You probably don't know his face, but it's all but guaranteed you've heard his voice. If you're a 90's kid, he was Yakko and Pinky from Animaniacs and Raphael on the original Teenage Mutant Turtles. For the newer crowds, he was Carl Wheezer on Jimmy Neutron but really, his resume speaks for itself. Some 40 years after arriving in Los Angeles on a hope and a prayer, Paulsen has thousands of credits to his name from films and television shows to video games and beyond. No matter how you shake it, Paulsen is a top name in the voice acting game, but if you're an animation aficionado, you'd probably already know that.
ComicBook.com spoke with Paulsen this week to discuss his illustrious career and right out of the gates, it was clear why the actor has been so successful in his craft. With enough charisma for the everyone who's ever watched a cartoon, it appears Paulsen tries living his life without a worry in mind, focusing on the goods and positivity whenever he can — and that's for a good reason.
In 2016, the actor — who relies on his voice for a living — was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer. Now, over three years after the initial career-threatening diagnosis, Paulsen has beat cancer and is moving full steam ahead. He recently made a move to the director's chair, and currently serves as voice director on Nickelodeon's Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and before long, his memoir — Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved my Life — will hit shelves at bookstores (and online) on October 8th.
Here's what Paulsen had to say about growing up as a goofster, playing hockey with the legendary Gordie Howe, and more.
ComicBook.com: First and foremost, thanks for sitting down with me. To kick things off, let's take it back to the very beginning. Do you recall your earliest moment with cartoons or animation?
Rob Paulsen: I do! In fact, the cartoons that meant a lot to me, and the ones that still mean a lot to me, are nothing less than culturally iconic. They're the same ones, I think, mean a lot to many people my age and actually, your age and younger, which shows the power of what it is that you talk about. Comics. Animation. It's all culturally significant "art" because as we know art is subjective but irrespective of that, they're powerful.
In my case, it was Jonny Quest, Looney Tunes, Rocky and Bullwinkle. You know, the usual suspects. A little bit later, Muppets and things like that that were all very entertaining to, I would submit, maybe even a billion people now. Certainly, I was no different. I think I took a little bit more of an interest in the actors than the usual kid. I was very well aware, I know before I was 12, who June Foray was, who Jay Ward and Bill Scott and Edward Everett Horton and Paul Frees were. You know, Penny Singleton, all these people.
I think also because my parents talked often about old time radio. Mel Blanc, folks like that, who did a lot of radio. So, they kind of made a natural transition into animation. They were the ones who did most of it because when I was a kid, animation was relegated primarily to Saturday morning ABC, CBS, and NBC, and some syndicated stuff on local television. So, you didn't have to really go out of your way, especially if you watched a lot of cartoons, to pay attention to the credits. Even though the credits weren't pausable like they are now.
Mel Blanc was easy because everything that came out Warner Bros. sort of came out of Mel's mouth. So, that was easy. But it didn't take long to kind of say, you know, these same people worked a lot. Then you start hearing records, novelty comedy records, and Stan Freberg again and other really wonderful actors like Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart and all these people.
And, of course, The Flintstones was a cartoon in which they hired celebrities to do their own voices. You know, Ann-Margret and Tony Curtis and very famous movie stars at the time. So, that's certainly not a new thing in the context of hiring famous people to do funny voices, but that stuck with me a long time and still sticks with me.
So now, when I meet people your age, and older and younger, who have two, sometimes three generations in their own family that fans of Ninja Turtles, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, I totally get it. I totally get it and some of my fondest memories of my entire life thus far were watching cartoons with my dad. It was great stuff. And just like Looney Tunes, which was clearly, and was said as much, that it was written for "children" but so adults could watch along. Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain are the same way.
And the edict from the top from Mr. Spielberg was essentially that. Let's use Looney Tunes as our example. We'll never condescend to the audience and I'll be damned. Guess what? The king of Hollywood was right. 20 years later, they're still relevant.
Growing up, what was your first, I don't know if you want to call it foray, into voice acting? I mean, were you one of these kids that were just goofing around and doing all sorts of different voices?
