January 21, 2001
” ‘How did Jay Ward find you for his cartoons?’………..Well, you know…….TOP TALENT DISCOVERS EACH OTHER!………Besides, Jay probably came to me because he heard that I work CHEAP!!……….No, I’m just kidding!……….”
(Paul Frees, in December, 1974, reading my letter out loud, and responding
to my question, in his own taped letter to me)
The above quote from Paul Frees is one of many examples of a man with a sense of humor! There was a lot more to this guy, however, than just the gift of “quick wit.” I wanted to convey one thing to any prospective readers in this introduction. Though I have a natural penchant for detail, this piece on Paul Frees is long enough that I could fully understand if the average reader would not wish to wade through all my comments. Therefore, I wish to include a list of highlights, below, to help you decide whether or not you would like to take the time to scan this article. In doing so, you will learn:
- Four of Paul Frees’ hobbies, in his spare time (completely unrelated to his voice work)
- His philosophy vis à vis work versus play
- Why he opted for voice-over work, rather than a career as a film or television star
- My own thoughts on his voice work (a comparison of his natural voice work, versus his character voice work)
- The generous, extremely kind-hearted man that he was
- The voluminous amount of work that he did outside of Jay Ward Productions (including some serious ventures, which had nothing to do with animation or puppets)
- The little known record album, that he recorded for MGM, Paul Frees and the Poster People.
- The fact that he was actually not Jay Ward’s first pick, as narrator, for many of his
OUR SUBJECT IN QUESTION:
Though Paul Frees, “The Man of a Thousand Voices“, had some really great character voices, I think that my fondest memories of him (those memories which filled my heart with the most joy) were the times that I heard his deep, dramatic narrations (or the times that his voice was used “straight” for commercials or bit parts in television shows). His “straight” voice was used for so much more than just cartoons.
He skillfully narrated In Cold Blood (the movie version of Truman Capote’s book). He did a spot for a TV commercial, plugging a magazine called Man, Myth and Magic. Though only a short commercial, and related to a topic that I usually avoid (the Occult), his voice contributed so much style, class and beauty to that mysterious, forbidden magazine, that I daresay that that was my favorite commercial that he ever did. The fact that I even recall that commercial twenty to twenty-five years later, is a testament to the objet d’art that it was. That thirty to sixty-second commercial sent a “healthy chill up my spine”, in the way that some Alfred Hitchcock movies do. I also remember the sound of a strong wind, intervening during the course of his words, about Man, Myth and Magic.
There were also countless times that I heard his voice in other non-animated ventures. I turned on one of my favorite sitcoms, in the early to mid 70s, and heard his voice being used, throughout that whole show, as a radio announcer. I watched a TV movie, from around that same era, with Connie Stevens, in which she was talking to her therapist, who was a voice on the phone……..you guessed it!………Paul Frees! It seemed that every single time, I turned around, someone in Hollywood, was using his voice………for both serious and comic endeavors. Paul Frees’ agent had sent me, free of charge, a record, that his client had recorded for MGM, called Paul Frees and the Poster People (more about this later). On the back of its jacket, it mentioned that his voice was used more than any other living person, for entertainment purposes. I don’t doubt that for a second!
With all these things being said, I will say that, two of Paul’s character voices, were absolutely ingenious and near the very top of my favorite cartoons voices!! Frees did an imitation of Ed Wynn, which was used for two of Jay Ward’s cartoon characters: Captain Peachfuzz, from the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows and Fred the Lion, from Super Chicken. Should you not know who Ed Wynn is, rent the Disney movie, Mary Poppins, and look for the older gentleman who sang the song I Love to Laugh. That was Ed Wynn. He had a kind of goofy, crackly voice.
I also loved Frees’ imitation of Sydney Greenstreet (rent the movies The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and look for “the Fat Man”, as he was known. He had a gravely voice and peculiar, funny giggle). Paul Frees used Sydney Greenstreet as the voice of one of the villains, on Hanna-Barbera’s Secret Squirrel cartoon series: Yellow Pinky.
My own yardstick for truly great cartoon voices (and one of the reasons why I am not as impressed with Frees’ characterizations, as I am with Daws Butler or June Foray), is if the voice actor has at least some voices, which have scarcely a trace of his/her natural voice (I would say that Frees’ Ed Wynn voice, was his only voice, which did not betray his hidden identity).
I can still love a characterization, however, even if the actor’s natural voice shines through. What I really admire, in this case, is versatility. Paul Frees was not as versatile as Daws Butler, whose repertoire was absolutely staggering! Butler could do high voices, cute voices, mean, evil, rough, gruff voices and all kinds of “off the wall” voices in between these two ends of the spectrum. Frees could not do voices of a very high pitch. Perhaps the highest voice, that he ever did, was that of the Pillsbury Doughboy.
