To hear voice actor Jim Cummings' everyday voice, you'd never know there's a menagerie of instantly recognizable characters residing inside him, only just an inflection away. But ask him to conjure one up, and suddenly from the gentle-voiced guy with the well-groomed mustache comes the indelible voice of Winnie-the-Pooh or the beloved Tigger, and, sometimes, even the Cajun swagger of Leatherhead from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Those characters, plus literally hundreds more, have kept the former Catholic school cut-up from Youngstown, Ohio, incredibly busy.
While he's also an actor and musician, specifically a drummer, Cummings has made his mark as a voice artist for film and television for 33 years. Even as a kid, he remembers aspiring to be the "one doing something weird." He says getting reprimanded by frustrated teachers "was me probably, unknowingly, building research, or building characters in my head for my adult career. I always say, I turned monkey hour into a career. And now they don't mind if I do dolphin noises."
However, he admits to SYFY WIRE, he knew it was a career that he could aspire to when, as a kid, his dad pointed out legendary voice actor Mel Blanc to him while they were watching The Jack Benny Show. "I was maybe 4 years old and he said, 'You see this guy? He's the guy who does all the cartoon character voices. Bugs Bunny and Daffy and the rest of them.' And I go, 'No kidding. Nobody's telling him to go stand in a corner.' So, I thought, 'I'm going to do that.'"
Fast-forward six decades later, and Jim Cummings is indeed doing that in Disney's Christopher Robin, in which he reprises the voice roles of Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger; characters he's been playing since 1987 and 1989, respectively. He breaks into both voices in the almost magical span of a breath, as he explains, "I always do Pooh first, because he's a little feathery. And Tigger is a little rougher. Pooh is up there, so it helps that they're far apart."
Sitting down with SYFY WIRE to reflect on his extraordinary career, Cummings says leaving Ohio to work in New Orleans before landing in Anaheim, California, helped him attune his ear to regional accents, which in turn expanded his repertoire of potential characters.
What were you doing in Louisiana when you went down there?
I was in New Orleans as a deckhand on a riverboat for years. I remember there was this guy, Leonce LeBlanc, from Napoleonville [said with thick Cajun accent]. That was how he talked. I'm not bragging, but I'm telling you that's a dead-on impression of this guy. It was his last time on the river. He was 78. He was retiring. He was on the Old Dutch and he says, "I can't believe my last trip on this river, they done send me a little Yankee college boy. What am I gonna did with you?" I said, "Well, I'm not in college." He goes, "Well, you better go. 'Cause you ain't going to make it on this boat, no. But I'm gonna taught you how to make them red bean and rice before you get off here." So, when I tell everybody I make riverboat red beans and rice, I mean I make riverboat red beans and rice.
And he inspired your future voices?
Yeah, two that pop up were Ray from The Princess and the Frog, and another character from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles way back in the day is Leatherhead, the evil Cajun alligator who got exposed to the Terrigen Mist. He was an alligator, but he was from down there Louisiana. That was the voice that I heard down there when I was a deckhand. So, yeah, I had no idea I was doing research. I thought I was just eating.
Did you know anyone in the voice acting field when you moved to California?
I didn't know anyone. I was working in a video store. My sister and brother-in-law had a chain of video stores in the early '80s in Anaheim Hills, and so I made my first demo tape. I just made it all up. I got done with that tape, and I gave it to a customer who had made a B-movie, Sole Survivor. Sal Romeo was the only person I knew. He gave it to Don Bluth, who made The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail. He called like a week later, and goes, "Hey, kid. You don't suck. I'm not doing anything, but I'll hold on to your tape." It sounded like, "Don't call me, and I'm not calling you."
But a couple weeks later, Frank Brant called from Left Coast Productions, and they were gearing up to do Dumbo's Circus for Disney Channel. Disney Channel just started, so they had to have content. I went up, and I auditioned. I got the job of Lionel the lion and that was my first entry into the business.
We were doing two shows a week, and I was making about 250 bucks more during that eight hours a week than I was in the 60 hours I was pulling at the video depot. It took like a year and a half to get through the schedule, but by then I had an agent. So my goal of being a waiter was foiled. (Laughs)
The voice artist circle is a small, intimate one. Did anyone in your peer circle give you any memorable advice as you came up the ranks?
