Voice actor Rob Paulsen on Yakko, Pinky, beating cancer, and being the 'cool dad'

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

You probably grew up with Rob Paulsen. Your kids are growing up with him, too.

Name not familiar? What about Pinky from “Pinky and the Brain?” Yakko from “Animaniacs?” A martial-arts expert turtle named Raphael? That’s Rob Paulsen, one of Hollywood’s busiest, most talented, voice actors, whose work has earned him a Daytime Emmy, three Annie Awards, and a Peabody.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and after aggressive treatment, he is back doing what he loves. He published his memoir, “Voice Lessons,” last fall, is at work on the reboot of “Animaniacs,” and is currently on tour with “Animaniacs in Concert,” a celebration of animation, music, and comedy where the show’s best-loved songs. We caught up with the voice legend before his stop in the Bay State this month, where he’ll be starring in “Animaniacs in Concert” at the Boston City Winery on Friday, Feb. 28. 

Tell us about your start in the voice business and what led you to pursue voice acting over on-screen roles? 

I moved to L.A. in June, 1978, ostensibly to pursue music, (I was  a singer first) TV and film. While I was doing those things, I received a call to audition for two new animated shows, "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers." Like any actor, I just wanted to work, so I went to the audition and luckily, booked the gigs. It took me about 43 seconds to determine that this was a fantastic aspect of performing in which I was only limited by my skill and talent, not how I looked. I was hooked.

You’ve brought so many iconic characters to life over your career. Do you have a favorite?

 The next one. It means I'm working! Honestly though, It's pretty tough to beat "Yakko." I got to sing in almost every episode, the humor was quite subversive, clever and did not condescend to the audience of "kids." Plus, we're back in production with "Animaniacs" and "Pinky and the Brain" for Hulu this fall with Mr. Spielberg again at the helm. Pretty tough to beat that, ya know?

Your work is reaching multiple generations. Is there a difference in entertaining children today versus kids decades ago? 

Not to me. I'm a better actor/entertainer than I was a generation ago but my desire to do my gig is as powerful as it was when I came to Hollywood. The most wonderful aspect of my work now is meeting grown "kids" at events all over the world who share their love of TMNT, Animaniacs, Pinky and The Brain, Jimmy Neutron, The Tick, Goof Troop, Darkwing Duck, Gummi Bears, Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom, Tiny Toon Adventures, Tazmania, The Mask, etc., with their own kids. Additionally, with TMNT, Animaniacs and Pinky and The Brain as popular as ever but with a much larger audience than when they were first released? Wow. I am one very grateful actor.

You must have scored major points as the “cool dad” being a Ninja Turtle when your son was young? 

Ha! Yeah, it was pretty cool for my son, Ash and me. Especially at "Career Day." I kinda felt bad for the other parents who had to follow my presentation. I don't care how successful your hedge fund, law practice or eBusiness is, it's tough to compete with "Raphael" for the attention of a bunch'a middle-schoolers. 

You beat throat cancer. How did you face something that could have so directly impacted your work? 

Well, I hope with calmness, courage and at least a little grace. Mind you, I was never alone. My family were and are super-supportive. I had fantastic, world class health care and even if my career ended, I'd had an amazing ride and incredible life. People deal with much worse every day. Not once did I panic and ask, "why me?" Honestly, why NOT me? It was my turn to take a hit, hopefully learn important things about myself and maybe even share them and inspire others in their struggles. I believe we really are all in this together. And if that's true, it's up to all of us to help, whatever that means. Money, time, empathy, compassion, inspiration...

You published your memoir last year. Why was this the right time for you to share your story? 

The cancer. Before I was diagnosed, I'd had many well-meaning fans suggest I write a memoir. I certainly was humbled at the suggestion but the last thing the world needs is another self-indulgent, Hollywood memoir from a non-celebrity, no less. However, throat cancer for a voice actor is a bit ironic and even a little interesting, perhaps. I recognized an opportunity to help others because of the "fame" of the characters. I figured that, if I got through it and was able to get back to work, that was a story worth telling.

What’s different working with the original cast of Animaniacs on the reboot? What’s the same? 

I thought it couldn't get any better than being at the beginning of Animaniacs with Steven Spielberg, Tom Ruegger, Tress, MacNeille, Jess Harnell, Maurice LaMarche, Frank Welker, a 40 piece orchestra, fantastic writers, etc. I was wrong. It's better now because we have a HUUUUGE fan base. This is a pretty unique experience for actors. A 25-year gap, a reboot and the same voice talent. Crazy.

Performing in Animaniacs in Concert must be a big change from what you’re used to. Do you like performing live? What’s the best part of being on tour? 

I started as a live performer. It's a total gas. "Animaniacs in Concert" is an absolute labor of love and a fabulous chance to share the honest-to-God genius of Randy Rogel's timeless music. Live shows are like a drug for me. I'm utterly hooked and I don't plan on rehabbing. Ever.