"The star has arrived!"
TCC: You have been active in the voice industry for a very long time, well before you had reached even the age of twenty. We all have our beginnings, so I'd like to ask you about yours. What was the inspiration that convinced you that using your voice was what you wanted to do for a living?
BURTON: There were quite a few. All the great character voices, announcers, narrators, classic distinctive actors, and the great comedic impressionists from my formative years in the 1960s (David Frye, the young Rich Little, Will Jordan, George Kirby, John Byner -- to name a few)... but the "spark" came from the incredible Paul Frees. Having heard his amazing character voices all my life (in movies, commercials, and especially Jay Ward cartoon series), those magical visits to Disneyland as a youngster became utterly astonishing when his talents began to show up on attractions like "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," "The Adventure Through Inner Space," and most notably, "The Haunted Mansion." Upon first stepping into that ultimate immersive entertainment experience, the arresting power of his Ghost Host characterization swept me up in a passion for vocal virtuosity that continues to thrill me to this day. I simply HAD TO be a part of that "land of magnificent voices" where people like Mr. Frees could be found.
TCC: One of your great ambitions is to become an authenticated radio actor, and to that end, you studied radio acting under the legendary Charles Dawson "Daws" Butler, among countless other voices known for the perennial and unforgettable Yogi Bear. Would you tell me about that experience and how it came into being?
BURTON: Briefly -- I met Daws Butler when I was 15 years old, when privileged to sit in on a local TV show production (at the invitation of June Foray). I continued to keep in touch with him on a casual basis for the following couple of years, at which time he began his now "fabled" voice acting workshop. It became a four and a half year "Master's Course" in not only the craft, but Life, Art, Humanity, and Everything Important to Me in the World. I've written extensively about the experience in my foreword to the first Daws Butler book, SCENES FOR ACTORS AND VOICES (available from BearManor Media). There is a lengthy excerpt featured on the official website, www.dawsbutler.com, where visitors can freely explore All Things Daws.
TCC: Your connection with Disney came early in your career, and remains a "steady job" for you to this day, being one of their Cast Members (Walt Disney's preferred term for "employee"). How did you become attached to the company, and what are your thoughts about that lengthy relationship as it's grown over the years?
BURTON: My first "legitimate" job came via my association with Daws Butler, which just so happened to be a children's educational "Slide Film" presentation soundtrack for schools, produced by a small company called Sande / Whiteside Productions (Bob Sande and Daniel Whiteside) for the Walt Disney Educational Media Company (WDEMCO) division of WED Enterprises (the industrial arm of Walt Disney Productions' group of companies, at that time; responsible for design and craftwork related to studio and theme park projects, the letters "W.E.D." being Walt's initials). They were hoping to have Hans Conried to play the role of a hapless would-be dietician named Professor Plumbutter (who believed that a diet of only plum butter was the road to good health).
In that Mr. Conried was out "on tour" in THE STUDENT PRINCE (I think), Daws (already on board for this project) was asked if he knew anyone who could sound like the distinctively vainglorious ham actor for the role; and he remembered hearing a surprisingly close impersonation I had demonstrated for him during a recorded lengthy chat one afternoon at his little studio (throwing voices around with my fellow aspiring "Voice Man" visiting from Australia, Keith Scott). To make a long story a little longer... Daws arranged for me to audition, I read for the part, and got the job.
A few months later, I got a phone call from a producer named Randy Nesen at WDEMCO, once again requesting a sound-alike for Hans Conried on another project. When I showed up at Disney Studios' Sound Dept., I was met by Mr. Nesen, along with the young director for this session, Les Perkins, who told me that he'd been searching for quite some time to find a new "all-purpose" voice actor, who could emulate such classic voices as Conried and his ilk, to work on various productions going on around the studio at the time... and (as they say) "the rest is history."
"I couldn't think of a better partner for him."
With the success of Disney's Little Golden Book records, the Disneyland Records division looked to its own library of Read-Along "Little LPs" (all narrated in a traditional sugary-sweet "Story Lady" tone by session singer Robie Lester), and enlisted Magon to give the same "full production" treatment to their entire catalogue of Disney Storyteller Records adaptations of their popular movie titles. Les Perkins went on to establish the Disney Character Voices division, and Jymn Magon became a vice president of the brand new Disney TV Animation unit to produce two "groundbreaking" overseas-animated series: THE WUZZLES and DISNEY'S ADVENTURES OF THE GUMMI BEARS. Though WUZZLES, well, fizzled, GUMMI BEARS proved successful enough to continue production for several seasons -- only one of the series' principal voice actors, the remarkable Bill Scott, died suddenly, just months before production was to begin on the show's second season. I guess I don't have to tell you who Jymn called upon to fill-in for Bill's roles as Gruffi Gummi and Toadie for the remainder of the series...
Meanwhile... with these strong roots growing within the Records, TV, and Educational divisions of the company, an industrious independent "themed interactive show" producer, Bob Rogers, began work on portions of the General Motors "World of Motion" Pavilion at EPCOT in Walt Disney World... and remembered me for -- once again -- a Hans Conried impression (and other character voices) I had done for him in a "homemade" satire of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND years earlier, and I was hired for my first job for the Theme Park wing of the Disney empire, which led to my work in EPCOT's "Wonders of Life" Pavilion, which just so happened to employ two new Disney Feature animators -- Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale -- who went on to direct BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for Disney Feature Animation. So... this is how my connections with Disney branched out far and wide throughout the company over the course of two decades. While I have never been "under contract," and am not a regular salaried employee, it has been a distinct privilege to have been attached to so much of the Disney legacy as a veteran "utility" voice actor for over 33 years. And counting...
