We live in an age of cartoon voice "stunt casting," where it seems like every big movie needs to have at least one or two A-list Hollywood actors lending their pipes to the proceedings, irrespective of actual talent. Dreamworks does this, Disney does this, Fox does this, and when high-profile movies from Studio Ghibli come out on our shores, you bet that they get a cavalcade of Hollywood stars.
But let's face it, pals: anime is mass entertainment - broad stuff designed to be produced fast and beamed around the world. Outside of Japan, it's not usually the type of media to attract famous actors and artists. But sometimes by chance, and sometimes by design, some pretty famous names have gotten involved with anime over the years. Let's look at nine of the most famous ones.
9) Jonathan Winters
It was only recently that this supremely gifted and absolutely mercurial improv comedian passed away. If you're in your 20s or 30s, you know him as the voice of Papa Smurf in that lousy Neil Patrick Harris movie from a couple of years ago. Go back a bit farther, and you'll recall major roles in TV fare like Davis Rules and Mork and Mindy. More than anything else, Jonathan Winters will probably always be remembered for his gut-busting gas station freakout in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But he was a hard act to pin down - he seems short on screen credits largely because he was the kind of comic who thrived without boundaries. Winters never had a big hit show, but if you gave him a slot on The Tonight Show for nine minutes with nothing to interact with except for a stool, he'd completely blow the roof off the place. That's the kind of talent he was.
Jonathan Winters was also always a prolific voice actor; he had recurring roles in a number of network cartoons. Amusingly, while kids know him only as Papa Smurf, he was Grandpa Smurf in the '80s ABC cartoon. But let's go back, way way back, to the year 1961, a producer named Roger Corman, a studio called American International Pictures, and a film named Alakazam the Great. Alakazam, nee Saiyuki, is an early version of the famous "monkey king" saga that everything from Spaceketeers to Dragonball Z is based on; it was one of the first anime productions dubbed into English, and for its time, it had something of a star-studded cast - along with Winters, fellow comic Arnold Stang (who'd soon become the voice of Hanna Barbera's famous Topcat) headlined, with songs provided by chart-toppers Frankie Avalon and Dodie Stevens. Interestingly, an entirely uncredited Peter Fernandez (the once and future voice of Speed Racer) played the speaking role of Alakazam - according to him, Winters, true to form, ad-libbed pretty much all of his dialogue as the gluttonous, shape-shifting pig, Quigley. My favorite bit? When the character, slavering over a plate of food, pauses - and Winters' voice remarks, with a touch of reproach, "I never touch pork! You understand."
8) Peter Ustinov
Alright, here's a thought: most of you know Peter Ustinov's work. But I'm betting that a large portion know him best from his turn as Prince John in the Disney furry animal Robin Hood flick. Now granted, he was awesome in that crummy movie; easily the best part about it. But man, that's just scratching the surface of how illustrious this guy was. Not only was he a gifted actor, who won not one but two Academy Awards for best supporting actor (in 1961's Spartacus and 1965's Topkapi), but he was also a writer, playwright, stage designer, filmmaker, columnist and goddamn diplomat. He spoke half a dozen languages, was knighted and sang this song in Blackbeard's Ghost, which still rings in my head to this day.
But how did the great Peter Ustinov's career intersect with Japanese animation? Well, Ustinov was a raconteur who was up for just about anything, and so was a businessman from Japan named Shintaro Tsuji. Tsuji's greeting card company had experienced phenomenal success throughout the 70s thanks to their new mascot, Hello Kitty - yep, I'm talking about the founder and chairman of Sanrio, here - and one of his many successful side ventures was a stint producing animated films. Lots of them were great - fare like Sea Prince and the Fire Child and Unico, movies which look great even today. But Tsuji wanted to make Sanrio's movies global hits, and he tried to address this by moving the entire animation production team of one particular film, Orpheus of the Stars, to Hollywood.
And so it came to pass that a small team of ace Japanese animators worked together with a small army of Hollywood's best cartoon talent to create Metamorphoses, a pop/rock retelling of some of Ovid's stories meant to be something like an answer to Fantasia. But the movie tested poorly, was edited and tweaked, and eventually hit theatres under the title Winds of Change. There's very little voice work to speak of in the movie, but narration is needed - so it's provided by one Peter Ustinov. He acquits himself well and is lots of fun to listen to, but his engaging patter is so much better than the actual film, which is pretty but kind of incoherent, that it just gets distracting. Ustinov also provided his voice for Sanrio's film The Mouse and His Child, but that movie was actually produced and directed entirely by westerners, so it ain't exactly anime.
