The Voices Behind The Simpsons

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  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • May 22, 2015 at 1:07 PM

Ever wondered what Mr Burns, Edna Crabapple, Homer, Marge, Bart or Lisa actually look like in real life?

With news that one of the leading voice stars on The Simpsons, Harry Shearer, is leaving the show, more people have been thinking about who is behind all the voices of our favourite characters.

Voice acting is a much less visible job than regular acting, which means the stars often get around without being recognised (especially in this digital age, when fewer phone calls take place). Of course, the names of the main cast are seen at the start of every episode, coming up before the infamous couch gag that sets the tone for The Simpsons.

So we thought it was a good time to delve into the world behind the colourful characters on screen and take a look at the people that voice them.

Dan Castellaneta

Dan Castellaneta is the original and only Homer Simpson, and has been for 26 years. The role was conceived as part of a series of sketches on The Tracy Ullman Show, where he was working as a cast member in the 80s.

“When they had these little one-minute cartoons of the Simpsons on The Tracey Ullman Show, they figured why cast another person? They had me, and Julie Kavner was also in the cast. So they said, ‘Just make them the parents’,” he explains in an interview with Fairfax Media back in 2003, where he also explains the process of finding Homer’s voice.

“It started out as Walter Matthau and it was just hard for me – I couldn’t get enough power behind that voice. Homer’s emotions went all over the place, from angry to happy to in a state of Nirvana in terms of food, and it started dropping down [til I found his voice].”

Castellaneta voices 26 of major and favourite characters on The Simpsons, including Abraham “Grandpa” Simpson, Barney, Groundskeeper Willie, Krusty the Klown, Mayor Quimby and Sideshow Mel. He’s also worked on other animations including Rugrats, Futurama and Hey Arnold!

As well as an impressive range of voice work, Castellaneta has been a guest actor on shows such as The Mindy Project, How I Met Your Mother and Entourage, and in films including The Pursuit of Happyness and Super 8.

He says there are good and bad things about his career and the “anonymous” fame that comes from being a leading actor on The Simpsons.

“I can walk around and not get bugged by anybody,” he says in an interview with The A.V. Club.

“Although I don’t get the parts in films or other television shows that would be befitting of a huge, international star, I don’t have to worry about walking around on the street or eating at a restaurant [and being recognised].”

Julie Kavner

Julie Kavner is the Marge to Castellaneta’s Homer, having started with him when it was just a one-minute animation on The Tracy Ullman Show. She also voices Marge’s sisters, Patty and Selma, and their mother Jacqueline Bouvier.

Kavner’s unique “honeyed gravel” voice comes from a bump on her vocal chords, and while she’s probably the only person who could ever do Marge’s voice well, she avoids using it outside of the studio because it could “destroy the illusion” of the show.

Unlike some of the other actors on The Simpsons, Kavner rarely gives interviews or attends publicity events, and actually has a clause in her contract omitting her from promotional work for the series. But she has had a long and successful career as an actor (both vocally and on screen).

She won a Primetime Emmy for her role as Brenda Morgenstern in the hit 1970s TV series Rhoda, as well as three other nominations for the production. She’s also been in seven Woody Allen films, including Don’t Drink the Water, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days, and was the lead in Nora Ephron’s film This Is My Life in 1992. The latter is also a film that saw her give one of the only in-depth interviews in her career, with Hilary de Vries at the New York Times in January 1992.

Nancy Cartwright

Do you remember that moment when you found out Bart Simpson was a girl? If you do, then Nancy Cartwright’s name might also be etched in your mind. As well as Bart, Cartwright does a lot of the other young boys on The Simpsons, including Nelson Muntz, Ralph Wiggum and Todd Flanders.

Like Castellaneta and Kavner, Cartwright started out voicing Bart on The Tracy Ullman Show before The Simpsons was turned into a television show, but was initially called in to audition for Lisa.

In an interview with The Television Academy Foundation, she explains that when she got the casting brief for The Simpsons, she saw the character outlines for both Lisa and Bart and liked the sound of Bart better.

“Ten years old, school-hating underachiever and proud of it, and that alone, the description alone was like ‘whoa! This sounds way more fun that eight-year-old middle child’,” she says.

