Jim Cummings: The Voice of Your Childhood (Part II)
This is Part II, click here for Part I
Jim Cummings is a self-proclaimed "stunt singer". “When an actor can’t sing, they get me”, chuckles Jim, upon recalling his role as the singing voice for Native American Chief Powhatan and Kekata in Pocahontas, as well as his most notable ‘stunt singing’ performances: Rasputin in Anastasia, and Scar in the Lion King.
Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown from Back to the Future fame) had been cast as Grigori Rasputin, the evil sorcerer in Anastasia, however Christopher couldn't sing. The producers had approached him and said, “Christopher, you’re going to love this! We’ve this big Lloyd Webber, *BIIIIG* Phantom of the Opera-type song for you to sing!”
“Wow, that’s great. I hope that I sound good. I gotta go now”, Christopher uttered, before leaving. Wondering who to cast as the singing voice for Rasputin, they called up the usual suspects and Jim was asked to come in and audition.
“Hi Jim, you are going to have to sound like a Russian Christopher Lloyd”, said the casting director. “Oh, no problem”, Jim said, laughing, before successfully securing the role as stunt singer for the number, "In the dark of the night".
Christopher approached Jim after the premiere and said, “Heyyyyy, I sounded pretty good. I had no idea I was that good a singer! Thanks kid” with his note-worthy raspy voice.
Jim said, “You’re welcome”, with a smile.
During the animation for The Lion King, Jeremy Irons who was cast as Scar, had already returned to England, but there were a handful of lines that required redoing due to script changes and muddled sentence structures.
Since Jim Cummings was already in the studio as Ed, recording the sounds of the goofy, foolish hyena; "laughing like an insane person" in the emotions: betrayal, anger, fright, and happiness, the producers knew they could count on Jim for some extra lines for another character. He did what he had been practicing since the age of five, impersonating people, but instead of his Aunt Grace or Uncle Sam, in this case it was Jeremy Irons as Scar.
Earlier, Jim had just finished performing Timon and Pumbaa’s signature song ‘Hakuna Matata’ with Jess Harnell (he was Timon and Jim was Pumbaa). The plan was that they would record a demo of Hakuna Matata, and then provide a cassette tape to both Nathan Lane (Timon) and Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa) for the three weeks prior to recording. This would allow them to learn the song off by heart. So the song could become wrote.
As Jim and Jess were recording the song, the lyrics were lamenting the fact, “When I was a kid, you had it easier, I had it tough. Everything was hard for me.” Jim said it was like a story you would hear from your parents, “My dad had to walk up hill to school in snow both ways. Kids get tired of that.”
Jim said, “Doesn’t this guy smell?”, in which he was given the reply, “Well, yes, he is a warthog. He stinks.”
Jim leaned over and whispered something to Jess, before saying, “Roll the tape. We are getting rid of this ‘having it tough’ business”.
The song started like it had originally been penned, but as it reached the ‘lamenting’ lyrics, the room watched. Jim and Jess had changed the lines to the following: “And oh, the shame” (“He was ashamed!”) “Thought of changin' my name” (“Oh, what's in a name?”) “And I got downhearted” (“How did you feel?”) “Every time that I..” (“Pumbaa! Not in front of the kids!”) “Oh... sorry.”
Jim proudly recalls, with a huge grin on his face, “I wrote the fart verse! I’ve been responsible for getting fart jokes into two major motion pictures. I’m so proud!”
The second film was The Princess and the Frog where Ray the Cajun voiced Firefly squeezes a little too hard to get his “big back poach” aka backside-light to ignite, releasing a high-pitched noise and an, “ooo excuse me”.
But Jim’s role in the Lion King wasn’t over. Sir Tim Rice, (Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony award winning lyricist) approached Jim and said, “Well, my dear friend, we have another song for you to sing. It is ‘Be Prepared’, Scar’s villainous piece.” Since Jim had already dubbed a few of Jeremy’s lines and perfected his accent, Jim sang the complete version of the song, and the editors layered his ‘stunt singing’ voice into the scene. They kept in Jeremy’s speaking parts of the song.
As Jim’s career took off, there have been a couple of voice-actors that he has unfortunately never met. One of them was the legendary Man of a 1000 Voices, Mel Blanc. The same man he had seen on the television set of his childhood home in Ohio, with his dad, voicing Bugs Bunny, Sylvester the cat, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and most of the other Looney Tunes characters. But the Man of a 1000 Voices HAD listened to Jim’s voice.
