“Tell the kid he’s got it,” said the legendary Mel Blanc with a smile, after listening to a young man’s first demo tape of cartoon character voices. The year was 1984, “the kid,” was Jim Cummings. Since then, the kid has gone on to give life and voice to some of America’s most beloved animal Characters, even a few of the late Mel Blanc’s, and he was even nominated for an Emmy Award for his work as the lovable Tigger on Disney Channel’s My Friends Tigger and Pooh, in which he also voices everyone’s favourite bear, Winnie the Pooh.
Born and raised in Youngstown Ohio, Cummings spent Saturday mornings riveted to the TV screen as he mimicked the characters in his favourite cartoons, all the while dreaming that one day he would voice them himself. At age 19, he moved to New Orleans, where he performed as a drummer, a singer, a deck hand on riverboats, and even designed and created Mardi Gras floats, all the while absorbing the rich characters and accents that would someday find expression in animation.
Years later, Cummings relocated to Southern California and managed a video store as he pursued his childhood dream. He gave his first demo to a customer who was also a movie producer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Arriving in Australia ahead of this year’s Supanova Comic Con & Gaming convention, Cummings spoke with Peter Gray about his favourite characters to voice, which of his catalogue he thinks deserves to be rebooted, and his own preference when it comes to recording by himself or opposite the talent themselves.
Do you find, across all the particular conventions you’ve done, there’s one role or one voice of yours that people respond to the most?
Yeah, well, Pooh and Tigger are always up there. Everybody likes them. And then Darkwing Duck is always a biggie. I think he’s having a bit of a resurgence right now, because you have Disney+, so all the kids that had never seen (Darkwing Duck) before… it’s a brand new show to them. And then, you know, you have Hondo Ohnaka from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He’s very popular. (That) has the biggest attraction at Disneyland and Disneyworld, so that’s always cool too.
On the mention of Disneyland and Disneyworld, given your history with the studio, are you given special treatment? Or you pay like everyone else?
(Laughs) Oh, I insist (on paying). You know in the movie Aladdin when he comes in for the “Prince Ali” song? It’s kind of like that (laughs). Well, maybe not quite like that. But they do bring me someone who can get me on the ride, so that’s nice.
Speaking of Winne the Pooh just before, how do you feel that that character is now out there to be used in any manner. We’ve had some interesting films now involving the character.
Yeah, I’ve been made aware of it, but it doesn’t resonate. It’s all outrage for the sake of being outrageous. There’s always going to be someone who wants to live in the outhouse (laughs). People will always find rock bottom, and more power to them, but I’ll be up here (laughs).
Looking back over everything you’ve done, you’ve been the voice of my childhood in many ways without even me really knowing. Has there been one voice, one film, one show, for you, that made you feel like, “OK, this is what I want to do.” Something that really changed the trajectory of your career?
There wasn’t one role. I was grateful from day one. I got the very first role I auditioned for. It was when The Disney Channel was just starting out in the mid-80’s, and I had made a demo tape, and I had passed it around, and one of my customers at the video store – back when there were video stores – held onto it and gave it to a friend of theirs, blah, blah, blah. (This friend) called me and asked me to audition, and it was for a show called Dumbo’s Circus, and the character was Lionel the Lion. It was a lot of fun. I got an agent out of that, and, you know, one thing lead to another. I never looked back after that.
I’ve spoken with several actors who have done voice work in their careers, and some of them like the fact that they don’t have to interact with other people and some of them prefer that interaction. Where do you stand on that?
Oh, I definitely prefer it. Being a stage actor, I’ve done thousands of plays, and you benefit from the other person. I adlib a lot (too). I’ll do it as written, but then I adlib. I’ll give you an example, in The Princess and the Frog, the character of Ray gets hit by a rock and says “That’s going to leave a mark.” And that’s kinda trite (laughs), so I said (instead), (in the Cajun accent of the character) “I think done and chipped my favourite tooth.” They always keep the adlibs, so it’s kinda fun.
Is there a preference for you regarding a television schedule versus a movie schedule?
Whichever one pays the most (laughs). I like them both. You know, one of them is “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!” You get in and it equates to about a 20 minute show. But when you’re working longform on a movie, I always give them one as written, one as it should be, and then adlibbing, which they’re always open to.
And with Disney+ allowing such a resurgence for older shows and characters, as you mentioned earlier, is there any of your previous characters that you’d like to revisit that haven’t been done so already?
I think Darkwing Duck should get a reboot, that’s for sure. And I think if they do a sequel to Princess and the Frog they should find a way to bring back Ray (laughs). Even if it’s only in flashbacks. “What would Ray do? Let’s ask the flashback!”
Jim Cummings will be appearing as a guest at this year’s Supanova Comic Con & Gaming convention at both the Gold Coast (April 15th and 16th, 2023) and Melbourne (April 22nd and 23rd, 2023). For more information on each event, head to the official Supanova website.