09 January 2008 - 5:00AM
Not quite all, folks
On January 24, 1961, Warner Brothers voice actor Mel Blanc was seriously injured in a head-on car accident at a notoriously dangerous intersection on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. Fans swamped the hospital with more than 15,000 get-well cards, many simply addressed to "Bugs Bunny, Hollywood USA".
But contrary to Blanc's famous Looney Tunes cartoon sign-off, that wasn't all, folks. The near-fatal collision left Blanc with broken legs, a fractured pelvis and severe head injuries that resulted in the 52-year-old actor lingering in a coma for almost three weeks. Years later in his autobiography, Blanc wrote that a quick-thinking brain surgeon saved his life by talking to him as Bugs Bunny, when all other attempts to establish a response from the comatose Blanc had failed.
"They say that while I was unconscious, the doctor would come into my room each day and ask me how I was and, nothing," he told a television show host.
"So one day he comes into my room, and he says, 'Hey, Bugs Bunny! How are you?' And they say I answered back in Bugs' voice. 'Ehh, just fine, Doc. How are you?' The doctor then said, 'And Porky Pig! How are you feeling?' and I said, 'J-j-j-just fine, th-th-th-thanks.' So you see, I actually live these characters."
Next year marks Mel Blanc's centenary and fans will be hoping for a cartoon fiesta in his honour, not to mention a fitting tribute at the Oscars. It's been a bone of contention among animators that the Academy Awards fails to acknowledge the multiplicity of skills involved in animated films.
Animation historians have suggested it would be a fitting tribute to Blanc known as the man of 1000 voices (actually his son Noel counted 1500 voices) for the academy to name a new animation award in his honour.
Born in San Francisco on May 30, 1908, Melvin Jerome Blanc started his showbusiness career as an orchestral musician and conductor in Portland, Oregon. He became a voice actor on local radio stations, hosting a daily one-hour show called Cobwebs and Nuts, with his wife Estelle. Management refused to hire actors, so the vocally versatile Blanc "invented an entire repertory company".
Moving to Los Angeles in 1935, he got bit-parts on radio shows then became a regular on The Jack Benny Program playing comedian Jack Benny's temperamental car, a violin teacher and a polar bear called Carmichael, among others.
When he approached Warner Brothers, he was turned down and was told the studio had "all the voices it needed". A year later he was re-auditioned.
"Leon [Schlesinger, Warner's animation head] asked me if I could do a pig a fine thing to ask a Jewish kid. The guy they were using had a stutter and used up yards of film. But I could stutter and ad lib in rhythm," Blanc recalled in a later interview
In a career spanning 60 years, Blanc helped develop almost 400 cartoon characters and provided a mix of voices for 3000 animated cartoons. He was the voice of Porky Pig, Sylvester and Tweety, Barney Rubble, Yosemite Sam ("Great hornytoads! A trespasser! Gettin' footyprints all over my desert!"), Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, the Tasmanian Devil (he visited Tasmania to get an idea of the right voice), Pepe le Pew, Woody Woodpecker, the Road Runner, Speedy Gonzales and Secret Squirrel.
He became the voice of America's favourite "wascally wabbit" in 1940, when Bugs emerged from a rabbit hole, to casually ask a gun-toting Elmer Fudd, "Eh, what's up, Doc?"
The character had made a brief appearance two years earlier in a cartoon called "Porky's Hare Hunt", with the catchphrase "Jiggers, fellas".
In 1939, the rabbit re-emerged as a magician's assistant bailed up by two rogue dogs in "Prest-O, Change-O" (the only cartoon where the "wascally one" is out-tricked), and later in "Hare-um Scare-um" a cartoon in which a family of rabbits outwits a posse of hunters.
The character didn't have a name but was referred to by animators at Termite Terrace (the nickname for the Warner Brothers' cartoon division) as Happy Rabbit. The rabbit finally got a more memorable name and a cartoon career when animator Charlie Thorson, creator of Elmer Fudd, scribbled "Bugs' bunny" on a model sheet, indicating it had been drawn by storyboard artist Ben "Bugs" Hardaway.
Noel Blanc said the rabbit was originally drawn with over-large protruding front teeth, which made voicing the character difficult. His father asked animator Friz Freleng, "Can't we bring the teeth in so I can talk like a regular rabbit?"
Blanc wanted a tough-talking rabbit and came up with a voice that was a meld of Bronx and Brooklyn accents and artist Hardaway's penchant for cool, snappy phrases. "He'd say things like, 'Hey, what's cookin?' I said, 'Let's use it. It's modern.' That became "What's up, Doc?"
One of the myths that grew up around Blanc's characterisation of Bugs was that the actor was allergic to carrots so he needed a "spittoon" at the ready for the chunks he needed to quickly spit out, while continuing to talk as the carrot-chomping character. The truth was more prosaic. It was hard to keep voicing Bugs with a mouthful of carrot, so Blanc quickly spat the chunks into a wastepaper basket.
As for Bugs' carrot-munching, animators Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng based it on a scene from the 1934 Frank Capra comedy It Happened One Night, in which Clark Gable, playing a louche reporter, leans against a fence eating carrots while talking to a snobbish socialite.
When Blanc died in 1989 aged 81, he had received numerous awards for his philanthropic work and was honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades in California. His work was included in the US entertainment history collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and he also received the French Legion of Honour. He and Bugs had their own stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
But the most versatile voice actor never received an Academy Award for his lifetime contribution to film, although Bugs, Sylvester and Tweety all won Oscars for various cartoon producers. Bugs has even been deemed "culturally significant" by the US Library of Congress.
"He's a little stinker. That's why people love him. He does what most people would like to do but don't have the guts to do," was Blanc's assessment of the "wabbit's" universal appeal. Asked by television host David Letterman if any of his 1000 voices were similar, Blanc simply, and succinctly, answered, "No."
As Jack Benny quipped, "There are only five real people in Hollywood. Everybody else is Mel Blanc."