Lizards & UFO's
How my life led me to voice acting
"Well, how did I get here?"
Voice acting was not an obvious destination for my life. Here are the influences and life events that gradually wove their way into my career.
Early school days:
My "stage debut" was presenting flowers to a homecoming queen candidate at our hometown university in Greeley, Colorado. I was in either kindergarten or first grade. In second grade, I was cast as the title role in the musical "Oliver" at my school. I had a good singing voice and continued doing plays and musicals at my school, at the local university and at the local dinner theater up through high school.
I found I liked being in front of an audience and I liked the "voluntary family" of the stage. Actors as a group were friendly and it was fun making a show together. Theater folk were more worldly and funnier than I was and I liked learning from them. As a group, they seemed to exhibit an honest openness and emotional connection that I sensed I needed to become more confident socially and maybe grow up a bit. I found hanging with stage actors was a great human education.
My musical sensability was helped by my Dad being a music educator who was also a bit of a showoff. I remember him making airplane sounds alone in his studio after we saw the movie "Waldo Pepper." He was always practicing his trombone in his downstairs studio, usually "The Shadow of Your Smile," or "Bolero," or Mozart's Requiem or arpeggios. One year he arranged Christmas carols for my family to sing in five part harmony, sort of a Von Trapp Family vibe. I think my Mom was uncomfortable with the spotlight, so we didn't continue with that. Dad got me interested in music, lending me albums and a reel to reel tape player I used constantly to record radio and television shows. He had tapes and records his music students would give him, giving me my first taste of Frank Zappa, the Beatles and lots of jazz. He got me a decent pair of Sennheiser headphones in high school which I used constantly to listen to radio dramas like "Jack Flanders," "The Hitchiker's Guide," and NPR's "Star Wars" radio dramatization.
My Dad loved two things in particular: playing trombone and fishing. He fished a great deal with his dad and his father-in-law, and often brought me and my brother along. I liked fishing but it didn't become a life fixture for me. What started as live bait fishing transitioned to artificial lures and finally to more artful catch-and-release fly fishing. He also had us hunting ducks, pheasant, doves, geese and even bunnies, but we finally gave that up in favor of seemingly more elegant, peaceful and humane fly fishing. I was relieved, as I found hunting anything but fish as mostly miserable, due to the early hours, freezing mud and, well, dead animals.
My Dad had a rather large box of old magic tricks that he would haul out and occassionally demonstrate to us kids. I loved scanning the Abbots Magic Catalog (it used to be much thicker, he assured me, and just a dime) and I occasionally bought an illusion or perhaps some rubber monster hands. I tried performing magic for a while, but never stuck with it long enough to get any good. I still aspire to gaining proficiency at up-close sleight of hand coin magic. I’ve a nice collection of those kinds of books, which I may eventually get to. I've got a pretty good "french drop," which I’ll trot out now and then at a dinner table, and that's about as far as I ever got in magic.
Halloween and Making Monsters
Halloween was and remains my favorite holiday for many reasons, and I've my Dad to thank for this. Every year my Dad would concoct some kind of Halloween creature effect that he would forewarn us kids about a couple weeks out before executing the plan on Halloween eve. The first run at this was him secretly getting a girl next door to dress up as a ghost and make spooky sounds in our treehouse while he and I were "hunting ghosts" around our house. I was at first scared, then ran up into the tree house and ripped off the sheet to reveal the neighbor girl. I think for me part of this unmasking is key to my love of the holiday. I think I see Halloween as a holiday of "truth" rather than of deceit. The monsters and scary things are all made by humans and harbor a friendly face, or at least someone creating this wicked theater for everyone's amusement. Most choose a fantastical or exaggerated costume or mask that reveals a truth about the wearer that is normally hidden, etc.
