Jim Cummings: The Voice of Your Childhood (Part I)


He’s a professional talker, a self-proclaimed ‘stunt singer’, and in many ways, the ‘voice of your childhood’. From the ‘hunny’ loving, softly spoken, short-sentenced Pooh, to the ‘bounthing’ and spring-tailed Tigger, Jim Cummings can often be found standing in a studio, in front of a microphone and a script. Sometimes he doesn’t even require a fancy setup, as the microphone in his office has a light grey sock with green ankle-trim draped over the mic, picked from his laundry pile. “Works a treat”, he laughs. Sometimes, he doesn’t even require a script since ad lib is a voice-actors favourite tool.

Next to him, on a table, is a bottle of water with three Ricola Eucalyptus cough drops that he has unwrapped and dropped into, allowing them to slowly dissolve. “It coats the pipes and keeps me hydrated” says Jim, who lifts the bottle up and swigs a mouthful of water, getting ready to prepare his voice. Jim is a legendary voice-actor who uses his ability to mimic and establish unique voicings to create the sounds and characters of many people's childhoods.

At the age of five, Jim was sitting in the living room of his home in Youngstown, Ohio. On the television set there was a show called the Jack Benny Program. Jim’s dad turned to Jim and pointed, “You see this guy here, his name is Mel Blanc. He’s the guy that does all those cartoon voices for the shows you watch on Saturday morning”. Jim’s face lit up, he thought, “This guy doesn’t get told by Sister Mary Agnes, to stand in the corner for making squirrel and dolphin noises in the classroom. Maybe I’ll do that?”

Before his voice-acting, "stunt singing", and professional talking career took off, Jim had a bucket list of goals to achieve. His first goal was to work with the New Orleans’ Krewes painting and designing Mardi Gras floats; in which he created the float, ‘Whale of a Time’ from chicken coop wire, Papier-mâché and layers of paint. As it moved through the sea of partygoers, it would come to life, splashing water and drenching crowd. Jim even made it to the front cover of a local magazine with his ‘Bat out of Hell’ float, which had a dragon-sized Bat sitting precariously to its front, and fire igniting into the air in bursts. Having achieved the first bucket list goal, Jim's next few years of experience in Louisiana would help to tick off ‘job on the river’ from his bucket list.

In the humid Mississippi bayous, wearing cut-off denim jeans, white tennis shoes and missing his shirt, nineteen-year-old Jim was working on a reliable and deep-rooted boat, held together with a couple of coats of paint.

The ship was ‘Old Dutch’, a timber vessel that looked like it had just come out of Scruffy the Tugboat’s storybook, and whose captain was Leonce Leblanc. Leonce was a 78-year-old man from Crowley, Louisiana. His face appeared as though it was sculptured in meticulous detail, “carved out of granite with a screwdriver”, his nose ballooned upon his face, and his hair was an unwavering crew-cut that appeared unchanged since the 50s – sharp, flat top, and always greased. In his mouth, he always had one of two things; a cigarette of hand-rolled tobacco, or his red beans and rice; a recipe he had perfected and was going to hand-down to Jim.

Leonce, standing on Old Dutch, saw Jim arrive to the pier. In his strong, gravelly, Cajun accent, a blend of French and American, he said, “I can’t believe dey sent me a Yankee boy down ‘ere for my last time on da river”, before continuing, “I can’t teach you ‘bout dis river, but by the time you get off dis boat - ya gonna know how to make red bean and riiiiiice”, which surprisingly contains a lot more than JUST red beans and rice.

Even though he was the Captain, Leonce liked a good one-liner with his crew. While Jim was cleaning the boat, one of the pipes that allowed water to cool down the engine had clogged up. To clean it, Jim had to open up a hatch that connected to the waterjet’s 40cm thick tube. Jim grabbed a pipe wrench, and after exhorting energy trying to crank it open, it finally dislodged. Jim squatted down, rested on his knees, and opened the hatch. “The biggest snake on earth flew out”, said Jim, who at the time was startled. “I didn’t want the 150-pound snake to be angry at me. Thankfully, it was dead!!” Jim rushed to Leonce and said, “Oh my, you won’t believe this”, which resulted in a humorous rhetorical question, “’ow many times I told ya, ya don’t bring ya pet snake on de boat”. Jim shook his head, laughing. This wasn’t the only time Leonce had a cheeky response to one of Jim’s "experiences".

The darkness of the bayou swamps was overwhelming, especially at 2.30am when the only lights visible were from Old Dutch, huts nestled dangerously on the river’s edge, the moon, or the reflection from critters in the water. During a routine process, Jim had hopped into a skiff and cast off from the main vessel, scooting towards the shore. In Old Dutch, Captain Leonce was using the tugboat to ‘push’ rather than ‘tug’ an array of eight to ten barges, that were shoulder to shoulder, towards the beach. Each ship in the line was tied together with rope, with the final ship tied by a rope to the largest tree available on the shore. By the time Old Dutch had come back to check on the barges, the tow had drifted making the lines tight.

