When voice actor and cartoon character are perfectly matched, it becomes impossible to imagine someone else in the role. Could anyone other than Mel Blanc have voiced Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck? Would the public have embraced Homer Simpson without Dan Castellaneta’s lovably buffoonish characterization? Could any actor besides Robin Williams have given voice to the Genie in Aladdin?
It’s hard to picture it, so indelibly etched are these performances. Ironically, when Williams opted not to play the Genie in Disney’s 1994 made-for-video sequel, The Return of Jafar, it was Castellaneta who was chosen to provide a Robin Williams-esque performance, instead . . . with decidedly mixed results. Williams himself returned to reprise the Genie in the somewhat better second video sequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996). Choices have to be made, of course, and it’s often fascinating to learn who didn’t get the job.
Before Williams was finally convinced to sign on as Aladdin‘s Genie, the creators had discussed the possibility of several other comic actors to voice the character, including Steve Martin, Dana Carvey, and Martin Short. And although animator Eric Goldberg even went so far as to do a rudimentary sketch of a Steve Martin-esque Genie, no one but Robin Williams was ever seriously considered.
Shortly before Monsters, Inc. opened in November 2001, Entertainment Weekly reported that Billy Crystal had actually been offered the role of Buzz Lightyear for the original Toy Story back in the early ’90s. “There’s a whole test of Billy Crystal as Buzz Lightyear,” Disney’s Thomas Schumacher confirmed. But because a very close friend of the comedian had been in a tiff with the studio at the time over publicity issues, Crystal’s manager presumably advised him against voicing Buzz.
“The biggest mistake I ever made in my life,” Crystal admitted, according to EW. “I voted [Toy Story] for Best Picture that year. Only thing I ever turned down that I felt [bad] about.” The role went instead to Tim Allen, who provided just the right mix of warmth and clueless pomposity. As for Billy Crystal, he wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. The actor eagerly accepted the role of short, green, one-eyed Mike in Monsters, Inc.; a part that the filmmakers basically wrote with him in mind.
It was also widely reported that Shrek‘s title character was originally voiced by Saturday Night Live funnyman Chris Farley, until he tragically died in the middle of production. Immediately following his passing, several different actors who might deliver a similar performance were discussed – “But we realized that we would be making a mistake to try and duplicate a Farley-like persona,” says Kelly Asbury, one of Shrek‘s original directors. “Once that was decided, Mike Myers was the first and best choice.” And you know the rest.
Would it surprise you to learn that, before Jim Carrey became Jim Carrey, he actually auditioned for Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, and didn’t get the role? It happened. “We sort of knew who he was,” director Ron Clements says. “It was after The Duck Factory [a short-lived sitcom set in an animation studio], and he came in with his baseball cap on, to look younger.”
Who didn’t play Roger Rabbit? Few realize that Roger’s famous voice in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, performed so distinctively by Charlie Fleischer, was originally vocalized in early tests by none other than Paul Reubens–yet to gain wide acclaim as “Pee-wee Herman.” Michael Giaimo –then a Disney story artist who’d worked for almost two years on early development of the film–recalls how terrific Reubens was in the role.
“Our early take on Roger Rabbit was a little more internal,” he remembers. “He was a clown, but he wasn’t quite so manic. There was a little more heart to him. We did some test animation, and got Paul Reubens to do the voice for Roger. Actually, not many knew him at the time–he had just finished a run at the Roxy on Sunset Strip of ‘Pee-wee’ as a live show [there was no TV series in sight yet]–but Paul actually is a very good actor, and has quite a range. We used that in the test footage. He did two different voices: one where he’s being silly, and one where he’s talking to Eddie Valiant, where Roger feels put upon for being a cartoon character and he tells Eddie, ‘You just don’t know how it is, and I wish you could be in my skin to see how it feels.’ He’s very down and very dejected, and it was really quite a touching performance.”
Ultimately, director Robert Zemeckis decided to go another way with the rabbit’s character–much broader and zanier. “If you’ve ever met Zemeckis, well, he sort of is what Roger Rabbit became. He’s kind of a big, funny, clown-like guy!” Giaimo chuckles.
Sometimes, even when you’ve got the part, you haven’t got it. A performer can record all of his or her lines, only to discover that the character has been completely cut from a film, which is exactly what happened to actress Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock from the Sun) in the movie Ice Age. She’d given voice to Sid the Sloth’s love interest, Sylvia, in several scenes–and, by all accounts, was wonderful. But because the filmmakers decided that Sid needed to be portrayed more sympathetically and as less of a skirt chaser, Sylvia had to go. “She was great. She added so much life to that character,” laments John Leguizamo, who got to perform lines in the recording booth with just one fellow actor–Johnston.
Obviously, these (and many other) projects, where certain performers ultimately prevailed over others, would have turned out significantly different from the gems we know them to be today.
This piece is an excerpt from Allan Neuwirth’s new book Makin’ Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies. This insightful look at some of the biggest talents, projects and recent developments in the world of animation is published by Allworth Press and is available in bookstores and on amazon.com this month.