Following Halloweens would bring to our home "the Scritchy Scratcher Monster," a startling effect accomplished with a long piece of invisible monofilament fishing line tied to our backdoor screen and its other end being rubbed with a block of resin by my Dad hiding in the bushes. It appeared that someone invisible was scratching on our door. Another year, we came home from trick or treating to find a flaming skull hovering in our back yard. The "Closet Mumbler" was a tape recorder hidden in a closet with a few minutes lead featuring my Dad making horrible sounds that would startle us while we were all eating dinner. Every year was a new monster to look forward to. I devote a good amount of time working on my own Halloween Yard these days, which I detail on my creepyyard.com site.
Making Myself a Monster
My Halloween costumes usually involved me gluing something to myself. I very much craved a professional makeup job so I could appear as a werewolf or an ape from "Planet of the Apes," but made due with Elmer's glue and fake fur, or paper ape jaws I drew and scotch taped to my face.
All of these childhood influences combined to form what was to be a lifetime habit of creativity and performing, as well as a fascination with creating the weird and otherworldly..
Reading lots of sci-fi, fantasy and horror:
I was an enthusiastic reader of sci-fi and fantasy as a kid. My first chapter book was Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which I read in fourth grade. This was followed by a lot of classic sci-fi/fantasy authors, including Clarke, Asimov, Wells, Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Burroughs and Tolkien. The comics I remember buying were Swamp Thing and Iron Man and I owned every "Planet of the Apes" comic ever printed, except one.
My magazines of choice were "Mad Magazine," "Famous Monsters," "Creepy," "Eerie," and as I reached my teens, "Heavy Metal," "Astronomy," "Sky and Telescope," "CineFX," and the science/sci-fi mag "Omni," which I particularly loved. I was also drawn to the oddball illustrations of Edward Gorey, Kliban and Bruce McCall.
Loving sci-fi and fantasy TV, movies and cartoons:
My eventual specialization in creature sounds benefitted from me having seen a lot of fantastical television and movies as a kid: "Star Trek" and "Land of the Lost," "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters," for starters. Later, I got into "The Night Gallery," "The Outer Limits," "The Twilight Zone" and "The Night Stalker" television series. I saw the "Planet of the Apes" movies many times (sometimes all five back-to-back) and I loved Godzilla. Naturally, I watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, my favorites being Looney Tunes and "Johnny Quest."
I wanted to be a performer. I idolized Jimmy, the kid in the Saturday morning kid's show, "H.R. Puffinstuff," and remember being drawn to musicals in general. I still marvel at the talent of Jimmy (Jack Wilde) and Witchipoo (Billy Hayes), with her "all in" commitment to slap stick. The first movie I ever saw was "Dr. Doolittle," which I thought was incredible. I also remember seeing Disney's "The Jungle Book." I was quite broken up when Mowgli ditched the jungle for some girl with an urn on her head. I listened to the "Jungle Book" soundtrack over and over, along with Walt Disney's "Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House" sound effects record, that was actually quite frightening. It was the soundtrack for our basement haunted houses my sister and brother and I often made for each other.
Really pretty much anything with a creature or alien in it I'd hunt down in the T.V. Guide and watch. I was regularly glued to "Project U.F.O.," "Space 1999," and "The Muppet Show." I made an audio tape of the made-for-t.v. movie "Gargoyles" as well as "Planet of the Apes" and listened to those over and over. My favorite television series in high school was "The Prisoner." I remember closely following anything Jim Henson created, especially his Creature Shop work in films like "Dark Crystal" and "Dream Child."
I was also fascinated with trying to replicate special effects I saw on television and in movies. I snapped some photos using forced perspective to make it appear a giant eagle was attacking my friend and another pic that had me holding my miniature brother in my hands. After reading about the making of "The Invisible Man" television series, I painted my hand and arm entirely black and held a cup up in front of some black felt that I had purchased to give the effect of being invisible. I also remember making a diorama in my basement suspending things with black thread to make them appear to be levitating after seeing the movie "Now You See Him, Now You Don't."
