Maurice LaMarche is the only guy we know who’s ever won an Emmy for playing a severed head, but Orson Welles in a jar is just one of many characters – others include Kif, Morbo, Calculon and Lrrr – that the versatile vocalist has created for Futurama, which begins airing new episodes again tonight on Comedy Central. Other than Futurama, the list of iconic cartoon characters he has voiced is so impressive as to overwhelm, ranging from the likes of Daffy Duck and Popeye to Toucan Sam, The Real Ghostbusters‘ Egon Spengler, Alec Baldwin in Team America: World Police, Inspector Gadget, and even G.I. Joe foe Destro. You probably know him best as the Brain, partner to Pinky, who has never quite managed to take over the world… although, looking at those credits, it seems safe to say that he has pretty much dominated ours.
On the eve of Futurama‘s return, we tried to talk to him about as many of those things as we could.
Nerdist: What can you tell us about the new season of Futurama? Can you talk about any new characters you have coming up, or familiar characters who get good moments? How much can you reveal at this point?
Maurice LaMarche: Nothing. Let’s talk about my new tennis court. No, I can tell you that the shows just seem to keep getting better and better and better. Our writing gets richer. As our writers come into a more mature age, they’re exploring deeper themes, because that’s what happens to us when we get old. When we started, all our writers were in their 30s. Now, they’re in their late 40s. Some of them are in their early 50s. This show was a little more joke-driven, gag-driven. Now, we’re exploring things like father-son relationships, what it means to love, what is God. You know, comedy.
N: Is there more freedom for that on Comedy Central than on Fox?
MLM: Absolutely. You feel it. We know we can push the envelope just a bit more, which doesn’t mean just more bathroom jokes. It means we can go a little deeper, get a little more outrageous. It’s been a tremendous, tremendous relationship with Comedy Central. They’ve been great to us. In terms of new stories, I’ve kind of got to let David X. Cohen decide what to reveal and what not, what to tease and what not. I think I’m OK to tell you that in terms of my characters, Lrrr [lapses into Lrrr voice]: “Ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8! I crash on your couch!” He gets to come back and gets a very nice story. He’s the character through which we explore the mid-life crisis thing. This season, we look at his relationship with his teenage son. That’s a whole standalone episode that I’m very proud to have been a part of. We get a couple of nice Calculon episodes, just to talk about my contribution. We’ve got one in this upcoming season in 2012. We sort of tie it up in 2013 and leave Calculon with a bit of a conundrum, and we come back and restore him next summer. Other than that, I really can’t go into too much detail. It’s going to be a rather emotionally complex and rich show.
N: So is Lrrr’s teenage son the baby Poppler from before, the same character?
MLM: No. Not the baby Poppler that I know of. He was somebody else’s Poppler. Lrrr being the ruler, they’re all his children somewhere, imperialistically.
N: Were you with this show from the very beginning?
MLM: I auditioned at the very beginning, and I was not expecting to get in. I knew that the waiting room was full of sitcom stars and what I used to call “real actors.” Now, I realize what we do is also real acting. We just don’t wait for the hair, lighting and makeup. But at that time, I was at a little more insecure place in my life, in 1999. We had Y2K coming and all that. I was very insecure. They went with the pilot, and I went, “Well, I guess I didn’t get it,” because I knew Billy [West] was doing the pilot. Billy was initially doing the utility voice guy. Fry was another actor, and they decided after the first episode, he just didn’t sound right, so they gave Fry to Billy. They thought, “We need another utility voice guy, another guy who does a mess of voices, because you’re going to be hearing Billy’s default voice all through the show. We’re not going to be able to strain him too much. He’s got too much to do.” So that’s when they went “Let’s bring in that other guy, the other guy that did the multiple voices,” and that was me. So I’ve been with the show since episode two. There’ve been a handful of episodes that I’m not in, that I have no character in, and I still haven’t seen all of those. I like to let myself watch about one a year, and really watch the show as a fan with no sense of keeping an ear out for what did I do when I played Alien #3. It’s a real treat for me when I just get to watch the show. I’m like, no horse in this race, I can just enjoy Futurama as it’s meant to be unto itself, which is great.
N: Looking at your list of voice-over credits, I would be surprised you’d have to audition at all at this point. Do you still have to audition a lot, or are you just the go-to guy?
