Sunday, October 2, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “Superman” (1988 Ruby-Spears cartoon)—Beau Weaver (Superman), part 1 of 2

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

The only person I interviewed in connection to this show was its star, the genial Beau Weaver, the voice of Superman.

He responded to my questionnaire with a spirited narrative, so I will just run it as is rather than force it back into a Q&A format.



I got permission to post all images; if you want to repost, please do the same and ask me first.

Beau Weaver—in his own (well-stated) words:

Like most jobs for voice actors, Superman began as an audition through my agent. The casting process on this was a little bit unusual. Ruby-Spears first selected several potential candidates for the job of director. Each of the candidates was to run their own casting sessions, bringing in the actors they wanted to audition for the role.

Among the potential directors were Ginnny McSwain and Michael Bell [who is interviewed in the Super Friends section of this series]. I was brought in to read for Superman by Mike Bell. My background is radio. And I think Mike may have had in mind the actor who [once did radio and who then] played Superman in Super Friends, Danny Dark. Danny and I are both from Oklahoma and, in fact, I used to call him up and request records when I was a kid! Danny had the resonant, authoritative sound that is characteristic of the classic announcer.

But as I looked over the sides, Mike asked me to play against that, taking cues from the more gentle characterization of Christopher Reeve. I think several other animation actors with a similar background also read for Mike—Neal Ross and Brian Cummings among them, surely. It was a huge honor to be asked to audition, and great fun, but as with most roles I read for, I immediately put it out of my mind. If you invest too much hope in anything you audition for in Hollywood, you will make yourself completely crazy, as even the most talented performers book only a tiny fraction of the projects they are up for.

As it turned out, Ruby-Spears selected Ginny McSwain as director. As you may recall, she also played the part of Lois Lane [in that show]. But she did not cast herself. Actually, Ginny had also been brought in to read by Michael Bell—a surprising but inspired bit of casting genius. Anyone who knows Ginny will tell you: she IS Lois Lane. So, Ginny won both the role of director and, thanks to Michael Bell, the role of Lois. And, as turnabout is fair play, Michael Bell won the roll of Lex Luthor, playing completely against type, making him a villain with subtle, quiet menace, more along the lines of an Anthony Hopkins than the scenery-chewing types that one might expect. Michael had been brought in to read for the role by…Ginny McSwain!

My agent at the time, Arlene Thornton, called me with the astonishing news that I had won the role of Superman. I really thought she was joking. This was a real dream come true for me. I was a huge comic book fan growing up in Oklahoma. My grandfather ran a drug store in a small town; he kept three racks full of comic books in stock, and I devoured every one of them. I read everything, but my absolute favorite was DC Comics superheroes. And, for me, it was always about Superman. As a child of five, I could recite the “Faster than a speeding bullet…” intro to the television series. For Christmas one year, I got my most-wished-for gift ever, a Superman suit. And I must tell you that I was crushed when I read, printed on the shirt tale of the costume, “Remember: this suit will not make you fly; only Superman can fly.” It’s a lucky thing they put that disclaimer there or I would have climbed up to the roof and jumped off. Seriously.

The first recording sessions were a blur. I thought I was dreaming. I was just sure that someone was going to come in and tell me that it was all a big mistake and that I was not really playing Superman.

The scripts were great. DC Comics writer Marv Wolfman was story editor. He came to a few of the recording sessions. The show concluded with a short segment that I thought was particularly good, “The Superman Family Album”; [it focused on] the backstory—Superboy in Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent.

The show was [produced] to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the [debut] of Superman. But to my way of thinking, CBS made two critical mistakes when it aired. First, contrary to what we were told, there was very little advance promotion for the show. And it was scheduled very early in the Saturday morning lineup, in a time slot usually reserved for shows aimed at very young children, like Muppet Babies. This sort of show would more reasonably be programmed at 9 or 10 a.m. And shows later in the lineup benefit from interstitial promos that earlier shows do not receive. And the naming of the show was unfortunate. It was called simply Superman. Better branding might have resulted from naming it Superman: The New Adventures or The All-New Superman. A listing in TV Guide or the newspaper TV listings that read simply “Superman” did not spotlight it as a new series, did not distinguish it [enough] from reruns of the old George Reeves show or even from Super Friends. So with no marketing, poor branding, and a crappy time slot, it failed to perform in the ratings and was not renewed for another season.

Toward the end of the thirteen-episode order, Ruby-Spears productions was acquired by Hanna-Barbera. The final episodes were recorded at the HB studios in Universal City. There was a tiny cast party with cake and champagne when we finished the final episode, but it was a muted celebration since we were not to be renewed.