It is with great pride -- and occasional anguish -- that I have been so intimately involved with the name Disney, through all its twists and turns, from my late teens... and now well into "middle age."
TCC: There doesn't seem to be anything involving the voice that you haven't done. From celebrity impressions, radio, commercials, and narration to animation, feature film looping, Disneyland theme attractions, and interactive video games, it grows into a pretty exhaustive list. Is there any part of that, any side to that avenue of acting, that you find particularly challenging? What brings you the most satisfaction?
BURTON: Commercials are the most daunting challenge, to attempt to bring some kind of quality of performance to, considering the constraints of the medium -- made worse by the generally awful, clumsy dialogue and narrative written for the actors. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to simply Not Offend! But high-class feature animation, documentary narration, and truly funny TV cartoon work can be very satisfying, when it all "works" as intended.
TCC: One problem -- or at least a source of consternation -- that comes with being a voice actor is a number of fallacies about that part of the trade, such as the belief that it's somehow "lesser" than being an on-screen actor, that it's so easy "anyone" could do it, and even that they are really regular on-screen actors who do voice work on the side to add to their income. Because of these points, and no doubt others, voice actors generally don't receive the kind of appreciation that they deserve outside of dedicated fans who host websites and even write books about them. Has that been a problem for you? Do you think that landscape will ever change?
BURTON: Well, public recognition and flattering acknowledgement for merely being successful (in an occupation that can be so pleasurable) is not very important to me -- and not expected, either. What is annoying, however, is the insultingly low level of professional consideration afforded voice actors, when compared to on-camera or onstage performers. Since radio and "Spoken Word" entertainment have been so overwhelmingly displaced by our current preoccupation with predominantly visual media, unseen performance has become increasingly diminished in regard (and even demeaned) by a general public which has, by and large, forgotten how to listen... and therefore, most people are not even able to imagine remarkable characters that are not overtly visible.
With the popularity of MP3 audio players (and public "Podcasting"), there is hope that a new generation will once again become "tuned in" to entertainment without pictures, which could bring an appropriate level of esteem back to the craft of voice acting... but I'm not holding my breath.
That being said, I might point out that celebrity casting for lead roles in feature animation is NOT a new phenomenon or trend at all. Even the very first fully animated feature film, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, had a cast filled with renowned popular actors from the Broadway and Vaudeville stage, radio, and live-action movies with Synchronized Sound (still referred to as "talkies" in the early 1930s, when production began). What is a fairly recent development is the casting of famous personalities for animated television series -- which hasn't worked out nearly as well (considering the degree of specialization necessary for a "smooth-running" experience in the relentlessly demanding studio environment of TV production).
BURTON: It's something I never anticipated. Of all the projects I've worked on that seemed "destined" for lasting popularity, the enduring interest in what was only calculated to be "disposable" entertainment for kids seems to have arisen "out of nowhere."
TCC: Does it surprise you at all that THE TRANSFORMERS still captures people's imagination, even in ways that seem to go beyond mere nostalgia?
BURTON: The reverence for that series among fully mature, responsible adults (with good jobs and families of their own) comes almost as a shock to me. I thought those shows would have long since faded into the haze of childhood memories, along with the vast majority of short-lived kids' TV programming, perhaps only ever recalled faintly when prompted by a familiar catch-phrase or theme song. Who could have predicted that the Robots in Space "assembly line" cartoon fare would have achieved such prominence in the cultural identity of so many young viewers -- not only in the U.S., but worldwide -- over several decades? I didn't even expect it to be very popular in the first place, having no idea of any particular resonance it would have with an audience.
After all, this was a fairly transparent "marketing tool" for a line of clever Japanese toys intended to lend a bit of character and "back-story" to stimulate interest in American kids, as a calculated framework for "fantasy playtime" (with their extensive array of moderately priced Hasbro products). But apparently there was something there that struck kids on a more profound level, contained within the specific concepts and verbal "tone" of its seemingly conventional fantasy / action / adventure-for-boys scripts. Who knew? (Not any of us, I can assure you.)
TCC: Everyone has their own story with regard to how they became a part of the show, so let me ask you: What was the sequence of events that led to your participation in the initial line-up of THE TRANSFORMERS?
BURTON: I had known Wally Burr through Daws Butler and the workshop, and through his small studio where my friend Ken Rayzor worked as an engineer -- which was designed just like Brian Cummings' studio, which was modeled after my own small production studio I had put together in the years prior to my budding career as a voice actor / announcer. So one day, while visiting Wally's place, he offered me the opportunity to audition for this new show he would be directing, as he needed a multi-voice actor who could also play the part of a teenager named Spike. As I'd already made a name for myself as a sound-alike for Mark Hamill, and Spike was to be rather like Luke Skywalker, it just seemed to fall into place. I was somewhat surprised at how few the lines were for the character -- I'd expected the role to be more prominent in the show. But I actually did get to do some decent acting from time to time, and I especially enjoyed performing the "icy" voice of Shockwave (my impression of David Warner -- as the character Sark in Disney's TRON). However, it was a tough show to do, and those were some strange times to live in. So I don't remember much of what went on at those sessions, all those years ago.
"I don't mind the takeoffs, but the landings are murder!"