MLM: Most of the time, I still audition. That’s the thing about voice-over. You know the famous story of Shelley Winters, asked to go in and audition? She goes in to the casting office with two shopping bags. She sits down, and reaches into shopping bag one and then shopping bag two, and what’s in the shopping bags are her two Oscars. She puts them on the desk, looks the guy straight in the face, and goes, “That’s my audition,” puts the Oscars back, walks out of the thing, and she got the part. Her family was excited, that’s just a thing I heard, so I don’t know if it’s an impossible thing. But that’s on-camera world. In the voice-over world, you’re focusing on a specific part of the performance: the voice. You’re taking away all the other stuff. You’re taking away any reaction you might have to the actor’s face, or physicality, or the eyes, or any number of things that work for an on-camera actor. You just limit it to the voice. You make sure they put everything in the vocal performance. I’ll never forget the day I walked into my agent’s office back when it was still probably one of the biggest agencies in the world. They’ve since broken off and formed their own shop, but they’re still the go-to agency in town. It was the ICM Voice-over Department. I walked in, and everybody was stone silent in the waiting room. Usually, there’s a lot of chatter, because voice people tend to use their voices a lot. I thought, “Oh my God, a client died.” And I would ask “What’s going on?” and everyone would say “Sh-h-h-h!” So I sat down, and waited for about three minutes, and the door to the recording booths where they send in the auditions from opens up, and out steps Sir Ben Kingsley, and an assistant, and the head of our agency, our department, Jeff Danis. And they thank him very much, and he gives us all a nice smile, says [Kingsley voice] “Thanks so much.” It really was just stone quiet. They didn’t even want to have a whisper get under the door jam and disturb the audition. I was like, “Wow, they even make Ben Kingsley audition for a voice-over,” because they want to make sure it just carries in the voice. So yes, I audition all the time.
N: I know your signature voice is Orson Welles. Did you ever get a chance to meet him for real? Have you ever interacted? It looks like you narrowly overlapped on Transformers.
MLM: To coin a phrase from someone I actually did get to work with, Don Adams, [Maxwell Smart voice] “I missed him by that much!” I walked into a couple of sessions where it smelled of cigar, and I went, “Wow, it really smells of cigar in here,” and they went “Yeah, Orson was just here.” The other one like that was Mel Blanc. Orson Welles and Mel Blanc both, I have missed by two to 15 minutes in recording studios, where I followed them into a session. I was like, “Oh, God.” They both passed away in the mid ’80s. I never got to meet either of them, and I missed them by mere minutes. I always had a lot of admiration for Welles. Then I got hold of that outtake tape of the “Frozen Peas” session in England, and began to parrot that in my car, never thinking I’d have much use for it. It’s like, “Well, who goes to Orson Welles?” People didn’t know that as a comedic thing. I didn’t put it in my stand-up, or anything like that, and then all of a sudden, from parroting it in the sessions, just doing it to keep my voice warm while we waited to do re-tapes or re-writes, saying [Welles voice] “I’ll just give him something,” little by little, I started doing Orson Welles-ian characters. It culminated in me playing Orson Welles’ head in a jar in last season’s “Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences.” And lo and behold, I ended up with an Emmy. That was nice.
N: I remember when I saw Ed Wood, I was like, “Wow, Vincent D’Onofrio did this great impersonation.” It turns out that was you dubbed in. Did that bug you, that people thought it was all him?
MLM: It did, at the time. As I said, it was a more sensitive time. But with the Internet now, anybody who takes a passing interest in the movie knows it as a piece of trivia just from looking it up on IMDB, that the voice is done by me. I heard that Vincent was not upset personally with me, but he felt bad that they didn’t use his original performance. He actually went out and with his own money produced a short film called “Five Minutes with Mr. Welles,” in which he did make a greater attempt at getting the voice right, because he really does look like him. In the dailies that they sent me, D’Onofrio was doing this really sort of high-pitched with him. It was almost effeminate. Burton, I guess, felt that was not the way to go after piecing the scene together. Being an animator, he was a fan of Pinky and the Brain, and called up and said, “Call me the guy who does the Brain. We just gotta dub this.” They flew me up to San Francisco, and I dubbed it in one day. It was on my birthday, actually. And there it is. It’s stuck to the tape. But no credit. We actually offered to cut my salary because I got an over-scale fee for that, and I said, “well, take it down to scale, and just give me a credit.” And they went, “Nope. Keep your money. We’re not going to give credit.”
