The first time I met June Foray was in 1994 at the San Diego Comicon, which back then was only huge and not the jaw-droopingly massive event it's become. It would have been easy to be intimidated by the woman whose voice had been an actor to millions of American childhoods — after all, she had worked with Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and Jay Ward and Stan Freberg and Steve Allen ANDRod Serling — but she was a charming and unpretentious woman. I remember sitting in her hotel room with June and her sister, who treated me as though I was a friend of the family, right down to offering me a drink of grape juice.
Some years later, after I became publisher of Nostalgia Digest, it dawned on me that an article about June's life and career would be a great addition to our pages — and what better way to get such a story than by talking to the woman herself?
June was in her nineties at this point and still sharp, still funny and still fulsome in her praise for the people with whom she worked — and, as you'll see, she worked with nearly everybody. When the article appeared int he Winter 2010 issue of Nostalgia Digest, June sent a lovely handwritten note of thanks — and probably got right back to work.
June Foray was a lovely, talented, tireless, gracious person. We'll miss her terribly, but we'll always be grateful we had the chance to let her know how loved she was.
-- Steve Darnall, publisher, Nostalgia Digest Magazine
No matter what time of year you need a voice...
IT'S ALWAYS JUNE
Looking over her resume, it makes perfect sense that June Foray would title her recent autobiography Did You Grow Up With Me, Too?
After all, she’s been acting professionally for three-quarters of a century. A lot of generations have grown up during that time — and most of them, whether they knew it or not, did so with June Foray’s voice as part of the soundtrack. In recent years, she was the voice of Grandmother Fa in Disney’s animated feature Mulan (and its sequel). Before that, there was the voice of Jokey Smurf on The Smurfs. Prior to that, of course, were some truly legendary voices: Rocket J. Squirrel (and his longtime nemesis, Natasha Fatale), Witch Hazel, Little Blue Riding Hood, Chatty Cathy (and her sinister relation, Talky Tina)...
But before her celebrated career in animation and records and television, there was radio — and Lady Make-Believe.
Actually, before all of that, there was June Foray, a six-year-old who lived in Boston with a family she described as “very eclectic people; they took us to operas and movies and we spent hours at the library reading...I’ve always been an omnivorous reader.”
Foray’s fascination with the language led her to discover the writings of Shakespeare and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (author of The Rivals) “and the comedies of Elizabethan days. I would read about Mrs. Malaprop, who probably wanted a facelift, and Cyrano [de Bergerac] —who, if he had heard about facelifts, would definitely have wanted one.
“I think that helped my career,” she says of her literary background, “because when I told my mother and father — and I was six years old — that I wanted to be an actress, they were incredulous.”
She laughs, but it wasn’t long before she was making good on her goal. “Well, my teacher had a radio show and I was on it. Then, there was a weekly radio show on WBZA, the local station. They had a group of actors, and I had the hubris to call them and say ‘Hey, look! I can do all these acting jobs, dialects and things’ — and they hired me!”
When June’s family moved to California, she was 17 and Los Angeles was just beginning to establish itself as a radio hub. It wasn’t long before June had drawn upon her resources (and her moxie) to land a job in Los Angeles radio as the author and host of a radio show for children called Lady Make-Believe.
“I was on about three times a week,” June recalls. “[With] all original stories...oh, gosh, about a little girl who’s lost in the woods and a little character helps her find her way home. I never said, ‘Do this,’ or ‘Do that’ but there was always a moral to it. You know, be good and helpful and compassionate.” The show was sustaining (that is, without a sponsor), which meant little (if any) money for Foray, but it was a foot in the door in a city that was always looking for talent — and, as Foray notes, Lady Make-Believe has enjoyed a long shelf-life, even when she wasn’t actually on the shelf.
“When we had the earthquake out here in 1994,” she adds, “My scripts for Lady Make-Believe fell off the shelves. I read them, recorded six, and sold them to Ted Turner for 10,000 bucks!”
A happy ending to the Lady Make-Believe saga? Well, eventually, yes. As Foray recalls, it wasn’t long after the sale that “Warner Brothers and AOL bought Turner, and everything Turner wanted to do, they didn’t. They wanted me to return the $10,000, and when I didn’t, they said ‘Well, you’re going to have to wait a couple of years [to get them back],’ and I did. And now they’re mine!”
