Here’s the final part of the biography on Don Messick from “The Magic Behind the Voices: A Who’s Who of Cartoon Voice Actors” by Tim Lawson and Alisa Persons. You can find large chunks of the book on the web without much trouble and read about some of your other favourite veteran cartoon actors. If you see a copy in your local bookstore, get it.
The story ignores Messick’s work on Spunky and Tadpole, just as well perhaps, but it doesn’t mention a venture involving Messick, Bob Clampett and others around the time the Hanna-Barbera studio was getting off the ground. It was reported in an edition of Boxoffice magazine at the time but I didn’t make a note of when and can’t find the reference now.
At a time when desperation forced him to resort to selling his blood, Messick’s fortune turned for the better. While he was in New York, actress Joan Gardiner recommended him to her employer, legendary animator Bob Clampett. “She told him that she knew this guy who could do voices, was a ventriloquist, and who could do puppets. Well, I had never done hand puppets before, but they [the producers] paid my way back to Hollywood, and so for six years I was under contract to Bob Clampett. He had developed Beany and Cecil and was developing other shows, including Buffalo Billy. It was a half-hour Sunday afternoon live children's puppet show, adventures in the Wild West-type of thing starring Buffalo Billy and his aunt, Ima Hag. So, for six months I practiced in his garage while he tried one contact and then another to get this show on the air. It finally did go on the air in 1949 or 1950 in New York. . . . Again, I was back in New York!”
Thirteen weeks later that show had ended, as well as, apparently, his association with its producer. “Bob Clampett dropped me, but I think he sort of kicked himself for having dropped my contract.” Messick went back to the other coast for yet another puppet show; after which, Clampett promptly rehired him to work for the next five years. Besides acting, this stint with Clampett also included the duties of writer and production coordinator on the new live children’s adventure puppet productions. Included were the revamped Adventures of Buffalo Billy, The Willy the Wolf Show, and Thunderbolt the Wondercolt, in which he also had a chance to do some on-camera acting.
Messick’s cartoon career finally began when friend Daws Butler put in a good word for him. “It’s due to Daws that I got my first cartoon job. It was back in the ‘50s, and Tex Avery was looking for a voice. Daws recommended me to Tex while he was at MGM doing the Droopy the Dog theatrical cartoons. The actor who regularly did the voice of Droopy was not available for some reason or other and they needed to get this cartoon completed, so I wound up doing the voice of Droopy on two of the cartoons. Daws was certainly generous with sharing his professional contacts with me as well as just being a great, good friend. I certainly owe Daws, if not for my start in show business, then for the opportunity to grab onto the next rung of the ladder.”
His success solidified in 1957 when William Hanna and Joe Barbera decided that Messick and Butler should have the honor of breaking new ground with them. “Daws and I were the first voice men with the first series that Bill and Joe did on their own when they left MGM; that was, of course, Ruff and Reddy. I was the voice of Ruff, Professor Gizmo, and the narrator.”
The series became a hit. From then on Messick was offered part after part at the studio and eventually came to see Hanna-Barbera as a second home. “My association with Hanna-Barbera has been over twenty-seven years long. I’ve worked with them on something every year since they formed their own company.” In that time, he enjoyed the Hanna-Barbera approach of recording as an ensemble cast, a practice he was familiar with from the old radio programs. He stated that his ambition was always not to just do funny voices for a paycheck, but to approach it as a serious actor. During the course of his series, he took pride in letting his characters evolve and, subsequently, refining them along with his craft.
“Well, I think there is always something of me, of Don Messick, involved inside the character that I do because, basically, I am not an impersonator. That’s the way a lot of people who do voices develop them, and that’s usually what the producers want. They say, ‘We want such and such a type.’ So, it’s pretty much an acting job for me. The development of a character comes from inside my imagination and expresses itself outwardly, hoping that it conforms pretty much to what the producers had in mind and adding a little bit more to it. Daws was always complimentary about my work in saying that a lot of the other people who do similar things to what I do lack the warmth in the character that I seem to project.”
Messick was especially fond of some of his most popular characters. “Boo Boo Bear was kind of special and one of my favorites because he was such a simple naïve little guy, and in a sense Yogi Bear’s conscience, because he would always strive to steer him away from his incorrigible acts of stealing ‘pic-i-nic’ baskets. There’s something warm and friendly and nice about Boo Boo. Then there’s Muttley. He was always complaining about Dick Dastardly. One of my favorite shows was Dastardly and Muttley and Their Flying Machines.”
