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Meet Charlie Adler, The New King of Voice Actors

Plus: Batman Beyond & the New Justice League

By Steve Fritz     November 13, 2000

In September 1980, the then Disney-free ABC launched another show by the then non-Turner owned Hanna-Barbera Studios called Captain Caveman. It was typical of the dreck that was the mainstay of Saturday morning cartoons at that time; terrible animation coupled with a root concept so dumb only 6 year-olds and hardcore stoners would ever love the show. It was notable for one other thing though: it teamed up the then 'King of All Animation Voice Actors,' Mel Blanc, with some of the first work of the man who probably can be called his true heir, Charlie Adler.

'It's very, very flattering to be considered amongst such company,' says Adler. 'I remember Mel as just a wonderful curmudgeon. The best in the field.'

If you truly need more proof that Adler is the current King of Voice Actors (with June Foray as the still reigning Queen, of course), consider this. In his two decades in animation, Adler has been in over eighty different animated television series (alone) and voiced over 100 characters throughout those series. What also makes Adler so unique is he isn't like other top voice actors such as Billy West (Fry of Futurama), Maurice LaMarche (The Brain) or Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson) in that these actors have one key voice that's their calling card. No, like Blanc, Foray and younger studs like Dan Castelanetta (Homer Simpson, Aladdin's Genie when Robin Williams is off making a movie), Adler has a golden set of vocal chords that seem to flex at will to things incredibly different, dependent on the character.

'I'm known for being able to sit down and do five pages of script at once, and all the various different voices, in an hour,' says Adler while enjoying a much needed vacation. 'The way I see it, it's very well paid schizophrenia. It's much better than shaving my head and making a surprise visit to Denny's.'

Where Adler does differ from just about everyone in the animation field is his background is heavy-duty theatre, as opposed to most voice actors coming from television commercials or radio. He first made a name for himself off Broadway, replacing Harvey Feinstein in the play Torch Song Trilogy.

'I did do my share of commercials, which is part and parcel of being a struggling voice actor,' confesses Adler. 'I just think voice acting's an extension, another venue for an actor. Basically, when I decided to move to L.A., I had done extensive work in TV commercials. That involves a lot of voiceover work. So when animation was first offered to me in L.A., it just became another extension for me.'

For a man who's original ambition was to be a painteruntil he learned he was color blindone has to give Adler some credit. He turned to theatre and used the improv actors ability to switch roles at the drop of a hat to his best advantage. For instance, in the Cartoon Network series Cow & Chicken, he's not only the voice of both lead characters, but also the voice of that charming devil himself, The Red Guy. In fact, his interpretation of The Red Guy was so memorable, director and series creator David Feiss then turned around and re-employed Adler in his next series, I.M. Weasel. In that series, he's not only The Red Guy, but Weasel's (voiced by Star Trek's Michael Dorn) main adversary I.R. Baboon.

Think about it. The voices of the cherubic (and female) Cow, adenoidal Chicken, Great Guildersleeves-like Red Guy and guttural Baboon are all coming from one set of pipes...and those belong to Adler.

'All I can say to that is I try my hardest to be a chameleon,' says Adler. 'I think that's an important part of my being an actor. When I do improv, I become a number of different characters and they are all whole people to me. I never, ever start a role with the question 'what is this person going to sound like?' Usually, I try to think of what the person is like and then the voice comes about naturally. The voice is almost always last for me on the totem pole.'

Another interesting element about Adler is it seems as soon as he's made a contact with an animation creator, that creator keeps calling him back for more. Adler also seems to have the luck of being able to work with people he truly enjoys working with, and will jump through a million flaming hoops if he thinks the instructions make sense.

'Well, it's always collaborative to start with,' says Adler. 'In the case of Cow & Chicken, David Feiss presented me with all these wonderful drawings and some very solid writing to go with it. He had a very clear picture of what he wanted from me, and to be honest, everything he wrote made me laugh. I mean, a description like a 765-pound cow with the mind of a seven-year-old girl, totally innocent and totally adorable, was very clear to me. I just cracked up and ran with it.

'Oddly enough, one of the things that did throw me about Cow is when she turned into a Spanish-speaking superhero. David got that idea from his wife, Pilar, who is Spanish. Whenever they would hand me those scripts, I would constantly be looking at David and going 'just what does this mean?' and Pilar would have to explain it all to me and then break it all down phonetically. It was the hardest and longest part of each session. I swear I have to learn another language one of these days.'

Speaking Spanish like a seven-year-old cow turned superhero aside, what's truly infectious about Adler is that, as you talk to him, you soon realize that he loves this work. 'Cow & Chicken's one of the shows I love watching,' admits Adler. 'David's sense of timing makes me actually forget that it was a show I worked on, and I just get to enjoy all the silences and all the other things that he does. The show just makes me hysterical. We're starting a new project now, called Inspector Beaver. Now imagine trying to get that title past the censors? Fortunately we're going on the Internet, so we don't have to worry about that, yet.'

Working with Feiss also means working with Dorn, who appears to be another one of the animator's favorites. It should be noted that when the man best known as Lt. Worf first walked into the studio, he didn't have that much animation experience under his belt (just Coldstone in the Gargoyles series). That made Adler decide he had to do something about it right away.

'I've worked with Mikey Dorn for 4-5 years now,' says Adler, 'and I tortured him mercilessly the first season. You throw anybody into a room with me, well I'm so nuts that I throw people out of there. So at first Michael was very cautious when he had to work with me. What finally happened is one day I just walked up to him and shouted 'What are you, Joan Fontaine? Lighten up!' He got it. What it did was really loosen him up in a good way. Now he reminds me about that every time we see each other.'