June Foray, though not quite as flexible as Daws Butler (like most women, she cannot do really low, low voices) still possesses a higher caliber of character voices, than Frees, due to the incredible difference in some of her characters (for example: Rocky versus evil witches or old ladies………..her jaded, shrewish, grouchy females versus her little girls and her damsels in distress).
Though you can sort of hear Paul Frees, in his Sydney Greenstreet imitation, I still like that voice, very much, because it was so very different from a lot of his characters. That is another one of my yardsticks, vis à vis placing a voice on the pedestal of greatness and ingenuity: the voice must be unique, in comparison to the rest of one’s vocal ensemble. In all honesty, however, uniqueness, alone, is not enough for me. The voice needs to also be funny (or at least interesting to listen to). If an animated voice has both of these qualities, it is not so important, to me, if the actor’s natural voice shines through.
At any rate, I say, with total conviction, that if all of Frees’ voices were as terrific, and unique, as his Ed Wynn and Sydney Greenstreet voices, he would likely be equal, in my mind, to Daws and June. Naturally Boris Badenov, Morocco Mole (a Peter Lorre sound-alike in the cartoon, Secret Squirrel), and Dudley Do-Right’s boss, Inspector Fenwick (a Canadian character with a British accent) were wonderful voices……..but I can hear Frees’ distinctive voice in every single one of them. In addition, none of them are that big of a stretch (it’s not too hard to picture the same man doing all of them). This is just my opinion, of course. I know that, if Paul Frees were still alive, he could run vocal circles around me, regarding my own talent to do characterizations (but then that’s why he was the voice man and I am not).
But let’s move beyond what Frees was not and focus on what he was (always keeping in mind that I do appreciate some of his characterizations). Ironically, as incredible and wonderful a choice as Paul was, for the narrator in many of Jay Ward’s cartoons, he was actually not Jay Ward and Bill Scott’s first pick. They wanted William Conrad to do just about all of the narrations in their animated shows. Giving credit, where credit is due, I will say that, this piece of information did not come from Paul Frees, nor from miscellaneous squibs that I read here and there. I learned this fact when I read Keith Scott’s book, The Moose That Roared.
Conrad narrated the Rocky and Bullwinkle episodes. They also wanted Conrad for Hoppity Hooper, Dudley Do-Right, George of the Jungle, Super Chicken and Tom Slick. He actually did narrate a few episodes of Hoppity Hooper and Dudley Do-Right, but not many. He did none of the narration work on George of the Jungle, Super Chicken and Tom Slick; those shows were narrated exclusively by Frees.
Perhaps there was more than Conrad’s fame, as an established on-camera actor (and HUGE radio star), which prompted Ward and Scott to prefer him over Paul Frees. Maybe they really did like his voice better. I, however, am ecstatic that Frees ended up landing most of the narrator roles in those cartoons (no offense to William Conrad).
It wasn’t just that his deep, dramatic voice was incredibly BEAUTIFUL and profoundly RICH………..sometimes he was one of the funniest things, in a given cartoon, just playing it straight. Frees provided the incredible disparity, of that serious, straight voice, side by side with some of the most ridiculous, outrageous things, going on in the cartoon, while he spoke. His voice often made the funny element absolutely hilarious!!
His normal speaking voice was, of course, not that much different from his voice as a narrator. Frees sent me a taped letter in December of 1974. One might describe his everyday voice as slightly gravelier than the voice heard for entertainment purposes. He also had a very relaxed voice, which was so much in keeping with his overall personality, at the tail end of 1974. I can’t speak for his personality for the rest of his life (he died in 1986), but I can say that, at that juncture of his life, he was very much into having fun and not working any more than he had to. In his free time, he was a great aficionado of cooking and savoring a great meal. From what Paul told me, he was apparently a decent chef (he was married, at the time, and he did enjoy occasionally cooking for his wife).
Paul was so laid-back that, he admitted on the tape, to privately celebrating Thanksgiving, alone with his wife, that evening, shortly before Christmas! He said that they had been involved with other things, had been out of the country, and had just not gotten a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving. They did not care, however; they just celebrated it when they had the chance to. The bottom line was that, he had fun, in the same manner that he worked………he did it on his schedule and when it was convenient (and thereby avoided rushing and losing the joy of the moment).
