How my life led me to voice acting.
Early school days:
Becoming a voice actor wasn’t a linear process for me, nor was it an obvious destination for my life.
My “stage debut” was presenting flowers to a homecoming queen candidate at our hometown university. I think I was in first grade. In second grade, I was cast as the title role in the musical “Oliver” at my school. I had a good singing voice and continued doing plays and musicals at my school, at the local university and at the local dinner theater up through high school.
I liked being in front of an audience and I liked the “voluntary family” of the stage. Actors as a group were friendly and it was fun making a show together. Theater folk were cooler and funnier than I was and I liked learning from them. As a group, they seemed to exhibit an honest openness, emotional connection, a sense of fun and humor, that I sensed I needed to tap into in order to become more confident socially and maybe grow up a bit. Hanging with stage actors was a great human education for me as a kid.
My musical sensability was helped by my Dad being a music educator who was also a bit of a showoff. I remember Dad making airplane sounds alone in his studio after we saw the movie “Waldo Pepper.” He was always practicing his trombone in his downstairs studio and one year arranged Christmas carols for my family to sing in five part harmony, sort of a Von Trapp Family vibe. I think my Mom was a bit stage-shy, so we didn’t continue with that.
My Dad loved two things in particular: playing trombone and fishing. He fished a great deal with his dad and his father-in-law, and usually brought me and my brother along. What started as live bait fishing transitioned to artificial lures and finally to more artful catch-and-release fly fishing. I liked fishing but it didn’t become a life fixture for me. True to his Hoosier roots, he had us hunting ducks, pheasant, doves, geese and even bunnies, but we finally gave that up in favor of seemingly more elegant, peaceful and humane fly fishing.
My Dad had a rather large box of old magic tricks that he would haul out and occassionally demonstrate to us kids. I loved scanning the Abbots Magic Catalog (it used to be much thicker, he assured me) and I occasionally bought an illusion or perhaps some rubber monster hands. I tried performing magic for a while, but never stuck with it long enough to get any good. I still aspire to gaining proficiency at up-close sleight of hand coin magic. That’s the most impressive magic to me- up close. I’ve got a pretty good “french drop” to make a coin vanish, and that’s about as far as I ever got.
Halloween was always about making monsters for me, and I’ve my Dad to thank for this. It was and is my favorite holiday for many reasons. Every year my Dad would concoct some kind of Halloween creature effect that he would forewarn us kids about a couple weeks out before executing the plan on Halloween eve.
The first run at this was him secretly getting a girl next door to dress up as a ghost and make spooky sounds in our treehouse while he and I were “hunting ghosts” around our house. I was at first scared, then ran up into the tree house and ripped off the sheet to reveal my neighbor. That was fun.
I think I see Halloween as a holiday of “truth” rather than of deceit. The monsters and scary things are all made by humans and harbor a friendly face, or at least someone creating this wicked theater for everyone’s fun. Sort of like a magic show, but more fun and fanciful.
Following years would bring “the Scritchy Scratcher Monster,” accomplished with a long piece of invisible monofilament fishing line tied to our backdoor screen and its other end being rubbed with a block of resin by my Dad hiding in the bushes. It appeared that someone invisible was scratching on our door. Another year, we came home from trick or treating to find a flaming skull hovering in our back yard (created with coat hangers papered over, floating from a suspended fishing line with a candle to illuminate it). The “Closet Mumbler” was a tape recorder hidden in a closet with a few minutes lead featuring my Dad making horrible sounds that would startle us while we were all eating dinner. Every year we had a new monster to look forward to, to talk about for the weeks leading up to All Hallows’ Eve.
My Halloween costumes usually involved me gluing something to my face. I very much wanted a professional makeup job so I could appear as a werewolf or an ape from “Planet of the Apes,” but made due with Elmer’s glue and fake fur, or paper ape jaws I drew and scotch taped to my face. I liked the idea of becoming a monster.