Yeah, pretty much. I did it for the, I think, arguably the noblest of reasons. It just made my soul happy. I just love doing it. And, you know, I don't know if you're an actor or not, but man. I don't care whether you're five years old or 55, once you get a rise out of somebody, if that's something that floats your boat, you're hooked. You know, that's it. It's like a drug and the first one's free, baby, but after that, you start to really need to do it. That's how I was.
My parents were both very supportive of me and my siblings. My parents were both in community theater and singers, and very, very, very influential in making sure we were all exposed to music and drama and theater and movies and all that. So, I think they just sort of created a monster with me because I couldn't not do it, to sort of phrase a double negative.
So yeah, that's exactly what I did. Then as I got a bit older, I, like anything else, I also played hockey. That was the only other thing in my life growing up in Michigan I wanted to do is a professional hockey player. So, pretty soon, you surround yourself with buddies who play hockey and you play outside in the winter. Then you play all through high school sports and you surround yourself with like-minded people. Same thing with theater and music and comedy. I surrounded myself on the other side of the high school spectrum with the nerds. I was very lucky that I could, you know, play both sides of the social coin. As a varsity hockey player for four years and also in choir and hung out with all the nerds too.
Because my heroes, at the very same time that I was in love with the Detroit Red Wings, I was also crazy about Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Monty Python, and Peter Sellers and The Goon Show. All these people who inspired millions, I was no different. Then it just so happened that one of the people I hung out with a lot, a good friend from high school, his father had a very highly rated radio show in Flint close to where I grew up which catered to the Buick employees because in those days, Buicks were built in Flint.
He had a recording studio in his basement and it didn't take long before we all started to get together and create stuff. Audio dramas and audio comedies. We'd write them. We'd produce them. Some of them were shitty, some of them were pretty damn good. But that's the whole idea, is to do exactly that.
You're in the comic book business. That is not dissimilar at all to what Kevin [Eastman] and Peter [Laird] did on Turtles. You know, they just sort of threw stuff against the wall or drew stuff on the page and said, "What do you think about this?" "I don't know. What do you think about this?" "Let's make him a lizard." "No, let's make him a gecko." "No, let's make him a turtle." And that's exactly what we did, Adam.
The more and more I got into it, the more and more I just really enjoyed being creative. It was not about money. It was not about anything but making ourselves happy. Then, once you do that, you kind of want to spring it on your friends and man, once you get a couple of laughs, that's it. You're done. No going back.
Quick sidebar. So you grew up playing hockey. I spent a couple of years up north in Minnesota so I totally understand how crazy you northerners take it. Any chance you still skate?
I do. I haven't skated much lately because thanks to nice people like you, I'm too busy. As I said, I really, really love the game. I'm a good enough player to know how I'm good or I'm not. I think one of my strengths in life has always been that I always dream really big like a lot of creative people and I still do. But I also can, fortunately, tweak it with a certain amount of relative logic and in the case of hockey, once somebody drills the hell out of you and you're going, "Wow. That kid's my age and he outweighs me by 50 pounds. He can out skate me backwards." And I'm a good player but not that good.
I got as far as college and it was clear that I had no business being on the ice with people that were that good, so the other thing that got me just as much, that really fired me up just as much in terms of my joy, was performing. I am so grateful that I've been able to do the same thing.
Kind of as a sidebar here, as a result of the fact that I was a halfway decent amateur hockey player. You know, even in southern California you find out, "Hey, who plays hockey." "Well, there's a rink in Culver City where the [Los Angeles] Kings practice." "Oh, let's go down there in case if there's a pick-up game." Sure enough, there's a pick-up game. Then there are people from Michigan and North Dakota and Minneapolis and Boston and Toronto and all...so, I'm playing pick-up hockey and all these people I continue to have as friends, many of them are in show business.
One thing would lead to another and 10 years later, "Hey, man. We're putting together a hockey team of show biz people. You want to play?" "Of course I want to play. What are we going to do?" "Well, we're going to go play the old-timers of National Hockey League teams to raise money for children's charities. You're a Ninja Turtle. You want to play?" "Yeah!"
