Frank Welker makes the animals talk on TV and in the movies.

Publication: Knight Ridder/Tribune
Publication Date: 10/30/2006
Byline: Luaine Lee

PASADENA, Calif. _ Actor Frank Welker is always making a monkey of himself. And a dog and a parrot and an otter and any other fauna you can think of.

Welker's name is one of those that speeds by in the credits of animated films. He's a master at voiceovers, specializing in animal sounds that are both real and imaginary. He plays the creature Nibbler on "Futurama," is Santa's Little Helper on "The Simpsons" and ad-libs all the monkeyshines of PBS' "Curious George."

Welker constantly slips into a new voice; one moment he's the portentous evil Megatron of "The Transformers," Dr. Claw from "Inspector Gadget" or Abu, the sassy simian from "Aladdin."

His skill began in childhood, he says. "As far back as I can remember I could mimic, whether it was people or animals, always. Bill Cosby, Sean Connery, it's always so much fun and then to have the animals. You know how actors love to get into a part; it's even more fun with voices," says Welker, seated on a straight-backed chair in a meeting room at a hotel here.

He confesses he was the typical class clown in school in Denver, where he grew up. "I didn't get into trouble because I was kind of entertaining to the teachers, so they would cut me a wide swath and let me get away with certain things or put me at a distance where I couldn't disrupt.

"I had a principal and I could do his voice, our coach's voice and a lot of my friends' voices. They'd let me do the public announcements. I'd do Mr. Rebel, our school principal. He said, `Frank, PLEASE don't do me. I'll let you do anything you want _ hall passes _ just don't do me.' I said, `Deal!'"

Welker started out wanting to be an entertainer, and began in standup comedy. "When I came out here and started in school, this woman said, `You should do commercials.' I said, `OK.' She sent me to an agent and I got the first one and I said, `This business is easy.' Little did I know."

His first commercial was on-camera for Bold Detergent. Though he was 19, he played a Boy Scout who heads off to camp and learns with his fellow scouts how to wash his clothes.

"I thought, `This is a walk in the park.'" But it wasn't as easy as he thought. He tried out for five more commercials before he snagged another one.

"I'd always done comedy in high school so I thought maybe I should farm the comedy thing. I went to a club called Ledbetter's that eventually became a Comedy Store. I was in there doing my six minutes of comedy material, and Steve Martin was the other comic, by the way. That was great fun and this guy from an advertising agency came in and his girlfriend happened to be a casting person from ABC. He said, `You're doing these great dog things; I'm doing a voiceover tomorrow would you like to be in it?' I said, `What is a voiceover and is it legal?' I went in and did this Friskies commercial. Ted Knight was the announcer. He was just a voice guy then. He said, `This is wonderful, the voice business.' And I still didn't get it."

Then Welker heard they were casting a new animated cartoon, "Scooby Doo."

Though he cut his canine teeth on dog sounds, they asked him to try out for Freddie on the show. "I played Freddie and that led me into this whole world of voiceovers. That was 34 years ago," he sighs. Welker actually became Scooby Doo, the dog, years later.

Like a circus performer, Welker often works without a net. The script will say "dog sounds" or "cat fight" and Welker will divine the sounds on his own. (He demonstrates a catfight _ playing both cats). He likes to work free form, he says. He usually uses a picture or a bit of animation to inspire the sounds.

"When I get a picture I can see it and go right in there ... I don't know why I like to take a run at it without even seeing it at first. If I can do it to-picture _ once the director or sound editor starts telling me all this stuff I get all this junk in my head. I'm trying to please him, do it in a certain time and I've got his opinion. If it's just you and the picture it's just like flying. It's total freedom and you have no distractions."

Though his menagerie is more varied than Dr. Doolittle's he still prefers performing with Homo sapiens. "As far as characters in animation I think it's fun to do talking characters and play with other actors. It's just having a range in acting, you need to do everything and as a voice-actor you can be as old as you want and play it serious or you can be a silly goofy. It's just wonderful, and there's no limits except for the people around you."

The most difficult creature he ever conjured up was the monster in "Species," he says. "I was playing a female monster _ a beautiful model from New York who turns into this monster who kills people in the most awful ways and yet she had the seed pod you had to do and children also. I worked with the director and we were on the sound stage for four or five days doing the nuances, which was so much fun."

You can catch Welker's genius on PBS, where "Curious George" airs daily. (Check local listings).