The solution involved both Jim and Captain Leonce working in unison. Captain Leonce had to push the barges towards the shore, and Jim had to prepare a perfect dismount while holding the rope of the last boat, head high above him. The riverbank was four feet higher than the river itself. While holding the rope, Jim, absorbed by darkness, took a step out of the skiff and placed his foot on the six-foot-long log that separated him from the land.

*Whooooosh*, the log darted away from beneath him into the Bayou, Jim darted away too. But instead of leaping to the side, he lifted his feet, jumping as high as possible. Captain Leonce hadn’t stopped pushing the barges, so the rope he had held onto began to form slack, and Jim slowly sank into the water, worried that the log-shaped alligator he had accidentally stepped on would to return. Quickly, Jim untied the line and jumped back in the skiff, before making his way to Old Dutch. It was like déjà vu, “Captain, you won’t believe what just happened”, Jim said, before hearing Leonce's whimsical reply, “You better leave dem alligators alone, boy. 'ow many times I told ya, don’t pick on de alligator?”

Unbeknownst to Jim, the years on the riverboat would engrain both an understanding of another culture and an accent into his vocabulary of noises. Paired with Jim’s ability to utilise what he hears as a “vocal sponge”; new characters were saved to his mind’s database. Jim says, “If you do a perfect impression of somebody that nobody knows, that’s a new character. And if you do a terrible impression of somebody that everyone knows and can’t tell who it is, THAT’S a new character.”

It was as though everything on that river had happened for a purpose. Captain Leonce defended the alligator, and then four years later he ‘became’ an alligator as Leatherhead in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) universe. At least his voice did. Surprisingly, the character also wore no shirt, a vest, denim jeans, ‘probably’ tennis shoes, and had prehistoric entrenched wrinkles and a large snout, like the captain who sailed the Bayou. Jim’s perfect impression of his captain, ‘somebody that nobody knew’, became the voice of one of the TMNT’s reoccurring villains.

Jim laughs as he recalls, “Leonce would have still been alive when the show aired. I imagine his grandchildren watching the show and hearing Leatherhead for the first time. ‘Grandad! Why are you an alligator?’”

Jim also voiced: Genghis Frog, Dirk Savage, Dirtbag, LEX, Merlin, Doomquest, Drakus/Berserko, Captain Hoffman, and Eric the Red-Eye, in the 1987 series, and Shredder in 1991.

Another notable character of Jim's was created through mimicry. Through Jim’s amalgamation of two Hollywood actors, Star Wars’ pirate named Hondo Ohnaka was born. His voice was Jim’s blend between Charles Bronson, who was notable for playing tough gunfighters and vigilantes, and Yul Brynner, who was known for his role as the Siamese monarch in the ‘The King and I’, a role Yul would perform more than 4,000 times. Jim says that, “It’s a cross between something and nothing." Pondering, he continues, "Well, it sounds foreign.”

Three horns penetrate through each of Hondo’s cheek bones, surrounded by his tough, leathery exterior. His skin thickness and density making it a natural resistance to blaster fire, especially his Weequay Blaster Pistol. Underneath a helmet, which appears to be in a similar shape to a turtle, Hondo’s hair breaks free into two braided strands each descending down his back. It is as though he has been to Captain Jack Sparrows’ pirate barber, since it holds the same complexion, dreadlocks and beaded combination. Sitting comfortably on Hondo’s armour-plated right shoulder pad, which is fixed over his maroon and gold-trimmed tunic, is a Kowakian monkey-lizard named Pilf Mukmuk.

Forget what a monkey looks like and a lizard too. This creature has a beak like a bird, persistently looking disgruntled. Emerald-green feathers pertrude from its scalp like the crown of a pineapple. A necklace of feathers is fused to its neck. The end of its tail is like a feathered ‘bommy-knocker’ mace; the weapon knights would flail around, spiked ball suspended on a wooden handle. Its ears look like droopy bat wings. No other hair, scales, or feathers cover its body, so it crouches with red-orange skin exposed. And, it has bony, long fingers which end in talons. Smugly, like only Hondo would speak, Jim said, “I own 50% of the monkey-lizards in the galaxy. The other is Jabba the Hutt.”

Hondo is self-centred and greed-driven, yet holds strong leadership when it comes to salvaging and raiding expeditions through the galaxy with his pirate cohort. If it assists in making him wealthy, he will do it, regardless of the risks involved. Capturing prisoners to ransom, like Count Dooku, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka Tano, or “borrowing” the Millennium Falcon, are just some of the types of exploits Hondo has undertaken for a payday. Jim laughs, “he gets stuff done”.

Jim received a nomination for an Emmy award for ‘Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program’ for his role of Hondo Ohnaka in Star Wars: Clone Wars, he even has a dedicated ride at Disneyland called the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.

That is the end of Part 1. Subscribe to be notified for Part 2. Part 2 will include Jim's roles as Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Ray the Firefly from The Princess and the Frog, Scar and Ed from The Lion King, Rasputin from Anastasia, and more!

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