I got to play hockey with Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr and Stan Mikita and Keith Magnuson and Ken Dryden and all the people who were my hockey heroes when I was a kid. I've literally gotten to have my cake and eat it too, man. I've gotten to play hockey with Gordie Howe, more than once, you know? And it turns out his grandkids were total Ninja Turtles freaks. I mean it's just...you're talking to a lottery winner here, my friend. I'm a lucky man.
Moments ago you did mention growing up, obviously, the voice stuff and the creative and storytelling wasn't about the money. But you have been fortunate enough to turn this into a career.
Did you kind of have an "Oh s**t" moment or an epiphany of sorts when you made the realization that you could this goofing around into an actual living?
Yes, and you're right. It's exactly that. In fact, I tell people all the time. I essentially get paid to do things that got me in trouble in seventh grade. And when I say trouble, that's with a small T. I mean, I didn't bring weapons to the school, but it was, you know, the kind of stuff where you would make fun of the German teacher with his accent. And they'd say, "Mr. Paulsen. You probably should step outside for a minute and calm down. " You know, that kind of stuff.
You know, thank God that I didn't push it too far and thank God there weren't so many drugs around because I probably would've been given Adderall and I'm so glad I wasn't. I was a decent student but I was creative, like a lot of people.
Anyway, that's exactly what it was, Adam. I remember clearly, I had just completed my first year at the University of Michigan, and I knew, I knew so deeply that this was not for me and that's difficult because I love the whole ethos of being in, you know, the whole college vibe, especially in the fall. Football. Going to Michigan Stadium. The whole thing was something I just really wanted to experience, but not as much as I wanted to perform. So, you know, it's like I said. It really is a drug.
There's a chemical component to how much I love doing what I do. It was enough for me to be the oldest in my family and go back to my parents....you know, the one who is supposedly supposed to set the example for my siblings, and I said, "I don't want to [attend school]. You know, I'm wasting your money and my time." And it was difficult for my parents and I totally, totally understand why. I was 19, and I'd just done my first year, and I said, "I got to go to LA." In those days we still had a draft and my parents were like, "Well, you know, we really don't think you're making the right choice but you're old enough to go to war and you're old enough to vote. And you're old enough to be drafted. You're old enough to live your life but the money that follows you to college doesn't follow you to wherever you go in Hollywood. You do know that?" And I gulped and I said, "Yeah, I kind of figured you'd say that." So, I hit the road.
I joined a theater company and spent a year on the road doing live theater around the US and Canada. Then I came home and joined a rock and roll band, which I'd done several times before. That was just phenomenal, real-world practical training and I had an epiphany. I was making, you know, for a guy who's got to live at home with his parents after I've been on the road for a while, my parents were always very kind. Even though they disagreed with my choice. But man, I was living in Flint, Michigan, or just south of Flint, making a couple of hundred bucks a week with my rock and roll band friends at 20 odd years old. I thought, "Man, life doesn't get any better than this."
I bought a brand new Honda Accord, a 1976, for $4,600, thank you very much and I'm living a dream. We were booked a year in advance. We got to do some opening act gigs for Bob Seger, things like that. One night, and I will never forget it, there's a young man who used to follow the band around. Kind of a Heineken-induced groupie, his name was Mickey. Mickey came up in his twisted stupor and said from the bottom of his heart, "Man, Rob. You're the best band in Flint." And I swear to you, Adam, there was like this little, "Ding!" that went off in me in my head and I said, "You know what? He's right. This is as good as it gets for you, son. You're 22 years old and this is it. These guys are good. You guys are a good cover band. Your originals are not very good, but unless you make a move, this is it." Within two months, I was gone.
It was a very difficult decision as well because I loved these guys and I learned a lot, but that was the moment I said, "I really think I better jump on this because if I'm going to find out whether or not I got what it takes to play in the big sandbox in Hollywood, I better give it a shot."
I am so, so grateful that I had the kind of parents and I've told them this. They're both gone now but I had the kind of parents who, for whatever reason, were able to instill in me that feeling of, "You know what? I got to give this a shot." Even though they knew it would be more difficult, maybe for me, but certainly for them. It was not easy for them to let their kid go from Michigan to Hollywood and parents do it all the time. So I'm very grateful, because were it not for that feeling that they instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, I don't know that I would've had the guts to come out and give it a shot. But like anything else, any other endeavor, you decide you really, really, really want to be in medical school, you'll do whatever it takes to get it done and that's what I did.