I was also fascinated with trying to replicate special effects I saw on television and in movies. I snapped some photos using “forced perspective” to make it appear a giant eagle was attacking my friend and that I was holding a miniature brother in my hands. After reading about the making of “The Invisible Man” television series, I painted my hand and wrist entirely black and held a cup up in front of some black velvet that I had purchased to give the effect of being invisible. I also remember making a diorama in my basement suspending things with black thread to make them appear to be levitating after seeing the movie “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t.”
I also enjoyed making wacky audio sketches on my cassette tape recorder. I figured out I could record the sketch with half-dead batteries and then play it back with fresh batteries to pitch my voice up (a foreshadow to my later career, perhaps). I also spent a couple years doing ventriloquism, with a Danny O-Day dummy from JC Penny that my Dad modified so its head would rotate. I’d perform at schools and libraries after studying a “how to” record and memorizing crummy ventriloquism patters I purchased. The scripts were dull, but I didn’t know how to write comedy.
I found I liked performing- acting and singing on a stage. I idolized Jimmy, the kid in the Saturday morning kid’s show, “H.R. Puffinstuff,” and remember being drawn to musicals in general. I still marvel at the talent of Jimmy (Jack Wilde) and Witchipoo (Billy Hayes), with her “all in” commitment to slap stick.
The first movie I ever saw was with Mom- “Dr. Doolittle,” which I thought was incredible (though man, is it long!). I also remember seeing my second movie with my Dad, Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” I was quite broken up when Mowgli ditched the jungle for some girl with a bucket on her head.
At my basement record player, I listened to the “Jungle Book” soundtrack over and over (featuring some excellent voice acting, it turns out), along with Walt Disney’s “Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” sound effects album, that was actually quite frightening. It was the soundtrack for our basement haunted houses my sister and brother and I made for each other.
I look back now, and it seems I was trying to conjure the career I now enjoy.
All of these childhood influences combined to form what was to be a lifetime habit of creativity and performing, as well as a fascination with creating the weird and otherworldly.
Reading lots of sci-fi, fantasy and horror:
I was an enthusiastic reader of sci-fi and fantasy as a kid. My first chapter book was Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which I read in fourth grade. This was followed by a lot of classic sci-fi/fantasy authors, including Clarke, Asimov, Wells, Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Burroughs and Tolkien. The comics I remember buying were Swamp Thing and Iron Man and I owned every “Planet of the Apes” comic ever printed, except one.
I enjoyed a regular diet of magazines: “Mad Magazine,” “Famous Monsters,” “Creepy,” “Eerie,” and as I reached my teens, I’d sheepishly sneak in a copy of “Heavy Metal,” part for the cool stories and part for the, uh, artwork. I read the science/sci-fi mag “Omni” cover to cover in my high school years, a mag I particularly loved- science as well as sci-fi, technology, fantasy and future. It was pretty perfect.
I was also drawn to the oddball illustrations of Edward Gorey, Kliban and Bruce McCall.
Loving sci-fi and fantasy TV, movies and cartoons:
My eventual specialization in creature voice acting benefitted from me having seen a lot of fantastical television and movies as a kid: “Star Trek” and “Land of the Lost,” “The Adams Family” and “The Munsters,” for starters. Later, I got into “The Night Gallery,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Night Stalker” television series.
I saw the “Planet of the Apes” movies many times (sometimes all five back-to-back) and I loved Godzilla. Naturally, I watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, my favorites being Looney Tunes and “Johnny Quest.”
Really pretty much anything with a creature or alien in it I’d hunt down in the weekly T.V. Guide. I was regularly glued to “Project U.F.O.,” “Space 1999,” and “The Muppet Show.”
I recorded an audio tape of the made-for-t.v. movie “Gargoyles” as well as “Planet of the Apes” and listened to those over and over. My favorite television series in later high school was “The Prisoner.” I remember closely following anything Jim Henson created, especially his Creature Shop work in films like “Dark Crystal” and “Dream Child.”
