Robert Fredrick Paulsen III has always given voice to his career. He first started out as a singer, did stage work and made a handful of films and TV shows. “I just wanted to perform,” he says, “and I didn’t care what that meant.” And perform he did and does, once he stumbled into the profession that truly had him give voice to his work. (He began his voice-over career in 1983 with “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero”, where he played “Snow Job” and “Tripwire”.)
Today, the 60-year-old actor is one of the most prolific voice actors in the industry. Paulsen has recorded thousands of different character voices for nearly 500 different films and TV series, not counting his endless work in commercial voice-overs and video games. Perhaps he’s most known for the original commercial of “Got Milk?” campaign. The famous commercial (remember “who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?”) aired in 1993, and launched the Got Milk? (in)famous campaign.
His career runs as a long as that yellow brick road: Career highlights include “Animaniacs”, “The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”, “Pinky and the Brain”, “The Tick”, “Tiny Toon Adventures”, “Goof Troop”, “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “Histeria” and “The Mask”. In “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Paulsen voiced both Raphael in the original 1987 animated cast; he gives life to Donatello in the more recent take on the series. And let us not forget a role he holds close to his heart: Oz’s Tin Man (and his alter ego Hickory), a role he has voiced first in “Tom and Jerry & The Wizard of Oz” and in the newly released “Tom and Jerry Back to Oz.” Both are available on DVD, thanks to Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.
Chatting with the actor is an animated adventure. He has so many stories to tell about places he has gone and people he has met. We gabbed with him on a Saturday afternoon, in time away from his wife, Parrish, and their Yorkshire terriers, Pooshie and Tala. We even got to hear him sing a snatch of “If I Only Had a Heart”!
Alan W. Petrucelli: First things first: You wanted to be a hockey player. What happened?
Rob Paulsen: The one big fly in the ointment was that I hadn’t the talent or temperament. I was a decent high school player and maybe so in college, but professional hockey players are bigger and more mannish.
AWP: One of your heroes was Gordie Howe. Did you ever met him?
RP: Gordie was my idol. He passed away just a week ago. He was my hero. His planet on ice made him an idol of mine. When I met him and his wife, Colleen, it turned out that their grandkids were great Ninja Turtle fans. I was lucky to have Gordie in my life: At a fundraiser in Vancouver, I was sitting next to him during an autograph signing. Gordie was in early ’60s and had been signing for a couple hours. A guy my age came up to Gordie after waiting an hour for him to sign a puck, and said, ‘Mr. Howe, thank you for signing my puck.’ Your hand must be getting tired.’ Gordie looked at him, and sober as judge, he held his hand out to the man and said, ‘I worked too hard for this privilege. It’s my honor.’ What he said was like a laser beam right to my head. Gordie was a God.
AWP: You worked closely with another God, Steven Spielberg. Any stories?
RP: He has not only created the world’s greatest impression of cartoons and movies, but up close and personal, Spielberg is the most delightful and kind and generous person I have met. He makes any conversation or experienced with him about you. That is important since I have met people whose goal is to be self-centered. I have zero tolerance to run into those types of people. They think they will impress me, but they never do. Spielberg is the kind of famous person who impresses people . . . without an ego.
AWP: You are another famous person who impresses people.
RP: No. I am not a celebrity. A lot of the characters I voice are celebrities. but I am not a celebrity. I don’t draw or write them. I have developed a certain reputation: Casting people know to call Rob if they give me a live action job because I have developed a reputation that I can sing it, I can act it. [Pauses, then laughs] Yet I am limited by how I look, so doing voices is freeing because I can swing from the fences since I’m a 5-foot, 10½-inch white guy, as average-looking as a million other guys.
AWP: You must admit you got a great job. It must get tough changing your voice so many times.
RP: No. A job is what blue-collar men do. Pouring hot tar in July is a tough job. Laying sod on a farm is a tough job. Working on a conveyor belt in a factory is hard work. My job is like freedom . . . I get to do what I want with my voice; my interpretation is only limited by my voice. I would be lying if I said I don’t like when people make a fuss over me. Sometimes when I sign a credit card receipt, a person says, “Hmm, Rob Paulsen. Are you . . .?’ Sometimes a person will listen to me and say, ‘Hmm, I know that voice.’ That’s incredibly flattering. When I was growing up, cartoons were on only three networks. And now . . . [Pauses] I am in incredible receipt of so much fan anticipation. All things considered, I love what I do so much I would do it for free.
AWP: When you made the two Oz films with Tom and Jerry, where you asked to sound like Jack Haley?
RP: The people who made the movie wanted me to be really close to what he sounded like. That’s what they were definitely looking for. Haley was very light and sweet and ingenious, yet he still had a pretty thick Boston accent. When I got to sing, it’s such a thrill they wanted the Haley influence. [Begins singing in a Haley soundalike voice] “When a man’s an empty kettle he should be on his mettle . . .”
AWP: Is your voice insured?
RP: No. I heard and presume that Luciano Pavarotti and Richard Tucker and Kathleen Battle had their voices insured. I did think about it now that I am getting older and had an issue with laryngitis,
AWP: You’ve done commercials for Honda, Frosted Mini-Wheats, McDonalds and Taco Bell. Do you have lifetime free cars, cereal, Big Macs and Cheesy Double Beef Burritos?
RP: [Laughs] No. They offered me a crazy deal on a Honda but I ended up buying one in 1974. The Honda Civic cost $4,496. When McDonald’s was doing a promotion with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a local guy was a big man and asked me to sign some Turtleblila. He gave me some free stuff . . . I think it was two burgers.