At the time of his death, it was estimated that 20 million people heard his voice every day.
Early years, and radio workEdit
Blanc was born Melvin Jerome Blank in San Francisco, California, to Frederick and Eva Blank. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, attending Lincoln High School. He claimed that when he was 16, he changed the spelling from "Blank" to "Blanc" because a teacher told him that he would amount to nothing and be, like his name, a "blank". Blanc joined The Order of DeMolay as a young man, and was eventually inducted into its Hall of Fame.
Blanc began his radio career in 1927 as a voice actor on the KGW program The Hoot Owls, where his ability to provide voices for multiple characters first attracted attention. He moved to KEX in 1933 to produce and host his Cobweb And Nuts show, which debuted on June 15. The program played Monday through Saturday from 11:00 pm to midnight, and by the time the show ended two years later, it appeared from 10:30 pm to 11:00 pm.
Blanc moved to Warner Bros.-owned KFWB in Hollywood, California, in 1935. He joined The Johnny Murray Show, but the following year switched to CBS Radio and The Joe Penner Show. Blanc was a regular on the NBC Red Network show The Jack Benny Program in various roles, including voicing Benny's Maxwell automobile (in desperate need of a tune-up), violin teacher Professor LeBlanc, Polly the Parrot, Benny's pet polar bear Carmichael, the tormented department store clerk, and the train announcer (see below).
One of Blanc's most memorable characters from Benny's radio (and later TV) programs was "Sy, the Little Mexican", who spoke one word at a time. The famous "Sí...Sy...sew...Sue" routine was so effective that no matter how many times it was performed, the laughter was always there, thanks to the comedic timing of Blanc and Benny.
At times, sharp-eyed audience members (and later, TV viewers) could see Benny struggling to keep a straight face; Blanc's absolute dead-pan delivery was a formidable challenge for him. Benny's daughter, Joan, recalls that Mel Blanc was one of her father's closest friends in real life, because "nobody else on the show could make him laugh the way Mel could."
Another famous Blanc shtick on Jack's show was the train depot announcer who inevitably intoned, sidelong, "Train leaving on Track Five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga". Part of the joke was the Angeleno studio audience's awareness that no such train existed connecting those then-small towns (years before Disneyland opened). To the wider audience, the primary joke was the pregnant pause that evolved over time between "Cuc.." and "...amonga"; eventually, minutes would pass while the skit went on as the audience awaited the inevitable conclusion of the word. (At least once, a completely different skit followed before the inevitable “...amonga” finally appeared.)
Benny's writers would regularly try to "stump" Blanc by asking him to perform supposedly impossible vocal effects and characterizations, such as an "English horse whinny" and a goldfish. For the latter, Mel walked up to the microphone and pursed his lips several times, making no noise.
Blanc's success on The Jack Benny Program led to his own radio show on the CBS Radio Network, The Mel Blanc Show, which ran from September 3, 1946, to June 24, 1947. Blanc played himself as the hapless owner of a fix-it shop, as well as his young cousin Zookie (who sounded quite a bit like Porky Pig). Many episodes required Mel to impersonate an exotic foreigner or other stranger in town, ostensibly for carrying out a minor deception on his girlfriend's father, but of course simply as a vehicle for him to show off his talents. Other regular characters were played by Mary Jane Croft, Joseph Kearns, Hans Conried, Alan Reed, Earle Ross, Jim Backus, Bea Benaderet and The Sportsmen Quartet, who would supply a song and sing the Colgate Tooth Powder commercials. (Blanc would later work with Reed and Benaderet on The Flintstones.) Shows usually adhered to a predictable formula, involving a date with his girl Betty Colby (Mary Jane Croft) and trying to either impress her father or at least avoid angering him. However, Mr. Colby (Earle Ross) usually had occasion to deliver his trademark line, "Mel Blanc, I'm going to break every bone in your body!"
Blanc appeared frequently on The Great Gildersleeve, uncredited, often voicing two or more supporting characters in a single episode: deliverymen in "Planting a Tree" and "Father's Day Chair" also "Gus", a petty crook in the latter; a radio station manager and a policeman in "Mystery Singer", and many others.