The payoff is that Dorn is now getting quite good at hiding his basso profundo when doing animation work. Sure, when Dorn's hired, that's the #1 thing most casting director is looking at. But in I.M. Weasel, Dorn has voiced a number of other characters, ranging from a wizened old tree who hates all humanity to a number of other extremely different characters. One could say that working with Adler has had its effect on the former Klingon.

Similarly, The Red Guy has played his devilish charm on Adler, becoming one of the actor's favorite characters. 'I adore that character!' exclaims Adler. 'I remember the first episode we ever did featuring him. It was the pilot, which was called 'Cow & Chicken Go To Hell.' It was presented along with about 50 other different clips. I left the room saying that no one was ever going to buy this one, particularly as some people who were there were from the Bible Belt and had a panic over the Red Guy. As it turns out, I learned that whenever someone like them sets up a protest over your show, you should take it as a tremendous compliment. It told us we were on the right track.

'The thing about the Red Guy is he's totally and truly sincere. The way I see him is he has this huge emotional life. He just wants so much that whatever minute of your life you're in, he's in the most important minute of your life.'

Another set of creators that Adler enjoys a particularly important relationship with is the one he shares with Gabor Csupo and Elaine Klasky. He's pretty much been with them since the day they formed the now much respected Klasky-Csupo Studio.

'I love them,' says Adler. 'They are very artist-driven, and they certainly understand my love of oddness. They have a kind of subversiveness about them that comes from being artists first and being industry people second. I think that comes from the founders, Gabor Csupo and Elaine Klasky, always saying that this car was going to be driven by them. That has everything to do with why their product is so different. Another great asset is that none of the people they hire are necessarily mainstream.'

This also involves who Csupo and Klasky choose for promotion. The relationship between them and Adler has grown to the point where he's now directed not only a major number of their Wild Thornberrys and Rocket Power shows on Nickelodeon, but also all the Rugrats movies (including the upcoming Rugrats Take Paris, which hits theatres on Nov. 17).

'I hate to say I directed the entire movie,' admits Adler. 'I voice directed both Rugrats movies. Being the animation director is a completely different thing. I directed the actors. It's wonderfully romantic, yet a Rugrats movie all the same. It has Susan Sarandon as the main villainess and John Lithgow as her main henchman in it. It also has Debbie Reynolds as Grampa Pickel's new wife. They were great, great fun. Also, the regular Rugrats cast is made up of a bunch of brilliant, brilliant actors who are just a joy to work with. It's so much fun to have all those kids out there tearing up Paris.'

The fact is, Rugrats Take Paris is a wonderful film, period. It's probably one of the best bits of family fair to grace the big screen this year. Revolving around Chuckie's dad going to the City of Romance to find a new wife, the film is full of sweetly profound observations made from the mouths of the Rugrat babes. It's also chock full of the adult comments that will keep jaded adults like ourselves glued to the seats. Still, for Adler, the joy of working this film was getting the privilege of telling the likes of Sarandon and Lithgow what to do.

'Well, Mr. Lithgow was certainly more available quicker to it because he has a strong theatre background,' recalls Adler. 'Also, his style of acting is so huge that he went over pretty naturally. He just instantly hit it off in animation. Susan Sarandon is just a genius at subtlety of style, and animation is very different technically. For her, it was obviously a very different approach to work with, particularly as the character she has to work with is so huge and aggressive. The good thing is she is a consummate pro, so she did get the hang of it. She's an amazing woman. I think she should be president.'

Believe me when I say this film should do incredible business at the box office. Even though it's being released at the same time as Ron Howard and Jim Carrey's interpretation of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, I wouldn't be surprised if the Rugrats end up stealing the top slot at the box office when all the tickets are counted up.

As for Adler's future, not only is he hard at work with Feiss on the aforementioned Inspector Beaver and more episodes of Klasky-Csupo's Rocket Power (he just directed Mark Hamill in an upcoming episode), but K-C has also selected him to voice direct the first Wild Thornberrys feature film.

To top it, Adler appears to be enjoying every second of it. 'I'm probably the least ambitious person that I know. I don't have a game plan; never did. I never knew that I would direct five years ago or knew that I actually could. Yet here I am. I can probably stay at home and run an animal shelter and be perfectly happy at that.'

But fortunately for us, it appears that Adler is perfectly content staying in animation for some time to come.

Is it Superman v. Batman all over again?

Last weekend's episode of Batman Beyond, 'The Call Pt. 1,' is sure to cause it's share of controversy. Why would Superman invite the new Batman to smoke out a traitor in the Justice League...and turn out to be the traitor himself? Longtime fans of both the comics and the various Batman/Superman incarnations are going to have a field day with this.

Still, I find this whole thing incredibly ironic. I remember interviewing series creator Paul Dini many a time about these shows in the past, and him telling me two important facts: 1) The WB had long blocked the making of any Justice League series on the grounds there were no kids in the JL; 2) this episode was the last of the Batman Beyond series to go into production.

Now TV production being what it is, this may not be the last new episode of Batman Beyond we will see this year, but informed sources tell me this is the last season. Original plans were to have this two-parter air as the final two episodes. By my count, even after airing these two, there's still should be two or three new episodes left to be seen.

Still, if this is Batman Beyond's swan song, it's a hell of a note to go out on. I'm not allowed to say what's happening in 'The Call, Pt. II,' so take this as a warning. If you miss it you'll be wishing the Big Blue (or now Black & White) Boy Scout turned his heat vision on you. 'The Call, Pt. II' airs on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8:00 a.m. (ET).

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