Saturday, April 14, 2012

Visiting Mel Blanc

Saturday morning in the suburbs.  You'd have thought I was in grade school again.  About 7:30 today, still in my sleepwear, I was laughing as Bugs Bunny outwitted Yosemite Sam in one of the classic Warner Brothers Hollywood studio cartoons.
I followed that with another one of my favorites -- Daffy Duck in "The Scarlet Pumpernickel."  You've heard of a movie-within-a-movie.  In The Bad and the Beautiful or Postcards from the Edge or The Artist, we have a movie about people trying to make a movie.  We follow Daffy through a cartoon-within-a-cartoon.  He wants better material and is pitching a script idea to his studio boss.
In The Scarlet Pumpernickel, he wants to jazz up his image with the kind of action/adventure hero part that made Errol Flynn famous.  There was Daffy, in a scene with Sylvester the Cat and Porky Pig.  All three had dialogue.  When I was a kid, I howled with laughter at that cartoon.  Today, I still howl with laughter.  I'm also in awe.  I continue to be awed by the genius of the late vocal actor Mel Blanc
Blanc did the voices of all three characters.  Today, three actors would've been hired for that cartoon.  One for each character.  Blanc also voiced Yosemite Sam and -- very famously -- Bugs Bunny.  Those were not the only animated characters he gave voice to in his long career.  Blanc did voices and sound effects.  His talents were utilized in animation, radio, on-camera film work and on-camera television work.  One of the greatest thrills of my entire career occurred during my VH1 years.  I was invited to tape an interview of Mel Blanc in his Hollywood home.  This was in 1989 when the legendary performer was promoting a his book of memoirs, That's not all, Folks.  The title was a twist on his trademark cartoon character phrase "That's all, folks!"
Then in his 80s, Blanc was frail physically but still sharp-witted and direct.  He realized his contributions to the art.  He'd worked hard to make those contributions.  Blanc was a competitive man, aware of his talents and grateful for his talents.  He was grateful for attention.  This came about in conversation on and off camera.  I'd seen Blanc on the "Today" show do an interview and talk about that new book.  The reporter, Jim Brown, told viewers that he asked Blanc to do his famous "That''s all, folks!" phrase. Blanc told him he couldn't because of copyright reasons.  In between segments of our interview, I noticed photos Mr. Blanc had displayed around his attractive and very comfortable home.
I saw an Academy Award on a cabinet shelf.  I didn't recall reading that he'd ever won or been otherwise honored with an Oscar.  He hadn't.  Mel Blanc told me that one of his friends from the Warner Brothers animation team bequeathed his Oscar to Mel in his will.  That was the only Academy Award Mel Blanc received.  One left to him by a friend who died.  Blanc's voiceover cartoon resumé dated back to the 1930s with uncredited work for Warner Bros.  He go on to get screen credit for his work at the studio.  Fifty years later, in the 1980s, he'd be a voicover legend lending his talents to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
That 1988 feature was an all-star cartoon character-fest and a big box office hit.  Mel Blanc's characters joined the fun and were included in the cameos.  Behind the scenes, Blanc told me off-camera that he didn't have fun with executive producer, Steven Spielberg.  Apparently, Spielberg wanted Blanc to "screen test" to perform the voices.  Voices he created.  Blanc refused to audition.  He got the job.  Of course he did.
His Warner Bros. cartoon characters gained even greater popularity when my generation grew up watching them on television.  Millions of us were introduced to classical music because we heard it in Bugs Bunny cartoons.  When I was a kid, my mother would identify the composers for me.  "When Bugs Bunny wore a blonde wig and helmet with wings on it?  That was Wagner," she said.  Or "When Bugs made a salad on Elmer's head and then they got married?  That was Rossini."  Blanc gaves us new cartoon voices with the TV shows The Flintstones and The Jetsons.  He didn't have an Emmy on his cabinet shelf.  I was stunned.  I do not mean this disrespectfully:  Oprah Winfrey received an honorary Academy Award and a Kennedy Center Honor.  Mel Blanc created legendary and truly iconic entertainment work that was famous before Oprah was born.  Blanc died a few months after my interview.  The Motion Picture Academy should honor him with a posthumous Oscar for his 50 years of contributions.  Blanc was a versatile and brilliant character actor.  Just because we didn't see him most of the time doesn't mean that was not brilliant acting.  Each of those cartoon characters had his own sound, personality, style and rhythm.  They matured.  The Bugs and Daffy of the 1940s got more sophisticated and funnier in the 1950s.  Blanc's comic timing was amazing.
At the end of my VH1 interview, I used my last minute to thank Mel Blanc on behalf of millions of us babyboomers who grew up being entertained -- and educated -- by his art.  I said that it was a major oversight he'd not been honored by the Kennedy Center or the Motion Picture Academy.  I believe he sincerely appreciated that.  As the interview ended, he said one last thing ... "That's all, Folks!"  What a wonderful moment and what a great privilege to have him on my VH1 talk show.                                      
By the way, Blanc did not do the voice of Elmer Fudd.  That was done by his actor friend, Arthur Q. Bryan.  Bryan played the pudgy nervous passenger onboard a train with Rosalind Russell in her 1945 comedy, She Didn't Say Yes.  If if you ever rent that DVD, you'll know him as soon as he speaks.  Another thing -- and this is for Billy Wilder fans:  Wilder loved the named Sheldrake and Mel Blanc played one of his three Sheldrakes.  There was the Hollywood studio executive hearing a pitch from struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, the New York City corporate executive cheating on his wife in The Apartment and there was the wacky Nevada dentist Mel Blanc played in Kiss Me, Stupid.  Mel Blanc was an American original.  A unique artist.  A lot of cartoon characters just haven't been the same since he died.
Again, I still feel Mel Blanc is due a special Academy Award or there should be a special animation award named in his memory.  The TV Academy should do the same.


2 comments:

  1. Wonderful tribute to an unequaled legend!

    Aurora

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, a fantastic tribute to a shamefully disrespected artist. People think Chuck Jones created Bugs Bunny. It was Tex Avery and Mel Blanc.
    I like Mr. Jones work, but he was the second generation.

    ReplyDelete

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