Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Today, He's a Flea or a Roach

If you’ve taken a look at the unpublished photos that we’ve linked to on the blog from a 1960 Life magazine shoot promoting Hanna-Barbera, you may have missed one of the cornerstones of the studio’s early success. Noticeable by his absence is the studio’s star voice, Daws Butler. However, if you look closely enough at one picture, Hanna-Barbera’s other original workhorse actor can be spotted in the background through a recording studio’s sound-proof glass at the door of the control room. We’ve blown it up for you.

Yes, it’s Don Messick. And this picture provides a perfect excuse to post another newspaper feature story about him.

This is a piece by the National Enterprise Association’s Hollywood writer and was published on March 31, 1983. By then, Mr. Messick had made his name as the voice of a number of H-B cartoon dogs, beginning with everyone’s favourite, Yowp (okay, Woolly on “Ruff and Reddy” was probably the first one), and then moving on to Astro, Bandit, Precious Pupp, Muttley and some Great Dane (whatever happened to that dog anyway?). Naturally, there were other dogs and other voices as Don M. was incredibly versatile.

By 1983, he had added another major character to his résumé. “The Smurfs” had become a huge hit for Hanna-Barbera. In this story, Mr. Messick talked about his role on the show and gave a little background about his career.

Speaking for Other People is Big Job for Don Messick
HOLLYWOOD—Hollywood is full of pretty faces. And pretty voices. The faces you recognize on sight. Not the voices.
And so it’s high time you got to know Don Messick, one of the most popular and busiest voice men in town.
You would probably recognize Don Messick’s voice, if he did one of his characters for you.
He’s the voice of Papa Smurf on that big hit Saturday morning show. He’s the voice of another of the all-time biggies of cartoondom, Scooby-Doo.
And he’s also heard dozens of times every day via commercials. He is proud of the fact that he is Snap, on those Snap-Crackle-and-Pop cereal commercials.
He was, when we talked, just about to go off to the studio to do a commercial for an insect spray. He said they hadn’t told him what he was going to be that day—a flea or a roach.
It really doesn’t bother me,” Messick says. “I can do a flea just as well as a roach.”
It’s a good life, but it was a long time coming. Don Messick was born in Buffalo, N.Y., but grew up mostly on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
As a boy, he was intrigued by one of those “throw your voice” ads in a magazine, and he sent away for the device and got it. He still has the booklet that came with it.
He got a few dummies and began doing a ventriloquist act and, eventually, while still a teen-ager, landed a spot on the local radio station, WBOC, in Salisbury, Md.
Messick’s dummy, incidentally, was named Woody DeForrest. He earned enough so he could go off to an acting school in Baltimore.
He went into the Army, then, taking his dummy with him, and he spent most of his service career entertaining the troops. The Army moved him around, and he got his first taste of California, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
“Seeing California was an awakening for me,” Messick says. “It was like a person who has only seen black-and-white movies seeing his first color movie. When my service was over, I came back to California as far as I could, and I’ve been here since.”
He started working here as a puppeteers voice on a TV station back in the early days of Los Angeles television. And he has been specializing in voices since. Don Messick would like to be on camera once in a while—he is, after all, a genuine actor—and he hopes that will happen eventually.
But it is not something frustrating him or gnawing at him. In fact, he has had opportunities to do real acting roles, but turned them down.
“I turned them down,” he says, “because they interfered with my social plans.”
Messick lives about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, in Santa Barbera, and his life is centered there. He makes the drive down to L.A. two or three times a week, and tries to do all of his voice-overs on those trips.
He is, as you might expect, a master of his voice and can do wonders with it. When he auditioned for the Papa Smurf job, he used one voice, a voice he felt was appropriate. It was, he says, a whimsical voice.
He did a few episodes with that voice, but then the producers felt Papa S. should be more authoritative. So they asked him to use a more authoritative voice. No problem.
Messick takes very good care of his voice, which is his fortune. He hasn’t smoked in years. He is careful about not getting colds. And he doesn’t strain his voice.
The result is that he is famous—or sounds famous—but has no problem moving around without getting recognized. It is, he thinks, the best of both worlds.

Don Messick did get on camera a year and a bit after this story was written, appearing on “The Duck Factory,” which won two Emmys but lasted only 13 episodes despite some good talent in front of, and behind, the screen. To me, the characters never seemed that well-defined, likeable or even interesting, to be honest, and someone needed to tell NBC the laugh track didn’t need to jump in constantly. Despite the show’s failure, it’s happy to see that Mr. Messick got a chance to fulfill an ambition of doing some live-action work. A nice guy deserves to meet some of his life goals.


  1. Yowp, thanks for the story on Don M. Remember very well " The Duck Factory ". The funniest part in the first episode is where he forgets and gives the eulogy for the the deceased owner in the " duck " voice. All the mourners are yelling " Wally...Wally..you're doing the duck!!" A current cartoon voice actor who had the pleasure of working with Don told me that he was an easy going, gentle soul, and lots of laughs. In the early days of H-B, he and Daws were just about the whole ball game, of course, not forgetting Doug Young, Hal Smith and a few others. He is sorely missed. Kudos to one of the greats.

  2. "an opportunity to do some ''real acting work". Man, I hate journalists. Voice acting is as real acting as they come, pal. But I Love Don Messick.

  3. 7/31/14
    RobGems.ca Wrote:
    For me since childhood, Don Messick to me will always be remembered for the very memorable "wheezing snicker" noise he gave to Muttley, Precious Pup, and numerous other cartoons. His snicker livened up many a dull late 60's-mid-90's cartoon. Cartoon Network also made the snicker a memorable 1991 logo featuring Muttley.

  4. I wish that there were much, much, MUCH more video of Don on camera performing his character voices. He appears on camera performing Scooby in a bonus feature on the "Scooby Doo/Dynomutt" DVD (the footage comes several years before his medically dictated retirement in 1996) and he appears on camera, along side Daws Butler, in the 1987 PBS special "Daws Butler: Voice Magician"...but I'd love to have seen him on camera performing as Astro or Papa Smurf or see his facial expressions as he does the Klunk character on "Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines". Klunk's vocalizations on the cartoon are comical enough...but I'd love to have seen Don in the studio voicing that character. I bet it was hysterical.