Monday, March 17, 2014

Interview with Voice Actor Chuck McKibben

Hey, everybody, I’ve got another great interview for you. This one is with Chuck McKibben, a voice actor, producer, and coach. I really want to thank Chuck for taking the time out to do this today. He shares information on a lot of great stars – Mel Blanc, Kirk Douglas, Jack Benny, Casey Kasem, Vincent Price, and Rod Serling. If everybody is ready, let’s get started. (PS: Full disclosure here. Chuck is currently voicing six audio books for me).

What really stands out for me is the time you spent producing Mel Blanc. Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Yosemite Sam were all such a big part of growing up in the sixties and seventies. What was it like working for Mel Blanc?

Chuck: I knew that I wanted to be some sort of announcer or voice actor at the age of 6.  That's when I asked my Dad, who was the manager of a truck terminal, if being one of those men I saw talking on TV was a job, in the same way, that he went to a job every day.  "Yes, that's a great job, son" he answered.  And throughout his life, he did everything in his power to help make my dream come true.  He was tremendously supportive, doing things like getting us "VIP" tours of local radio and TV stations back in Dayton, Ohio.

Like every kid of the 50's, I was captivated by the magic of cartoons.  Imagine, working in Hollywood for someone like Walt Disney, or for Warner Bros.  Well, I had some 78 rpm phonograph records by a man named Mel Blanc.  I was amazed that he could sing a duet as both Sylvester the cat and Tweety Bird on "I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat."  So there I was age 6, knowing that this man Blanc, whose name I also saw in the movie theater, was some kind of magician.  What I didn't know, or even dream of was that just 19 years later, I would work for him!

During about 10 years as a radio DJ, I had become a very skilled audio producer.  Dayton provided a good place to start, on WING radio, a station that also gave birth to the careers of Jonathan Winters and Nancy Cartwright. However, I yearned for the "big time," as those two great talents did.  So I pulled up roots and drove, four days straight, to Los Angeles.  No job waiting, no contacts...I had never even visited the town.

It scares me to death today to think about what could have happened out there, but I met a real-life "guardian angel" named Rod Thibault (tee-bo), a studio owner, who took an interest in my well-being.  It was Rod who invited me to meet Mel at the opening of his voiceover school.  At this point, some of your readers may be thinking, "You mean, I could have studied cartoon voices with the one and only Mel Blanc?" Yes, you could have, during a period of only about two years.  Anyway, I met him and his son Noel at the door.  After exchanging a few nice-to-meet-you's, Noel asked me, "Can you run a tape recorder for us in dad's classroom tonight?  One of our tech guys apparently couldn't find the place and didn't show."  So, three minutes after meeting Mel Blanc, and about 20 years after first being mesmerized by his talent, I was employed by Mel Blanc.

 I climbed the ladder of his audio production company in Beverly Hills very quickly, and when a great guy who held the job of Studio Operations Manager left to work with Casey Kasem, I took over the position.  The title meant that I was now Mel's personal audio engineer and the audio engineer/producer for all of the studio's output.  We created radio commercials that cost the clients a minimum of $10,000 each, and syndicated radio shows, all starring Hollywood's greatest talents. 

I'm sorry to burst anybody's bubble, but Mel was not as I expected him to be.  He was very serious, even somber.  I thought he'd be the life of the party, always laughing and cracking jokes, but no.  One reason why he was not carefree and jovial is that he hurt, a lot, all the time.  Literally, every bone in his body was broken in a horrific auto crash on January 24, 1961.  His beloved Aston Martin was demolished, and he pretty much was, too.  For the rest of his life, he walked and moved about like a much older man, often with a cane.  It didn't help that he was a heavy smoker, and had no exercise or other health habits that I was aware of.  He'd come to the office at 10 or 11, stay until early afternoon, and then go home.  He was all business.  Conversations were confined to work.  There was no idle chatting, no stories around the lunch or dinner table.  Sorry to say, he never socialized with me or any other members of the staff.

This all-work, no-play attitude apparently soured him to the folks at the Jay Ward studio, who produced Rocky and Bullwinkle. They were all zany, without a serious bone in any of their bodies.  Mel did one session there and kind of brought the room down, even though he was working with "the female Mel Blanc," his old pal June Foray.