A few years ago, a fan sent me a link to a website selling the Ruby-Spears Superman series on DVD. I bought it, but was disappointed to discover that it was simply a digitized version of some very poor off the air recordings made on VHS tapes. They were almost unwatchable. But it was still fun to see how well they held up. Standout performances were from Michael Bell as Luthor and Mark L. Taylor [both interviewed in the Super Friends subseries] as Jimmy Olsen. I did notice that in the earlier episodes, I was directed to underplay the macho of Superman. However, as we got further into the season, Ginny had me “butch it up” just a bit. I only wish we had been more consistent throughout all thirteen episodes.

You might be interested in how I got into animation. This story is included in James Alburger’s third edition of The Art of Voice Acting, published [in 2010].

Radio was my first love. I started hanging around radio stations when I was about eleven. By fifteen, I weaseled my way into my first on-air job in Houston. Whether because of talent or obsessive hard work or both, by the mid seventies I had climbed the ladder to land at my dream station, the number one pop music station in the country, the legendary Boss Radio 93/KHJ in Los Angeles. One night, I found one of the other air personalities in a production studio where he was not allowed to touch the equipment, making copies of what sounded like a string of snippets of him doing commercials. “What’s that?” I asked. “My voice-over demo,” he said. And my whole world changed.

But he cautioned me that Hollywood takes a dim view of radio deejays in the world of voice acting. They think we have a sort of “radio accent,” he explained. But, luckily, there is a kind of therapy for that…and he invited me to a voice-over workshop held weekly in the home of the queen of Hollywood voice-over, Joan Gerber. On some nights, it was co-directed by none other than Michael Bell. For some reason, I was not stopped by my big-time radio-guy ego and was willing to become a beginner; and [so] began a journey that eventually had me leaving radio behind for a much more challenging and lucrative career as a full-time freelance voice-over actor.

Cut to the mid-eighties. In the lobby of my agent’s office in Beverly Hills, two other voice actors were rehearsing sides for an animated cartoon series. They were Bob Arbogast and, [again], the great Michael Bell, one of the finest and most versatile voice actors who ever worked. As I listened to them, I remarked that I had always thought animation must be a lot of fun and that maybe I would give it a try someday. Well, Michael smiled smugly and told me in no uncertain terms that I had “no shot” at animation because “you come from a broadcast background and animation…well, this is for real actors.”

Ouch. Truth be told, I was not really all that interested in animation. But now that Mike Bell says I can’t do it? Okay; it’s on. Now I had a mission.

Even in the eighties, I had a serviceable home studio, and over the next few weeks I spent many, many hours working on putting together an animation demo reel. When I thought I was ready, I took it to Arlene [my agent at the time]. She called me in for a meeting to discuss the reel and she asked her husband Jack Angel (a former radio personality who had become a major voice actor in animation) to sit in on the meeting.

They were kind, but blunt. My reel, they said, showed talent, but it was really not much more than just a bunch of funny voices. They explained that animation voice work is acting, not funny voices. Jack then pointed out that several of the characters I had on my reel were directly derivative of characters created by animation masters Daws Butler and Don Messick. Jack said, “I don’t think you are intentionally stealing their work, but I figure that you have just grown up hearing them in cartoons, and so that’s what you think cartoons sound like. These are not bad impressions, but, out here, if they want Don Messick, they will just get the real guy. You have to do something original.”

They had several suggestions. Arlene said she knew how committed I [could] be when I [got] my mind set on something, but warned that this one might be hard for me to swallow. “There is an animation workshop you really ought to take,” she said. “It’s taught by…Michael Bell.” Ouch again. She also recommended a class taught by Susan Blu. But Jack Angel had the hardest suggestion for me to take: “What you really need is to take an acting class.”

After swallowing more pride, I found the willingness to become a beginner…again. [And] this time, after years as a successful voice actor working in Hollywood. Both the Michael Bell and Susan Blu workshops were invaluable introductions to creating characters and the very specific technical skills that are peculiar to animation work. But the most difficult for me was the acting classes.

With a “face for radio,” I had no idea how to do what I do when my body was involved. It was like trying to breathe water. Over the next two years, I took beginning acting classes and scene study workshops. I felt like the football player who had been instructed to enroll in ballet class to improve his agility. I understood the concept, but felt like a hippopotamus among the ballerinas. I never felt as lost as I did those first few months. But gradually, something began to open up in my work. I learned to breathe differently. I came to fully understand and own that, yes, I am an actor. I can do this! But it took time. And it took showing up, even when I could not see the point.

Part 2 of 2.

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