Performing with friends:
I remember often making something to perform: One summer in late high school, I made a 40 minute surreal sketch video movie with friends that aired on local PBS for years. It was some of the most fun I'd ever had. We would also make comedy sketches for school talent shows and home town parades. We also produced multi-track comedic audio recordings, inspired by Monty Python and Firesign Theater. I loved Steve Martin and listened to his comedy albums over and over. I liked his intelligence, his wackiness, his fearlessness to do what was outlandish or unexpected on a stage. It looked like incredible fun.
I also enjoyed making wacky audio sketches on my cassette tape recorder. I figured out I could record the sketch with nearly dead batteries and then play it back with fresh batteries to pitch my voice up (a foreshadow to my later career, perhaps).
I also spent a couple years doing ventriloquism, with a Danny O-Day dummy from JC Penny that my Dad modified so its head would rotate. I'd perform at schools and libraries after studying a "how to" record and memorizing crummy ventriloquism patters I purchased.
Getting inspired by summer movies:
I was lucky to be a kid when "summer movies" were invented in the later 70's by Lucas and Spielberg. Naturally, I saw "Star Wars" again and again. The impression this movie made on me with its creativity, vision and fun cannot be overstated. My parents made me an awesome jawa costume the Halloween after "Star Wars" was released, which insured that no one would dance with me at the school Halloween dance, as no one could tell who or what lurked beneath the beady-eyed costume. I was hired the following summer (1978) when "Star Wars" was re-released to dawn the jawa outfit and make jawa sounds all summer long. They paid me in movie passes, which was ideal.
"Star Wars" was probably the first thing I ever saw that made me say "I want to make things like that." I began reading books about special effects and "making of" accounts of fantasy movies and t.v. shows. I drew a lot of aliens and dreamed of helping create seedy space bars full of creatures. The movies dealing with monsters, aliens, werewolves, etc. that were to follow by Spielberg, Zemeckis, Miller, Carpenter, Scott, Kubrick, Cronenberg, Zemeckis, Dante and Landis were as important to me as my books.
On the look out for flying saucers and monsters:
There were a number of odd sightings reported around my home town in the 70's of glowing UFOs, "black helicopters" and even cattle mutilations. I tried unsuccessfully with my telescope to view mysterious orbs of light that were often reported hovering near a local nuclear power plant. I was fascinated with the possibility of real monster and alien sightings and seeing proof of this in my backyard seemed a live possibility, which was very exciting to me.
I remember hoping to read of some conclusive evidence proving monsters and aliens to be real. I'd clip any article or watch any "documentary" offering proof of the weird or otherworldly. I still have some of those clippings. I can't help but think this contributed to my eventual interest in voicing monsters.
I loved biology, astronomy and animals (and still do):
I always liked animals. I loved hunting lizards, tadpoles, snakes and salamanders. If it crawled or slunk, I wanted to capture and study it. My folks usually seemed okay when I brought them home. I remember having at various times frogs, toads, lizards, horned toads, salamanders, a snake, tadpoles, fish, an iguana, leeches and baby catfish. I probably would have tried for a baby alligator, but that would have been to much (people actually had those as pets in the 70's.)
My K through 12 school always had excellent biology teachers and I attended a science camp the summer after my junior year in high school. I was quite interested in televised documentaries featuring Jacques Cousteau, "Wild Kingdom," as well as the PBS series "Nature" and especially "Cosmos." Cousteau and Carl Sagan were and are my heroes. My Dad got me a telescope when I expressed interest in astronomy and I spent my summer nights in high school star gazing in our backyard.
I usually tried to find fossils in the limestone that was plentiful around my home and where we fished in the mountains of Colorado and plains of Wyoming. Seeing a living dinosaur was an intense desire for me as a kid, and movies and t.v. were a way for me to fulfill that need. (When I finally saw the movie "Jurassic Park," later on in my life, I stood up and cheered when the T-Rex broke through its fence). I was transported back to this when I recently saw the marvelous "Walking with Dinosaurs" show.