Looking back, I feel as if I never really came in contact with the "real" Mel Blanc, but some "bizarro" opposite clone.  I can remember Mel laughing out loud just once when he brought in a poster he'd bought on Hollywood Boulevard, and had the whole office staff come up front to look at it.  It showed Road Runner being held tightly around the neck by Wyle E. Coyote. "Beep-beep your ass!" as the legend below.  It made him roar with laughter.  

Honestly, Mel's genius was in bringing other people's words to life.  Under the guidance of Warner's brilliant animators like Chuck Jones, he was the funniest man on film.  Think of it: How many other movie actors from the 30's though the 60's are still known to kids today?  I never meet anyone, of any age, who doesn't know him and love his work.  If I mention Bogart, or Cary Grant, or Jimmy Stewart to a 20-year-old, I'll get a blank stare.  But Mel Blanc?  Of course, they know him!  He'd be so pleased to know that his reputation outlived nearly all of the giant stars of his day.  

After working with Mel Blanc, you went on to do a lot of studio recording with some pretty famous people – Rod Serling, Vincent Price, Jack Benny, and Casey Kasem? What was it like working with all of these guys? Who were your favorite stars to work with?

Chuck: Let me take them in that order.  Rod Serling was such a sad personality.  A great, 5-time Emmy-winning writer, reduced to doing a parody of himself in commercials, because he was typecast as a writer of "spooky" shows.  He wanted to make pictures on important topics like race relationships, but Hollywood wasn't buying what he wanted to write.  After saying "hello" to me, he asked, "Is there anything you can do to make my voice sound better?"  I was stunned.  How could this great host of The Twilight Zone hate that amazing, unique voice?  Well, he was a writer, not an actor.  He wanted an actor named Robert Lansing to host Zone, but CBS told him a host wasn't in the budget, so Rod ended up on camera.  Speaking of Mel's smoking habit, Serling went through 5 packs a day, and it showed in his deeply lined face.  A great sense of sorrow hung over the man.  I don't like looking at the photo that was taken of the two of us, because he looked so miserable.  I suspect that when I worked with him, he probably had early stages of the cancer that killed him.  RIP, Mr. Serling.  I hope you finally found peace on the other side.

Vincent, there was a man who loved life and lived it fully.  Suave, art lover, gourmet, world traveler, and all-around grand human being.  I wouldn't mind coming back as him in another life.  "Making movies has given me the chance to see the world at someone else's expense," he told me.  I did the audio production of his pilot for "Tales of the Unexplained," a 5-day-week series of strange but true tales.  Price may be the most cultured man I ever met.  I treasure a snapshot I have of the two of us in session.

Jack Benny.  There's a name 20-year-olds don't know today, but it should be remembered that he was a huge comedy star for 20 years on network radio, then 20 more on network TV.  Mel told me this before his dear friend Jack came in to record a group of radio commercials for a bank.  "Chuck, you're going to meet the finest human being in Hollywood.  I love this man, and here's why.  He has kept me on his weekly payroll for decades, at a much higher rate than what any other stars pay their fellow performers.  He's incredibly generous, not a tightwad like he plays.  If an actor is down on his luck, Jack will take him aside and ask, 'How much do you need to get through this rough patch?  $10,000?  How about $20,000?  Oh, here, let's make it $25,000.  Pay it back when you can.'  He'd sign the check Benny Kubelsky, his real name, and say "Don't tell anybody Jack Benny gave you this.  It will ruin my act!"

Jack was, in fact, the dearest, sweetest man I ever met in Hollywood.  A quiet, gentle man, he had no trace of the stingy, vain character "Jack Benny," which to him was as much a fictional character as Bugs Bunny was to Mel.  It was someone he knew well, but it wasn't him.  Again, I have a treasured photo of us together, with Jack telling me a joke as he put his hand on my shoulder.  "Well, you know, Chuck..."  When he delivered a joke, it was The Jack Benny Show, right there in front of you.  I felt as if I was playing Don Wilson, his show's announcer.  Otherwise, you might not have recognized this kindly, 80-something man with the kind of sweet manners that have faded from American life.  He is my favorite celebrity to have worked with, and I got to do it many times.  Thank you, Jack.  You brought great joy to me and untold millions of others.

