Utter Genius: Voices That Call Out Still

The late Mae Questel, here in 1978, voiced Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.
The late Mae Questel, here in 1978, voiced Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. (Associated Press)

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

In addition to animation, the voices of the Popeye cartoons were crucial to their success and uniqueness within the genre. Billy West, the voice of more than 100 television and film characters -- from the red M&M and the Honey Nut Cheerios bee to Stimpy of "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and characters on "Futurama" and "The Howard Stern Show" -- spoke for the sailor in 2004's "Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy." A keen observer of the craft, he shares his thoughts on the work of the actors who brought Popeye cartoons to life.

Jack Mercer (Popeye)

He could say something in both a low voice and a high voice at the same time, like, an octave apart. It's something the Tuvan throat singers can do, producing more than one voice at the same time . . . which gave a smoothness to the raspy sound he made. With respect to the muttering, my theory is that people were more civil than they are now, and would mutter stuff under their breath. If somebody had just given you the "what-for" and left, you'd just kind of say out of the side of your mouth, "Yeah, for two cents, I'd punch you right in the head." This is something Mercer did unbelievably well. Popeye would mutter, "Eenie meenie miney moe, out ya go -- bingo!"

Mae Questel (Olive Oyl)

Mae was a dynamo. She brought this incredible geekiness to Olive. . . . Mae always underlined Olive's strength. She also did Popeye's voice in a couple of episodes, when Jack Mercer was in the war.

Gus Wickie (Bluto, 1933-1938)

He was a baritone with an orchestra that Paramount used, which was where they found him. Everything from Bluto was like a declaration. He was always, "I'll show ya."

Jackson Beck (Bluto , 1944 on)

You'll know his voice today as the announcer on ads for Thompson's Water Seal and Little Caesars pizza. His Bluto seemed a little smarter and more formidable than Gus Wickie's. With Wickie, Bluto thought he was a big deal, but he was as dumb as a post. The Jackson Beck Bluto was a little brighter.

-- Matt Hurwitz


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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