A mere five years into his life, Bob Bergen already felt confident enough to share the culmination of his worldly ambitions with his parents: When he grew up, the wee lad declared, he didn’t want to be an astronaut or a race car driver or a fireman. No, Bergen would not rest until he became . . . Porky Pig.
“My mom said, ‘You can’t be Porky Pig. You’re Jewish,’ ” Bergen recalled. “Being more ‘-ish’ than ‘Jew,’ I had no idea what she meant. I just knew there was this cartoon character I liked and could imitate. So I studied cartoons more than I studied my schoolwork.”
It isn’t difficult to imagine the trepidation Bergen’s parents must have felt listening to their young son sit in his room for hours practicing Porky’s “eh-puh-peh-eh” cadences when he should have been doing math homework. Yet when Mel Blanc passed away less than two decades later, Bergen was invited not only to become the voice behind the world’s most sweet-natured pig, but also a host of other iconic characters ranging from Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales to Marvin the Martian.
For those likewise struggling with misunderstood voiceover dreams, fear not! Bergen will make his way from Los Angeles to Boston on April 12-13 to pass along his hard-earned wisdom via one of his uber-popular two-day Weekend Animation Voice Workshops at the Dexter Media studios.
As one might imagine, unlike at most career building and networking gatherings, there is nary a dry lecture, PowerPoint presentation or dull moment at Bergen’s voiceover shindig.
“At a recent Atlanta workshop I was teaching everyone to bark like a dog,” Bergen said, describing a recent class. “Believe it or not it takes awhile to teach the technique. Well, just as I gave to word for everyone to bark the mailman walked in. He gave us the ‘I don’t know what these people are doing, maybe it’s some sort of therapy’ look. It’s not all that uncommon.”
While fun may be integral to Bergen’s workshops, the actor stressed voiceover work is, in fact, work.
“What most people can just ‘do’ is funny voices,” he said. “They imitate their teacher. They entertain their family. Their friends tell them how funny they are. And then they get a script and have no idea what to do with it. What they learn in the class is you have to think of yourself as an actor first.”
They also need to know how to hustle. Bergen didn’t spend the years between when he first broke his swine dreams to his parents and his ascent to the upper echelon of animated voiceovers twiddling his thumbs.
After his father moved the family to Los Angeles, for example, a 14-year-old Bergen cold-called every animation studio in town to get advice on how to break into the business. He went so far as to precociously ring up his hero Blanc at home. (The audio evidence is posted on Bergen’s Web site, www.bobbergen.com.)
“I was just a kid with passion, a dream and no idea that what I was thinking about doing was competitive or hard,” he said.
When a friend of the family arranged for Casey Kasem to send Bergen an autographed picture on the occasion of his graduation from high school, the 18-year-old responded with a note explaining his dreams. Kasem offered assistance, and Bergen sent along the tape of himself doing 85 voices. That tape would eventually land him an agent.
Even then the struggle didn’t end.
“I got my first cartoon and my first agent a week out of high school,” said Bergen, who also had guest roles on such classic 1980s sitcoms as “The Facts of Life” and “Gimme a Break.” “Then I worked for five years as a tour guide at Universal Studios trying to pay the rent and eat while I was making a name for myself.”
All of this was hardly for naught, however, for at the moment when the planets aligned in 1990 and Blanc’s replacements were being chosen, Bergen was prepared to seize the moment and – sort of – step into his hero’s shoes.
“There are a handful of us who share these characters and none of us sound like Mel Blanc as far as I’m concerned,” Bergen said. “I do my best to uphold the character more than the person. I don’t try to do Mel Blanc. I try to do Porky Pig.”
Bergen teaches all levels of ability from beginners to professionals with agents. (His Los Angeles classes have a three-year waiting list.) Still, one has to wonder: Is there really any hope for the aspiring voiceover actor these days, what with Hollywood’s A-list gobbling up animated feature roles left and right?
Bob Bergen certainly believes there is.
“I have done almost every Disney animated feature since ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ ” Bergen explained. “I’ve done most of the Pixar films. I’ve been Comet the Reindeer in the ‘Santa Clause’ movies and Luke Skywalker on ‘Robot Chicken’ and in Star Wars video games. I’m not Tim Allen. I’m not Don Rickles. I’m not Tom Hanks. They’re going to play the leads. And I’m fine with that. I play the squirrel. I play the robot. I play the baby.
“Would I like to play the lead?” he continued. “Sure. Will my name on the marquee bring people in? No. Do studio executives care if I’m the squirrel or not? No. Am I happy to be working and getting paid my residuals? You bet. Look, if you’re really interested in this, it really doesn’t matter what’s involved or what the obstacles are. If you’re meant to do it, you’re going to do it.”
And for those who do make a career of it, many wonders await them.
“The great thing about voiceover work is that it’s unpredictable,”
Bergen said. “Sometimes you’re advertising toilet paper and sometimes you’re the voice of the toilet paper.”