Blanc also appeared on such other national radio programs as The Abbott and Costello Show, the Happy Postman on Burns and Allen, and as August Moon on Point Sublime. During World War II, he appeared as Private Sad Sack on various radio shows, most notably G.I. Journal. The character of Sad Sack was a bumbling Army private with an even worse stutter than Porky Pig. ("I'm Lieutena-eh-Lieutena-eh-Capta-eh-Majo-eh-Colone-eh-p-p-Private Sad Sack.")
Animation voice work during the Golden Age of HollywoodEdit
In 1936, Mel Blanc joined Leon Schlesinger Productions, which made animated cartoons distributed by Warner Bros. Blanc liked to tell the story about how he got turned down at the Schlesinger studio by music director Norman Spencer, who was in charge of cartoon voices, saying that they had all the voices they needed. Then Spencer died, and sound man Treg Brown took charge of cartoon voices, while Carl Stalling took over as music director. Brown introduced Blanc to animation directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Frank Tashlin, who loved his voices. The first cartoon Blanc worked on was Picador Porky as the voice of a drunken bull. He took over as Porky Pig's voice in Porky's Duck Hunt, which marked the debut of Daffy Duck, also voiced by Blanc.
Blanc soon became noted for voicing a wide variety of cartoon characters, adding Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Pepé Le Pew and many others. His natural voice was that of Sylvester the Cat, but without the lispy spray. (Blanc's voice can be heard in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies that also featured frequent Blanc vocal foil Bea Benaderet; in his small appearance, Blanc plays a vexed cab-driver.)
In his later years, Blanc claimed that a handful of late 1930s and early 1940s Warner cartoons that each featured a rabbit clearly a precursor of Bugs Bunny all actually dealt with a single character named Happy Rabbit. No use of this name by other Termite Terrace personnel, then or later, has ever been documented, however. Happy Rabbit was noted for his laugh which became more famous as the laugh of Woody Woodpecker (of which Blanc was the original voice) until he won an exclusive contract with Warner Bros. which meant he couldn't do Woody's voice anymore as the Woody Woodpecker cartoons were produced by Walter Lantz Productions and distributed by Universal Pictures. Blanc later recorded "The Woody Woodpecker Song" for Capitol Records.
Though his best-known character was a carrot-chomping rabbit, munching on the carrots interrupted the dialogue. Various substitutes, such as celery, were tried, but none of them sounded like a carrot. So for the sake of expedience, he would munch and then spit the carrot bits into a spittoon rather than swallowing them, and continue with the dialogue. One oft-repeated story is that he was allergic to carrots and had to spit them out to minimize any allergic reaction; but his autobiography makes no such claim; in fact, in a 1984 interview with Tim Lawson, co-author of The Magic Behind The Voices: A Who's Who of Cartoon Voice Actors (University Press of Mississippi, 2004), Blanc emphatically denied being allergic to carrots. In a Straight Dope column, a Blanc confidante confirmed that Blanc only spit out the carrots because of time constraints, and not because of allergies or general dislike.
Blanc said his most challenging job was voicing Yosemite Sam; it was rough on the throat because of Sam’s sheer volume and raspiness. (Foghorn Leghorn's voice was similarly raucous, but to a lesser degree.) Late in life, he reprised several of his classic voices for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but deferred to Joe Alaskey to do Yosemite Sam's and Foghorn Leghorn's voices.
Throughout his career, Blanc was well aware of his talents and protected the rights to them contractually and legally. He, and later his estate, did not hesitate to take civil action when those rights were violated. Voice actors usually got no screen credits at all, but Blanc was a notable exception; by 1944, his contract stipulated a credit reading "Voice characterization by Mel Blanc." Blanc asked for and received this screen credit from studio boss Leon Schlesinger when Leon objected to giving Blanc a raise in pay. Other frequent Warner voice artists, such as Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), Stan Freberg (Pete Puma among many other characters), June Foray (Granny) and Bea Benaderet (many female voices), remained uncredited on-screen. However, Freberg did receive screen credit for Three Little Bops, a musical spoof of The Three Little Pigs, directed by Friz Freleng. Freberg is a frequent contributor to the various Golden Collection projects that showcase the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Blanc, himself, is often spoken of with reverence by younger voice specialists in those DVD collections.
Blanc's screen credit was noticed by radio show producers, who gave him more radio work as a result. It wouldn't be until the early '60s that the other voice actors and actresses became credited on Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons.