During the last few years of Mel Blanc’s life, he had a tube up his nose, and lugged an oxygen tank around. He still wore his pencil-thin moustache, like his friend Walt Disney. He would turn up to the studio to record Dino for The Flintstones, and then leave separately out of safety.
Prior to starting his voice-acting career, Jim was working at a home depot in Anaheim Hills. One of Jim’s customers was a New Jerseyan, Vietnam war veteran, quadriplegic named Ralph Russo. He owned a "very sad little agency that would book clown acts", magician performances, and the occasional poodle act. His pint-size agency sat next door to Mel’s.
Jim had recorded a demo tape and given it to Ralph to see what he would be able to do with it. The following day, Ralph saw Mel and called out, “Hey, hey Mel, come here, I got this kid. I want you to hear. He wants to be you.”
“They all want to be me, kid. Sure, go ahead, let me hear. Play it”, replied Mel.
Mel sat down. Russo put the cassette into the player and clicked play. Mel rested back in his chair, his head tilted towards the ceiling, and he closed his eyes. The two-minute-long demo tape sounded, and his mouth began to smile. One of the character’s Jim was performing was Taz the Tasmanian Devil, Mel Blanc’s own voice-creation. A huge grin spread from cheek to cheek. The tape came to an end and Mel said, “Ralphy, tell the kid he’s got it”. In happiness, he pounded the top of the desk and walked out. Jim, upon hearing the news said, “Wow – the blessing from on high. They can put that on my tombstone.” The irony is that Jim is NOW the offical voice of Taz the Tasmanian Devil. Taz appears in Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021).
The second near-miss to meeting his inspiration, occurred in a little diner in a Laguna Beach Motel. A man that inspired him was dressed in all white which was colour coordinated precisely with the snow-white hair which exploded off his scalp. The man sat alone in a corner booth. “From afar, he was like an Albino crow, slightly clownish”, said Jim. The man in the corner booth hadn’t murmured a word, instead he sat examining the menu.
Jim and his wife had just arrived in the diner when the waitress walked over to the lonesome man in the booth and asked, “Well, have we decided what we are going to have today?” “Well, I believe, I will have the chowder”, the man replied, in a unique soft as ‘hunny’ voice.
Jim’s eyes lit up, looked at the waitress, and he mouthed, “Winnie the Pooh?!?” Jim knew that Sterling Holloway was the voice-actor of Winnie and knew what he looked like; the man that sat in the corner. Jim saw a saltshaker on a table near Sterling and walked over to pick it up, while taking a peek.
“Any excuse to get up close. I kick myself for not saying something to him”, reflects Jim.
For the last 33 years, Jim has been the official voice of Winnie the Pooh, but when he went to audition for the role, he was positive that he was going to be cast as a different character.
“I went for Pooh, Tigger, Beaver, and Eeyore”, said Jim.
Jim called his agent and said, “Just finished the audition, I think I did a really good Eeyore”. A week later, the phone rang. It was his agent who said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news on the Pooh show.” Jim asked, “What’s the bad news?” His agent said, “You didn’t get Eeyore” “Really? Damn! Who is it?”, asked Jim. “Peter Cullen.”, he heard on the other end of the phone.
Jim thought, “Well, he is Optimus prime, and a gifted actor. Can’t complain losing out to him. That’s for sure.” Jim curiously asked, “What’s the good news?” His agent said, “There are more characters that you auditioned for, so you are going to have to settle for Winnie the Pooh and Tigger.” The phone line went silent as Jim’s mind was coming to terms with what he had just heard, “Oh, wait, what?” His agent said, “Yeah, Paul (official Tigger) is going back to Africa, so they need a Tigger backup. You as Winnie will already be there”.
It was as though his role as Pooh was predestined. During the 8th grade, he would play games of Monopoly against ‘Winnie the Pooh’. When it came to Pooh’s turn, he would do an impression and say, “Ooo, I believe I would like to buy Park Place”. Throughout school, instead of playing the ‘cute little kid’ during theatre performances, Jim would opt for the ogre, the vampire, or even the goat. Subconsciously, he was doing research for the career to come.
In terms of voice-actors, Paul Winchell WAS Tigger, Sterling Holloway WAS Winnie the Pooh, John Fiedler WAS Piglet, and Hal Smith WAS Owl. The characters were just their voices. They weren’t ‘performing’, their characters were a version of themselves.
Paul Winchell had been going back and forth to Africa on a mission to help overcome the starvation in tribal villages. He had developed a method which allowed him to cultivate tilapia fish, an “ugly” fish but full of nutrition, which could be farmed in “a cup of water and some dirt”, recalls Jim. When Paul was travelling for his humanitarian efforts, Jim would fill in as Tigger. Jim termed his role as the ‘Tigger-lite’, not the original, but it would suffice.
