Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Acting, Cartoons and John Stephenson

The man to your right may look like an irritable boss and, in fact, he played one on TV. You wouldn’t have seen him though. That’s because John Stephenson supplied the voice for Mr. Slate on The Flintstones.

He portrayed a bunch of other characters on the show, too, including private eye Perry Gunite. In fact, for a number of years, it seems he found his way into most of Hanna-Barbera’s productions in secondary and/or nemesis roles. His voice is the one that comes to mind when you think of a villain foiled by “those meddling kids and that dog” on the original incarnation of Scooby Doo.

We’ve talked about the late Mr. Stephenson’s career here before—on radio, in live-action television, in animation. But you’ll be able to hear about it from a different perspective. John’s son Roger will be the guest of Stu Shotak on the Stu’s Show podcast next Wednesday at 4 p.m. West Coast time. Roger grew up while his father was at the peak of his long career and will likely have plenty of insights into his dad that cartoon fans don’t know. So tune in. Click here.

Earlier this month, we clipped a piece from the Los Angeles Times of April 28, 1989 where Janet Waldo was interviewed during her recording for her ill-fated part in the Jetsons movie. Stephenson was interviewed, too. Here’s his portion:

Stephenson is the old guard—a stage and radio actor who takes his voices seriously, even when voicing Tom and Jerry in the popular cat-and-mouse cartoon.
In his cartoon work, there were times he was “literally talking to myself.” In one half-hour “Flintstone” caper, he had nine voices and had to mark his script in different colors to keep them straight.
Stephenson may seem a perennial second banana, playing Mr. Slate to Fred Flintstone, Mr. Dingwall to Yogi Bear. He doesn’t see it that way.
“These are the guys the other guys kick around. They provoke the action,” Stephenson said in a stately voice that could easily reach the far rows of any theater.
Mr. Slate, for example, was always making Fred and Barney miserable, but in the end, they always bested the boss. Since Slate provoked the action, Stephenson said, “I never thought of his as a second banana.”
The characters, including Doggie Daddy in the “Augie Doggie” cartoon, Fancy from “Top Cat,” Mr Arable in “Charlotte’s Web,” Finkerton in “Inch High Private Eye,” and the Sheriff in “Robin Hoodnik” are “the fun parts” of his work.
With his courtly manners and resonant voice, Stephenson seems almost too dignified to play cartoon characters. But he said he never feels silly because he doesn’t view his characters as one-dimensional.
“It’s their different facets that are intriguing. You can stretch as far as you want. It’s exaggerated, but it still reflects life.”
Although his two children always got a kick from dad’s gigs, Stephenson always saw voice acting as just a job. Stephenson, who wouldn’t give his age, said he doesn’t do his shtick at parties, and he doesn’t entertain for adults. “Some people can turn it on and off. Away from the mike, I don’t like to do this,” he said.
Stephenson has had a varied career—from stage plays to product pitchman; from television appearances on “Dragnet” and “People’s Choice” (where he played Jackie Cooper’s neighbor, Roger Crutcher, another second banana) to Armed Forces training films and the voice for some Mattel toys. He hosted the travel show “Bold Journey” from 1956-57 and appeared in the 1965 NBC soap “Morning Star.”
Even as a boy in Kenosha, Wis., Stephenson wanted to act. But acting was a risky profession, so he tried studying law. He interrupted his education to serve as a radio operator-gunner flying B-24s out of Kunming, China, during World War II, and when he returned to school, it was as a theater arts major at Northwestern.
Trained for the stage, Stephenson “fell into radio by accident.” When I moved to Los Angeles in1949, I found you had two choices—radio or movies.
He found plenty of work playing lead and featured parts in hundreds of network radio shows, including the title role in “The Count of Monte Christo” and the lead in the CBS comedy series “It’s Always Sunday,” but he knew by the 1950s that “radio was doomed. When radio died, you found yourself blending into television.”
Although radio work was low profile, it was satisfying “because you could wear many hats, you didn’t have to be locked into your own skin. It’s like putting a lamp shade on your voice. Age and image were not barriers.” There were those who referred to radio people as “throat actors,” a term Stephenson sees as derogatory. “They thought that was all they were getting. You had to be an actor from the top of your toes to the top of your head.”
The early cartoons like “The Flintstones” have held up so well, he said, because the writing was so good and the human condition is the same.
“The beautiful thing about cartoons is that there is no time barrier.” But, he added, with a rueful chuckle, “If we knew they would last so long, we would have asked for more money.”
In case you’re wondering, Stephenson’s son didn’t go into voice acting or show business. Instead, Roger spent many years serving the community in law enforcement.

Those of you who love the early Hanna-Barbera animated series (and you must, otherwise you wouldn’t be here) may not know that Stu has interviewed a number of people over the years about those fun cartoons: Janet Waldo, Jerry Eisenberg, Tony Benedict and the late Earl Kress, who probably knew more about the cartoons than anyone else. Those interviews are available for purchase for under $1. They’re bargains.

If Earl were still with us, he might have had an answer to this question. To the right, you see a makeover of Mr. Slate for the Flintstones episode “Moonlight Maintenance.” Why does he look different, Stu enquired of me, because the character had already been established by the time this cartoon appeared on TV. I can’t, and won’t, pass myself off as an expert on very much to do with the studio. The credits for this particular episode say the layout artists were Dick Bickenbach and Ed Benedict. The layout guys generally designed the incidental characters. My only guess is Benedict wanted to try something different if he was the man behind it (I don’t see Bick being responsible). This was a fifth season cartoon (1964-65) and, to be honest, the series was more miss than hit that year. It was also dealing with the real possibility of cancellation as it was being killed in the ratings by TV newcomer Herman and the rest of The Munsters on CBS. And H-B was starting to be stretched pretty thin, with Jonny Quest, Magilla Gorilla and Peter Potamus in production, with Secret Squirrel and Atom Ant being developed. But all that production meant more voice work for John Stephenson, and I’m sure he didn’t mind.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks Yowp, Can't wait to hear the broadcast and his son's perspective on having this talented dad who wore so many hats. Stephenson always seemed like a grounded " regular guy ".

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  2. YOWP, I will certainly be looking forward to the interview, but....Who in LEfty Calahan's name is Mr. Dingwall and what does he have to do with Yogi Bear?

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    1. He was in the Yogi's First Christmas TV movie.

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. And the name was "Dingwell". That's a typo in the article.

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  3. Mike TiefenbacherJune 30, 2016 at 6:58 PM

    And, of course, Stephenson was never Doggie Daddy in the Augie cartoons. It was only later, perhaps "Yogi's Ark Lark," or "Yogi's Gang" that Stephenson replaced Doug Young, Doggie Daddy's original voice. I've been told that the reason may only have been geographic, that Young no longer lived in the vicinity while Stephenson did. Unless I'm forgetting something, I don't think that Young ever did anything for the studio after "Quick Draw McGraw" ended.

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    1. Young worked on episodes of "Jonny Quest", "Peter Potamus" ( the Yippee, Yappee & Yahooey segments), "Laurel and Hardy", and "The Flintstones".

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    2. At the times of ''Wacky Races'', after H-B sold the company, several voice actors stopped working for the studio. These include Doug Young, Paul Frees and Howard Morris. We know why Morris stopped working for H-B. I think Vic Perrin was still acting for the studio at the time.

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  4. John Winfield Stephenson:
    May his memory be eternal!

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