For years, cartoons came and went in the production line at Hanna-Barbera, but John Stephenson was always there, lending his voice to comic and not-so-comic characters.
John Stephenson died last night at the age of 91, according to his son Roger. He had been in a care home and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for some time.
He was just as comfortable in front of the camera as in front of a microphone. He has a long list of credits on live-action shows, some in regular roles, and probably a longer list in cartoons. He graduated from radio to television with ease and was the first person who appeared on camera when “I Love Lucy” debuted in 1951 (Stephenson was the commercial pitch-man).
For someone who failed an audition with Hanna-Barbera, he sure had a long career there.
Stephenson had all kinds of roles at the studio but his most famous one is, arguably, Mr. Slate on “The Flintstones.” In the photo above, you see him hovering over Mel Blanc (and blocking Alan Reed) as Joe Barbera goes over the story with the Flintstones’ voice cast (the bald guy in the back is Associate Producer Alan Dinehart).
Stephenson was from Kenosha, about 40 or so miles from Milwaukee, where the Journal felt he was local enough to profile in a feature article published February 13, 1963. This was after his first regular cartoon role as Fancy-Fancy on “Top Cat” had gone into Saturday morning reruns and well before he cropped up on seemingly every “Scooby-Doo” episode as a stumped law enforcement guy or a disguised villain who would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids and... well, you know the line.
The article sums up Stephenson’s entertainment career, and has a surprise about the role at Hanna-Barbera he didn’t get.
Seldom Seen, Often Heard
Ex-Kenoshan With Versatile Vocal Cords Provides Voices for the Cartoon Characters You See on TV
By J.D. SPIRO
Journal Special Correspondence
Hollywood, Calif.—In Hollywood’s TV cartoon workshops, one of the major tasks is to find the right voices for the characters that pop out of the inkwells.
Since not only features and shorts but also an increasing number of commercials employ these unseen performers, there is a growing need for them, and the opportunities are attracting more and more actors with vocal versatility.
Among the better known and highly regarded members of this group is John Stephenson, 39, from Kenosha, Wis., who finds working in this field more rewarding and exciting than anything he ever did in his previous show business experience.
“It has been keeping me so busy,” he said, “that from a dollar and cents point of view I can no longer afford to make motion pictures.”
In ‘The Flintstones’
Stephenson has been the voice of innumerable characters in such shows at “The Flintstones,” “Top Cat” and others. “The Flintstones,” he said, “was my first animated series. I auditioned for both Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble when they were still on the drawing boards. But I ended up doing various other roles, such as Garry Granite, Perry Gunnite, Boss Slate, Mrs. Slate, Joe Rockhead and more.”
In “Top Cat,” Stephenson, besides doing other parts, has a starring vocal role as Fancy-Fancy, the ladies man of the back alley set.
“I tried to make him come across as a kind of Brooklyn Cary Grant,” he explained.
In the cartoon studios, Stephenson is known for his creativeness and his broad range. Where dialects are needed he can do English, French, German, Italian and Russian besides the typical accents of the different sections of the United States. He also has a talent for trick voices.
Champ in Oratory
“Sometimes in the animated cartoon field,” he said, “I also do impersonations of widely known people. For these I often audition on the phone. The other day a producer called up and wanted to know whether I could impersonate W.C. Fields. I replied by doing it for him while we were talking.”
Stephenson, whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Stephenson, now live at 1029 E. Idaho st., Milwaukee, first became interested in acting while attending Kenosha high school and studying speech under John Davies, who encouraged him to give it a try. In his senior year (1941) he became Wisconsin state champion in oratory and dramatic declamation in the National Forensic league competitions. He was runnerup when the various state winners met at Terre Haute, Ind.
The next fall, Stephenson entered Ripon college, where he was active in campus drama. His intention then, however, was to become a lawyer, and after finishing at Ripon, to take a law course at the University of Wisconsin. After Pearl Harbor, World War II interrupted his studies and he became a radio operator and gunner in the air corps. By the time he got out of uniform he had decided to be an actor. Because of this change of plans, he took a course in speech and drama at Northwestern university, and he began his professional career in Chicago radio while still a student.
In 1948, with only three months to go before getting his M.A. degree, Stephenson came to Hollywood for a visit. Here he fell in with some actors he had worked with in Chicago. They encouraged him to try his luck in Hollywood radio. It proved so promising he decided to stay. He appeared in “It’s Always Sunday,” and played the title role in another, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Stephenson also appears, or is heard as an off camera voice, in many TV commercials. Recently he went to Detroit to do one for the Ford Motor Co., intended for use in connection with the Leonard Bernstein-New York Philharmonic specials, and he filmed two others for Ford here.
“The one in Detroit, which we did at the Dearborn testing grounds,” he said, “was only two minutes long but it took a week to shoot.”
In TV, Stephenson also speaks for Bell & Howell in their specials and is heard in a number of other commercials. Besides his radio and TV roles, he has done six movies, the latest “Spartacus.”
With his wife, Jean, and two children, Roger, 5, and Katie, 2, the former Wisconsin actor lives in the Woodland Hills district of the San Fernando Valley.
Once Stephenson landed at Hanna-Barbera, Joe Barbera, Alan Dinehart, Gordon Hunt and the other recording directors wouldn’t let him go. It seems like he provided voices for just about every H-B series for the next couple of decades (the original “Jetsons” being a notable exception). 30-plus years after his arrival, his rumbling yell of “Flint-stone!” from the mouth of Mr Slate was still being recorded for soundtracks, this time for TV movies of the Modern Stone Age Family.
We offer our condolences to his family. I’m sure his countless fans do, too.