I keep my love of animals alive these days not only with my voice acting, but with a site I created where I post pictures I take of plants and bugs at: www.deebakerphotography.com.
High School Theater
By my teens, I was doing shows regularly at my school and at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley. I was the go-to boy soprano for musicals and operas at UNC.
I learned to love being on a stage thanks in no small part to the influence of my school's drama teacher, Bob Stach. His office/den tucked under the backstage light cage had a cool bean bag and a lava lamp, as I remember. Our school had a decent dedicated proscenium theater with upstairs storage for set pieces and props ("heaven"). Public schools actually used to have things like that.
For a number of years, Bob oversaw what was the intellectual and creative hub of my high school experience. He had us performing Shakespeare, musicals, dramas and more avante guard stuff as well, even making a movie that we performed in front of for the International Thespian Convention in Muncie, Indiana one year (‘79?). He had us doing yoga, improv, makeup, and reading Stanislawski and Uta Hagen. He spoke with us as adults, not kids. I remember him letting two girls perform "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" with pregnancy pillows stuffed under their dresses at the end-of-year Drama Department dinner. I thought our principle's bugging eyes would fall out.
Bob even showed us Fellini (Was it "Casanova?") and Polanski's "MacBeth" on the down-low and had it in mind for us to mount a production (so to speak) of "Marat Sade," but thought better of it. He cast me as the Stage Manager in "Our Town" my freshman year (sadly, it was cancelled when the light board short circuited during a rain storm). My senior year I played Tevye (in braces) in "Fiddler on the Roof," and also the psychiatrist lead in the play "Equus." It was a fantastic yet challenging experience. It was perhaps a bit overwhelming, having to go crazy every night after all those pages of memorized dialogue. I ended up baking the "Equus" script in a cake after the play wrapped and auctioning it off at a charity even for our theater. I really wanted that thing out of my mind and my house! Perhaps this was a good indication that I didn't want to be a "regular" stage actor who had to memorize a lot of lines and dredge up my worst demons for public consumption on a stage. Too much agony and work, not enough fun for me.
I realize now that a fair amount of Bob's curriculum would not fly these days, at least in public education. His wasn't a "high school" drama program, it was just a drama program. I don't think he taught it differently from his university classes. He exposed us to a love of the artistic heart of theater, it's tradition and craft and sense of community. I wouldn't be the actor I am today without his influence. Sadly, Bob died far too young after I graduated and I didn't hear about his funeral until well afterwards. I would have liked to have reconnected and thanked him before he departed.
My teen years:
I wasn't particularly adept by being "social" and never had many friends, though I'd say I was generally well liked. High school felt like I was spinning my wheels and I mostly wanted to get past it to college. I'd say I saw my teen-self as an geeky outsider and I probably used performing to find social connection, confidence and respect I wasn't able to earn through typical channels of sports or partying (both of which I avoided). I saw the stereotypical teen life as a game rigged against me. My solution was to keep my head low and keep company with what I liked and the few friends I had who felt the same. I never stood out athletically and I refused to submit to hazing rituals to get a letter jacket. Throughout high school I was an avid long distance runner, which I probably liked for its solitary nature.
What I most wanted was to read, act and watch PBS documentaries and sci-fi/monster movies. I took an American Lit college course my junior year of high school that convinced me I was ready for college. I spent a lot of time watching art house movies at the university and playing primitive computer games at its library computer center. I taught myself to program in BASIC and even learned some FORTRAN, which I considered ridiculous because it consisted of feeding punch cards into a computer.
I never really acted out or rebelled and I processed much of my teenage angst and growing pains by writing in a diary. I did this on a daily basis from second grade to well into my thirties. It still write in a journal, a kind of self-therapy (I’ve never done real therapy). I think this habit of digesting my day's events and listening to my inner self probably helped me be a better actor and probably provided a therapeutic assist in sorting myself out.
Allowance and lawn mower money was mostly used to buy books, magazines, movie tickets and an occasional 45 record. I didn't have enough spare change to get any good at the arcade video games. Not much else appealed to me as a teen. I didn't want the trouble of owning a car, which was no problem since I didn't go to concerts or date much. My folks gave me my first car upon graduating college. Before then I just used my bike or feet, which was fine with me. I never liked the physical work I had to do to earn my fun money. I saw mowing yards as kind of pointless-- I never really understood the focus on owning and maintaining a yard, but it was the only way I saw to make any money, so I did it. I would also occasionally stack hay at a friend's grand father's farm in the summer, which felt honest and exhausting. It paid well and I enjoyed some of the best fresh food I’ve ever eaten.
Generally, I made good use of my time in high school, but, unlike college, I probably wouldn't want to repeat that chapter.
Having no particular aspirations or expectations to hem me in at a young age:
I always did very well academically, but I never had any particular career in mind. As a little kid, I thought I might be a paleontologist. Beyond that, I don't think I ever seriously entertained any specific career goals until well after college.
I would have liked to explore a career in special effects makeup or creature design, I just had no idea how to go about that. I was fascinated with the work of creature creators Rob Bottin and Rick Baker in the 80's. I thought of acting more as a hobby. I had no idea voice acting existed as a career until I was in my late twenties.
Pursuing what I liked in college, not what I thought would bring me money:
After getting awarded a Boettcher Scholarship which paid entirely for any in-state education, I decided to attend a small liberal arts college (The Colorado College), majoring in Philosophy, probably due mostly to having read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" a few too many times. I had an absolute blast in college and got everything out of it I could. I spent a year studying Philosophy in Germany on a language scholarship. I almost completed a minor in German, but didn't see the need to get certified in the language, since I didn't want to teach or translate professionally. I just enjoyed the world of literature, music, science and philosophy the German language opened up for me. The German education system was too stuffy and formal for me. My style was more eclectic and informal.
I can probably be accurately described as a dilettante. I've always preferred dabbling to serious academic excavation (too much work and I get bored). I got interested in biology and briefly considered pursuing it as a career. A class in Chemistry 101-102 bought me to tears and cured me of any desire to become a medical doctor. I found I lacked the focus to become a serious Bio or science student. I wanted to try so many things and resisted specializing. My favorite college classes, aside from my major and German, were Invertebrate Zoology, Cell Bio and Art classes. I was pretty much a poster child for liberal arts.
I took only one "acting class" while at college but performed in lots of plays, musicals, choirs, open mics, and made more audio tape sketches, improv and sketch comedy. I co-wrote a full-length musical with a buddy under a college grant (oddly, from the English department), which we performed main stage at our college. I didn't want to be a career stage actor or a teacher or director so I didn't want to study "Acting." Acting for me was always something you did, not something you "studied" or wrote about. Luckily, the head of my college's drama department, Jim Malcolm was very supportive and welcomed giving non-drama majors stage time and opportunity. He also welcomed in the outside world so real world performers and creators could share their experiences, which was invaluable.
I studied things in college because I liked them, not because I was necessarily good at them, or thought I would one day earn money doing them. I did well with my grades and was highly engaged and involved with all sorts of things that didn't seem to point anywhere in particular. Without financial or parental pressure, this was ideal for a self-motivated kid.
It turned out, most of what seemed either impractical or incidental in my college education ended up eventually feeding directly back into my career (as well as my enjoyment of life in general!).
Performing after college:
I graduated college with no career aspirations or plan whatsoever, which didn't seem to bother me. Luckily, my parents supported my seeming lack of practical direction or goals, and my scholarship insured I didn't emerge from college saddled with debt, so I didn't feel pressured to sign on for some horrible soul-crushing job, nor to leap into some practical career choice out of fear. I knew what I liked doing and I also knew was that I didn't want to work in an office. My liberal arts schooling had taught me to listen to myself and pursue what I loved. I kept doing just that.