While Foray is happy to claim Lady Make-Believe as her own, she was equally happy when it came time to contribute her talents to the war effort. “I was writing war dramas for the Office of Civilian Defense. I didn’t get any money; it was my contribution to the war. And a lot of radio actors said, ‘You should be doing national radio,’ and they told me what to do, in terms of auditions.”
And, because we’re talking about June Foray, it wasn’t long before she started landing roles on network shows. Ironically, given that she become so closely associated with comedy, her first network gig was on a 1943 broadcast of Cavalcade of America, the DuPont company’s look at pivotal moments and people from American history. As she recalls, such dramatic material was the rule, rather than the exception, in those early years.
“Oh, I did a lot of drama!” she exclaims. “I did Lux Radio Theater, I did Sherlock Holmes...I loved everything I did. And do. I’m an actor, and I’m an innovator, I think, inventing voices.”
Given the work involved, “inventing” is an appropriate word. The time constraints involved in the writing and production of a weekly show meant that radio directors didn’t have the luxury of sitting down with each actor to discuss their characters and motivations (especially for those actors who might turn up playing two or three roles in a single story). As a result, Foray says, “We’d get a script and go in and read it and do it!...and in the days before tape, we’d do a show here at five o’clock, so the east would get it at eight. Then we’d come back at eight and do the same show for the west coast.
“Sometimes,” she laughs, “the actors would go to Brittingham’s and get drunk and be a little tipsy [during the second show], because they had three hours to kill.”
For June Foray, killing time wasn’t a big issue; not only was her radio work keeping her busy, but her gift for voices (particularly her skill with dialects) was getting attention outside of radio as well — most notably from animator Tex Avery (you’ll hear an uncredited Foray in Red Hot Riding Hood and Swing Shift Cinderella) and Alan Livingstone, a young executive at a fledgling record label named Capitol.
In the late 1940s, Capitol was making inroads into the pop market (particularly through the recordings of Johnny Mercer and Nat “King” Cole), but they were equally successful among the younger crowd, thanks in part to a series of records that featured the animated creations of the Disney and Warner Bros. studios (neither studio had their own record imprints at that time). Here, Foray found herself working alongside the likes of cartoon veterans like Mel Blanc and a young actor named Stan Freberg.
“Oh, a charming man,” Foray recalls of her first encounter with Freberg. “Very accomplished [and a] nice personality.” Still, as she once pointed out, “I never realized when I talked to him that he had that wonderful, cynical, funny quality to him, because he’s so serious when he talks to you.” In fact, behind Freberg’s horn-rimmed glasses lurked one of our nation’s most beloved satirists. He would demonstrate that talent in full public view over the next decade, and June Foray would be an integral part of the ride.
But Stan Freberg wasn’t the only up-and-coming comic mind to realize the genius of June Foray. As she recalls, “I was doing radio and a young lady, another actress, said, ‘You know, there are a couple of guys from Arizona, and they’re looking for a lady who can do a lot of voices. I’m just an ingenue; I can’t do any other voice. Why don’t you call them?’ So I did, and they hired me immediately.”
The “guy from Arizona” was Steve Allen. Allen had earned some fame as a disk-jockey in Phoenix but wanted to try his luck in Los Angeles. The result was Smile Time, a daily 15-minute morning show that would showcase Allen’s gently off-kilter sense of humor.
“[Steve] wrote it, and he’d sit at the piano and play,” Foray recalls, “and a man called Wendell Noble — they called him ‘Manuel Labor’ — he sang. I was Junie the girlfriend, and I would do all kinds of voices and dialects. I heard [a recording of] myself when I was doin’ an Irishwoman.”
It should be noted that she illustrates her point with a pretty effective brogue. “You know, my husband was a first generation Irishman,” she laughs. “My [married] name is Donovan!”
The show lasted for three years. “I got $25 a show, which at that time was a lot of money for me, because it was $125 a week. That wasn’t bad.”
It also cemented a longtime friendship with Steve Allen; years later, when Foray was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, “Steve was my main speaker. He was just wonderful and told a lot of jokes. Then he looked at me and said, ‘You know, you really do look like a squirrel.’”