7) Lorne Greene
He's been gone now for quite a while, but for fourteen seasons back in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Lorne Greene was a household name thanks to his role as Ben Cartwright in the beloved western TV series Bonanza. He'd previously been a newsreader, but the role of Ben cemented him as one of the great TV dads, right up there with Bill Cosby and Dick van Patten. I saw a little of Bonanza, but most people who grew up after the baby boom know him as Commander Adama, the leader of the wandering fleet in the original Battlestar Galactica. Edward James Olmos's version of the character in the famed Galactica reboot is dramatically different, but they have one thing in common - a deep, rolling, commanding voice.
It was probably that magnificent voice that landed Greene the title role in The Wizard of Oz, a 1982 theatrical film from Toho that was shown to American audiences first on cable TV, and then on video. It's actually a decent little movie, a bit more faithful to L. Frank Baum's original story than the famed Judy Garland film, despite the surprisingly blonde Dorothy. Greene, as the Wizard himself, sounds weirdly confident and paternal given the character's background as an easily spooked con man, but it's still interesting to hear him. Two other bits of trivia: Dorothy is played by Aileen Quinn, the stage and screen actress most well-known for playing Annie in the 1982 movie musical, and you shouldn't confuse this Wizard of Oz anime movie with the Wizard of Oz anime TV series, which was narrated by Margot "O.G. Lois Lane" Kidder and ran on HBO.
6) Adrienne Barbeau
Dorks like me mostly remember the name Adrienne Barbeau thanks to a fantastic quip from Sealab 2021, in which unhinged station captain Hank Murphy muses on becoming not just a robot, but a "sexy Adrienne Barbeau-bot." At the peak of her career, Barbeau was damn sexy, a pretty and shapely "it" girl who parlayed a supporting role in the sitcom Maude into headlining gigs in a broad range of TV movies, horror flicks, and genre cinema. I particularly like her roles in The Fog and Escape from New York. But there are two interesting things about Barbeau - first of all, while her career has had peaks and valleys, she's still actually quite busy and popular. She played Ruthie in the well-regarded HBO series Carnivale, and only recently wrapped a two-season stint on soap opera mainstay General Hospital. Secondly, Barbeau is a bit like Mark Hamill - she's long had an interest in voice-acting, and like Hamill, performed especially well in the '90s Batman cartoon (she was Catwoman in that one).
But where does her career intersect with anime? In a pretty odd place, actually, and I don't mean the back seat of a VW Golf. In 1987, the famous Hanna-Barbera animation studio teamed up with Tsubaraya Productions, the guys who brought the world the live-action Japanese SF classic Ultraman, in order to create an Ultraman that could be marketed all around the world. The resulting 90-minute film features not one but THREE Ultramen, a team of crack pilots who can all turn into towering, silver and red, bug-eyed defenders of justice when the situation calls for it. Adrienne Barbeau provides the voice of Beth O'Brien, the one lady Ultraman (Ultralady?). She does a fine job in spite of the fairly flat, weird material - but Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (simply known as Ultraman USA in Japan) never made it past the pilot phase. One neat bit of nerd trivia: one of Barbeau's co-stars, Michael Lembeck, dabbled in acting, but eventually went on to direct The Santa Clause 2 and 3. Maybe this show is what caused him to commit those atrocities!
5) Jean Reno
These days, Studio Ghibli dubs are always star-studded affairs. Starting with Princess Mononoke, the films of Miyazaki, Takahata, and their compatriots have boasted the likes of Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and of course, The Shield's Michael Chiklis. But Ghibli was a worldwide brand for years before they broke big stateside, and other countries sometimes made the leap of using celebrity voice talent to fill the roster. In France, for example, the titular Porco Rosso, ex-WWI ace Marco Pagot, is played by none other than Jean Reno.
Yeah, yeah, Reno doesn't even speak English in this version, but I'll just take a little break from English-speaking roles, because Jean Reno is a Frenchman who doesn't always speak English. He's also a big-deal actor, one who's shared the screen with the likes of Robert De Niro, Gary Oldman, and of course, Steve Martin in those two Pink Panther movies. He's also something of a celebrity treasure in Japan, where he's recently appeared in a series of goddamn amazing commercials where he sulks and wears a Doraemon costume. The incomparable Shinichiro Moriyama voices Marco in the original, and while Michael Keaton does a good job in the U.S. dub, there's something charmingly rough and naturalistic about Reno's French performance, which is, after all, so close to the Italian that the characters ostensibly speak in the story. (The Italian version, which took goddamn forever to actually come out, features the well-known dubbing actor Massimo Corvo in the role.) This is an excellent performance from Reno, coming just on the heels of his Hollywood breakthrough, The Professional.