N: You once said Cuban cigars were the key to getting the depth of Welles’ voice. Do you still feel that way, or was that just an excuse to smoke the best cigars?
MLM: [LAUGHS] It may have been a bit of an excuse. Although, I will tell you after Orson died, a box of his cigars ended up at the cigar store where I used to buy my underground supply. I was there just after his girlfriend left it. The owner of the store said, “These are actually Orson Welles’ Montecristo A’s.” I said, “How much?” I bought them right there on the spot. I was determined to savor them. I made them last an entire week, because I used to chomp them like candy. I like to think that, somehow, they gave me me more Wellesian power. The truth of the matter is: it’s just a question of certain vocal tensions, and opening up the throat, and allowing the chords to vibrate at a lower resonance. I don’t know if the cigars helped or not. Maybe I damaged my voice, I don’t know.
N: When you do someone who’s alive today, like Alec Baldwin in Team America or Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters, do you ever hear from those guys?
MLM: I haven’t had that with either one of them. I did bump into, literally, I brushed shoulders back-to-back with Alec Baldwin in Aaahs, back when it was down on Ventura Boulevard. He was on his cell phone yelling at somebody. I don’t know who. His daughter? I’m kidding. I don’t mean to dredge that up. Don Adams liked my impression of him. I think he’s the only one I really went face-to-face with. He actually liked my impression of him so much that when it came time to do a new Inspector Gadget in 2002, his voice was quavering by that point, and he said “I’m retired, let Mo do it. Mo does me better than I do.” He actually liked my impression of him. That’s the only time I’ve ever really come face-to-face, where they knew it was me, and I was flattered to do it. My Baldwin impression, people tell me I sound like him at times anyway. I guess I do, although I don’t have that Long Island accent that he has. I guess I get kind of close. It was fun to play him in Team America. He originally wanted to play himself. He approached Matt and Trey about playing himself. He wanted to be in on the joke, and Matt and Trey felt that because of all the shots they take at Hollywood activists, and especially the ones they took at him – the script was actually full of more references to that – they felt that once they saw the script, he would go from fan to trying to shut down the movie. So they just said “Nah,” and they got me.
N: Are there any voices that are just hard to sustain, that make you cough or tear up your throat?
MLM: Lrrr and Morbo, who are in the same wheelhouse, are tough to sustain over long periods of time. Over at Warner Brothers, I’ve been pretty much doing 90% of the Yosemite Sam work since Mel Blanc passed away. That one is a bit of a toughie, especially now that it’s a series on Cartoon Network called The Looney Tunes Show. I’ve actually lost my voice doing Yosemite Sam. I’ve gotten pretty good at speaking up for myself, though. Back in the ’90s, I’d do anything to please. Now, I protect myself. I realize my voice is my living, so hopefully, if I get a little too rough, I’ll say, “Guys, we’ve got to move on to two takes max on this. Please, bear with me here.” People are very good about it, because people don’t want you getting bits of blood on the pop screen or the microphone.
N: A couple of Comic-Cons ago, there was a rumor being spread that the entire voice cast of Futurama was going to be replaced and breakdowns were leaked where it seemed like they were going to replace every lead voice. Was that just a stunt, or was there any truth to that?
MLM: To my knowledge, they had auditions, because people had emailed me saying “Hey, man, what’s going on? I got asked to read for your characters today.” I’m easy to find on Facebook. Quite a few people messaged me. Actors I knew, actors I didn’t. That was a real thing. I don’t know how well their auditioning turned out. I do know that there was a huge sigh of relief when we finally made a deal, which we made just before the casting director had to make his presentation to the network of what he’d found. As I recall, he wasn’t terribly confident. As he put it, “The best of the best didn’t touch you guys.” That was a real thing, and it did go through those motions.
N: I remember as a kid in the old Warner Brothers cartoons, there were two distinctly different voices for Marvin the Martian. That always bothered me. When you step into an iconic role like a Popeye or a Yosemite Sam, is there an intimidation there? Is there less of an intimidation there than there used to be, because you’ve done it so much?