After graduating, I continued performing any way I could, doing stand up, singing telegrams, improv, children's theater, caroling, summer Shakespeare and even a stint as a mall Santa. It was all interesting and fun, some of it paid (at least a little) and I learned a great deal from this variety of stage experience. I still considered this all a hobby. Really, there was little to my life but hobbies, apparently.
I spent a few years doing stand up as a duo with a good buddy from college, Aaron Shure (now a television writer in L.A.). My half of the act was mostly me making weird sounds and odd physical characterizations. Aaron was obviously a terrific comedy writer and we liked assembling off-the-wall performance ideas that we put on stage. What we had was unique and pretty great-- for five or ten minutes, at least. Stand up was exciting and creative but the writing and driving around took a lot of time, plus it typically paid nothing. It was many hours of work for maybe ten minutes of fun. The clubs were smokey, managers and owners stand offish and audience not always all that bright, I thought. After a couple years of fun, I saw some headliners who were brilliant but miserably trapped in their routines and I decided to turn away from stand up. It led to what struck me as a repetitive, lonely on-the-road existence. Stand up ultimately presented more restraints and roadblocks than good times. It’s a great arena to learn many essential performing skills, though.
Stand up aside, I started making wacky performance-art sketches for local radio and stage with two other buddies I met doing children's theater, which was also great fun, but also brought no dough. I produced multi track audio background to our surreal shows. We called ourselves "Regulex," a high-concept sketch group that was supposedly a failed children's theater troupe from a post-apocalyptic 1984-type future. The "Regulex Group" supposedly had a regular gig in a giant decaying shopping mall--three miles long and 27 stories high-- called "Mondo Mart," which nobody was allowed to leave. It was surrounded by a deserted wasteland patrolled by a gang of carnies lead by a clown named "Dunk Bozo." In any case, our Regulex Group opened for a traveling NPR sketch comedian, "Ask Doctor Science," and we killed at my college. We appeared on my college’s radio and a few open mic nights at a local pub, but that was as far as it all went.
Children's theater was creative, involved improv and the audiences were great. It was also the first decent paying performance work I did after college. I spent a few years with a children's theater company in Colorado Springs performing their Winter shows at a theater and summer shows in various parks around the city. The shows were fun, the camaraderie was terrific. I also met the girl who was to be my wife there.
I liked the social interaction and artistry of more straight ahead stage acting you find in community theater as well, but all the memorizing, rehearsing and performing was a big time commitment and it paid nothing. Legit stage acting still struck me as a hobby. I recognized it probably didn't lead to a sustainable career, at least for me. One community theater production of "The Cherry Orchard" I was cast in was cancelled after weeks of rehearsing when a couple cast members couldn't make all the rehearsals. That was it on that.
My first exposure to "professional stage actors," left me less than impressed. Some "pros" (visiting paid actors) I got to work with in a summer production of "Twelfth Night" came off as prima donnas, and they weren't particularly nice. One of these well-paid "peacocks" made character choices that fell way flat in the final performances. In addition to acting duties, the rest of us non-paid locals did the stage work which the "pros" refused to do. Another (a Brit, who was nice enough, but kinda stuffy) assured me that the only way I could become an actor was to study at a conservatory, and encouraged me to do that. It just didn't feel right for me and because of my varied experience, I didn't suffer the misconception that "Acting" can only mean one path. It had always been for me many things. Besides, I didn't think I was serious about it anyway-- I was just having fun. A lot of fun, actually. Thankfully, I ignored his advice.
I continued performing, doing a year in an educational puppet musical for Kaiser Permanente that played in Denver schools, along with more stand up, improvised audio tapes, sketch comedy and a stint performing Dr. Seuss stories for kids at the Denver Kids Museum. All was a blast, and I was earning a living as a performer. I had fun and was able to pay the rent, buy books and movie tickets and dinner with my girlfriend. Not bad. I was beginning to see that performing could work as a way to earn a living, at least for a while, I thought.