Of course, for June Foray, the role of Rocket J. Squirrel was still a decade away. In the meantime, she had to “settle” for Walt Disney. Seriously, although she’s been a staple of cartoon acting for most of her life, it was 1950 when she began that career in earnest, after the Disney people cast her in Cinderella as the voice of Lucifer the Cat.
“I didn’t have any dialogue,” she recalls, “but my gosh, I was working for Walt Disney and that was something!
“You know, I worked with them for years and never met Walt?” she adds. “But he loved what I did. He’d always say ‘Call June.’”
The Disney people certainly had other uses for this versatile actress, although she still recalls one particularly unusual request.
“I had done the voice of the Indian Squaw in Peter Pan, and the casting director called me and said ‘Would you like to work again on Peter Pan?’ I said ‘Yeah, I’d love it,’ and he said ‘Well, bring your bathing suit.’”
Foray laughs at the memory. “I thought, ‘What in the world does that man want?’ You’d heard about the casting couch...but I brought it anyway and they rotoscoped me and Margaret Kerry [who was rotoscoped more frequently for the role of Tinker Bell] and another lady whom I don’t know as the mermaids. So one of the mermaids looks like me!”
Once she broke into the world of animation, Foray’s career skyrocketed. Tex Avery (who was over at MGM) brought her in for a number of his cartoon shorts, and Disney used her voice for Hazel the Witch. Still, when she hooked up with Warner Bros.’ Looney crew, it was a match made in heaven. One could spend an entire page listing the voices that Foray was responsible for, but two of the most legendary were Witch Hazel (who was “terribly afraid of growing pretty”) and Granny, the longtime protector of Tweety Bird. These characters have been part of Foray’s life for 50 years, which makes it all the more ironic that both roles originated with actress Bea Benaderet (whose many roles included telephone operator Gertrude Gearshift on The Jack Benny Program). Still, with no offense toward Benaderet, Foray made the roles her own in short order.
“When you go to an audition or go to work, they say, ‘We’d like this’, so you think of something and do it,” she notes. “When I did Granny, I didn’t know it had been done before. I thought it was a new character. I don’t know what Bea Benaderet sounded like. I have no idea, because I never saw it. So I invented this voice and it’s been with me all these years.”
As you might expect, Foray has nothing but praise for her Looney directors — including Friz Freleng, Tex Avery and Art Babbitt — but has especially fond memories of the great Chuck Jones, whose relationship with Foray stretched well beyond the “Golden Age” of animated cartoons (when Jones animated Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, he cast Foray as the voice of Cindy Lou Who).
“Chuck Jones was a brilliant writer, a brilliant innovator,” Foray says. “I called him ‘the intellectual of the animation world.’ He could quote Aristotle or Mark Twain at the drop of a pegboard. He was just wonderful. They were all charming. I loved them.”
Foray was quietly establishing herself as a pre-eminent creator of characters, and it wasn’t long before she was back alongside her pal Stan Freberg. By the early 1950s, Freberg had graduated from an uncredited voice on Warner Bros. cartoons to a genuine recording star, thanks in part to a serious of records for Capitol that mocked everything from Top 40 hits to Senator McCarthy.
Foray was there for a lot of those records: channeling Audrey Meadows in Freberg’s “The Honey-Earthers”; kibitzing the doo-wop group in Freberg’s merciless spoof of “Sh-Boom”; and perhaps most memorably, as the maiden victim in “St. George and The Dragonet,” Freberg’s delightfully absurd spoof of Dragnet.
“I didn’t know what voice to use,” Foray remembers of the latter. “Stan said ‘Well, I know you do all of these voices. Can you think of anything different?’ Then I thought of the Brooklyn dialect — ‘He boined me awready!’ — and it just worked.”
When Freberg went to CBS for an all-too-short-lived series in the summer of 1957, Foray was there as well, giving voice to ingenues, battleaxes, and matrons of all stripes. One week, she appeared as Miss Jupiter, who bitterly complained about her exclusion from the recent Miss Universe pageant; another week, she dusted off her Marjorie Main voice when the cast presented the alleged soundtrack to a television western (Foray gets more mileage out of “Oh, get on with you” than most comedians get from two pages of punchlines.)