The Warner cartoons were filled with references to the popular media of film and radio, including references to The Jack Benny Program, whose various gags frequently found their way into Warner scripts voiced by Blanc. For example:
- Bugs was known for repeating Benny's catchphrase, "Now cut that out!"
- The "Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc...amonga" joke was once used by Daffy Duck in the cartoon Daffy Duck Slept Here.
- Frank Nelson's "Yeeeeees?" would be invoked by minor characters from time to time.
- Blanc's imitations of sputtering cars, squawking parrots, whinnying horses, etc., would be invoked frequently in both series.
- On the March 28, 1954 episode of Benny's radio program, Benny encounters Bugs Bunny in a dream.
The ultimate clash of the mythos occurred with the 1959 release of the Warner Bros. cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built. Directed by Robert McKimson, the cartoon features the cast of the Benny radio and TV program drawn as mice. Blanc was credited as the voice of the Maxwell, and besides Benny, co-stars Mary Livingstone, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Don Wilson all reprised their Benny show roles.
Car accident and aftermathEdit
On January 24, 1961, Blanc was involved in a near-fatal car accident on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Hit head-on, Blanc suffered a triple skull fracture that left him in a coma for three weeks, along with fractures of both legs and the pelvis.
The accident prompted over 15,000 get-well cards from anxious fans, including some addressed only to "Bugs Bunny, Hollywood, USA", according to Blanc's autobiography. One newspaper falsely reported that he had died. After his recovery, Blanc reported in TV interviews, and later in his autobiography, that a clever doctor had helped him to come out of his coma by talking as-if to Bugs Bunny, after futile efforts to talk directly to Blanc. Although he had no actual recollection of this, Blanc's wife and son swore to him that when the doctor was inspired to ask him, "How are you today, Bugs Bunny?", Blanc answered in Bugs' voice. Blanc thus credited Bugs with saving his life.
Blanc returned home from the UCLA Medical Center on March 17 to the cheers of more than 150 friends and neighbors. On March 22, he filed a US$500,000 lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. His accident, one of 26 in the preceding two years at the intersection, resulted in the city funding restructuring curves at the location.
Years later, Blanc revealed that during his recovery, his son Noel "ghosted" several Warner Brothers cartoons' voice tracks for him. At the time of the accident, Blanc also served as the voice of Barney Rubble on ABC's The Flintstones. His absence from the show would be relatively brief; Daws Butler provided the voice of Rubble for a few episodes, after which the show's producers set up recording equipment in Blanc's hospital room and later, at his house to allow him to work from his residence. Some of the recordings were made while he was in full-body cast while he lay flat on his back, with the other Flintstones co-stars gathered around him. He also returned to The Jack Benny Program to film the program's 1961 Christmas show, moving around via crutches and/or a wheelchair.
Voice work for Hanna-Barbera and othersEdit
In the early 1960s, after the expiration of his exclusive contract with Warner Brothers, Blanc went to Hanna-Barbera and continued to voice various characters, his most famous being Barney Rubble from The Flintstones (whose dopey laugh is similar to Foghorn Leghorn's booming chuckle) and Mr. Spacely from The Jetsons (similar to Yosemite Sam, but not as raucous). Daws Butler and Don Messick were Hanna-Barbera's top voice men when Blanc began providing voices for the company.
Blanc did those voices plus others for such ensemble cartoons as Wacky Races and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop for Hanna-Barbera in the late '60s. Blanc shared the spotlight with his two professional rivals and personal friends, Butler and Messick: In a short called Lippy the Lion, Butler was Lippy, while Blanc was his hyena sidekick, Hardy Har-Har, and Don Messick was usually the guest villain or other supporting characters. In the short Ricochet Rabbit, Messick was the voice of the gun slinging rabbit, while Blanc was his sidekick, Deputy Droop-a-Long Coyote.
In addition, Blanc was the first person to play Toucan Sam in Froot Loops commercials, using a slightly cartoonish version of his natural voice. (The ad agency later decided to give Sam an upper-crust English accent and replaced Blanc with Paul Frees.)
Blanc reprised some of his Warner Brothers characters when the studio contracted to make new theatrical cartoons in the mid-to-late 1960s. For these, Blanc voiced Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales, the characters who received the most frequent use in these shorts (later, newly introduced characters such as Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse were voiced by Larry Storch). Blanc also continued to voice the Looney Tunes characters on the bridging sequences for The Bugs Bunny Show and in numerous animated advertisements.