Whether you’ve realized it or not, over the past 35 years or so Rob Paulsen has been entertaining you. A lot. If you were a fan of cartoons like the original ’80s version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rob brought Raphael to life. Animaniacs? Helllllo, Yakko! Not to mention Pinky, as in Pinky and the Brain. That’s only three in a career still going strong and encompassing dozens of different shows and characters.
In addition, Rob has now cowritten his autobiography, Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life. What may surprise you about him is the reason that he ultimately decided to do so after fans had been suggesting it for some time.
“They’d say that and I’d think, ‘The last thing the world, in my view, needs is a memoir from a Hollywood guy, especially one who is not a celebrity,'” he reflects in this edition of the Classic TV & Film Podcast. “It’s not false modesty. I’m good at my job, but I don’t draw them and I don’t write them. And then the other aspect is, I don’t have a sensational story of redemption. I had a lovely childhood, I love my siblings, I don’t even know what rehab looks like, and I’ve only been married 14 times instead of 15.”
But what he did have, three years ago and just before his 60th birthday, was a diagnosis of stage III throat cancer. “Which,” he says with good humor, “for someone who does what I do, isn’t a great way to make a living. So it was pretty intense.”
But it paid off. He’s been deemed cancer-free, is working again and decided to write Voice Lessons, having been deeply affected by the experience of it all. “I’ve learned a lot about the way I’ve used my voice,” says Rob, “and it ain’t all about action figures and ratings and money. I’ve learned over the last 30, 35 years of this really wonderful career the power — and that’s not hyperbole — of these characters. As far back as Ninja Turtles, if someone wanted me to talk to their sick kids as Raphael, I’m going to call them. And the same for other characters I’ve played. And in the ensuing years after the hundreds of people that I’ve called personally, many of these parents will keep in touch with me often after their children have died. That is a life-changing, sort of ongoing circumstance. And it turns out that all these characters, via the people who were affected by them and helped through them, ultimately helped me. Hence the title of the book, Voice Lessons.
“It was a profound gift to me to have countless people and their children, many of whom, as I said, are no longer alive, reach out,” he adds. “But their example helped me deal with my own time with cancer, because for everybody affected by it, it’s tough. They told me, ‘Were pretty sure we can save you, but before we do, we almost have to kill you.’ It’s not too far from the truth with that particular treatment, just because it’s where it is: the mouth, the throat and all of that. It’s pretty brutal, but three years later, as far as I’m concerned, I’m cancer-free. So everything worked. I’m still working and I have nothing but gratitude. But it was time for me to write a book to shed light on the powerful nature of these characters and how they really do make a difference.”
A realization he probably would not have come to as fully had he himself not gotten sick, which he’s enjoying sharing through public speaking. “I have a deep, deep empathy that I never would have had were it not for the cancer,” Rob points out. “That’s the big fat, shiny silver lining. I’ve always been a decent guy, my parents raised me well, my siblings and I aren’t in jail — day’s not over yet, but so far, so good. But now I have empathy you can only have if you’ve been on the table. And to the extent that my story and ‘my’ characters can help people in their struggle, oh, my friend, I can’t wait to do that. In fact, I think I’m more interested in that down the road than I am the actual work, because the work is taking care of itself. I want to try this new thing. It can be much more altruistic than it has been even thus far.”
For much more from Rob, including his feelings about his most popular characters and the return of Animaniacs in 2020 on Hulu, please listen to the podcast.
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