Putting it together:
Looking back, I think I was lucky to have a pragmatic filter that didn't overwhelm my sense of openness and exploration. I can remember assessing each kind of performing I tried-- Do I like the kind of people I am working with? Do I like where this kind of work leads? Is this fun? Is it fulfilling? What does this demand of my time? Does it make me feel good doing this? How can I make this work financially? Am I any good at this? Can I get good enough at this to sustain a life I'd like to live? What is the "lifestyle" this kind of performing offers? Do I enjoy the process of gaining experience and getting better at this? What would this look like for me doing this in five, ten, twenty years?
Fortunately, though my questions were concrete, my stance towards life was essentially improvisational.
I wasn't in any particular hurry, which I think is part of why I tried so many kinds of performing. Each new performance experience was a kind of experiment to help me select where to step next and what to avoid. As I moved into my later twenties, I began to view my performing as a kind of career moving towards a more specific future.
Moving to a bigger market (Orlando) and learning even more:
I was always up for trying something new that might be more fun. After booking an open call audition for comedians in Denver in 1989, I moved to Orlando to open a sketch/improv show at Disney World's EPCOT Center in the Fall of 1989 called "The Anicomical Players." I also transitioned into doing street theater shows at EPCOT's "World Showcase." I was also hired in 1990 to be the first walk-around Beetlejuice look-alike at the newly opened Universal Studios, Florida. Meanwhile, I began performing lead roles in musicals at the Orlando Civic Theater and varsity improv shows with SAK Theater (some of the most fun I've ever had on stage was with that gang!). Good improv training was invaluable to my career and my life in so many ways! There was ample opportunity to gain experience in the Orlando market and I took full advantage of it all.
Also important-- I studied singing while in Orlando with Manny Lujan for a few years and began booking occasional voice over gigs. My voice and stage confidence continued to strengthen and stretch.
Voice overs gradually emerged as a career goal around this time as I moved past my twenties. I think my Mom held out hope that I'd come to my senses and become a lawyer (lots of those in my family tree back in Indiana). Fortunately this never happened. It think it’s easy to become a prisoner of what you’re good at. I had the skill set, but would have been miserable, I think.
Things were going very well in Orlando, with lots of fun ways for a performer to earn a decent, steady living while earning health and life insurance, all of which was rather rare for an American performer. I began to see it was as good as it was going to get for me in Florida, which was very good. But I didn't feel it was good enough.
One of my very best decisions: Getting Married
The collaboration of marriage added stability and focus through the ups and downs of a freelance acting career. It’s not easy to get very far (or for very long) in this business alone, without a tribe or a supportive partner to share the effort and weather the uncertainties. Having steady, “normal” relationships is of great benefit to a performer who is paid to be vulnerable and take chances. I was very lucky to have found such a terrific launch (and life) partner.
A freelance career such as acting offers no certainty-- it takes time (years?) to get traction and you rarely enjoy the guarantee of a contract for more than a day. Being an actor always felt to me a bit like walking the plank-- you never know when or if your next opportunity or gig will appear. Success only lengthens the plank you walk, but it's still a plank.
By now, I'm quite used to the fixed presence of uncertainty that accompanies my career. It is a much easier effort when you have backup and understanding on the home front.
Finally taking the calculated risk of moving to the biggest market-- Los Angeles:
In the early 90's, I landed my first television series in Orlando, with the Nickelodeon gameshow, "Legends of the Hidden Temple" (voicing "Olmec" and various characters in the legends as well as reading prize copy). Getting paid the best money I'd ever made to have fun as a voice actor in a live recording was a revelation for me. I took the advice of the show's host, Kirk Fogg, to check out Los Angeles as a next step in my career. After one visit, I sensed the blue sky opportunity I craved in a city that offered the kind of work I was ready to do. So, I handed in my resignation at Disney World and headed out to L.A. with my wife in late 1993. We never looked back.