I watched a lot of PBS and was glued to Siskel and Ebert’s weekly movie reviews to find my next cinema experience (I typically agreed with Siskel, rarely with Ebert).
Performing with friends:
I was often making something to perform: One summer in late high school, I made a 40 minute surreal sketch video movie with friends that aired on local PBS for years. It was some of the most fun I’d ever had. I even named my company after a nonsensical quote from it to remember that sense of fun. We would also make comedy sketches for school talent shows and home town parades. We also produced multi-track comedic audio recordings, probably inspired by Monty Python and Firesign Theater and other comedy records that were becoming popular in the 70’s.
I particularly loved Steve Martin and listened to his comedy albums over and over. I liked his intelligence, his wackiness, his fearlessness to do what was outlandish or unexpected on a stage. It looked like incredible fun. That made sense to me.
Getting inspired by summer movies:
I was lucky to be a kid when “summer movies” were invented in the later 70’s by Lucas and Spielberg. Naturally, I saw “Star Wars” again and again. The impression this movie made on me with its creativity, vision and fun cannot be overstated. My parents made me an awesome jawa costume the Halloween after “Star Wars” was released, which insured that no one would dance with me at the school Halloween dance, as no one could tell who or what lurked beneath the beady-eyed costume. I was hired the following summer (1978) when “Star Wars” was re-released to dawn the jawa outfit and make jawa sounds all summer long at the local mall’s cinema. They paid me in movie passes, which was ideal.
“Star Wars” was probably the first thing I ever saw that made me say “I want to make things like that.” I began reading books about special effects and “making of” accounts of fantasy movies and t.v. shows. I was good at drawing and I drew a lot of aliens, dreaming of helping create seedy space bars full of creatures. The movies dealing with monsters, aliens, werewolves, etc. that were to follow by Spielberg, Zemeckis, Miller, Carpenter, Scott, Kubrick, Cronenberg, Zemeckis, Dante and Landis were as important to me as my books. Perhaps more so.
On the look out for flying saucers and monsters:
There were a number of odd sightings reported around my home town in the 70’s of glowing UFOs, “black helicopters” and even locally reported “cattle mutilations.” I tried unsuccessfully with my telescope to view mysterious orbs of light that were often reported hovering near a local nuclear power plant.
I was fascinated with the possibility of real monster and alien sightings. Seeing proof of this in my backyard seemed a live possibility, which was very exciting to me. I envisioned one day seeing a bright ball of extraterrestrial light hovering over a lonely cornfield and wondered what I would do…
I remember hoping to read of some conclusive evidence proving monsters, aliens and even dinosaurs to be alive and real. I’d clip any article or watch any “documentary” offering proof of the weird or otherworldly. I still have some of those clippings. I can’t help but think this contributed to my eventual interest in voicing monsters.
I loved biology, astronomy and animals (and still do):
I always liked animals. I loved hunting lizards, tadpoles, snakes and salamanders. If it crawled or slunk, I wanted to capture and study it, maybe bring it home. My folks usually seemed okay when I brought some critter home to try and house in a terrarium or box. I remember possessing at various times frogs, toads, lizards, horned toads, salamanders, a snake, tadpoles, fish, an iguana, leeches and baby catfish. I probably would have tried for a baby alligator, but that would have been too much (people actually had those as pets in the 70’s.)
My K through 12th grade school always had excellent biology teachers and I attended a science camp the summer after my junior year in high school. I was quite interested in televised documentaries featuring Jacques Cousteau, “Wild Kingdom,” as well as the PBS series “Nature” and especially “Cosmos.” Cousteau and Carl Sagan were and are my heroes. My Dad got me a telescope when I expressed interest in astronomy and I spent my summer nights in high school star gazing in our backyard. The premier episode of “Cosmos” made me cry.