And finally, dear Casey Kasem.  He's very ill as this is being written, and not likely to live for very much longer.  Casey came to do 42 voice tracks for all the Dairy Queen Radio and TV commercials in North America for a year.  Already a big star thanks to his syndicated radio show, American Top 40, he was now getting the big bucks as a commercial spokesperson.  How big? This 8-hour marathon would pay him a session fee of about $25,000, and by the time the national residual payments came rolling in, about $500,000.  Being a former DJ myself, I found I had something in common with Casey, a genuinely warm, delightful guy.  At some break in the action, I got up the nerve to ask him, "How did you get to be you?"  He was very friendly in answering that his program director at a Detroit station told him to stop imitating the other DJ's.  So he developed his very unique sound, found some partners to back his idea for a syndicated "Countdown" show, went to Hollywood, and turned his dream into reality.  A true "go west, young man" success story, echoed in my much more humble career.  It should be remembered that Casey has given greatly of his time and fortune to a charitable cause, and refused to sell an awful assortment of junk foods and crappy products to young people.  I think he's a rather spiritual man, and like everyone who worked with him, it pains me to see the tragic turn his life has taken.  By the way, there are some out-take rants on YouTube in which Casey blows his top and says a lot of bad words.  Well, he may have had a hot temper, but he was always a good man.  No one should judge him from a few unfortunate audio clips.

One other great man, I want to mention is Kirk Douglas, a magnificent special lifetime Oscar-winner for his body of work.  He was much smaller in real life than "Spartacus," so when he walked into the studio, I was surprised that he wasn't 10 feet tall. But what a towering talent!  I was honored to create, as his audio producer, three pilot episodes of his syndicated radio show, Champions of Courage.  For an iconic superstar, Kirk Douglas is the most easy-going, down-to-earth fellow you'd ever want to meet.  His family and Mel's family have been very close friends for a long time.  In fact, I met Michael Douglas when his only claim to fame was being Kirk's son.

Hey, for a kid from Dayton, Ohio, am I the luckiest guy on earth, or what?  I was granted the chance of a lifetime to work directly with these great stars.  Needless to say, it changed the rest of my life.  I've never had to whip out a resume to get a job since working for Mel, and at age 67, I've never had to work in any other field.  I still wake up and go to my dream job, in my own dream studio, every day.  I believe in a higher power, just as the great Don Lafontaine did.  I was in touch with him by email on a few occasions.  I wish I had been able to work with him, but at least he did know of me as a voiceover coach and approved of my teaching methods.  I will say, as Don said of himself, that I don't know of anything I've done to deserve so much good fortune.

You were a radio announcer, a producer, spent nearly a decade as the voice of Time Warner Cable in New York City. You appear to have had a really successful career. What made you go into voice acting?

Chuck: Can you think of a better way to make a living?  I get to stay indoors when the weather is awful, work reasonable hours, keep my own schedule, choose who I work for, and get paid for acting!  And the money is not bad, that's for sure.  Then there's the ego thing that all actors feel...that ham inside of us that is thrilled when we can say, "They picked ME!  Of all the other actors in the world, I'm the one they chose!"  Honestly, I've never lost that thrill.  Plus, it's great fun to step into characters and bring them to life.  Mel loved it with a passion, and so do I.  It's an awesome creative outlet.

Most recently you’re voiced audio books for AudioRealms, Inc., and then on your own. Was the transition to audio books easy for you to make?

Chuck: Audiobooks are the most demanding form of voice work.  It's not easy at all because it's a lot more than "just talking."  We call it "voice acting" and consider ourselves to be "voice artists," because to do all of the characters in a story is very far beyond being "the announcer."  Disc jockeys are announcers.  So are the people who announce the arrival of airplanes and subway trains.  Your high school principal was an announcer every morning on the school PA...but he was no voice artist.  It took me a long time to go from "announcer" to voice artist, and without formal acting lessons, although I learned a great deal from working with the grand master of them all, Mel Blanc.  His secret is easy: just BE the character.  Some call that method acting.  Don't just make funny voices, but inhabit the character's being. Think like the character; hold your body in a position like the character.  I was present for over 100 lessons that Mel gave to his students.  I learned by observing the greatest voice actor of the 20th century.  Again, how lucky can a guy get?

But I also love the role of narrator.  That brings me back to my days of imitating the great radio and TV voice men, who had such magnificent intonations.  I'd practice saying thing like, "This is the NBC Television Network" or "Direct from our newsroom in New York, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite."  I dreamed of being a network TV staff announcer first but was opened up to the true meaning of being a "voice artist" at the Blanc studio.