My wife supported us doing temp work and after about a year I was able to earn a sustainable living as an actor so she could quit. I was employing my improv and stand up skills to book a fair number of on-camera commercials, as well as a gig as Beetlejuice at a rock-n-roll review at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. I got cast in a couple student films and studied on-camera acting with Stuart Robinson for a few years and found his pragmatic insight and guidance very helpful. The first few years in L.A. I spent trying out on-camera television acting (including a fun recurring role on Nickelodeon's scripted series, "The Journey of Allen Strange") while also beginning to book animation voice over work. It was all fun to me, but I liked voice acting the best.
My first animated series was "Cow and Chicken" (as "Dad") and I learned a huge amount from working with the incredible veteran VO cast and creators of that show. My first major film role was Daffy Duck and Taz in "Space Jam," which allowed me to flex my vocal as well as improv muscles. I proceeded to book work on other great shows-- "Sponge Bob: Squarepants" and "Fairly Oddparents" at Nickelodeon as well as "Power Puff Girls," "Johnny Bravo," and "Billy and Mandy," at what was to become Cartoon Network. With this work, I established myself as a strong "utility" player with good character range in mostly comedic roles.
Focusing on voice overs and specializing in creature sounds:
As my voice over career picked up steam, I decided to stop my on-camera efforts and focus exclusively on voice overs, since it became clear that I couldn't realistically pursue success in both. voice overs was the most amount of fun and money for the least amount of effort for me. On-camera auditioning took a lot of time and when you booked a gig, they had you exclusively-- unlike voice-overs, which was quicker and provided more freedom and variety. With experience, I began expanding beyond my default comedic "comfort zone" to include animal and monster sounds-- something that resonated for me from my youth and my days in stand up. Having done a good amount of children's theater, stand up and improv, I had no issues of modesty or shyness when experimenting with making new odd or hideous sounds while driving around L.A. I looked ridiculous but I loved it. My menagerie of sounds expanded.
The more I focused on expanding my non-human sound repetoire, the more I worked in that area and the more I enjoyed it. I did a number of creatures for WB's "Teen Titans," and then for Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series, one of my very favorite shows ever. I also began booking video games doing inhuman sounds for titles like "Doom 3," "Gears of War," "Left for Dead 2," the "Halo" series and later "Portal 2, "World of Warcraft," and "Diablo 3." It helped that I also happened to be a tech-head and loved gaming.
Moving past self-impose limits:
One of the things I had learned in acting, stand up and improv was that mere obedience didn't "book the gig." A great example of this: I had the opportunity to audition for a new Fox animated series called "American Dad" which needed a French talking goldfish. I knew other voice actors who could give a great French read, but I chose to go with with a German accent instead. It wasn't what they asked for, but I felt this version would give them my best take on this character. The audacious audition choice seemed to fit the tone I sensed from the network and the show creators. I stuck with the German read, even when they considered recasting the show's pilot and never offered a French fish, even though they were still considering it. I booked the role that was to be renamed "Klaus." I received an Emmy nomination for that role in 2017. In 2019, we are now thrilled to be recording a fifteenth season of that show. Incredible!
Finally, I began booking more "straight ahead" dramatic roles as well-- roles I would never have considered myself right for in earlier days-- most notably, the clone soldiers in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" series, which earned me an Annie nomination. Voicing the subtle variations of the clone soldiers was one of the most challenging and satisfying projects ever, bringing me back around to a creative universe that was so exciting to me as a kid. I then also provided a villainous character, Tarrlok, in "The Legend of Korra" series, of which I was particularly proud.
In conclusion, I’d say I’ve learned that life and work are best approached from an improvisational stance. If you are open to experimentation you may be able to find the intersection of what you love and what you’re good at. You never know where enthusiasm or hobbies can lead if you follow them and allow them to decant, and maybe take root. I feel so very lucky for the life that has found me.
Click for: Dee's IMDB credits, Dee's demos, Twitter: @deebradleybaker