I usually tried to find fossils in the limestone that was plentiful around my home and where we fished in the mountains of Colorado and plains of Wyoming. Seeing a living dinosaur was an intense desire for me as a kid, and movies and t.v. were a way for me to fulfill that need. (When I finally saw the movie “Jurassic Park,” later on in my life, I stood up and cheered in the theater when the T-Rex broke through its fence). I was transported back to this when I recently saw the marvelous “Walking with Dinosaurs” show.
I keep my love of animals alive these days not only with my voice acting, but with a site I created where I post pictures I take of plants and bugs at: http://www.deebakerphotography.com.
High School Theater
I had been the go-to “boy soprano” for musicals and operas at the University of Northern Colorado. By my my teens, I was doing shows regularly at both my school and at the university in Greeley.
I learned to love being on a stage thanks in no small part to the influence of my school’s drama teacher, Bob Stach. His office/den tucked under the backstage light cage had a cool bean bag and a lava lamp, as I remember. Our school had a decent dedicated proscenium theater with upstairs storage for set pieces and props (“heaven”). Public schools actually used to have things like that.
For a number of years, Bob oversaw what was the intellectual and creative hub of my high school experience. He had us performing Shakespeare, musicals, dramas and more avante guard stuff as well, even making a rear projected movie that we performed in front of for the International Thespian Convention in Muncie, Indiana one year (’77?). He had us doing yoga, improv, makeup, and reading Stanislawski and Uta Hagen. Bob was a great source of what is thought of as Theatre. I see now how lucky I was to have had that exposure to that tradition.
Bob spoke with us high schoolers as adults, not as kids. We felt like grown ups. I remember him letting two girls perform “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” with pregnancy pillows stuffed under their dresses at the end-of-year Drama Department dinner. I thought the principle’s eyes would fall out. Bob even showed us Fellini’s “Casanova” and Polanski’s “MacBeth” on the down-low and had it in mind for us to mount a production of “Marat Sade,” but thought better of it.
Such things would never be allowed these days. A different world that I feel lucky to have been a part of.
Bob cast me in my first really meaty dialog role as the Stage Manager in “Our Town” my freshman year (it was sadly cancelled when the light board short circuited during a rain storm). My senior year I played Tevye (in braces) in “Fiddler on the Roof,” with zero familiarity with the cultural setting or historical context of that musical.
Bob also cast me as Dysart, the psychiatrist lead in the play “Equus” my senior year. It was a fantastic yet challenging experience. It was perhaps a bit overwhelming, having to breakdown and go crazy every night after all those pages and pages of memorized monologs. I baked the script in a cake and sold it at the theater bake sale benefit at year’s end. Perhaps this was me admitting I didn’t want to be a “regular” stage actor who had to memorize a lot of lines and dredge up the worst in me for public consumption. I buried this possible future in chocolate fudge cake, with no regret because I really didn’t think I would be an actor.
I didn’t really think I was suited for it in talent or temperament, plus an actor’s lifestyle seemed unappealing to say the least. Didn’t they live in tiny apartments and eat cat food to avoid starvation?
I see now that a fair amount of Bob’s curriculum would not fly these days, at least in public education. It wasn’t a “high school” drama program, it was just a drama program, and a very progressive one at that. I don’t think he taught high school any differently than his university classes (he also taught at UNC, where he was trained).
Bob exposed us to a pure love of the artistic heart of theater, its tradition and craft, and I wouldn’t be the actor I am today without his influence. Sadly, Bob died far too young in the mid 80’s and I didn’t hear about his funeral until well afterwards. I would have liked to have at least thanked him. I wonder what he’d think of my career now? Ha.
My teen years:
I wasn’t particularly social and never had but a few friends, but I’d say I was happy enough. I saw myself as a nerdy outsider and I probably used performing to find connection and respect I wasn’t able to earn through typical teen channels of sports, partying or dating. I considered myself terrible at sports (I tried basketball and found it miserable). I refused to submit to hazing rituals to get a letter jacket for participating in cross country. What I most wanted was to read, act and watch PBS and sci-fi/monster movies.
