some of the group’s notable members like Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, Lynne Marie Stewart, John Paragon, Cassandra Peterson, and Laraine Newman. The training added to Paulsen’s comedy skills, and allowed him to pursue a passion he had harbored since childhood. “I had a pretty good ear as a kid, and was always interested in comedians like Pat Paulsen, Foster Brooks, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and Jonathan Winters, people who weren’t only funny, but great at doing characters,” he says of his influences. “Then I discovered the Goon Show, with Peter Sellers, and eventually Monty Python – that’s when I started working on dialects.” That British influence would provide the inspiration for the unlikely voice of the lab rat, Pinky, whose foolish, good-natured British twang is the perfect counterpoint to the Brain’s sinister, dead-on reimagining of Orson Welles as voiced by Maurice LaMarche.
Early voice work on series such as the animated G.I. Joe brought Paulsen in contact with the world of professional voice actors at a time when the profession and the industry was just about to explode. Along with industry vets like Frank Welker, Tress MacNeille, Billy West, John DiMaggio, and LaMarche, Paulsen became a part of the “next generation” of great voice artists following in the tradition of Mel Blanc, June Foray, Arthur Q. Bryan, Hans Conried, Don Messick, and Bea Benadaret. G.I. Joe lead to an audition at Hanna-Barbara for a revival of the classic series Jonny Quest. Paulsen landed the role of Hadji, Jonny’s Indian-born adopted brother, and he knew he had found a career. “I’m an average-looking white guy from Michigan,” he says incredulously. “In real life I would never get to play that character, or a teenage turtle, or whatever. This was a gig where I was really only limited by my own imagination, not by my type I was or the way I looked.” Paulsen credits veteran television director Gordon Hunt for casting him and mentoring him at a key point in his career. “I quickly learned about how to be creative and think on your feet, and not be encumbered by how you see yourself. That is absolutely integral to my success.”
That early success came right at the advent of the cable revolution and the millennial baby boom, and there was suddenly a demand for family-oriented programming that would enchant young viewers as well as their parents – parents who had their own connections and memories to animation from years of growing up watching cartoons on Saturday morning. Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbara all started reviving old series and creating new ones, while networks like Nickelodeon and syndication outlets began demanding more original daytime programming. Paulsen and his colleagues have worked for all of them, using their incredible talents to literally bring to life some of the most beloved original characters of a generation while simultaneously bringing back to life the classic characters of yesteryear.
“I was almost a victim of my own ageism,” he says. You see, Paulsen was the original voice of Raphael on the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series – an early project that unexpectedly became a pop culture sensation. A quarter of a century after that original series, Paulsen was approached about doing the reboot of TMNT – but to audition for Donatello. “I wondered – did they know that I did the original Raphael? Are they sure they wanted me to do the job? I’m a white guy in his late fifties.” It turned out that the new producers had been raised on the original series and were thrilled that Paulsen might be available to work with them. That generation of millennials who grew up in the world of Paulsen’s characters are now his colleagues. “And it reminded me again – nobody cares what you look like, and how much that makes me more passionate for my job and having fun with it.”
He’s also moved his successful Nerdist podcast Talkin’ Toons to video format (http://nerdist.com/videos/talkin-toons/), and has recently announced seven dates for Animaniacs in Concert!, beginning in New York City in October, and extending across the nation into 2018 (with more dates to be announced shortly). And he’s begun working on a memoir about his life and career.
That career even has more meaning now that Paulsen is on the mend – he’s still gaining back some of the 50 pounds he has lost, and there’s at least another year of recovery work ahead as his throat and voice regain strength after months of brutal radiation. But he sees now that as modest and genuine as his need to downplay his illness may have been, he’s not just another one of a legion of cancer survivors. “There are millions of people who have beaten cancer, but because of what I do for a living, it has a little more weight. It all circles back to the deep attachment people have to these characters I’ve been lucky enough to play. I can not only continue to make a living, but make a difference, and I can’t wait to use that on the biggest scale that I can.