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Greatest Voice Actors

So. I came across an IMDB list of 50 Greatest Voice Actors of All Time, and I was startled by how terrible the list is. It wasn’t until I had griped to my Best Reader about it that I discovered that it was just some guy posting his own list in that Web 2.0 way, and that it wasn’t put together by IMDB personnel. Ah, the New Web.

Anyway, the person who put this together put Mel Blanc at the top spot, which is obviously correct. There will be a large amount of whitespace below Mel Blanc and above whoever is number two. Sadly, this list has Dan Castellaneta at the second slot, which is just crazy. Mr. Castellaneta is responsible for creating the voice for one of the most beloved characters in history, true, and that’s surely good enough to get him in to the top fifty, and you could make an argument for top twenty or so. You could presumably make some sort of argument that would put Mr. Castellaneta ahead of James Earl Jones. Such an argument would be wrong, but you could make it. I don’t see an argument for putting either of them in the top ten. James Earl Jones doesn’t even make the list I linked to up there, which should tell you something about the list.

Oh, and the rightful owner of the second slot? Orson Welles.

But I’m stuck with a question about the criteria for a list of Greatest Voice Actors, which is what counts as voice acting? Clearly it has to be acting, that is, you can’t be playing yourself; Dylan Thomas reading his own poems does not count as voice acting. Vin Scully is not a voice actor, nor is Rush Limbaugh. However, I think that all part-playing for audio, that is, where the actor will not be seen should count. We should count Stephen Moore in Hitchhiker’s; we should count Ian Holm in the BBC Lord of the Rings; we should certainly count Norman Painting from The Archers. I don’t know where that puts them, but they count. A trickier question is John Gielgud, who recorded plays that he was in, recorded plays he wasn’t in, recorded highlights from plays, monologues, poems, old discarded memoranda, shopping lists, telephone directories and technical manuals, all with the superb beauty of the Gielgud Voice. What of that counts, and what does not? My inclination is not to count recordings made of stage performances, even if the cast sits down to make a separate recording for radio or audio only. I’m not sure I can justify excluding those, but they just seem not to fit. I also would throw out highlights from or monologues from—those are obviously voice acting, but they also seem not the thing. But if they are doing a radio play and cast an actor for the radio play, does it matter if there was also a stage play of the same name? Somehow, my answer is maybe. And that may be enough to keep John Gielgud out of the top five.

As for the rest of the top five, I think Frank Oz is the only person who you could seriously argue challenges Orson Welles for that second spot, having originated two (at least) beloved icons. I would round out my top five with, I think, June Foray and Harold Peary, although there are several others who could make a claim—I need to mention Gertrude Berg, because I will be sad if I don’t, even if I think she winds up in the second five.

So what do you think? What counts? Who is at the top of your list? Am I rating Harry Shearer too low? Who am I just blanking on, that I will kick myself for forgetting?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Hmmm. I was going to say you should add H.John Benjamin, for his work on Home Movies and Archer, both of which were brilliant roles. But the thing is, unlike Mel Blanc, he isn't a man of 1,000 voices. He is always recognizable as his voice.

Harry Shearer, on the other hand, is absolutely amazing. The range of what he can do that ends up sounding like completely different people should definitely get him on the list.

Well, that was a terrible list!

I think part of the challenge in ranking voice actors (aside from, in my case, not knowing the names of the folks who voiced the cartoons from the 60s and 70s and not having watched animated features since then and not knowing the stars of radio from the pre-TV era) is that some voice actors are great b/c they can shape their voices to the role so far that they can do all the voices for an animated feature and have it sound like a full ensemble, and some voice actors are great because they have a colorful, distinctive voice that gives richness to the texture of a vocal ensemble, and some voice actors are great because they are great actors in general, such that having a supple, evocative vocal delivery is part of their array of talent. How do you rank those against one another? I don't have a problem with giving the first type priority as being the most important and distinctive skill of voice acting, but once you get past the handful of inventive geniuses, how do you weigh one talent type against another?

Probably not top-5 material, but Tim Russert and Sue Scott from Prairie Home Companion are both voice actors of skill. I would rank Scott especially highly because she can both significantly modulate her voice and produce colorful, distinctive voices.

In some ways, it's easier to do a Top Five or a Top Ten, because I can just concentrate on the people who have originated the voice for iconic characters and demonstrated tremendous range in doing a variety of characters as well as different emotional resonances. If I were trying to do a Top Fifty, I would get stuck trying to decide how to weight range v. depth v. influence v. longevity.


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