Flash back to 1993. Jurassic Park was changing the face of filmmaking, Bill Clinton was barely into his tenure as leader of the free world, and "Reduce, Reuse & Recycle" was a brand new catch phrase being beaten into our wasteful minds. But at the time, "going green" had a much different meaning. Yes, anywhere you set foot, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were there. The movies… the merchandise… You don’t even have to leave your home to see green.
Flip on the TV and there was the animated series. It was Season 7 and the show’s producers has taken the Turtles in even more offbeat directions – more specifically Europe.. Of course, even across the pond, some things never change. Shredder and Krang were still up to no good, and the Turtles inevitably foiled their plans, even overseas. The Turtles still craved pizza even though they were surrounded by a cornucopia of European cuisines. And Michelangelo still waxed bodacious in his Spicoli-tinged voice, even when trying to communicate with the confused locals.
Speaking of Michelangelo’s voice, Screen Junkies recently had the opportunity to speak WITH Michelangelo’s voice. Voice actor Townsend Coleman, the dude behind "The Party Dude" for 150+ episodes of the original animated series, sat down on the phone with us.
Here’s what Townsend had to say:
On the origins of his legendary Michelangelo voice:
[The reference to Spicoli] pretty much hit the nail on the head. For me, I moved out [to L.A.] from Ohio in ’84, so getting the series in ’87, I wasn’t so familiar with the surfer dudes and valley girls that were so popular at the time. So when i got Michelangelo knowing he was that sort of surfer/skate dude party guy, i had to draw on something and it was very much the Sean Penn thing but it also had a lot to do with the voice director and the way they wrote the script. They gave us a lot of input especially on the first season, when we were trying to get a grasp on the characters. But yeah, the party dude thing… the guy who’s just a little burnt… came from Fast Times.
On creating a character, and how he almost voiced Leonardo instead:
I don’t really have a ritual; it pretty much hits me when i see the character. And getting a sense of what the series is about. But certainly when i hear the description and then look at a pic, that’s where my gut will take me. Pretty much true for most of the characters I’ve done.
The audition process for "Turtles" was really no different. In fact, I was working on Fraggle Rock [the animated series], and during one of the sessions, the voice director who was on that show was about to start voice directing Turtles, and we didn’t know it. And one day, at the end of the session, he came up to us and pulls out of his bag a copy of one of the original TMNT comics. And he says, "this is the new series I’m gonna be directing." And we all laughed, because just the title alone was odd enough back then, back in the day when it was "My Little Pony" and "Transformers." So he said he’d bring us in on it, and that’s how that started.
I went and auditioned like everybody else, and was told I’d be auditioning for Michelangelo, Leonardo and i think maybe Raphael, and when I got cast, they had also cast Cam Clarke [who would go on to voice Leo], and they cast Barry [Gordon, who also voiced Bebop] as Don, and Rob [Paulsen] as Raphael, but with me and Cam, they weren’t sure about each role. They decided to finalize it at the first session. So the voice director had me do Michelangelo in the first read-through and have Cam do the second. but after the first read through, the producers were still just getting to know each other… and i think there was enough going on in the booth to cause enough distraction that after the first read through… so they never switched the parts! I don’t think it was a conscious thing. I think they were concerned with other bigger issues. That’s how I ended up as Michelangelo.
On the Voiceover scene, circa 1993:
My days were nine to nine. My big deal was the Home Depot account, but I was doing a lot of commercials, a lot of animation and in fact ’93 was the year i started a show called "The Tick," [he was the voice of the titular blue hero] and met Mickey Dolenz which was a high point for me because I was a huge Monkees fan. And I also started doing comedy promos for NBC, so ’93 was a big year for me. I was going to work at 9am and not getting home from NBC until 9 at night.
[When recording "Turtles," all the voice actors] were all in the studio at the same time, if there were eight voice actors, they’ll have eight chairs and copy stands and it’s always better to record as an ensemble. You get a much better energy and vibe and interaction as opposed to recording wild, and picking up solo lines.
[Voiceover artists are] a relatively small community. If you think of the community of actors, and then voice, and then animation, it gets smaller as you define the niche. It’s a very small circle of people, and everyone knows each other and you see each other all the time, whether at auditions or sessions. Most voice actors don’t do just animation. Narration, commercials, and promos are in there too. But there’s a rarified air – a stratosphere – with guys like the Rob Paulsons and the Jim Cummings‘s, and the Tom Kennys and Charlie Adlers, and Frank Welkers. Its a real small group.
We were seeing each other every day. and back in the early days – the mid-late 80s and early 90s – we were working under a SAG contract, not based on animation. To be in a studio for 8 hours, especially with some voice directors who would take advantage and have you screaming al day… it would ruin you. That’s why we went on strike, and got it cut it in half. There’s also a limit to the number of characters you can do before you get paid extra. But even four hours is a long time to be cooped up with insane, immensely talented, always-on voice actors. [laughs]
At the turn of the millennium and feeling a bit burnt out, Townsend Coleman took a step away from voicing animation. He let his commercial accounts and cartoon contracts work themselves out, and kept only his gig as the voice of NBC’s comedy promos, which he continues to do to this very day. (Airings of "The Office," "30 Rock" and the upcoming Conan O’Brien-hosted "Tonight Show" are not complete without his vocal stamp). in fact, the only regular animation job he maintains is the voice of Sentinel Prime on Cartoon Network’s "Transformers: Animated" series.
But if Townsend Coleman never uttered another word into a recording booth microphone for the rest of his days, his work as Michelangelo would be enough to put him in the rarified air alongside the other voice legends he mentions above. Think about it. Coleman never voiced Michelangelo in the live-action films, the commercials, the animated film or the "Coming Out of Their Shells" live tour (some may say he dodged a bullet there). But when we hear Michelangelo in our minds, we’re hearing Townsend Coleman’s voice.
Hear Townsend Coleman’s Michelangelo circa-2009 by playing the clip below:
A million thanks to Townsend Coleman for spending time with Screen Junkies, and to Lionsgate and Special Ops Media for making it happen. Be sure to check out Season 7 of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" animated series, just released on DVD.
And read our interview with Turtles co-creator KEVIN EASTMAN here.