John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh movies, died on Saturday. Fellow cast member Paul Winchell, who played Tigger, died the day before, and Howard Morris, the voice of Gopher in some early Pooh films, passed away last month. When a voice actor dies, what happens to his cartoon characters?
They get a new voice actor who sounds like the old one. “Sound-alikes” clamor for auditions whenever a famous cartoon loses its voice. When the original Donald Duck, Clarence “Ducky” Nash, fell ill in the early 1980s, Disney received an avalanche of unsolicited audition tapes from would-be replacements. The role eventually went to Tony Anselmo, a Disney animator who could mimic the voice perfectly. In rare cases, a character will be retired when a voice actor dies. The producers of The Simpsons decided to abandon the recurring roles of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz rather than casting a sound-alike for the deceased Phil Hartman.
An actor who can’t be replaced tends to be expensive; studios prefer to have a stable of backups who can step in if needed. The cartoon legend Mel Blanc made himself irreplaceable; he played almost every Warner Bros. character for decades. Before his death, Blanc tried to create a voice dynasty by passing his voices on to his son Noel. In the end, though, the studio auditioned widely for Blanc’s parts and cast a handful of actors for each. Several different people now play Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and none is more “official” than the others.
Producers don’t always wait until a voice actor passes away before they make a switch. As an actor gets older, his voice might be deemed too raspy for the part. (Paul Winchell had been replaced as Tigger several years before his death.) And sometimes an actor simply doesn’t have the time to keep playing a character. Walt Disney provided the voice of Mickey Mouse for many years but passed the torch to a Disney sound engineer in the 1940s. John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy and the original voice of Ren, ended up leaving his own show; Billy West, the voice of Stimpy, took over for him.
It may be possible to digitize old recordings and then cut and paste clips to recreate a classic voice. Noel Blanc has offered studios access to an archive of his father’s recordings for posthumous use. But for the time being, these recreations are impractical. It’s just easier to hire a new actor who can do a great impression.
Explainer thanks Jerry Beck of CartoonResearch.com, cartoon writer Mark Evanier, and voice actor Will Ryan.