The VO community is not the same as the on-camera people. There's not much jealousy, or back-biting, or eye-rolling. The great Frank Welker has been my buddy since almost day one. I remember my agent called me up and said, "Frank Welker said that Disney should call you because he was doing this thing and he wasn't feeling it."
It ended up being Ed in The Lion King.
That's wonderful that he passed such an amazing gig over to you.
We all do that. I've done that with people, too. Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Jeff Bennett, Eric Bauza, and nowadays Tress MacNeille and Tara Strong are all wonderful. I'm going to stop because I'll leave somebody out, and that'll be no fun because I could be here all day. I mean from June Foray on down.
It's not always a given on any voice project that you'll get to record with the whole voice cast. Do you have a preference?
It's just better when the whole cast is there. It's more organic. You get to ping-pong that energy. It is alive and you can feel it. It contributes greatly.
One that pops up all the time is Carol Channing came to do Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers, and it was going to be "Hello, Doggy." She and Monterey Jack, my character, were floating down this river, and it was sort of a tip of the hat to African Queen. She showed up, and she's Carol Channing, and she was amazing. She was also Grandmama in The Addams Family, [for] which I was Lurch. But the very first time I met her was at Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers, and bless her heart, she showed up in a starched white blouse. It sounded like somebody folding a newspaper and the engineers [were going] crazy. She also has five pounds of jewelry on each arm, and she sounds like a brass band coming down the street. She's ching, ching, ching, ching-ing and she sounds like jingle bells. So, he's mic-ing her, and mic-ing her but she's moving around [during her takes]. And so he said, "I don't know what to do." And she says [Cummings in Channing voice], "Oh, don't worry about it." And she takes it off.
Yup, takes it off. I'm sitting there and she's got on her brassiere, saying, "Oh, this is marvelous. This is beautiful. Let's record now." (Laughs)
Let's talk about some of the projects you've worked on, and give me your first thoughts when I say them. Freakazoid.
Oh, damn fine. Paul Rugg's amazing and [creator] Tom Ruegger.
I was Hammerhead, recently, and the Shocker back in the '80s, so I'm a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
You're also the narrator for Animaniacs.
Many times, yes
What was your reaction when you found out it's coming back?
Oh, that's kind of cool. I wasn't in a ton of Animaniacs. I wasn't a series regular, but just doing different things. I almost got to make fun of myself when they went to the Hundred Acre Wood. And I was in the one where they did a knockoff of The Lion King, too, and it was called "The Tiger Cub." We're all singing in the background, "We know that it's just a lotta walla. We're the people singing in the background."
You did the Tasmanian Devil, too, so I wanted to ask, range-wise, is he in the Tigger vocal space?
No. With Taz, it's a little different. Taz is unlike anybody. I always say I'm Winnie-the-Pooh and he's anti-Pooh because you can't get much further away.
Are there any characters that kill your voice?
Taz is one. It doesn't kill me, per se, but I mean, when we did Taz-Mania, we did like a hundred of them, and I requested, "Please can we do this Friday afternoon?"
You mentioned that you voiced Pooh first for Christopher Robin, and then you do Tigger. Do you need to separate the characters during the day for your performance headspace?
No. I can understand how it would feel that way, but I take my work seriously, not myself seriously. (Laughs)
And I've got my own rhythm in my head, so I know where I'm going with it. There was a show, Bonkers, that I did, and I was Bonkers and his human counterpart, Lucky Piquel. They constantly interrupted each other. And I think I might've accidentally invented a way to do this because I would record all of Bonkers, and in my head, I've got the response coming from Lucky Piquel. Record that, play it back, and insert Lucky. I did it in my headphones, and that's how we did it.
You have kids. How did they respond to your voices?
I remember I'd just gotten the job doing the Big Bad Wolf. In our house, we had the Three Little Pigs storybook, and so I was reading to my daughter [in voice]. And she said, "Dad, will you just please just read the book?" I was like, "You little weasel. You better hope I keep doing these. They're going to put you through college." And they did, and she doesn't mind it now. (Laughs)
Bringing it back to Pooh and Tigger, how do they rank in your pantheon of voices?
Well, they're on their own shelf. They're definitely tied for first place, so I can't separate them.