You might not recognize Rob Paulsen if you saw him on the street, but if you’re a fan of animation (and especially if you’re a child of the 80’s), you’ll immediately recognize him as some of the most revered and influential animated characters of the last few decades. Paulsen has not only lent his voice to characters like Yakko Warner and Pinky from "The Animaniacs" and "Pinky & The Brain", Carl Wheezer from "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius", and Bobble from Disney’s "Tinker Bell" series of films, but he also spent over 170 episodes as Raphael on the classic "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon and has recently returned as the voice of Donatello on Nickelodeon’s "TMNT" reboot. The man has a resume that rivals some of the greatest voice actors of all time.
Hot on the heels of the release of the November 13 release of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Classic Series Collection" on DVD, MTV Geek chatted with the legendary voice actor to discuss switching from Raphael to Donatello, "Secret of the Wings", and why Pinky is his favorite character.
MTV Geek: When you signed on to do the voice of Raphael on the classic "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon it was originally supposed to be a mini-series. Did you ever imagine you’d be around for 170 episodes and almost ten years?
Rob Paulsen: No, not even close. As a matter of fact, because it was a five-episode mini-series effectively the other guys and myself kind of figured, “Well, you know it’s pretty cool. Maybe it’ll end up being a series.” We thought maybe it would turn into at least enough to do 26 episodes or something. As an actor, you finish one thing and you keep your fingers crossed while you forget it and move onto the next one. No, we had absolutely no idea. I think that it really started to sink in during the 1990’s when we had already done 13 episodes, and we were in the middle of doing the next 13, and all of a sudden we started getting requests for interviews. You’d go places and see everyone in a Ninja Turtles shirt and all the toys would be sold out at Toys ‘R’ Us. That’s when we knew we were onto something. I don’t think any of us expected it to become this iconic show. I could even argue that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird felt the same way. They were pleasantly surprised at the success.
Geek: That must have been a pretty wild ride.
Paulsen: Yeah, we started recording the episodes in July of 1987 so, for me, it’s twenty-five years later and I’m now working on it again [for Nickelodeon’s cartoon reboot of the series]. That is just unbelievable.
Geek: I was kid during that craze. I was ten years old in 1990 so I remember what it was like trying to get my parents to buy me the toys.
Paulsen: Oh yeah. My son is twenty-eight so I remember it as well. I would have friends and relatives calling me and saying, “Dude! I gotta have a Turtle Van!” I would have to tell them, “I’m sorry. I don’t make them. You know? I will get them if I can, but I don’t have any pull in that respect.” (Laughs) It was pretty gnarly. And, so far, the new show has been received pretty well. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be having this conversation in another five or six years. It’s crazy.
Paulsen: Yeah, I know! It’s cool. The marketing strategy, I think, is very cool. Obviously there’s an intense nostalgic connection, which is really cool for me because I’ve had the great fortune of being hired on this new iteration. And now fans are at an age where they can literally have their kids watching the original shows in high quality DVD and then they can go and watch the new one as well. The mythology, ethos, and characters are all the same. It’s just a cool new look with some interesting changes in terms of the animation technology, but the stories are intense.
Geek: How did the catchphrases in the original show come to pass? Did that come from you guys organically or was it something that was in the writing all along?
Paulsen: Honestly, I’m not sure. As I recall, I think it was written because Michelangelo was essentially the one who always said “Cowabunga,” and I believe that was written for him. You’d have to ask Townsend [Coleman] to be sure.
Geek: The theme song has also become pretty ubiquitous in pop culture. Did you go home singing it every day just like millions of kids?
Paulsen: I used to sing it a lot at personal appearances because folks would just want to sing it, especially if there were three or four hundred people there. It was great fun. What’s interesting is that now they’ve got the Ninja Turtle theme song incorporated into the theme song of the new show. It’s kind of a hip-hop version but that there’s a funky homage to the original song in there, which is really cool and people seem to dig it.
Geek: So you mentioned the response has been really positive about the new series so far. Did you get a lot of negative reactions when it was first announced?
Paulsen: I’ve had a lot of people emailing, messaging me on Facebook, and Twittering to me over the last year saying, “Ah no, man! Why are they doing this? And blah blah blah.” And my response was, “Look, just relax and see what happens.” These people aren’t stupid and the folks that are producing the show now are people that were ten, twelve, fourteen years old when the original show came out. So it’s literally being made by fans for fans. They respect the franchise. They respect the backstories. And the response has really now become, “I gotta tell ya… I was prepared not to like this, but it’s pretty good!”
Geek: The only real blowback I’ve seen so far has been the use of “Booyakasha” as the new catchphrase.
Paulsen: Clearly that was a conscious choice of the producers to use that instead of “Cowabunga,” and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was one of the guys that’s on the show all the time or if it was somebody from a corporate office. I have to say that, by and large, they’ve let Ciro Nieli and JR Ventimilia pretty much have free reign.
