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Mel Blanc Biography

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Birth Name: Mel Blanc
Born: 05/30/1908
Birth Place: San Francisco, California, USA
Death Place: Los Angeles, California, USA
Died: 07/10/1989

Born Melvin Jerome Blank on May 30, 1908 in San Francisco, CA, the future voice actor was the son of Jewish parents Frederick and Eva Katz Blank, who managed a women's clothing store business. After the family, which included older brother Henry, relocated to the north, Blanc grew up in the Portland, OR area. An astute mimic from an early age, he was also a proficient musician, playing the bass, violin and sousaphone. Upon leaving Portland's Lincoln High School, Blanc - who changed his name from "Blank" after an unfeeling teacher had told the boy that was just what he would grow up to be - went to work with several orchestras and comedy vaudeville acts up and down the Northwest Coast. Blanc's career in radio began in 1927, when he joined the ensemble as a voice actor on "The Hoot Owls" show, aired on Portland radio station KGW. Various short-term jobs on stage and radio followed until Blanc at last succumbed to the siren call of Hollywood, arriving in Los Angeles in 1932 and looking for voice work. A year of making the rounds yielded little professionally, although Blanc did meet Estelle Rosenbaum, who he would marry one year later. By 1933, Blanc had returned to Portland with his new bride where they were hired by station KEX to create, produce and host a late-night show called "Cobweb and Nuts." Working with on a shoestring budget, Blanc's inability to hire a large cast forced him to expand his repertoire of voice characters during its two-year run. Tired of merely scraping by, Estelle later convinced her clearly talented husband to give Hollywood another try.

Back in Los Angeles in 1935, Blanc was already improving his track record from the previous visit. Soon he was working on shows like KFWB's "The Johnny Murray Show" and "The Joe Penner Show" at CBS Radio. With that particular medium facing increasing competition, a savvy Blanc looked to film animation for the next stage of his career. Blanc managed to land a substantial voice role as the drunken cat in Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" (1940) - still several years away from release - although it was quickly cut down to little more than a single hiccup at the instruction of Disney. Then, after more than a year of unsuccessful attempts to audition for Leon Schlesinger Productions, the in-house company that supplied Warner Bros. with cartoons, Blanc at last was given an audience with such legendary animators as Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Fred "Tex" Avery and Chuck Jones. Tickled by his drunk routine, Avery put him in the Porky Pig short "Picador Porky" (1937) and soon after, it was suggested her take over the role of the stammering pig from voice actor Joe Dougherty, beginning with "Porky's Duck Hunt" (1937). The same short film also marked the debut of another character whose vocal characterization was entirely a Blanc original - Daffy Duck. Over the years that followed, both characters would evolve through Blanc's portrayals. Although Blanc did not create the pig's constant stutter, his trademark sign off of "Th-th-that's all, folks!" was entirely his. And while Daffy may have started off as a madcap troublemaker, under Blanc's influence he would later morph into the weak-willed attention seeker audiences came to know and love.

As his reputation at Leon Schlesinger grew, more opportunities presented themselves to Blanc. In 1939, he became a regular on radio's top-rated "The Jack Benny Program" (NBC, 1932-1948). Almost upon arrival, Blanc proved himself to be indispensable, providing not only a number of character voices for the show, but memorable sound effects as well. Originally cast as a polar bear named Carmichael, later Blanc routines included the laconic train conductor ("Train now leaving on track five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc... amonga.") and even the sounds of Benny's sputtering automobile, The Maxwell. In the years to come, the increasingly in-demand Blanc also managed to find time to appear on dozens of other radio programs including "Burns and Allen" (CBS, 1937-1948) and "Abbott & Costello" (NBC, 1942-47; ABC, 1947-49). Blanc also had a radio program of his own briefly - the short-lived "Mel Blanc Show" (CBS, 1946-47). Back on the Warner Bros. lot at the animation studio affectionately known as "Termite Terrace," Blanc was an essential component in creating one of the studio's most iconic characters. In 1940, Blanc was shown rough sketches for a new creature he was to voice, tentatively named Happy Rabbit. At Blanc's suggestion, the wise-cracking, carrot-chomping troublemaker was rechristened Bugs Bunny and made his debut in the Looney Tunes short "A Wild Hare" (1940) opposite sad sack hunter Elmer Fudd (originally voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan). With a Bronx-Brooklyn hybrid accent and the first utterance of his signature phrase, "What's up, Doc?" Bugs was a sensation.

Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Blanc kept up a hectic pace with work on the radio and at Looney Tunes, where he helped establish several more of Warner Bros.' most famous cartoon characters. Endlessly inventive and intuitive, the voice actor brought something distinctive to each creation, such as Tweety Bird, the childlike yellow canary ("I tawt I taw a puddy tat!"). One of the roughest on Blanc's throat was Bug's fiery arch enemy, the rip-roaring Yosemite Sam ("You'll pay for this, varmint!"). Far more subtle was his take on the alarmingly amorous French skunk, Pepé le Pew ("Ahh...le belle femme skunk fatale..."). Blanc once joked that his co-stars needed to wear raincoats whenever he performed the sloppy, lisping Sylvester the Cat ("Sssthufferin' sssthuccotash!"). Other beloved characters included the barnyard good ol' boy Foghorn Leghorn ("That's a joke, I say, that's a joke, son.") and the quavering Marvin the Martian with his small weapon of mass destruction, the "Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator." Keenly aware of the fact that he had significantly contributed to the creation of a vast majority of the studio's stable of popular cartoon characters, Blanc attempted to negotiate a raise with Leon Schlesinger in 1944. When the studio head refused, a compromise was reached: from that point forward Blanc would receive a "vocal characterizations by" credit for his work. It was a first in the industry and a key development for the generations of future voice actors that would follow.

In 1960, Blanc's exclusive Warner contract expired, and while he would continue to work for the studio voicing Bugs, Daffy and the other beloved characters, he was now a free agent. In what became a second lengthy and profitable working relationship, Blanc began voicing animated characters for Hanna-Barbara Studios. The first significant contribution came with the primetime animated series, "The Flintstones" (ABC, 1960-66), on which Blanc played Fred's good-natured neighbor Barney Rubble. In addition, Blanc also provided the frenzied yapping of the Flintstone's family pet, Dino. When "The Flintstones" scored big in the ratings and established Hannah-Barbara as a key player in television animation, Blanc found himself riding high and more sought-after than ever. Elation suddenly turned to tragedy, however, when a horrific Sunset Boulevard car crash nearly put an end to Blanc's career and his life. Having been hit head-on by a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, the voice actor lay in a coma at the UCLA Medical Center for three weeks. Increasingly desperate to elicit a verbal response from Blanc, a doctor was inspired to ask the previously unresponsive patient, "How are you today, Bugs Bunny?" In the years that followed, Blanc loved to recall his immediate response - "Eh, just fine, doc. How are you?" Once home, he continued to record his lines for "The Flintstones" from his bed, via a makeshift recording booth studio technicians had assembled.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Blanc expanded his repertoire of Hanna-Barbara voices with memorable characters like George Jetson's bellicose boss Mr. Spacely, the bushy-tailed spy Secret Squirrel, and the anthropomorphic Speed Buggy. At the same time, Blanc ventured out into the world of television commercials, voicing such iconic pitchmen as Toucan Sam for Kellogg's Fruit Loops cereal. While keeping busy with his ongoing Hannah-Barbara work and frequent Looney Tunes revivals, Blanc also lent his voice to a live-action series as the diminutive robot Twiki on the sci-fi adventure "Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century" (NBC, 1979-1981). And although he continued to work relentlessly, by the 1980s Blanc had become rather disappointed with the quality of most contemporary television animation. His final original voice characterization was created for neither Warner nor Hannah-Barbara, but for the Ruby-Spears Saturday morning cartoon "Heathcliff" (ABC, 1980-82), on which he voiced the titular orange feline.

Realizing that even his prodigious voice would not last forever, Blanc began preparing for his inevitable retirement. Having already handed off a few of the more vocally demanding characters like Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn to other voice actors, Blanc had also been grooming his son, Noel, since childhood in the hope that he might carry on the family business. After more than 60 years in the business, Blanc contributed to the highest-profile feature film of his career with director Robert Zemeckis' animation/live action hybrid "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988). Blanc provided the voices to several of his classic characters, including Bugs, Daffy and Tweety for the technological breakthrough. A smash, the feature was released by Walt Disney's Touchstone Pictures, making it one of the few Disney ventures Blanc would ever work on. One year later, shortly after filming a television commercial with his son, Blanc suffered a stroke and later died at Los Angeles' Cedar Sinai Hospital on July 10, 1989 at the age of 81. In fitting tribute, Warner Bros. artist Darrell Van Citters created "Speechless," a famous lithograph depicting Bugs, Daffy, Porky and a score of other classic characters voiced by the incomparable Blanc, each with their head bowed in a show of respect and mourning. The irreverent Blanc himself had the final word, however, with a gravestone inscribed with the timeless catchphrase, "That's All Folks!"

By Bryce P. Coleman