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Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Ren and Stimpy. Bugs Bunny. Philip J. Fry and Professor Hubert Farnsworth on Futurama. Sparx. Bi-Polar Bear. Popeye the Sailor Man. Woody Woodpecker. You may not think you have ever heard Billy West, but chances are on a television program, a movie, a commercial, or as Howard Stern’s voice guru in the 1990’s, you have heard him. West’s talent for creating personalities by twisting his voice has made him one of a handful of voice actors—Hank Azaria and the late Mel Blanc come to mind—who have achieved celebrity for their talent. Indeed, West is one of the few voice actors who can impersonate Blanc in his prime, including characterizations of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and other characters from Warner Bros. cartoons.
What is the fulcrum in Mr. West’s life that led him to realize a talent to shape personalities with his voice, and how did the discovery of that gift shape him? Wikinews reporter David Shankbone found that like many great comedians, West faced more sour early in life than he did sweet. The sour came from a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father (“I could tell you the kind of night I was going to have from the sound of the key in the door or the way the car pulled up.”), to his own problems with drug and alcohol use (“There is a point that you can reach in your life where you don’t want to live, but you haven’t made the decision to die.”).
|I’m telling you stuff that I never said to anybody…
If sin, suffering and redemption feel like the stages of an endless cycle of American existence, West’s own redemption from his brutalized childhood is what helped shape his gift. He performed little bits to cheer up his cowed mother, ravaged by the fact she could not stop her husband’s abuse of young West. “I was the whipping boy and she would just be reduced to tears a lot of times, and I would come in and say stuff, and I would put out little bits just to pull her out of it.”
But West has also enjoyed the sweet. His career blossomed as his talent for creating entire histories behind fictional characters and creatures simply by exploring nuance in his voice landed him at the top of his craft. You may never again be able to forget that behind the voice of your favorite character, there is often an extraordinary life.
Below is David Shankbone’s interview with renowned voice actor Billy West, who for the first time publicly talks about the horrors he faced in his childhood; his misguided search for answers in anger, drugs and alcohol; and the peace he has achieved as one of America’s most recognizable voice actors.