INTERVIEW: “Porky Pig” Voice Bob Bergen – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: “Porky Pig” Voice Bob Bergen

He’s been the voice of Porky Pig for 27 years now, with so many credits he ranks #4 of the All-Time Top 100 Domestic Box Office Stars. Yet the one thing animation fans have never asked Bob Bergen is, how many kinds of ‘Porkys’ has he voiced?

BOB BERGEN: That’s a really good question, because if you look back at the classic Looney Tunes shorts, every director from Chuck Jones to Friz Freleng to Bob Clampett, each had their little fingerprint, their own version of the characters. They each played a hand in developing them.

So, when I first got the job playing Porky, some people at Warner Bros played me a reference recording of Mel Blanc before every session. It was about 7-8 minutes long, with a little of Porky from 1938, and a little of Porky from 1946, and a little of Porky from 1954. —and I would say to them, “Which Porky do you want?” They asked, “What do you mean? They’re all Porky.” I said, “Yeah, they’re all Porky, but the character evolved.’

Early, early Mel Blanc Porky was very different than, say, Robin Hood Daffy’s Porky. Honestly, the people at Warner Bros were looking at me like I was speaking Chinese. By the way, that kind of messed me up hearing that because I was confused. Personally, my favorite version of the character, or the sound that I try to emulate the most would be mid-50s Chuck Jones Porky, which is Drip Along Daffy, Duck Dodgers, Robin Hood. To me that is the epitome of this character.

GREG EHRBAR: “Comic relief Porky.”

BOB: Basically, comic relief, sidekick-Porky who actually has all the smarts and lets Daffy fall on his face. “I’m watching, j-j-j-j-ester.” That’s my favorite version of Porky. Now, when we do new projects, an actor’s job is to give the directors what they want. There are certainly times in which I don’t feel where they’re going with this character is very Porky-esque. So, my style is to give them exactly what they’re asking for, and if I think I can do something a little more in character I’ll say, “Hey, can I try one for me?” Never do they say, “No.” It is never my call as to what gets in the final picture, but they’re usually very collaborative.

It’s not an actor’s job to speak up unnecessarily. I don’t own these characters. I’m a work for hire. I can make suggestions–and do it in a way that respects the final decision–but I would never be one of those “I’ll be in my trailer” kind of guys. That’s not what we do. I’ve had great experiences working with people like Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone on Duck Dodgers and Matt Craig and Gary Hartle on New Looney Tunes. I pinch myself at such great experiences, such great writing and collaboration.

GREG: Sometimes the actor can invent something just in the way a line is said. A lot of times a catch phrase doesn’t have to be written, it can simply emerge.

BOB: Every producer, director, network and studio wants catch phrases. I teach my students this in voice classes. There might be a catch phrase in an audition and the only one who knows it is the actor. He or she can caress a line or a phrase in such a way that not only gets them the job but it gives inspiration to the writers and producers—we’ve got our “Yabba Dabba Doo!” or “What’s Up Doc!” That’s product placement gold.

GREG: But despite George Jetson’s best attempts, nobody ever went around saying “Ooba-dooba.”

BOB: Sometimes it sounds contrived. It doesn’t feel organic. But when it works, it’s gold. My mom told me that when she was little and she and her friends saw that very first Tweety cartoon, all her friends were in the playground saying, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!” That was the funniest thing they’d ever heard in their entire life. But if you remember in that very first cartoon, which was an Abbott and Costello parody called A Tale of Two Kitties, it was done very simply and matter-of-fact, and it worked perfectly.

GREG: Bugs and Elmer dramatized it in that cartoon, What’s Up Doc? They fictionalized the way the line was invented of course, but the way they picked up on the audience response was pretty much how it works.

BOB: That’s right.

GREG: What would it be like if Porky was given the lead in a show or a film?

BOB: Honestly, as much I as would want to be the lead, I don’t think so. Porky is the ultimate sidekick—but there are so many layers to his personality. We are doing stuff on New Looney Tunes that is typical Daffy-Porky—zany Daffy, not greedy Daffy—I heard last week that were going to be doing one like the classic Sylvester haunted house homage, which is a whole different personality for Porky. Charlie Dog—a different personality for Porky because he has a different comedy partner, a different relationship. I think he works best as a second banana.

These writers know these characters. The hard part for anybody working with a classic character is to put them in contemporary situations and keeping their integrity. It’s so exciting to have these characters “back” with the kind of timing and comedy that they were always meant to have.

GREG: Can you walk us through the general process of making an episode?

BOB: On Friday, I’m mailed a script, a storyboard and a video of Matt Craig pitching the short to the animators. The pitch video reminds me of that famous story about Walt Disney taking his animators to dinner and when they came back he acted out the story of Snow White. That’s what Matt does for every single short. He’s doing Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweety and Sylvester. That’s how I prep for my Tuesday session. There’s so much “meat” to absorb from the script, board and pitch that I can only imagine what it must have been like back in the ‘40s with Mel Blanc, June Foray, Stan Freberg, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and everybody bringing these things to life. The process today is still like magic.

GREG: Earlier, you mentioned your voice acting classes. Mentoring others is very important to you.

BOB: It’s fun. I studied with people like Daws Butler and Casey Kasem. They let me pick their brain and allowed me to make mistakes. So, when I got to a certain point in my career where I was able to give this kind of thing back, I got into social media to answer questions, listen to demos and participate in forums. It’s very gratifying to watch the next generation develop their talent. When I’m in a session sitting next to a former student on a show or a feature, it doesn’t get any better than that. It means I did my job well and God bless it, they were good. It really is fun.