MLM: When the original actor has died, the audience forgives you more, and just goes, “All right, we’ve got to carry on. All right, so you’re the new guy.” I remember feeling that way about the Froot Loops bird. I took over for Paul Frees in 1989, thinking I’ve got to get as close to what he did. I used to block one nostril because he had so much resonance, so I thought that if I blocked a nostril, I could get that kind of nosy sound that he had. Around 2003, I had the job longer now than Paul Frees actually had it, I went, “Wait a second. All the kids that are alive now on the planet have grown up with me as Toucan Sam. I think I can call it my own now. I’ve been trying so hard to be like him.” I stopped blocking the nostril, is the point of the story. I stopped the blocking of the nostril in 2003. I said, “I’m the Toucan Sam that these kids know now. It’s mine.” Like you mentioned with Marvin the Martian, it drove me nuts when Barney Rubble’s voice changed three times. I only know now that there’s something of a cartoon story, and that was essentially because of a horrible car accident Mel Blanc got in on Sunset Boulevard. It was really another actor stepping in to help out his friends. But I remember when Barney changed to Daws Butler, I was like, “Wait a second. Barney Rubble isn’t Yogi Bear! What’s going on here?” I think people do like consistency with their cartoon characters. They have strong identifications and they don’t like when things change up.
N: What do you think when you see a live-action creation based on one of the animated voices you did? Say, Destro in G.I. Joe or Matthew Broderick as Inspector Gadget. Can you dissociate yourself from those, or when you watch them, do you say “Oh, they’re not doing this right”?
MLM: Whenever they spin off into a live-action thing, of course they never go to the cartoon actors. The one time it happened, though, looking at the flipside of that, was in the Transformers movie when Optimus Prime utters his first line. I saw that movie three times with my kid. When Optimus Prime opens his proverbial mouth and says his first line, you could audibly hear an intake of breath. People gasped. I heard people around me saying, “They got the real guy!” Because it was Peter Cullen from the original Transformers series. They had the foresight to bring him in and bring back people’s childhoods, and go “We’re going to give you the real Optimus Prime.” People were thrilled with that. People have said privately, “I just dug that they gave that role to Peter. That was great.” I love when the original guy can do it. I’ve always said if they ever make a Pinky and the Brain movie, I’m not optimistic that they’ll use Rob Paulsen and me, but I hope they do, and just cast people around us. You know, I don’t want Kelsey Grammer playing the Brain. You never know what happens. Hopefully, there’s a lesson there.
N: Is there hope for a Pinky and the Brain reboot?
MLM: I think the rights are too tied up or complex. I think Spielberg has half, Warner Brothers has half. I think it’s just one of those things where they’ve thought about it, and every time they do a CGI thing of a mouse to see if they can make it real, they’ll make something else, like Mouse Hunt. “Well, we can’t do Pinky and the Brain. We just did Mouse Hunt.” I don’t know that it’s anything that could happen. It’s a prime time to do it, because the little kids who watched Pinky and the Brain now have money in-hand and go to the movies. They are the ticket-buying adult public now. Bringing back Pinky and the Brain seems like a natural, but I don’t think with the legal ramifications that they’ll do it. Although, if Steven says, “I’ll direct it. I want to be involved. It’s going to be a Steven Spielberg picture,” then maybe we might have something. But I don’t know that Steven’s got that on the back burner at all.
N: Aside from Futurama, what big projects do you have coming up in the near future?
MLM: We’ve got Transformers: Rescue Bots on the air right now, and a show we did on the summer in Nickelodeon called Robot and Monster, which I did with Harland Williams and Curtis Armstrong, who are two very funny men. Curtis Armstrong, of course, being Booger from the Revenge of the Nerds movies, and Harland Williams is a comedy legend in and of himself. We’ve got that coming up this summer or this September. Other than that, it’s been all about Futurama for me. I’m very excited about the new season.
N: Speaking of Transformers, and the Orson Welles connection, are they talking about bring Unicron back at all, and having you do him?
MLM: I haven’t heard any rumors of that. I do seem to be the go-to guy in the dubbing world to do Orson Welles stuff, but not in this case.
N: I think a lot of fans would also like to see Unicron return to be a villain in the live-action movies.
MLM: Yes! If he does, I’ll happily step back to a microphone if they ask.
Futurama‘s one-hour season premiere airs tonight at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central.
If you liked this story, check out the time LaMarche and Rob Paulsen appeared on the Nerdist podcast, and consider signing up for Nerdist News to get stories like this in your email inbox every weekday morning.