I loved reading. I took an American Lit course at UNC my junior year of high school (which I loved) and spent a lot of time going to see art house movies on my own at the university and playing primitive computer games at the university’s library. I wanted out of high school, to escape to a place where the “life of the mind” was embraced.
I didn’t feel much need to rebel against my parents during my teens. I was satisfied to hang at home and basically follow the rules. I was intellectually curious and artistically able, but I was probably too timid or even cowardly to step out of any bounds very far socially. I hadn’t enough confidence or interest to date much, seeing that as a rigged game I wasn’t suited for. Later, I thought.
I processed much of my growing up by writing daily in a diary, which I did daily from second grade to well into my thirties. It still write a daily diary when I wake up. I think this habit of digesting my day’s events and listening to my inner self probably helped me be a better actor while serving as a kind of self-talk therapy, a daily inspection of my narration, a regular excavation of impulse, activity and outlook.
I’ve always liked my mind and have gotten along with myself quite well.
I earned my high school allowance only to buy books, magazines, movie tickets and an occasional 45 record. I didn’t have enough spare change to get any good at the arcade video games. Not much else appealed to me as a teen. I didn’t want the trouble of owning a car. My folks gave me my first car upon graduating college. Before then, I just used my bike, which was fine with me.
I liked biking (I twice biked 100 miles with a buddy in a day) and was really into long distance running, though I was never particularly good at it in a competitive way. I biked and ran through college and decided to stop the running soon after graduating to save my joints.
I never liked the manual work I had to do to earn my teenage fun money. I saw mowing yards as rather pointless– I never really understood the focus on owning and maintaining a yard. But it was the only way I saw to make any money, so I did it. I would also occasionally stack hay at a friend’s grand father’s farm in the summer. I always considered myself a physical weakling and being allergic to grass didn’t help.
I made good use of my time in high school, but, unlike college, I probably wouldn’t want to do it again. I experienced a sense of each year being closer to freedom from a kind of confinement, an environment that weighed me down. College was the liberation of mind and the eradication of feeling an outsider, an awkward nerd, a brainiac. I would finally be among like-minded intellects and creatives at college.
Having no particular aspirations or expectations to hem me in at a young age:
I always did very well academically, but I never had any particular career in mind. As a little kid, I thought I might be a paleontologist. Beyond that, I don’t think I ever seriously entertained any specific career goals until well after college.
I would have liked to explore a career in special effects makeup or creature design, I just had no idea how to go about that. I was fascinated with the work of creature creators Rob Bottin and Rick Baker in the 80’s. I thought of acting more as a hobby. I had no idea voice acting existed as a career until I was in my late twenties.
Pursuing what I liked in college, not what I thought would bring me money:
I attended a small liberal arts college (The Colorado College), majoring in Philosophy, probably due mostly to having read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” a few too many times. I had an absolute blast in college and got everything out of it I could.
I spent a year studying Philosophy in Germany on a college language scholarship. I almost completed a minor in German, but didn’t see the need to get certified in the language, since I didn’t want to teach or translate professionally. I just enjoyed the world of literature, music, science and philosophy the German language opened up for me.
The German educational system was too stuffy and formal for me. My style was more eclectic and informal. I’ve always preferred dabbling to serious academic excavation. If I am anything, I am a life long dabbler.
I got interested in biology and considered pursuing it as a career in college. A class in Chemistry 101-102 cured me of any desire to become a medical doctor, and I realized I didn’t have the focus to become a serious Bio student. My favorite college classes, aside from my major, were Invertebrate Zoology, Cell Bio and Art classes. I was pretty much a poster child for liberal arts.
I took only one “acting class” while at college but performed in lots of plays, musicals, choirs, open mics, improv and sketch comedy. I made more audio tape sketches, too.
I co-wrote a musical with a buddy under a college grant (oddly, from the English department), which we performed main stage at our college. It was the kind of incredible opportunity my college was great at providing. Life changing, really.
I didn’t want to be a career stage actor or a teacher or director so I didn’t choose to study “Acting.” Acting for me was always something I wanted to do, not something I wanted to read or write about. Acting is doing, not sitting. It’s heart and body, not just head.