During Paul’s last few years, he arrived at the recording studio. A man opened the door, and Paul entered, unlike his bubbly character Tigger. He didn't bounth (bounce). but walked unsteadily, held a cane which was to assist his balance, and was quite frail.
Jim asked, “Hey Paul, how are you doing, boss?” Paul said in a soft voice, “How ya doing there, kid. Well, I tell ya kid, I’m not doing too well.” Jim asked, “What seems to be the problem?” Paul replied, “I had one of those strokes. All I can see is the area between my palms. I have a tough time reading. I don’t know.” Jim was worried, “What does this mean?” Paul tilted his head down, his eyes looked at the floor. He took a gulp of air and let out a big sigh. With one hand on his cane, he placed the other hand on Jim’s shoulder, “It means I want you to take… care of my little buddy for me”. “Oh-k” in an emotional break of a note, replied Jim. Jim left the room and upon reaching his car, he began to cry.
“It was one of those bittersweet moments. Broke my heart”, said Jim, "I was now Tigger".
In ’91, a new American animated superhero graced television sets around the world. The character wore a purple jacket with four golden buttons on the front. Over his shoulders, he had draped a dark purple cape, its underside bright pink. He wore a large felt hat whose brim floated outwards beyond the hero’s shoulders, and underneath, an eye mask in purple. He wore no shoes and no pants for one reason alone, he was a duck: Darkwing Duck. A show and character that would award Jim an Annie Award for voice-acting in 1992.
At the start of every episode there were three lines that Darkwing would confidently project to criminals, with only the first and third lines staying the same. The first line was, “I am the terror that flaps in the night”. The final line was, “I am Darkwing Duck”. The second line would always change, but would usually link to crime or something everyone watching could painfully relate to, “I am the ingrown toenail on the foot of crime!”
When Jim arrived in studio to record the first six episodes, he had a script that told him the second line to say. By the seventh episode, Jim was reading the script, and instead of saying something like, “I am the repairman who tells you your warranty has run out!”, the script said in brackets “ (There is no point adding anything here, Jim will probably make something up).” The seventh episode included the line, “I am the icky bug that crawls up your trouser leg.”
“Out of all the scripts I have wanted to keep, I wish I kept that one”, said Jim. The Darkwing Duck television show included a lot of ad lib. Since the audio was recorded first, improvisation of lines wouldn’t ruin the animation. However, whilst this was usually always the case, because it is easier to animate to audio, there have been a few occasions which have required "lip-flap repair" in post-production.
A notable ‘lip flap repair’ was Jim’s role of Pete, the Disney cat/bear antagonist, in Japan’s action-role playing video game, Kingdom Hearts. Holding up a large headed ‘Funko POP’ toy of Pete, Jim said, “There is a Japanese Pete and a Japanese Mickey, just like there is an English version.”
As the game was made and recorded in Japan, the animation was complete before Jim had put down any English audio. He recalled one line that was syllables upon syllables long in Japanese, but translated to “Ok, I’ll do it” in English. Jim said, “It just didn’t fit, and required some lip flap repair.”
It resulted in, “Well, I don’t know. If you ask nicely, I’ll do it.”
However, not everyone appreciates the talent of Jim’s unique range of characters, one of which was his daughter. After being cast as the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ in ‘93, Jim’s daughter, Livia, asked him to read her a bedtime story. Jim thought, “Ooo, I will get creative and provide the voices for this retelling of the ‘Three Little Pigs’.” With a high-pitched pig snort, Jim said, “No, no, no, not by the hair of my chinny chin chin”. With a deep, growl he continued as the wolf, “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff…” Before he could finish his sentence, he was interrupted, “Dad, I’m tired. Could you just read it normal, please?” “Oh ok”, thought Jim, before continuing, “....and I'll blow the house down”, in a monotonous voice.
In the Australian wilderness there is a bird called the lyrebird whose call is unlike any other, for instead of tweeting or chirping, it mimics its surroundings. From car alarms, ambulances, and other animals, it spends its day impersonating notes in such a way that no one will be able to tell the difference. Jim is the American-human-equivalent. You may not recognise his name, or even what he looks like, but through manipulating his voice in unique ways and becoming a vocal sponge, he has become the voice of many childhoods. Jim knows it, and he will continue to do so for many years to come.
Jim Cummings says, “The voice stays around forever. The voice is the last thing to go. It’s fun. It sure isn’t work.”