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Articles

Billy West as Woody

``I am the red M&M,'' Billy West says proudly. He's not delusional.

West is the scarlet candy's TV commercial voice. He's also the reborn Woody Woodpecker and Fry in the prime-time animated series ``Futurama.'' And he has given the gift of the gab to both Ren and Stimpy and to a variety of Nickelodeon's wee ones.

In a new golden age of animation, West is among the golden voices. Whether he's called on to revive smarty-pants Woody or breathe personality into a chocolate tidbit, the 47-year-old performer is an acoustic ace.

``I guess I'm really lucky because my voice goes all over the place,'' he said. ``I'm able to go to the basement and I'm also able to go up to the stratosphere. It's like having an instrument that's flexible.''

There's artistry in the pipes, sure. But there's more at work here: How do you decide what an inanimate object like snack food might sound like?

``I think you can make a mistake by trying to bring too much science to something like that,'' West replies. ``It's pure fantasy. ... It's your job to be unafraid and to try stuff and to let someone else be the judge of what it is.''

The M&M's voice, for instance, is kind of a ``wise guy me,'' West says. Then he playfully demonstrates in booming tones: ``You have to imagine that I'm sort of a candy-coated Leonardo DiCaprio.''

Revisiting a classic character in ``The Woody Woodpecker Show'' (part of Fox Kids' Saturday morning lineup) works different muscles. The rat-a-tat-tat delivery and laugh originated with Mel Blanc, one of animation's venerable voices and a West hero.

``You have to have some nuances that keep the character rooted in its original foundation,'' West said. He has license to play with the character's sound a bit, but he knows that such assignments are not the path to cartoon immortality.

``You can't be the next Mel Blanc by running around doing Mel Blanc's voices. You have to take every opportunity to attach your name to something you had a hand in fashioning,'' West said.

Which is not to say he has a star complex. In a decidedly anonymous line of acting - ``Most people don't know what I look like, which is fine by me,'' he says - West is simply eager to work steadily and to add to his credits, minor or major.

``I love things the way they are because it's exactly what I dreamed of doing when I was really small,'' he said. As a youngster in Detroit, he was intrigued by TV cartoons and the versatile actors behind them.

``I'd watch a Hanna-Barbera cartoon or a Warner Bros. cartoon and I'd hear upwards of 15 to 20 voices. And then I'd read the credits and under 'Voices' I'd see two names. That's it. And that signified to me that these were very weird, strange people.''

``There was something really cool about that, to be off the map.''

Other actor-comedians who played multiple roles also were ``huge influences,'' he said, rattling off the names of Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and ``Your Show of Shows'' star Sid Caesar.

Expecting radio to be his creative outlet, West began working at WBCN in Boston in 1980, with carte blanche to construct comedy bits and funny commercials. He moved to New York City and station WXRK in 1989, figuring he had reached the pinnacle.

Instead, he was relegated to promoting contests and endlessly reciting ``New York's home of classic rock 'n' roll.''

``It was the same mindless, Novocain, brain-numbing pieces of information over and over again, and I was losing my mind,'' West said.

Then he found an improbable savior.

``Right down the hall was Howard Stern, who was just beginning to bust the walls of conventional radio. ... He was some firebrand on the loose. I thought, 'This is nuts. This is great.' ''

West joined Stern's wayward team as a part-time ``utility infielder,'' doing off-the-wall characters and impressions of politicians and others who ventured into the shock jock's merciless sights.

Stern succeeded by breaking radio's musty rules, West said. ``Howard's show was all unscripted, and he was the first person I ever met who didn't play records to hide behind music.''

After West tried unsuccessfully to join the show full-time, and at the urging of his wife, Violet, he decided on a change. He had already begun doing commercial and series work and gambled that more could be had in Los Angeles.

In 1995, West came West and got a ``couple of series. Then it turned into 10 series.''

A single show can mean several voices. In ``Futurama,'' the 30th-century satire from ``The Simpsons'' creator Matt Groening, West plays a 147-year-old mad scientist, an alien crustacean and a pompous star-ship captain as well as Fry, a young slacker.

``Futurama'' and the rest of Fox's Tuesday night all-animated lineup reflect a craze for cartoonry that is keeping voice actors like West busy - and optimistic that this is only the start.

``I'm beginning to think all prime-time programming will become animated,'' he said. ``People just want different. I don't think they care that it's animated.''

 


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