Behind the Mic : Mel Blanc
Born: 30th May 1908, San Fran
Died: 10th July 1989, LA
Characters: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Barney Rubble, Cosmo Spacely…
While researching Mel Blanc, one of the most prolific, iconic and versatile voice artists the world has ever seen, it quickly became apparent that he was truly a man shrouded in elements of myth but bucket loads of legend! From his exploits outside of voice over work to the lasting impact he had upon the industry, Mel Blanc’s legacy is one that the voice over community of today should continue to celebrate and be inspired by. If you are looking for ways to improve yourself around the studio, knowing a little about the key figures who paved the way may help shift your perspective on the role of a voice actor and perhaps, your own performance. And who better to start with than ‘The Man of a Thousand Voices’.
From snippets of information I’ve found about his youth, it sounds as though Blanc was certainly a character, if not exactly every teacher’s star pupil. He changed the spelling of his surname from ‘Blank’ when he was 16, allegedly after a teacher told him that he would amount to nothing and be much like his name, a “blank”. As weak a pun as it is, it obviously rubbed him up the wrong way. Another school related mention that came up in a few sources was the distinctive Woody Woodpecker laugh that Mel Blanc later provided, but apparently originally developed to annoy his high school principal. The final suggestion that Mel Blanc had a rebellious streak was the fact that he started smoking at the age of 9 - maintaining a packet a day habit until he was 77. However, despite perhaps being a bit of a wind-up merchant, he obviously showed creative talent, both in creating characters with his voice and as a musician, being proficient on the bass, violin and sousaphone.
Mel Blanc spent years progressing his way through radio, from local stations in Portland in 1927 all the way up to regular spots on network radio from the mid 1930’s onwards, including the highly acclaimed comedy series, The Jack Benny Program. However, his big break into motion pictures and the beginning of his estimated range of 400 characters came in 1936 when he took over the voice of Warner Bros cartoon star, Porky Pig.
In Blanc’s 1941 contract with Leon Schlesinger Productions (which later became Warner Bros Cartoons) his wage was for $65 per week which increased up to $75 per week in his 1943 contract. It was between this contract and his 1944 contract that the issue of him receiving screen credit had been discussed and agreed to.
The whole issue of crediting a voice actor was something that had not happened up until that point and is a reasonably well known part of Mel Blanc’s celebrated legacy. However, this is the part of his story that threw up a few associated myths. To give you a timeline first:
1944 - Mel Blanc was credited as providing “Voice Characterization” to Bugs Bunny
1945 - credits were extended to include Daffy Duck and Porky Pig
1946 - credits were extended to appear “in all pictures in which (Blanc’s) voice characterization is used for a major portion of the motion picture.”
So it appears that myth number 1 comes from Mel Blanc himself in a slightly tall tale that he repeated in interviews and his autobiography. Animation historian and voice over artist, Keith Scott, explains and quotes Blanc’s version of events like this:
“At my better half’s urging, I marched into Leon Schlesinger’s office to demand a salary increase. It wasn’t going to be easy because the producer was notoriously tightfisted with money.” He goes on with his patented narrative: Leon’s response was, “What do you want more money for, Mel? You’ll only have to pay more taxes.” To which Mel counters, “Well, if you won’t give me a raise, how about at least giving me a screen credit?”
In actual fact, it seems that screen credits were woven into his contract under an ‘optional paragraph’ section, no doubt after various meetings and discussions - just none quite as ‘Hollywood’ as the one Blanc recalled. Before this happened, Hollywood studios had followed Disney’s established policy of keeping voice actors anonymous under the pretence that it would destroy the magic for audiences if they were aware of the actor behind the mic. Therefore, in this sense, Blanc was the first to be in a position to make the request and have it granted which in turn, paved the way for future voice over artists being credited for their work.
The other myth surrounding the topic of screen credits that I had not really heard prior to doing any research, was that some believed Mel Blanc made this request in order to obtain more work for himself and squeeze other voice actors out of the business. With his status, reports of his popularity and the amount of work that he was already getting at that point being one of the top voice artists at the time, it seems unlikely that this was his intention.
One of the greatest stories remembered about Mel Blanc happened after a near fatal car accident he was involved in in 1961. Following the head on collision on Sunset Boulevard, he sustained multiple broken bones (including 39 fractures in his right leg alone), triple skull bone displacements, severe concussion, lost 9 pints of blood and was in a coma for 2-3 weeks. After many attempts to bring him out of the coma, one neurologist tried a different approach and asked “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” to which a miraculously roused Blanc responded “Eh, just fine Doc. What’s up?” The doctor followed up by asking after Tweety Pie and Blanc replied with the character’s catchphrase “I tot I taw a puddy cat.”
As a result of being hospital bound, this remarkable story is followed by another one. As the voice of Barney Rubble in the Flintstones that was still in production, he continued to record from his bed while in a full body cast. Since he obviously could not go into the studio, the studio came to him with all the necessary recording equipment and his co-stars recording from his hospital room.
Following his release from hospital, Mel Blanc increased the amount of charity work he already did at Shrine hospitals where he entertained children with his characters and voices. He also went on to voice characters for various Hanna Barbera cartoon characters throughout the 60’s as well as notable brand characters in adverts such as Toucan Sam for Kellogg’s Fruit Loops.
In amongst all the characters and business ventures Blanc worked on, his classic Looney Tunes characters were cherished ones the world over that he regularly came back to, even when the series itself had come to an end. For example, in 1976, the State of California hired him to produce 10 radio announcements using his gaggle of beloved characters, including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, to warn residents how to prepare for and survive an earthquake. He was then able to rejuvenate the characters yet again in 1988 for the hit film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Mel Blanc worked right up until his death in 1989, proving an affection for the characters he brought to life with his voice. Characters that he even credits with having brought him back to life back in that hospital bed in 1961. From his regular charity work entertaining children in Shrine hospitals to helping enforce change in the voice over industry to voicing a huge amount of the world’s favourite characters, Blanc made an indelible, positive mark on the world and left it a better place. And on that note, that’s all folks!