Cartwright acknowledges the influence of the role on her life in her autobiography, My Life As A Ten Year Old Boy, which she’s also adapted into a one-woman show that she tours around the world. She’s also worked as a voice actor on series like Rugrats, My Little Pony and Kim Possible.

Yeardley Smith

Yeardley (pronounced “yardli”) Smith is the voice of Lisa Simpson, and is actually one of the only actors to regularly play just one role on the show. According to some reports, she was actually teased about her voice growing up, but it hasn’t stopped her having a long and varied career.

As well as voicing Lisa Simpson, Smith has voiced many commercials and had guest and recurring roles on television shows including Dharma and Greg, Mad Men, The Big Bang Theory and Revenge. Her film credits include As Good As It Gets, New Year’s Eve and Waiting for Ophelia, which she also executive produced.

In addition to her work as an actor and producer, Yeardley Smith is also a published novelist and playwright, so it’s clear her career is one even the high achieving Lisa Simpson could look up to.

Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer, the actor who has caused controversy in 2015 for leaving The Simpsons, is the voice behind many of the favourite characters on the show. He plays an impressive 23 regular characters, including Mr Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy and Doctor Hibbard.

Shearer joined the show when it became a 30-minute television series, back in 1989, and says the process of developing all the voices was “very instinctive”.

“There were no meetings, we would just go in, from show one and get told “here’s a script, your name is circled by the side of each character and you’ve got to come up with a sound for him’,” he says in an interview with Dazed Digital from 2003.

“I like to work quickly and without thinking as much as possible, so I would just look at the lines and let a voice happen, and if they didn’t say change it I would keep doing it.”

Shearer has recently said he wants to be able to work on other projects, and it’s clear from his impressive list of credits that he’s already done so. Over the years, Shearer has had roles in films including The Truman Show, Godzilla, For Your Consideration and Teddy Bears’ Picnic, which he also wrote and directed. He also stars as President Richard Nixon in the television series Nixon’s The One and has been an artist in residence at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Hank Azaria

Hank Azaria is the voice of 24 favourite characters on The Simpsons, including Apu, Moe, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy and Carl. He became a series regular during the show’s second season and reckons he’s voiced around 8000 other characters for the show.

In an interview with Slate, Azaria says that in earlier seasons the actors would often have to come up with 20 new voices a year, with some ending up recurring and others disappearing into Simpsons folklore. Now, he says it’s more like once or twice a year.

“There’s potential for that all the time, but now it’s about twice a year that I’ll really do a new voice or a new character, partially because I’ve run out,” he says.

“I mean, I do other voices, but they’re either too out there, or too similar to something else I’m doing, or too similar to something someone else is doing to really use it.”

Azaria says he already had around 30 or 40 voices in his arsenal when he was hired for the show, including Comic Book Guy.

“He sounds like a guy who lived next door to me freshman year of college. I just started imitating the way he talked. It wasn’t exactly like him—that guy had more of a thick Boston accent. I’m not sure where that voice came from. It just really amused me to talk that way.”

As well as his extensive voice work on The Simpsons and in films like Anastasia and Happy Feet 2, Azaria has worked prolifically as an on screen actor. Some of his most memorable films include Godzilla, Mystery Men, Along Came Polly and America’s Sweethearts. He also had a recurring role in Friends and joined the cast of Showtime’s drama series Ray Donovan in 2014.

Between them, these six actors voice 105 different regular and recurring characters on the series, and have done so for over 25 years. But despite their integral roles in bringing The Simpsons to life, they don’t necessarily share in the show’s financial success.

According to a statement released by Harry Shearer in January 2015 (months before he announced he would leave the show), none of the voice actors get a direct share in “the billions of dollars in profits the show has earned”.

“Fox has consistently refused to even consider the matter. Instead, it’s paid us salaries that, while ridiculous by any normal standard, pale in comparison to what the show’s profit participants have been taking home.”

Shearer did note, however, that he was only speaking for himself, and not for the other five actors that make up the core cast. So even as Shearer turns to new projects, the others are getting ready to pick up their scripts for the next season of The Simpsons. But regardless of what’s in store for Homer and co, at least now we know a bit more about these actors and what they do.

Images: Screenshot of a Google Image search for The Simpsons; The Simpsons logo.

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