Luckily, the head of my college’s drama department, Jim Malcolm was very supportive and welcomed giving non-drama majors stage time and opportunity. He was a gem.
I studied things in college because I liked them, not because I was necessarily good at them, or thought I would one day earn money doing them. I did well with my grades and was highly engaged and involved with all sorts of things that didn’t seem to point anywhere in particular. And that was just fine.
It turned out, most of what seemed either impractical or incidental in my college education ended up eventually feeding directly back into my career (as well as my enjoyment of life in general!).
Performing after college:
I graduated college with no career aspirations or plan whatsoever, which oddly enough, didn’t seem to bother me. Luckily, my parents supported my seeming lack of practical direction or goals, and my scholarship insured I didn’t emerge from college saddled with debt, so I didn’t feel pressured to sign on for some horrible soul-crushing job. All I knew was that I didn’t want to work in an office.
My liberal arts schooling had taught me to listen to myself and pursue what I loved. That was my habit and I kept doing just that. After graduating, I continued performing any way I could, doing stand up, singing telegrams, improv, children’s theater, caroling, summer Shakespeare and even a stint as a mall Santa. It was all interesting and fun, some of it paid (at least a little) and I learned a great deal from this variety of stage experience.
I spent a few years doing stand up as a duo with a good buddy from college, Aaron Shure (now a television writer). My half of the act tended to be more making weird sounds and odd physical characterizations. It’s just what amused me and what I liked doing. Aaron was obviously a good writer and I like assembling off-the-wall performance ideas that we tried mixing together into a show that was pretty great for maybe five or ten minutes tops.
Stand up was exciting and creative-some of the top dogs ended up on TV or in movies- but it paid very little (usually nothing) and mostly led to what struck me as a repetitive and lonely on-the-road existence which didn’t appeal to me. There were ultimately a lot of restraints on any potential fun. I saw some headliners who were brilliant but miserably trapped in their routines. I didn’t think I had the talent or enough of an ego to go anywhere I wanted with it. I learned a lot, but decided to turn away from stand up.
I made wacky performance-art sketches for local radio and stage with two other buddies I met doing children’s theater, which was also great fun, but brought no dough. This was more theatrical, more improv, more fun than stand up. But I couldn’t see it leading anywhere.
Children’s theater was creative, involved improv and the audiences were great. It was also the first decent paying stage work I did after college. I spent a few years with a children’s theater company in Colorado Springs performing their Winter shows at a theater and summer shows in various parks around the city. The shows were fun, the camaraderie was terrific and it actually paid. I also met the girl who was to be my wife there.
I liked the social interaction and artistry of “serious” stage acting as well, but all the memorizing, rehearsing and performing was a big time commitment that usually paid nothing, which struck me more as a hobby. I liked the “voluntary family” aspect of stage acting, but I could see it probably didn’t lead to a sustainable career. One community theater show I was in (“The Cherry Orchard”) was cancelled after weeks of rehearsing when a couple cast members couldn’t make all the rehearsals. An interesting story there for another time. Ha.
In addition, some Equity actor “pros” I got to work with in a summer Shakespeare play came off to me as aloof prima donnas who weren’t really all that nice– and they were the few in the cast that were paid to perform! One “pro” (a British chap, who was nice enough, but kinda stuffy) advised me the only way I could become an actor was to study at a conservatory. Well, becoming what he was didn’t appeal to me and that sounded really expensive. Besides, am I really right for that?
Thankfully, I ignored his advice. It just didn’t feel right for me and I didn’t suffer the misconception that “Acting” can only be one thing. It had always been for me many things, perhaps nothing in particular. Besides, I wasn’t serious about it anyway– I was just having fun. A lot of fun, actually. A conservatory didn’t seem to lead to more of what was fun in what I was doing. I’d have to pay a lot of money to compete with people who were actually good at this. No fun and no thanks.