The Audio Realms books are of a dark, Gothic horror nature like Things That Are Not There, or campy sci-fi tone like VooDoo Planet.  What they have in common is that they were very demanding to produce.  I am the sole voice actor, recording engineer and audio editor for all my works on that label.  I'm immensely proud to say that I was never asked once to change a single word of any production.  I'd have to say, without any false modestly, that as an audiobook reader...which is the correct term for dramatic productions, rather than narrator...I'm pretty darn good.

One of the frequent complaints I see in reviews of audio books is the narrator's voice didn’t fit the story, or the recording was just plain dull. How do you approach a story to make sure you have the right voice for it?

Chuck: First, I have to believe that it is within my range to do justice to the work.  Can I do the accents required; express the emotions that must be come out in a natural way that goes beyond just reading the words?  I'm a fan of old movies on TCM, where the great actors can be studied.  What did THEY do with the characters?  That's what I will do if I think it worked.  We see miscasting in lots of movies.  How about Kevin Costner as Robin Hood?  What an absolute joke.  Or for sheer dullness how about Keanu Reeves in The Matrix?  It doesn't matter if these films were box office hits I'm concerned only with the execution of the characters.  I hate these CGI films that are filled with things blowing up.  Where's the great dialogue?  The fabulous character development?  Does that make me old school?  Yep, and I'm proud of it.  Having worked in Hollywood, I know that the studios are just factories, grinding out product.  If a film can sell tickets, they don't really care at all about whether it has great acting in it.  
Audiobooks, on the other hand, MUST have a complete focus on acting, and nothing else.  There are no computer-generated effects.  I owe my audience nothing less than the greatest, most interesting performance I can deliver. The gift of language is a treasure; it is the stuff of which civilizations are built and destroyed.  A college professor pointed out to me that Sir Winston Churchill likely saved Western civilization through the words he spoke on the radio that caused the entire world to rise up against Hitler.  Words have enormous power.  They should be used with care.

I recently spoke with another voice artist, Matt Stone, and he emphasized the importance of pausing for effect, varying voice and tone at important points, and knowing how to keep the story moving. What’s your take on all of this? It seems like there’s a lot more involved than just reading?

Chuck: Yes, Matt is completely right.  As I've said, it's a great deal more than reading.  It is knowing how to breathe life into your characters through all of the tools we have.  Think about this:  Of all the creatures in the known universe, ONLY human beings can read a script.  No chimp, dolphin, elephant or other large-brained animal can see the squiggles on a page, recognize and process them as thoughts, embellish them with all the right human emotions, speak them as if they were the person who wrote those words, and paint vivid pictures of the characters in the minds of the listener.  "Theater of the mind" is what they called it in old-time radio, and that's what it is.  Backgrounds, props, make-up play no part in voice acting.  Just the human voice and the human mind.  Easy?  No, not at all. 

Audio books are still in their infancy compared to other aspects of publishing. I think Audible has about a hundred thousand registered users now, compared to millions of users on Kindle and in the iStore. That’s an amazing opportunity for authors and voice actors. What advice would you give to authors looking for someone to voice their books? What’s the key to finding
someone who is a good fit for your book?

Chuck: The short answer?  Hire me!  But seriously, hire someone who shares most of the thoughts I've said above.  Voice acting is not announcing, and except for non-fiction books, it's not narration.  It's acting, pure and simple.  The late, great actor Peter O'Toole told TCM's Robert Osborne that acting is 80% speaking; all the rest is where to stand and move, etc.  For the most part, "extras" is what we call actors who have no lines to say.  Of course, there were great silent film actors, but they certainly wouldn't find any work in audiobooks!

I think every writer hears the characters speaking in his or her mind, as they get written on the page.  Auditions are the only way to find out if an audiobook reader can bring them to life, as imagined by the author.  There's no great science to it, just art. Finding a great voice artist is like finding a great visual artist, such as a painter.  Hopefully, the artistic ability will be clearly evident in the work.

I read somewhere that it takes approximately five to seven hours of work to record one hour of usable audio. Is that right? Obviously, you can’t just read the book and call it a wrap. What all is involved in recording a successful audio book?

Chuck: Today, we must typically be our own producer/director/actor and audio engineer.  Yes, that "shooting ratio" of at least five hours for every finished hour is a pretty realistic number for character work...quite a bit less for straight narration, however.  Warning!  Don't sign up to produce an audiobook if you think you'll just read it in real time and send it out the door!  As a voiceover coach, I teach aspiring voice artists the many skill sets that are now a part of the job.  There are some good books on the subject, but this is like learning to drive a car:  at some point, you have to learn by doing.  There's no quick answer to "what's involved," other than "a lot."  It's a luxury to have an engineer/producer doing all the tech work.  I perform that aspect for some actors, for a fee.  But there's no getting around the need for a good home studio these days, so as a veteran audio engineer, I include that in my training.