He mentioned that he did not really see the Hollywood gang that much, anymore………He indicated that he might go to L.A., once in a while, and look other entertainers up, for lunch, but it didn’t really happen, that much, anymore. He added some other fascinating details about his hobbies. In addition to having an affinity for cooking, he also loved to paint and write stories and music. Above all, Paul mentioned that he really thrived on spending a lot of time at home (and, of course, the painting that he loved to do had nothing to do with walls in a house!).
All this explains why Paul Frees chose a career as a voice-over actor, rather than as a movie star. Though he was only around 5’6″, he had plenty of chances to act on-camera. He told me that he did at least ten movies, including A Place in the Sun, The Shaggy Dog and The Thing. Frees had some really good roles, in those movies, though some of them were bit parts. He also had a great screen presence, from my own point of view. In his taped letter, he told me, point blank, that he did not like on-camera acting. He seemed to echo June Foray’s own words, to me, one year earlier, when she wrote that she could “make more money in less time”.
Frees indicated that, in voice work, he could go into a studio, record and leave, in a relatively short period of time. In on-camera acting, he complained about how long and involved it was……….how one would have to wait forever, for lights to be adjusted just right……….or it might be necessary to stick around, for hours, to shoot a scene again and again. Clearly off-camera work suited his lifestyle better. He said that he reveled in wrapping the work up quickly, heading out, and then being on “his time” and focusing on other things, in life, which really mattered to him. He emphasized that this was his idea about what life should be all about.
I would be very careful, however, to call Paul lazy. Despite the fact that he truly cherished, and took advantage of, his free time, I heard his voice all over the place, throughout the 70s and beyond (I am referring to new shows, films, commercials, etc.).
I cherish many of the things that Paul Frees did, outside of Jay Ward Productions. I have already mentioned a few them, up to now. In the late 60s or early 70s, Paul did a record, for MGM, called Paul Frees and the Poster People. It was a very interesting concept. I am not sure how well it sold, however (as I said, his agent sent me a copy of this record for free). Paul sang a lot of the songs, which were hits in the 60s, in the voices of many of our late, great film stars: Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Ed Wynn, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, Charlie Chan (Warner Olan) and Boris Karloff. In some cases he chanted, instead of singing.
He really did a wonderful job, on this album, and, of course, many of the songs were funny…….especially songs sung in Dracula’s voice (or in a Karloff monster voice). For the record, he did a terrific Humphrey Bogart impersonation, singing Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. Tears actually came to my eyes, for one of the songs, which was extremely touching and tender. He used Clark Gable’s voice for the song, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. There was a parallel, in this song, between Rhett Butler leaving Scarlett O’Hara, and the character in the song, leaving a woman for good (and the woman, in the song, had never thought that he would).
Probably one of my favorite examples of the magic, that Paul Frees did, can be found in some of the wonderful holiday specials that he participated in. These were produced by the Rankin-Bass studio: Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman, Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail and The Little Drummer Boy. In these specials, Paul did no narration; he did character voices only. I have many fond memories of all of these charming cartoon/claymation family specials……..and Paul was a big part of these……..
I was also very proud, given my admiration of Frees, to hear that he did a sizable chunk of the voice work, for the rides at Disneyland. Included among these rides, is one with a “pirate” theme. Leave it to Paul to do an excellent pirate voice (and I have heard his pirate voices before)! Believe it or not, I have never been to Disneyland before. I look forward to hearing his Disney voices someday. I do hope that most of those rides
are still in tact, decades later.
Besides being a terrific voice artist, he was a wonderful human being. The closing, of his taped letter to me, moves me to tears, even now, twenty-six years later. Without going into a lot of detail, the gist of his closing remarks were that he thought that I was a really good boy, a boy with a wonderful future, and someone whom he knew would “make it” someday. He also told me that my letter, to him, was one of the most beautiful letters that he had ever received! Everything, that he said to me, in his closing remarks, was an example of a very decent man………and a terrific cheerleader, for me……..Along will all that, he extended the most warmest holiday greetings, to my family and me, that you could ever hope to receive! His last words, on the tape, were:
“So be a good boy and keep up the good work. Bye-bye……..”.
His voice sounded like he was close to crying, when he said those last two words, “bye-bye” and then the tape ended abruptly. It’s no wonder that tears stream down my face, whenever I hear the end of this tape. So you see……..for me, anyway, Paul Frees’ magic goes beyond his role as a voice artist. Whenever I listen to his tape, I think about how much I miss him………..and I wish that he were still here…………And when I think about that, I think about his last words, that he spoke, in Clark Gable’s voice, at the end of the song, By the Time I Get to Phoenix:
“But time and time I tried to tell her so…………….She just didn’t know…………..That I would really go…………”