I just kept performing, doing a year in an educational puppet musical for Kaiser Permanente that played in Denver schools, along with more stand up, multitrack audio sketches, sketch comedy, junk improv and a stint performing Dr. Seuss stories for kids at the Denver Kids Museum. All was a blast, and I was earning a living as a performer.
I could pay the rent, put food on the table and buy books and movie tickets and dinner with my girlfriend. Not bad. I was beginning to see that this could somehow maybe work as a way to earn a living, at least for a while, I thought. My Mom still held out hope that I would change my mind and apply for law school. I would have been well suited for it, but miserable.
Putting it together:
In the back of my mind, I can remember pragmatically assessing each kind of performing I tried– Do I like the kind of people I am working with? Do I like where this kind of work leads? Is this fun? Is it fulfilling? What does this demand of my time? Does it make me feel good doing this? How can I make this work financially? Am I any good at this? Can I get good enough at this to sustain a life I’d like to live? What is the “lifestyle” this kind of performing offers? Do I enjoy the process of gaining experience and getting better at this? What would this look like for me doing this in five, ten, twenty years?
I wasn’t in any particular hurry, which I think is part of why I tried so many kinds of performing. Each new performance experience was a kind of experiment to help me select where to step next and what to avoid. I was beginning to view my performing as a kind of career moving towards a more defined future.
Moving to a bigger market (Orlando) and learning even more:
I was always happy to try something new. After booking an open call audition for comedians in Denver, I moved to Orlando to open a sketch/improv show at Disney World’s EPCOT Center in the Fall of 1989. I was also hired the next year to be the first walk-around Beetlejuice look-alike at the newly opened Universal Studios, Florida. Meanwhile, I began performing in stage productions at the Orlando Civic Theater and varsity improv shows with SAK Theater (some of the most fun I’ve ever had on stage was with that gang!). Good improv training was invaluable to my career and my life in so many ways!
Also important– I studied singing while in Orlando with opera singer/teacher Manny Lujan for a couple years and began booking occasional voice over gigs. My voice and stage confidence continued to strengthen and stretch.
Voice overs only gradually emerged as a career goal around this time as I moved past my twenties.
Things were going very well in Orlando, with lots of fun ways for a performer to earn a decent, steady living along with health insurance, which was rather rare for an actor in America. I began to see it was as good as it was going to get for me in Florida, which was very good. But I didn’t feel it was good enough.
One of my very best decisions: marrying my wife:
The collaboration of marriage added stability and focus through the ups and downs of a freelance acting career. It’s not easy to get very far (or for very long) in this business alone, without a tribe or a supportive partner to share the effort and weather the uncertainties. Having steady, “normal” relationships is of great benefit to a performer who is paid to be vulnerable and take chances. I was very lucky to have found such a terrific launch (and life) partner.
A freelance career such as acting offers no certainty– you’re rarely under the guarantee of a contract for more than a day. Even my contract working at Disney World was for a limited time and could have ended with a couple weeks’ notice at any time.
It always felt to me a bit like walking the plank– you never know when or if your next opportunity or gig will appear. Success only lengthens the plank, but it’s still a plank. By now, I’m quite used to this feeling of uncertainty that accompanies an acting career. But it is so much easier having love, support and help backing me up. I was very lucky to have found such a terrific life partner.
Finally taking the calculated risk of moving to the biggest market– Los Angeles:
In the early 90’s, I landed my first television series in Orlando, with the Nickelodeon gameshow, “Legends of the Hidden Temple” (voicing “Olmec” and various characters in the legends as well as reading prize copy). Getting paid the best money I’d ever made to have fun as a voice actor in a live recording was a revelation for me.
I took the advice of the show’s host, Kirk Fogg, to check out Los Angeles as a next step in my career. After one visit, I sensed the blue sky opportunity I craved in a city that offered the kind of work I was ready to do. So, I handed in my resignation at Disney World and headed out to L.A. with my wife in late 1993. We never looked back.
