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.
4) David Hayter
Okay, alright, this guy isn’t exactly an A-list Hollywood actor. His biggest onscreen credit is probably his role as the title character in The Guyver: Dark Hero, which is a far better movie than you might think, but still not that good. But David Hayter is an A-list Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor; not only did he handle screenwriting duties for the first two X-Men movies (you know, the good ones), he’s also lent his talent to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film and that weird Mummy spinoff, Scorpion King. He’s got a suspense thriller called Caught Stealing in the oven, and has also been showing off his own writer/director project, Wolves, which is finished but not quite ready for prime time.
But even before he blew up as a scribe, David Hayter was his own kind of weird nerd celebrity, shooting to notoriety as the voice of Solid Snake in Konami’s many Metal Gear Solid games. The character is iconic, and his performance has been reliably excellent throughout the series. I guess it makes sense that, before that, he was an anime voice actor. His most notable roles were probably as lovable thief Lupin the 3rd in the Manga Entertainment dub of Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro (a previous dubbed version employed Bob Bergen, the usual voice of Porky Pig these days, as the character. How about that?) and as bishonen heartthrob Tamahome in Fushigi Yuugi. Nowadays, Hayter sometimes exercises considerable influence over movies with eight and nine-figure budgets, but he used to play the dopey kid in Moldiver.
3) Kiefer Sutherland
In 1997, Kiefer Sutherland’s star was kinda-sorta on the wane. His last big hit, Disney’s Three Musketeers, was a crowded affair, and since then he’d motored along in fair-to-middling flicks like The Cowboy Way and Eye for an Eye. I guess this made it relatively easy for Pioneer LDC, the guys who were publishing hits like Tenchi Muyo! at the time, to sign him up as one of the leads for Armitage III: Poly-Matrix, a high-shine redux of one of their direct-to-video properties. With Sutherland played against the somewhat infamous Elizabeth Berkley (she of Saved by the Bell and Showgirls) as the title character, his billing gave the Armitage III film some surprising and welcome star power. Hollywood actors in Japanese animation are rare in any case, but it was particularly rare in ’97.
At the time, a lot of critics and fans bemoaned Sutherland’s restrained, almost monotonic performance as the film’s protagonist, detective Ross Sylibus. But I kinda like it – to me, he sounds distant rather than bored, which suits the character. The movie, which nakedly flaunts its Blade Runner influences, is pretty damn good, and is still a nice watch today. My friend and colleague Carl Horn actually got to interview Sutherland for the pages of Animerica Magazine back in the day – his big memories are of Sutherland furiously chain-smoking in the booth (Carl had not actually seen a smoker do the “use the spent cig to light the next one” trick in person before), and of the actor’s eagerness to come out and talk about anime and voice acting, even as his assistant openly fretted and prodded him about his schedule. Sutherland would permanently establish himself as a household name with 24, but it’s neat to experience this role from just a few years prior.
2) Bryan Cranston
I still surprise the shit out of people with this bit of trivia. Before Malcolm in the Middle and way before his Emmy-winning turn as Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston used to do anime voices. He’d often use the pseudonym “Lee Stone,” and for the most part, he did walla and small, one-episode roles. He did some voice work for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which he mentioned on a Reddit AMA a while back. But he did have a few significant roles dubbing anime into English – he was Matti, one of the slacker would-be astronauts in GANAX’s classic Royal Space Force. He was Condor Joe in Eagle Riders, Saban’s unsuccessful attempt to turn Gatchaman II into something worth watching. And best of all, he was Isamu Dyson, protagonist of Macross Plus, certainly one of the best anime shows of the 1990s and arguably one of the best ever.
