Before 1988, Hollywood had already come up with the idea of mixing live action with animation in the same space; it wasn't a novel idea, although the execution was rudimentary and ultimately less immersive than distracting. One had to suspend their disbelief far beyond the normal limit in order to feel like Gene Kelly was dancing with Jerry Mouse or Julie Andrews was being served by penguin waiters.
Mary Poppins, Anchors Aweigh, and Pete's Dragon might have done it first, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit perfected the art of mixing live action with animation, taking it to a place no one had ever imagined.
Roger Rabbit (an adaptation of Gary K. Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?) changed all the rules by giving cartoon characters tangible and physical impact on our own three-dimensional world — and vice versa. They cast shadows, left tangible marks on physical objects, and, most importantly, had the correct line of eyesight when looking at the human characters.
Set in an alternate version of the 1940s in which cartoons (or "Toons") exist alongside regular people, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a masterstroke from director Robert Zemeckis (hot off his success of Back to the Future at the time) and executive producer Steven Spielberg. The latter helped secure the rights to some of the most iconic characters of all time, and thanks to his efforts, audiences got to see Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny interact with one another for the first time in history.
But it's the original characters, like jaded private eye Eddie Valiant (the late Bob Hoskins) and the delightfully zany Roger Rabbit himself (voiced by Charles Fleischer), who steal the show in this groundbreaking neo-noir that mixes the hard-boiled nature of Jake Gittes with the colorful animation of Fantasia. On paper, it seems like a combination that shouldn't work, but it totally does. There have been plenty of imitators (Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World, anyone?), but there is only one true Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
In honor of the film's 30th birthday, SYFY WIRE caught up with Fleischer to learn about the origin of Roger's iconic voice and the odds of us getting a long-awaited sequel. An established comedian, Fleischer is also a published scientific scholar, having written a paper on gamma rays for Cornell University in 2012. Who says you can't teach an old rabbit new tricks?
How did you end up getting the role of Roger Rabbit?
Bob Zemeckis had seen me do my stand-up. And he asked me to come in and help them audition actors for the Eddie Valiant role to read the character [of Roger] off camera, so someone could react to it. After doing several of those, he offered me the job.
Did you know the movie was going to become the groundbreaking classic that it is considered today?
I was as close to knowing as possible. I was pretty certain it was a rather pedigreed project: Bob Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Richard Williams. Everybody involved was amazingly talented, so I was pretty certain.
Where did the voice of Roger come from? Was it inspired by anything (or anyone) in particular, and how did you shape the character?
Well, I think all characters emanate from the script and the actions and words of the character. In addition to that information, I had a visual of what Roger was gonna look like, so I had to adapt to that. Had he been extremely large, his voice would've had to be deeper, and if he was really little, it would be higher, so those are the parameters of emotional range of the character and the physical dimensions of the character's size.
Did the voice go through any evolutions before you started shooting?
It just got more Roger, and before it started shooting, they asked me to come up with some kind of a speech impediment. And that's where the p-p-p-p-p for the "please" came from.
Is there a reason they wanted that?
All cartoon characters, according to Richard Williams, or most of them, have some kind of speech impediment.
Going off that, what aspects of Roger's character do you most admire?
Oh, I would say the fact that he makes people laugh.
I read somewhere that you'd do your lines on set in a Roger Rabbit suit. Is this true, and do you have any other, fun behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the film that stand out in your mind?
Certainly yes, it is true. I asked them to make me a costume to wear because that's what you do when you're an actor. You go to the set, you go to the trailer, you put on your costume, and I didn't want to be seen wearing the same corduroy pants every day in England. We were filming at Elstree Studios in England around the same time that one of the Superman movies [Superman IV: The Quest for Peace] was being made, and apparently someone from [the] Superman crew saw me walking to the commissary or something and said something to the effect that "This Roger Rabbit movie's not gonna be good, I saw the guy playing Roger Rabbit, he doesn't even look like a rabbit."
Any other anecdotes from the set?
Oh, gee whiz. It was just an incredible experience, standing off-camera with my own mic, watching everything that Bob Hoskins did so that I could essentially project myself into that space, so that if he grabbed me, I would have to react. I called it "Trans-Projectional Acting."
What was it like working with director Robert Zemeckis?
He did actually film me making the "p-p-p-p-p" noise, so that they would know how to animate it.
What was your favorite scene or line of dialogue to record/film?
Well, the whole thing was extraordinary. There was one scene where I'm sitting in an alley on a trash can and lamenting about the fact that Jessica had played Patty Cake [with Marvin Acme], and my youngest daughter is named Jessica, so the name Jessica had an emotional resonance within me that I think allowed me to reach a deeper place of love.
In what ways did you interact with Bob Hoskins or Kathleen Turner to establish a repartee to best deliver your lines?
Kathleen Turner was not there for the principal photography. A woman named Betsy Brantley did that; [Turner] was added later. It was just like doing a regular movie, except I was off-camera.
How do you feel about the film sparking a renewed interest in animation and helping bring about the Disney Renaissance?
I'm proud to be associated with that movie in any capacity. I think it's a classic film, and it still holds up.
If you were to be approached for a sequel all these years later, what would be your response?
When do we start?