While my wife supported us doing temp work, it took me about a year to earn a sustainable living as an on-camera actor so she could quit. I was employing my improv and stand up skills to book a fair number of commercials, as well as a gig as Beetlejuice at a rock-n-roll review at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. I got cast in a couple student films and studied on-camera acting with Stuart Robinson for a few years and found his pragmatic insight and guidance very helpful.
The next few years in L.A. I spent trying out on-camera television acting (including a fun recurring role on Nickelodeon’s scripted series, “The Journey of Allen Strange”) while also beginning to book animation voice over work. It was all fun to me, but I liked voice acting the best.
My first animated series was “Cow and Chicken” (as “Dad”) and I learned a huge amount from working with the incredible cast and creators of that show. There was my voice over master class (getting paid to learn is always the best!).
My first major film role was Daffy Duck and Taz in “Space Jam,” which allowed me to flex my vocal as well as improv muscles. I proceeded to book work on other great shows– “Sponge Bob: Squarepants” and “Fairly Oddparents” at Nickelodeon as well as “Power Puff Girls,” “Johnny Bravo,” and “Billy and Mandy,” at what was to become Cartoon Network. With this work, I established myself as a strong “utility” player in mostly comedic animation.
Focusing on voice overs and specializing in creature sounds:
As my voice over career picked up steam, I decided to drop my on-camera efforts and focus exclusively on voice overs, since it became clear that I couldn’t effectively pursue success in both and voice overs was the most fun for me. On-camera auditioning took a lot of time and when you booked a gig, they had you exclusively– unlike voice-overs, which was quicker and provided more freedom and variety.
With experience, I began expanding beyond my default comedic “comfort zone” to include animal and monster sounds– something that resonated for me from my youth. Having done a good amount of children’s theater, stand up and improv, I had no issues of modesty or shyness when experimenting with making new odd or hideous sounds while driving around L.A. I looked ridiculous but I loved it. It felt natural to me. My menagerie of sounds expanded.
The more I focused on expanding my non-human sound repetoire, the more I worked in that area and the more I enjoyed it. I did a number of creatures for WB’s “Teen Titans,” and then for Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, one of my very favorite shows ever. I also began booking video games doing inhuman sounds for titles like “Doom 3,” “Gears of War,” “Left for Dead 2,” the “Halo” series and later “Portal 2, “World of Warcraft,” and “Diablo 3.” It helped that I also happened to be a tech-head and loved gaming.
I had learned not to be afraid and not to impose limits on myself:
One of the things I had learned in acting, stand up and improv was that mere obedience didn’t “book the gig.” A great example of this: I had the opportunity to audition for a new Fox animated series called “American Dad” which needed a French talking goldfish. I knew other voice actors who could give a great French read, but I chose to go with with a German accent instead. It wasn’t what they asked for, but I felt this version would give them my best take on this character. The audacious audition choice seemed to fit the tone I sensed from the network and the show creators. I stuck with the German read, even when they considered recasting the show’s pilot and never offered a French fish, even though they were still considering it. I booked the role that was to be renamed “Klaus.” We are now lucky to be recording an eighth season of that show.
Finally, I began booking more “straight ahead” dramatic roles as well– roles I would never have considered myself right for in earlier days– most notably, the clone soldiers in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series, which earned me an Annie nomination. Voicing the subtle variations of the clone soldiers was one of the most challenging and satisfying projects ever, bringing me back around to a creative universe that was so exciting to me as a kid. I then also provided a villainous character, Tarrlok, in “The Legend of Korra” series, of which I was particularly proud.
These days, even with the pandemic playing out, I am lucky to have a thriving career, now rendered wholly remote. In addition to my voice work I also enjoy adding to my iwanttobeavoiceactor.com site, which many seem to appreciate and value. I feel very gratified to give back to the voluntary family of actors of the greater community of creatives whose company and collaboration I enjoy.
Click for: Dee’s IMDB credits, Dee’s demos, Twitter: @deebradleybaker