It’s kind of fun to go to YouTube, where the entire 4-episode series streams legally for free, and see the multitude of “…Walt?” comments. It’s a fine performance that really completes a great, classic OVA. Here’s a fun Macross Plus factoid: there’s a theatrical cut of the show, with 20 minutes of new animation. But it was never dubbed into English. Part of the reason why is because, by the time this theatrical cut was slated for localization, Cranston was no longer available for stuff like dubbing anime. According to the gang at Animaze, who handled the dubbing, what put Cranston out of reach was a specific event – his casting as one of the War Department colonels who set in motion the plan to bring home Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan. Cranston had tackled a huge variety of small TV and movie roles prior to that (remember his recurring gig as the dentist to the stars on Seinfeld?), but that particular role was a career leap – it meant that accepting modest wages and using a pseudonym just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Years and years later, he’s a huge Hollywood star – and he’s still pretty good at voice-acting, as the Batman: Year One OVA demonstrates.
1) Orson Welles
Orson Welles is, to this day, one of the greatest screen actors of all time, as well as a gifted auteur director who brought us the singular classic Citizen Kane, and numerous other great films like The Magnificent Ambersons, A Touch of Evil and The Stranger. However, as any good Welles fan will tell you, he was a gigantic pain in the ass to work with, an obsessive and easily distracted perfectionist whose films seemed to operate in almost constant financial and scheduling crisis. He was unbelievably awesome at his craft, but after reading about stuff like It’s All True and his aborted Don Quixote film, it’s pretty easy to see why the big film studios were incredibly reluctant to work with him. Eventually, he got old and fat, and remained hilariously difficult to work with, a truth forever preserved in these amazing drunken wine commercial outtakes.
But Welles did some voice-acting. He voiced the trailers for the original Star Trek movie. He played the narrator and the evil snake Nag in Chuck Jones’ TV special of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki Tavi. You’re probably kind of expecting me to talk a lot about his turn as Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, one of his last roles, but that was actually developed in the US – only the animation gruntwork and some of the designs were outsourced to Japan. The scripts, storyboards, and other stuff were drawn up here. However, Welles did star in a single anime feature film – a 1981 movie called The Adventures of Glicko. It was dubbed into English under the title The Enchanted Journey. In this children’s tale of a curious city chipmunk going back to nature, Welles played the role of Pippo the pigeon. The ADR director for this film was the aforementioned Fernandez, and I had the opportunity to ask him about Welles. According to Fernandez, Welles was a huge eccentric – he insisted on bringing a tiny dog, his constant companion, right into the booth with him. Fortunately, the dog was well-behaved, and content to sit quietly on a stool next to Welles as he read his lines.
Welles took every job in stride, and Enchanted Journey was no exception. When Fernandez explained that his character, Pippo, was a “tough city bird,” Welles read his lines in an incongruous Brooklyn accent, until Fernandez asked him to try it in his natural voice. As a weird bonus, this movie also features Jim “Mister Magoo” Backus as a talking rat. Shortly after production of this movie wrapped, Welles died of a heart attack. Did The Enchanted Journey kill him? Of course it goddamn didn’t, but it’s kind of funny to think about.
So there you have it – an intriguing selection of major Hollywood players who, at one point or another, stuck a toe into the anime business. There’s a small handful of others – Jim Backus’s Gilligan’s Island co-star Russell “The Professor” Johnson narrated Once Upon a Time, a bowdlerized version of the excellent ’80s anime film Windaria. Sadly, I haven’t yet found any anime that features Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr, or Tina Louise. Whose Line Is It Anyway? regular Mike McShane played Vampire Hunter D’s wisecracking talking hand in the VHD: Bloodlust film. And Ardwight Chamberlain, the voice of Kosh from Babylon 5, spent years writing and directing anime like the Unico films and Robotech: The Movie.
So readers, which famous Hollywood actors would you like to see take a crack at dubbing anime? Can you see Ryan Gosling as a hot-blooded super robot pilot, or Jennifer Lawrence as a skilled lady assassin? Or do you just want to hear Nicolas Cage get into the recording booth and do his Nicolas Cage thing? That’s what I want. His role in the lousy Astro Boy CG film is pretty close, but not close enough!
Previously by Mike Toole: