You probably don’t know their faces, but millions of people know their voices better than they do the voices of their own family. For nearly the past century, these performers brought life to iconic cartoon characters and excited audiences about upcoming films and shows, all without having to spend any time in the hair and makeup department.
Just to clarify the content, we’re restricting the content to people that haven’t had a major role where they are best known as a writer, creator, or performer in front of the camera. That’s why there are no performers like Orson Welles, Mark Hamill, Parker and Stone, Seth MacFarlane, and so forth.
10. Don LaFontaine
There’s not a particular role that general audiences knew him for, but all Don LaFontaine needed were the three words that became his trademark: “In a world.” Although he began working tech jobs, like editing, and also some creative gigs like writing, his true calling was doing voice overs for trailers and other ads, a number of which he wrote himself. By some estimates, over the course of his career, he did hundreds of thousands of these, sometimes as many as 25 in a day.
His personal favorite was when he did the trailer for The Elephant Man, which was kind of a shame because it was 28 years before the end of his career. If that sounds at all like something trivial, bear in mind that at the time of his passing in 2008, he had an estimated net worth of roughly eighty million. He’d also connected with audiences enough that his catchphrase was used as the title for the 2013 hit indie movie In a World.
9. Nancy Cartwright
In the early ’90s, it surprised the world over and over again to learn that cartoon child megastar Bart Simpson was played by a grown woman. Indeed, during the 1991 season premiere for the show, she got to leave attendees feeling a bit odd when she announced, in Bart Simpson’s famous voice, that she was nine months pregnant and on the verge of delivery. In 2000, she was still milking that joke really effectively by publishing her bestselling autobiography, My Life as a Ten Year-Old boy, and then performing her book as a one-woman show.
Cartwright’s success got her future jobs, such as Chuckie Finster on Rugrats and supporting character/naked mole-rat Rufus on Kim Possible, but it’s very unlikely she’ll ever escape The Simpsons anymore. As Al Jean pointed out on a commentary for an episode of the show, it makes one of her earliest roles, a bit part in The Twilight Zone movie, all the more appropriate: she played a woman who gets trapped in a cartoon world.
8. John DiMaggio
Modern cartoon fans know may know John DiMaggio best from Adventure Time as Jake the Dog, a transforming companion to the protagonist, Finn, who’s in his late twenties in “magical dog years.” His bits of down-to-earth philosophy, like “Sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at something,” have certainly become widespread online. Others are likely to know him from the long running (as in, seven seasons with four movies) science fiction cartoon Futurama as the breakout character Bender, the lovable, emotionally vulnerable, drunken robot. More than a few may know him from the DC movie Batman: Under the Red Hood, where he did a very creepy rendition of the Joker. If we have any gamers in the audience, he was also Marcus Fenix through the Gears of War series.
Such is John DiMaggio’s commitment to his career that he wasn’t content with just starring in a number of popular cartoons. He also cowrote, coproduced, and narrated a 2013 documentary on voice acting called I Know that Voice, which includes interviews with numerous performers featured in this article. Anyone with any interest in the subject matter can’t afford to miss it.
7. Tara Strong
A generation of kids grew up hearing her as Timmy Turner on Fairly Odd Parents, which has been running for sixteen years. During that time she was also characters like the dark, serious teen Raven on Teen Titans, and protagonist Ben Tennyson on Ben 10. For fans of more adult cartoons, there’re the years she spent as Princess Clara on the raunchy reality show parody Drawn Together. For those who like stuff that’s halfway between being mostly targeted to younger children and being sort of edgy and violent, there were the seven years she spent as the cute and cuddly Bubbles in The Powerpuff Girls. She’s also voiced one of the most beloved Batman villains, Harley Quinn, in the Arkham video game series.
But undoubtedly her largest and most loyal following are fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where she plays the bookish protagonist, Twilight Sparkle. Although she had no idea that she would get a bunch of adult fans from doing that particular show, she has decided to embrace this particular group, including in one on one, online chat sessions with people who’d been heavily bullied. Presumably, she didn’t feel any need to do that for her fans from Drawn Together.
6. Jim Cummings
How’s this for range: a guy who can voice both Winnie the Pooh and Goofy’s gruff nemesis/best friend Pete in numerous Disney cartoons. Although he was a supporting character in pretty much every Disney cartoon from the late ’80s through the ’90s, such as playing the tough mouse Monterey Jack on Rescue Rangers or the goofy wolf villain Don Karnage, he also got to play the titular character in several original cartoons. He was the bumbling but reliable Darkwing Duck, and the cat half of the rather nightmarish, but fun, CatDog by Nickelodeon.
For decades he was pretty much inescapable on televised cartoons, but eventually he found his way into theatrical animated films, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s probably not so surprising, after you’ve heard his gravely villainous voice, that he played several characters in Aladdin who were obsessed with cutting the hands off of thieves. But did you know that in The Lion King, he didn’t just play the insane hyena Ed, but got to sing a duet with Jeremy Irons? Okay, no, what happened was that Irons blew out his voice during the epic villain song “Be Prepared” and Cummings had to step in and finish it for him. It’s a real testament to his skills as an impersonator that barely anyone noticed in the movie’s original run.
5. Tress MacNeille
For the past few decades, it seems like it’s been impossible for a cartoon to air on television without featuring Tress MacNeille in either a prominent recurring role, or even as the star. On The Simpsons alone she regularly plays Seymour Skinner’s mother, Crazy Cat Lady, Bart Simpson’s regular bullies Dolph and Jimbo Jones, and several others. On Matt Groening’s other cartoon, Futurama, she voiced fifteen recurring characters, most notably Mom, the closest thing the show had to a villain. If your tastes are a bit more in favor of those early ’90s WB cartoons, she was Dot Warner, one of the three titular characters in Animaniacs. Not a bad career of voicing cartoons for someone who started out pursuing a gig as a DJ.
One of the more amusing aspects of MacNeille’s career was one of her late ’80s jobs. On the Disney program Rescue Rangers, featuring the classic chipmunk characters Chip and Dale, she voiced Chip. Oddly, she also voiced the main female character, Gadget Hackwrench, making it one of the few times the same actor has played both halves of a potential romantic pairing.
4. Troy Baker
This list has been more about cartoons than anything else so far, but we’re going to take a little break from that to focus on video games, which in market terms have of overtaken cartoons in prominence. As far as prominence within video game voice acting goes, you really can’t beat Troy Baker. This former lead singer for the band Tripp Fontaine, and former voice actor for anime dubs, has given highly acclaimed lead performances in some of the highest profile and most acclaimed games in recent memory. His performance as the befuddled man of action Booker DeWitt in the surreal 2013 science fiction game Bioshock Infinite was one of the best of the year. That was accompanied by his performance as the dispirited protagonist, Joel, in the survival game The Last of Us. Little wonder then that he was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s breakout stars of 2013, and that was not the sort of honor they were likely to give to a video game voice actor. He earned it, too: his performance for The Last of Us alone took him 80 days to complete.
Since then, he’s had roles like the rather kooky villain, Pagan Min, in 2014’s Far Cry 4. But his main new, steady gig has been roles in superhero games. Since 2013, he has voiced Batman, multiple versions of Robin, and the Joker in various DC Arkham and Injustice games. He was Superman in the 2015 game Infinite Crisis. There’s even a fun little clip where he compared his version of the Joker’s laugh with the aforementioned John DiMaggio’s.
3. Frank Welker
All of the performers we’ve mentioned so far have been extremely good when it comes to playing human (or at least humanoid) characters. Frank Welker, however, is not bound by only voicing characters that can talk. Some of his best performances have been Apu the monkey and Rajah the tiger in Aladdin, since he was fully believable as animals instead of just a human imitating them. He was even convincing as the cricket character Cri-kee in Mulan. When it comes to characters that can talk, he has been Fred Jones in pretty much every version of Scooby-Doo since 1969 – even in parodies, such as the ones done on Family Guy. He was the voice of the villain Megatron from the 1980s cartoon Transformers and made enough of an impression on fans that, after Hugo Weaving played the character in the 2007 film, Hasbro still had him voice the character for the Transformers games to appease the fans.
In 2011, Welker received a rather backhanded honor. When you took all the movies where he voiced either a speaking character or a regular animal, his performances made him the most successful actor ever, with grosses above six billion dollars. That’s not even counting all the money that had been made from his hundreds of roles on television. But the Guardian article that reported that still called him, “the most successful Hollywood actor you’ve never heard of.” Still, by voice actor standards, that’s probably quite an achievement.
2. Billy West
General audiences were first introduced to Billy West on the Howard Stern for several years, starting in 1989 and ending in 1995. By the time he left that show, he’d landed new jobs voicing both the titular characters in the Nickelodeon cartoon Ren & Stimpy and on the show Doug. He became the new voice of many of the most prominent Looney Tunes characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, including in the hit 1996 blockbuster Space Jam. He’s also the voice of the Cheerios bee in that company’s many, many commercials.
These days, he’s best known for starring in Futurama, along with John DiMaggio, in dozens of parts on the show. If you didn’t know better, you would never guess that protagonist Phillip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and Dr. Zoidberg were all voiced by the same person (incidentally, his Fry voice is by far the closest to his real one).
1. Mel Blanc
As “The Man with a Thousand Voices,” Mel Blanc is the best known, most influential, and most respected of all voice actors. It was pretty much because of him that we know today who voice actors are for cartoons, instead of that being a secret (since studios like Warner Bros tried to suppress the names of voice actors in the hope of keeping their cartoons more believable). Since he was the original voice for Looney Toons characters ranging from Bugs Bunny to Tweety Bird to Elmer Fudd, he was able to get a screen credit. Of course, he wasn’t all that benevolent: he was the only one who got a credit, and made sure of that.
In the ’60s, he was the original performer for numerous famous characters for Hanna-Barbera, such as Barney Rubble on The Flintstones and Cosmo Spacely on The Jetsons. These characters were so important to him that there’s a famous story saying that, after a horrible car wreck in 1961 left him in a semi-comatose state, the doctors were only able to get a response from him after a few weeks by addressing him as Bugs Bunny, prompting him to respond (while semi-conscious), “Myeeeeh. What’s up, Doc?”
If voice acting is your thing, check out this reading of Dustin Koski’s short story “My Last Camping Trip.”
List idea provided by On Hold Marketing.