What do you look for when you’re sourcing projects to record? Is there a magic genre, or a certain type of book that’s a sure thing when you turn it into an audio book?

Chuck: I'm told by those who know that vampires and self-help books are big sellers.  No reason to doubt that.  At this point in my career, I've decided to veer away from the supernatural.  I've done enough of that, and I have a pretty up-beat personality.  I don't always want to venture into the dark side, which, as a person of Irish heritage, is pretty easy for me.  I looked for books that could be of benefit to readers recently...books that potentially can improve someone's life.  I want to be known for such titles as much as for my Goth stuff.  Like most actors, I want to play it all...not just one genre, but many types of roles.  Variety is the spice, as they say.

Audible seems to be the big player in audio books right now. They sell books on their own site, on Amazon, and in the iStore. They have an audition system where authors post their project and a small sample for voice artists to record. There’s also a section for authors to give more details about their book. What should authors list here? Sales figures, information about the book, or what they’re looking for in a voice artist. What’s most important in helping you choose a project to work on?

Chuck: Sales figures, yes, absolutely.  Reviews are terribly important.  Plus, all the rest of the above.  Because one must invest so must time in a production, you really want to know that the author has an established, successful career, and a devoted following.  I think ACX should require the posting of sales figures.  Obviously, new authors are at a huge disadvantage, but there are new voice artists who may wish to just get a credit and care very little about sales.  It's OK to be in the same "newbie" boat as the author.  Who knows?  That new author may be the next literary giant.  For example, I appeared in a Dayton Theater Guild production of a Christmas story by John Jakes, when he was still an advertising copywriter in Dayton.  He went on to be a huge success as a novelist, so I was proud to have his name in my credits later on.  After gathering what information I can glean about the author and the book, I look at the audition script.  Oh brother is that where you really begin to say, "Ugh!  Not this one!"  There are some truly awful, illiterate, untalented writers out there. Since I'm going to want to do my part to promote the book, I have to feel comfortable saying, "This is great!  You should buy a copy!" The biggest reason why an author can't get a good audio actor?  He or she is a horrible writer! However, excellent writing can attract a voice actor who loves the written word as much as the almighty dollar.

Do be sure to tell the actor about the things that might present problems, like accents, foreign language inclusions, and any other potential landmines that might be a deal-breaker.  Best to know everything to expect before going to contract!  Get all the requirements out into the open so that there are no surprises.

Final thing, you’re one of the few people I’ve talked with who has their own Wikipedia page. How cool is that? Did you have to go to Wikipedia and ask to be included, or was it a natural thing?

You can't upload your own Wikipedia page; someone else must suggest it.  A friend of mine who is a video producer wrote and submitted my page, and I'm very proud of it.  The Wiki editors will take down any bio they don't think is important, so a waitress at a Denny's can't get one for any amount of money, unless she has accomplished something rather noteworthy and out of the ordinary for a waitress.  We Americans pay a great deal of attention to actors, perhaps out of proportion to their true importance.  Why do so many people watch the Academy Awards?  Shouldn't we care more about great scientists, doctors, educators and such?  Perhaps they don't get as much public attention as actors because they don't show us ourselves as we are, or as we could aspire to be.  Drama illuminates our lives, warts and all.  We meet and get to understand the many characters that would otherwise remain a mystery to us.  When great acting and writing come together, you get The Godfather, and suddenly you're able to comprehend the inner lives and thoughts of people you would probably hope never to meet otherwise.  As Shakespeare said, we are all actors on a stage.  Perhaps that's why, since long before his time, there have always been plays, and actors, who have captured our minds and entered our lives as if they were a part of our own reality.

Chuck McKibben is a Philadelphia-based voice actor and coach with a 50+ year career that began in his teens.  He was Mel Blanc's personal audio engineer in Hollywood during the 70's; an award-winning producer/director and voice artist in New York for 30 years; the senior prom announcer for Time Warner Cable New York through most of the 90's; and, since the late 90's, has been an audiobook actor of note.  He teaches aspiring voice actors from his home-based studio at

1 comment:

  1. Chuck is one of the finest male voice talent actors out there! I can't believe you got to interview him! It was an awesome read :)