If pressed for an all-time favorite, Messick picked the most famous of Hanna-Barbera creations—Scooby-Doo. Messick helped create the character and performed the voice for the first twenty-two years that Scooby-Doo shows were in production. When asked about the cartoon canine’s enduring popularity, Messick was thoughtful: “I think kids identify with the human characters on Scooby-Doo, and bringing with that humanism into Scooby himself makes them further identify with the dog. I mean, everybody loves dogs. And, I think we all project our own personalities onto our pets. Scooby with his vulnerability is a lot like us. We are not all the bravest people in the world.
We all have our own hang-ups, and Scooby’s hang right out there up front! He’s cowardly; yet he always seems to come out on top in spite of himself.”
Finding the voice for Scrappy-Doo, Scooby’s nephew, became a little more complicated than expected. “When Scrappy was first introduced, they auditioned several people, and they offered it to another actor, but they finally ended up using me. I think we were doing sixteen episodes that season. ‘Long about the fourteenth, Joe Barbera and the ABC producer decided they didn’t like my Scrappy, so they had Lenny Weinrib (of H. R. Puffenstuff fame) do it. And he had to re-do everything that I’d already recorded, which meant that he had to ‘loop’ them, which is longer and more complicated. Well, it went on the air that way with Lennie Weinrib’s kind of Jerry Lewis mean little kid voice. Then the network decided they didn’t like that. ‘We prefer Don Messick.’ So I didn’t redo them, but I started with the next season’s shows.” Of course, being network executives, first they had to reaudition Messick to make sure that he was really what they wanted.
He also found work on Jonny Quest, the second actor to portray Dr. Benton Quest, opposite Tim Matheson as Jonny and Mike Road as Race Bannon. “They started out with John Stephenson, who did six of twenty-six [shows]. They decided to change the voice, have a different actor do it because they found a conflict between John’s voice and the voice of Mike Road. So they got me to do it. I also did Atom Ant for the last six or eight episodes [after Howard Morris].”
One of the highlights of Messick’s career was his time spent as Bamm-Bamm, Arnold, the paper boy, and various other characters on The Flintstones, a show he concisely describes as “one big pun well done.” Among the talent he had the honor of working with was one of his childhood idols, Alan Reed, who voiced Fred Flintstone. “I remember Alan Reed when I was a child, listening to the Fred Allen show. He did various characters on many, many radio shows. . . . He seemed to genuinely enjoy the character things I did. He and Mel [Blanc] would be sitting back and I’d glance up, out of the corner of my eye, when I was doing something. They’d be looking at each other and kind of nodding affirmatively, which made me feel good because they were ahead of me and I looked up to them.”
Certainly, judging by the continual interest in characters like Scooby- Doo, Astro, and Boo Boo Bear, Messick’s peers are not the only admirers of his work. Hanna-Barbera was especially grateful that for all that Messick struggled through at the beginning of his career, he never felt like giving up on showbiz. “I have felt that maybe I should get a steady job as a staff announcer at a radio station. But usually when such an opportunity would present itself, something else would come up to pull me away from going that route.”
Sadly, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Don Messick passed away on October 24, 1997, at the age of seventy-one, of a stroke. While Messick had respected Joe Barbera as a “perfectionist” and a “tough” director to work for at times, Barbera may have given Messick the most flattering tribute when summing up his work and that of his former partner, Daws Butler. “Daws and Don Messick—it was like a goldmine with those two guys. Between them, they could do almost every voice you could think of.”
Messick was grateful for his professional success, but he also recognized greater and lasting value to society in his life’s work in animation. “We need escapism. I think the world takes itself too seriously. There are so many serious things to think about and deal with. It’s nice to have a release, a departure, something that gets us away from the worries of the day, to help us not take ourselves too seriously and deflate our egos, if at all possible. I think that cartoons poke fun at our pomposity and our stuffiness, and so it helps us place a different perspective on some of our real-life situations. If it does nothing else but make us laugh, that in itself is therapeutic, healthy, and good.”
You can read an earlier post about Don’s life and career HERE.