Geek: I think the show is a strong homage to the original and it’s quite good. I think some of the negative feelings will fade away once people hear that familiar “Cowabunga” at some point.
Paulsen: They’ve already picked up a second season. I think they’ve done a really good job.
Geek: You also get to work with people like Sean Astin, Jason Biggs, and Mae Whitman. How cool is that?
Paulsen: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great. I had not known Jason beforehand. I had known Sean a bit and was already a good friend. I’ve known Mae literally since she was born; her mom and dad are good friends of mine. Sean is delightful. Greg Cipes is fun and he’s perfectly cast as his character. He is fantastic.
Geek: What kind of cartoons and characters from your youth do you think influenced not only your work on the series, but also your work as a voice actor overall?
Paulsen: Well, certainly June Foray, Bill Scott, all of the folks at "Rocky & Bullwinkle". No voice actor can not be influenced by Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, and Don Messick, and I had the pleasure of working with many of them. I never worked with Daws. I worked with Bill a couple of times. June I know very well and was just on my podcast recently, at the young age of 95-years-old. It’s incredible to be able to work with people who had a profound influence not only on your entertainment and shaping your sensibilities as a kid, but also to be able to work with them professionally is just incredible. And also, when I was a kid, the [Monty] Pythons, Peter Sellers, and the Goons – all of those guys were my heroes. It’s been an amazing career.
Geek: How difficult was it for you to come back and do the voice of a different turtle this time around? I know you’ve said in the past that Raphael is the closest to your normal voice.
Paulsen: Yeah, and Donatello is not that dissimilar. It’s a little bit higher with a nerdy bent to it, for obvious reasons, but it’s been really fun. I was sitting up in my chair every time the director would use a character name to address us. She would say, “Raphael, would you please…” and I would immediately think she was talking to me, but she was talking to Sean. (Laughs) He’s such a good guy and he does a great job as Raphael because he still has that badass shoot first and ask questions later quality of the character.
Paulsen: Yeah, it’s really cool. In the new film, Tinker Bell has to cross over into the winter area of Neverland. Apparently there are all different kinds of winter faeries and summer faeries, so you can’t cross over there without your wings getting frozen. The storyline is pretty sweet and the movie turned out great. It’s really wonderful. The folks involved in the show are terrific. Mae Whitman is adorable. It’s just another great continuation of this franchise, which has come as another pleasant surprise. I’m just so grateful that Bobble and Clank show up. A lot of people seem to get a kick of the kind of comic relief they supply in the movies.
Geek: How is it working with Clank? The guy seems to be a real handful.
Paulsen: (Laughs) Clank is a handful, but Jeff Bennett isn’t. Let me tell you, man. Jeff Bennett is one of the two or three best living, working voice actors in the world, and that’s not hyperbole. He is astonishingly gifted, completely unpretentious, and one of the most delightful people you’ll ever meet. It’s incredible what he does, really.
Geek: You also recently got the chance to do a few voices for "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1". Was it nice to work on something a little darker for a change?
Paulsen: Yeah! It was great. I got to play alongside some amazing people like Peter Weller and Michael Emerson. It’s surprising how many people have been tweeting to me that they love me in the film. Here I am and I’ve been so busy that I barely remember doing it. (Laughs). It’s so incredibly flattering that people take the time to talk to me.
Geek: I know you’re working on the new Bravoman project for ShiftyLook, but do you have a favorite character that you’ve done during your career? One that you just love doing?
Paulsen: My pat answer is the next one because it means I’m working. But I would have to say that Pinky [from "Pinky & The Brain"] is pretty special. I won an Emmy and an Annie Award and people really seem to find Pinky very endearing. Especially girls really like Pinky. They like Carl Wheezer as well. And, I gotta say, people love Bobble. But I would have to say probably Pinky for many reasons, but it’s a very close call. I’m a very fortunate actor. If you can leave this Earth having, arguably, five iconic roles – Pinky, Donatello, Raphael, Yakko, and Carl Wheezer – you’re a very lucky person. It’s an embarrassment of riches and I am grateful to hundreds of people for it.
Geek: What one tip would you give to an aspiring voice actor?
Paulsen: Yes, I would first become a traditional actor. Do a lot of stage work including improv, theater, musicals – and don’t be afraid to learn to sing in character – and work on your dialects. But acting is acting. If you listen to my Talkin’ Toons podcast, nearly every actor that I have on has a performance background. Whether it’s music, improv, comedic theater, or even dance. I would encourage people to be on stage and learn the craft of performing. And while you’re doing so, listen to your influences and work on character voices. You can even work on characters that you like and then tweak them to make them your own. It really requires perseverance, a ton of passion, and you should never start out doing it for the money. Billy West and I talk about this all the time: All of us who do this, we all do it because we can’t not do it. We just have to do it.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Classic Series Collection on DVD rolls into stores on November 13. Secret of the Wings is currently fluttering away on Four-Disc Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack and Two-Disc DVD. The new iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs on Nickelodeon on Saturdays at 11 AM EST. Cowabunga!