GREG: There is a esprit de corps among voice actors. We in the audience could see it at the recent June Foray tribute, but it’s in evidence at any gathering of voice actors. It seems very sincere.

BOB: We are in awe of each other. We learn from each other. I’ll sit in a session and watch Darren Norris, Eric Bauza, Jeff Bennett, Rob Paulsen, and Candy Milo. In that moment, even though I’m acting and reacting with them, I’m also a fan. I’m taking mental notes at their genius at the mike.

When I went to the premiere of the documentary I Know That Voice, I learned from watching my fellow voice actors talk about their process and the industry. If I’m 30-something years in the business and I’m able to learn from my colleagues, I can only imagine how much the person sitting in Cincinnati watching I Know That Voice on Netflix is getting out of this!

So, you are absolutely dead-on. We respect each other. We’re the type of people who will call each other and ask, “Did you read for so and so? I read for it, but you’re perfect for it.” Sure, there’s competition, but we’re each other’s biggest fans. Very rarely do we have a bad egg in the animation voice industry. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the people who were “ecch.” For the most part, Jess Harnell, Tara Strong, Billy West, they’re a great, neat group and I’m proud to be amongst them.

You might be at a session where somebody’s brand new and next to her is Mark Hamill. And everybody’s equal and all in awe of each other’s abilities. And grateful. Whenever I drive onto the lot at Warner Bros, I still think really me? I get to do this? How cool? I never, ever take it for granted.

GREG: How do you react to your own animated films after they’re released?

BOB: For me the fun is the doing, not the viewing. I rarely watch what I’ve done. I’m just really critical of my work. Really picky. I cringe when I hear my voice. A lot of actors, on-camera ones too, can’t watch because they always feel they could have done so much better. We have no idea which of our takes are going to get into the final prints, either. I probably haven’t seen the majority of the animated features I’ve done—also because they’re recorded years before they come out in theaters.

GREG: I’d like to ask you about one of your most remarkable performances—as No-Face in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Here’s a character who barely talks, yet you get manage to get such expression and emotion through—then the character takes such a horrifying gradual turn. It was unforgettable. How much prep time is involved?

BOB: Zero. I was called to Disney to work on the film. It was for people at Pixar, whom I had worked for before. I get there, and they say, “It’s about a little girl and her parents are turned into pigs and she finds herself in a bathhouse. We’d like you to play this little frog, we’d like you to play this little spooky guy.” I said, “Okey dokey.” I wish I could say that I studied, I prepped, I worked with my acting coach, but it was literally just going up to the mike, going to the next scene and coming up with something that I was seeing in the animation and using that in the dialogue. When you dub Japanese anime into English, you just do the voice as it happens on the page, scene by scene. I had no idea where the characters were going to go. As I’m voicing it, I’m actually learning the character and the story. When it was all done, I took my manager at the time to a screening and that was the first time I saw the whole thing completed, because you only do the scenes in which you have lines to voice. What surprised me was how popular the film became with fans, not so much at the box office, though it did win the Oscar. I would go to fan conventions with all my Looney Tunes stuff and Disney stuff, and people would say, “Do you have anything from No-Face?” Thank God for fan conventions or we wouldn’t be in touch with how our work touches the world.

GREG: You also played the lead role in The Castle of Cagliostro, as Lupin the Third.

BOB: I remember there was a scene in which he was running on rooftops. I don’t remember how long the scene was but I did the whole thing in one take. In fact, Jerry Beck was one of the producers of that film. Carl Macek, who was the director, looked at me and said, “I think we’re moving on!” I asked him, “Did I match sync?” He said, “You matched things that I didn’t even see that were matchable! Every once in a while, you get lucky. This is why I’ve always said that animation actors–and especially anime actors–are some of the best performers in the world because you don’t have time in your trailer with your acting coach to prep for the one and a half pages that you’re doing that day. It’s faster, it’s cold and it has to be spot-on, because time is money and if you can’t do it, there are any number of people who are more than qualified to take your place.

GREG: When did you find out about being near the top of the list of all-time box office stars?

BOB: Somebody emailed me. I think I was number nine then. My quality of life doesn’t reflect that. I just happened to have been fortunate enough to have worked in some films that did very well as the box office. What I love about that entire list is that you see other voice actors like Frank Welker, Mickie McGowan, Bill Farmer and other people that do cartoons up there with Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and the major celebrities in Hollywood who actually do have the lifestyle that reflects the box office. It’s really kind of neat just to be among that group.

But let’s be honest—animation is successful. People go to see animated features, thank God! Every major motion picture studio has a thriving animation department. People still stream, download and buy animated motion pictures, they’re collectors’ items, parents play them in the van for kids in the back seat, grandparents share them with grandchildren. My ranking on there is just a happy by-product.

GREG: Should there be acting Oscars for animation?

BOB: Possibly. We have one for the Emmys. But why separate it? Why not just let an animation performance compete with best actor, best actress? It just happens to be animated.

Greg Ehrbar

Greg Ehrbar

Greg Ehrbar is a freelance writer/producer for television, advertising, books, theme parks and stage. Greg has worked on content for such studios as Disney, Warner and Universal, with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His numerous books include Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney (with Tim Hollis). Visit gregehrbar.com for more.
Greg Ehrbar
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