When I came out here, I don't know what I expected. The bottom line is nothing happened to me that I didn't expect. That is to say, I didn't get most of the work I auditioned for. I did have, "No thank you," virtually every day. That's the deal. None of that surprised me. Not a bit. And then people say, "Oh my God. Wasn't it hard?" Well, hard is working on a farm in August, you know. Hard is pouring hot tar on the freeway in Los Angeles in the summer. Those are hard jobs. Being a single mother, a single parent with two or three kids -- that's a hard job. I chose this. I chose to be an actor, like everybody else.
So, what I say is, "it's challenging but Jesus, what isn't?" Running a comic book website is challenging. There's tons of competition. Tons of it. You've got to keep your bar high so people pay attention to you in this crazy, wild west, social media world here, right? So, it was all about, "I can't not do this. And if I don't do it now, I'll be 30."
I didn't have any mortgage. I had no children. I wasn't married. So it was time to rock and roll. I knew I could make a living as a performer. I just didn't know that I could make a living with a capital L as a performer. Like, you know, buy cars and have a house and put braces on your kid's teeth like normal people. That I didn't know. I knew that I could work in a club and make a few hundred bucks a week, and maybe I'd get to a place where, I don't know, we got a record deal. I needed to be in a place like everybody else, where you can be so that if you've got what it takes, people can see you. You just need to be where the people are who can help you and it was very clear that it wasn't going to be in Michigan, as much as I love it. So, off I went.
I was 22 years old. 1977-78, is when I said, "I think it's time to see if I can really do this." So, that's when it all went down.
So you take the gamble. Fast forward to 2019 and you're now some 2,000 roles later, right? It's safe to say it probably paid off.
Oh my goodness. Look. I've been rich and I've been poor and rich is way better, my friend. But I got to tell you honestly, it's probably like you. I still am driven and inspired by the joy I derive from doing this job. The money happens as a result of me doing my work at a high level, and I get to do that because I'm surrounded by people who are better than me and they make me get better. Some of them are gone now. Every one of them has had an incredible impact on me. I still pull things out of actors I've worked with in the past and remind me of, "Oh my God, I did this with that guy or that girl and yeah, I totally get where this character might work here." I'm always working to create. Always working to get better. Virtually always on my own. I just love to file stuff away in my little mental Rolodex to use on the next gig I'm lucky enough to get.
Yeah, It's all worked out. There have been many times when it sure as hell felt like it wasn't working out, but that's life. It is for everybody. Everybody takes a punch. If you live long enough there's no way you get out of here without a couple of dings, you know?
I have had way more success and happiness and joy than downtimes. I've learned a lot from the downtimes. And they're not all in the fast, in the far, far past. I had a very slow career slump probably 10 years ago, which was very tough on me personally, but what kept me bringing it out of it was my sense of humor and the fact, again, that I was doing what I wanted to do. Nobody forced me to do it. I had nobody to blame. I nobody to say, "Oh my God. This is really hard. I'm 50 something years old. This is hard." Tough shit. Who told you to be an actor? Nobody, you know? Not as hard as the guy who's standing in his own urine eating out of a trash can. He didn't want that life either so figure it out, dude. You've gotten this far.
Then I had a bout with throat cancer a couple of years ago and that was pretty, pretty intense. But while we're chatting, while we're speaking right here, God forbid you and I know people that may be getting the phone call right now that they, or someone they love, has cancer. It happens every day. And just because I happen to be a voice actor, I mean it got my attention, but why not me? Those are the moments that really make you savor how wonderful it is to be in a position to talk to people like you.
You're a comic book guy. You know that skill set. I don't possess it. I'm just an actor and a singer, but I have had way more than my share of well-known shows and characters I've had a part in creating. You could probably take me anywhere in the world and somebody would know at least one of the characters I've been involved in. That's a big deal. Not only for an actor but just culturally. I mean, that's huge. Everybody probably knows Ninja Turtles. I can't even tell you what a remarkable thing that has turned out to be. The whole experience.