Regrettably, the show lasted only 15 weeks, but no one had time to collect unemployment checks. Foray, in fact, was about to go on to one of her most legendary gigs.
Producer Jay Ward had enjoyed some success with Crusader Rabbit, which utilized solid writing and limited animation to become one of the early successes of television. Now, he and writer Bill Scott wanted Foray to record some voices for a new series to be called Rocky and His Friends (a.k.a. The Bullwinkle Show). The freewheeling, delightfully (and sometimes wickedly) funny series centered around a dimwitted moose (Scott) and his plucky pal, Rocket J. Squirrel (Foray, in one of the roles of a lifetime), whose adventures constantly bring them in contact with the relentlessly evil Boris Badenov (Paul Frees) and his sidekick, Natasha Fatale (Foray, in one of the other roles of a lifetime). William Conrad — a radio veteran known for playing the stern-voiced Matt Dillon on radio’s Gunsmoke — was brought in to provide the show’s hyperdriven narration.
“The first show that we recorded, Bill came in with these stentorian tones,” Foray recalled in a 1994 interview, “...and Jay [Ward] said ‘Oh, you gotta go faster,’ because of the rapid-fire delivery that we had. So he would talk a little faster, and every time he talked a little faster, his voice would get a little higher. Finally, Jay said, ‘You gotta go faster, Bill! You gotta keep up with the actors!’
“Bill said, ‘But I sound hysterical!’ Jay said, ‘That’s precisely it!’
“He had a wonderful sense of humor,” Foray says of Conrad, “and he was always laughing. He and Paul Frees would always dig at each other and tell jokes, because they knew each other from radio. I had never met Bill Conrad before, and so I got to know him very well. We went to [each other’s] homes. We became almost family.”
Of course, this was a family of consummate professionals: in addition to Foray, Scott, Conrad, and Frees, the show’s cast included fellow Freberg collaborator Daws Butler, radio veterans Walter Tetley (Leroy on The Great Gildersleeve) and Hans Conried, and veteran movie actors Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton, the narrator of “Fractured Fairy Tales” (and in Foray’s words, “a delight”). This clearly wasn’t a cast that needed a lot of direction.
“We’d come in, read it over once, and then record it for timing,” Foray says. “Jay Ward never directed us. The only time we took it from the top is if we were five seconds over.”
By this time, Foray’s talent and versatility was not only guaranteeing her steady work, but resulting in some truly iconic associations that extended far beyond the worlds of radio and animation. When Mattel hired Foray in the late 1950s to provide the voice of their new talking doll, Chatty Cathy, it led to an even more memorable performance.
“Out of the clear blue sky, I got a call from The Twilight Zone,” Foray recalls. The show had a plans to film a story called “Living Doll” and, in Foray’s words, “wanted a very sweet voice like Chatty Cathy.”
Then, to prove her point — and that age hasn’t diminished her talent at all — Foray produces that voice, syrupy sweet and thoroughly chilling:
“My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.”
She laughs. “Most people I talk to say that’s their favorite Twilight Zone.”
When Foray received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she knew just how enduring her work had been. “A lot of girls came over with their dolls! They wanted me to sign their Chatty Cathy dolls. And one young lady...I was ready to sign it and the police came over and said ‘Miss Foray! Get in the car! We’ve got to open up Hollywood Boulevard!’ I’m so sorry for the girl and I never got to sign her Chatty Cathy.”
Thankfully, there’s still time, even though the nonagenarian actress keeps busier than most performers half her age; in addition to her recently-published autobiography, Foray has written Perverse, Adverse, and Rottenverse, a comical deconstruction of celebrated cliches of the English language.
“I practically look the same, too. I haven’t gained any weight. My voice is the same. Everything is pretty good,” she laughs.
And of course, the work continues to come in. The Jay Ward and Warner Bros. characters remain perennials (Foray recently reprised the Granny character for the Baby Looney Tunes series). Fittingly, Foray is also president of the International Animated Film Society in Hollywood.
“I’ve worked like the devil to promote animation, and I taught voice-over at USC for 17 semesters,” she notes. “I get fan letters from Singapore, from India, from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic. It’s crazy.
“You know,” she adds, “I’ve had a hell of a good life.”
Tune in to Those Were the Days on Saturday, September 9 to hear June Foray on radio.