So, yeah, man. It's been a hell of a ride, and I certainly am much closer to the end than the beginning but were I to drop dead right now, apart from the fact that it would be very inconvenient for you, I got nothing to complain about. I've had a hell of a run. Moreover, what I've gotten to do for a living is ultimately nothing but purely joyful, from both sides of the equation. When I meet people, and I start saying, "Hello, nurse!" They smile or they lose it in the most wonderful way and nobody gets a bigger kick out of it than myself. How much more can you ask for in life, you know? It's just wonderful and it doesn't get old and nobody cares what I look like. The older I get, I can still work and I'm working every day and doing things that people will get a kick out of long, long after I'm gone. I really understand how fortunate I am.
The Animaniacs reboot is coming up, obviously.
One, is that something you're interested in? And two, are you involved?
Well, yes. Firstly, of course. Anytime you get to work with the king of Hollywood that's a pretty cool thing, you know? Mr. Spielberg is not only who he is, we all know that, but he's a delightful, really nice man. Which is wonderful to see because when you're able to use people like that as examples, and in my case also, Gordie Howe. I did get to know Gordie really well. When you really meet people who are so well known, not only in their milieu but just in real life, and you see how people behave — even though they have the power that would allow them to behave any way they want. They got all the money they need. They got blah blah blah. They're well known. They get the best restaurant tables. You name it. They behave in nothing but a classy, smart, kind down to earth, unpretentious way. That firstly, anytime you get to work with people like that, you're on board.
Secondly, your question is, "Am I involved?" Well, here's what I'm supposed to say, and already you can read between the lines. I'm supposed to say, "I can neither confirm nor deny." Which I suppose I'd be saying if I were in a Senate subcommittee hearing. Warner Bros. will make their own announcements, but I can tell you that Steven and Sam Register, the president of Warner Bros. Animation, they get the zeitgeist. They understand the fan base. They know that I'm traveling around the country with Randy Rogel, who wrote most of the songs from that show, doing Animaniacs Live! So, we'll keep our fingers crossed but if I were here, I'd wink at you. So, we'll see. But it's going to be...I think they're planning to have them released in fall of next year on Hulu.
I can tell you this. What's pretty cool about my gig now and my position, is I do a lot of pitching of shows now. I'm producing new shows. I'm directing Ninja Turtles now. So, I go in to, you know, pitch shows and it's so much fun, Adam because I can go to Netflix, Hulu, Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Amazon, and everybody who's in the position to decide what shows get done, knows something I've worked on. They're all fans Pinky and the Brain. They all love Animaniacs. They all love Jimmy Neutron. They all love The Tick. They all love Biker Mice. You know, they know all of it. That's something I never, never would've expected and it's just so much fun. Even if we don't sell a show. You'll see a guy say, "Mr. Paulsen, if got a second, would you please sign my Turtle van?" How cool is that?1comments
So, that's what's happening a lot. Man, I don't know that there's ever a show that I've worked on in my life, that has been such a profound gift to me and to and audience as Animaniacs. Because, if Ninja Turtles changed my career, Animaniacs changed my life for many of the reasons we discussed. Mainly, you know, you get to work with Steven. But 40 piece orchestra for every half hour, all these wonderful characters, great artists, terrific writers, created by Tom Ruegger. I mean, you know, we sort of did our homework on Tiny Toons. All these just really, just wonderful experiences, and now they're bringing it back and they're bringing it back purely because the show and the content did precisely to millions what Rocky and Bullwinkle and Looney Tunes did to me, and millions. That is to be successful for its own sake.
I mean, you're talking to two Ninja Turtles here, right? Those shows, as much as I love working on them, there was a huge merchandise component to Ninja Turtles. There still is and that's fine, but Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain were essentially art for the sake of the art. To have them come back with a giant, rabid fan base that loves the shows for their own sake, is really special. That's something that's very unique. It is not at all about action figures or t-shirts, although I'm sure they'll sell them, but that's show wasn't about that and that's pretty cool.