Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview: Françoise Brun-Cottan (voice of Tuffy/Nibbles in 1950s "Tom and Jerry")

You know Tom. You know Jerry. And you know that little gray mouse in a diaper, although you probably don't remember (if you ever knew) that his name is Tuffy/Nibbles. He started as Jerry's acquaintance and was later turned into his nephew. In the 1950s, he was voiced by Françoise Brun-Cottan. Her Wikipedia entry states that "little is known" about her.

That won't do.

How old were you when you got a voice role in Tom and Jerry animated shorts?

I believe I was 5. I don't have actual production dates or salary receipts, but I'm paying social security by 1950.

Between the shorts and the comics, your character has gone back and forth between two names, Nibbles and Tuffy; what was his name when you did him?

I've always thought of it as Tuffy. But maybe that was just more fun.

How did you get the job?

My mother was dropped off at home by someone who worked at Metro [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]. When he heard my French accent and high-pitched voice, he said he thought it might be perfect for some animations his pals Hanna and Barbera were putting together to challenge Disney.

Did your mother also work at M-G-M?

She did on and off as an extra. [Her name was Monique Chantal.] Everything in the IMDb bio—name, countries, birth dates—is incorrect except the movie titles. It's a very post-WWII/Eastern European story and for a few years she gave French lessons (though she was Romanian), did walk-ons, and modeled her hands and shoes to keep me and my grandmother in food. I remember meeting Danny Kaye on a set and being quite alarmed by him at the time. He shapeshifted so easily, in much the same way but not as benignly as Robin Williams. Years later I had other occasions to meet him and he was totally charming.

Where were you living at the time?

In an unincorporated area of Hollywood, not far from Park La Brea.

Where did you record the shorts?

At M-G-M in Culver City.

Nibbles's first appearance was in "The Milky Waif" (1946).

Were you already a fan of the cartoons? If not, what did you think about them once you were working on them?

Clueless about cartoons. I'd just come over from France. I had to memorize the lines as I couldn't read yet. The process itself was total fun.

It appears you voiced the character from 1952-58. Do you know anything about whoever voiced him prior to you (if, indeed, he spoke prior to you)?

Actually, I think I started in 1949 or '50. Certainly by '51. Stopped by '56.

Any funny anecdotes about your Tom and Jerry experience?

The man who voiced the king [who appeared in the "Two Mouseketeers" series of four shorts: "The Two Mouseketeers" (1952), "Touché, Pussy Cat!" (1954), "Tom and Chérie" (1955), "Royal Cat Nap" (1958)] was—in memory—very tall and large. He was great. I had to stand on a stool so I could reach the mic.


In the '50s, I would think Tom and Jerry was known primarily among adults because the shorts were shown before movies aimed at adults. What did your friends at the time think about you doing this?

When I stopped doing any theatrical work, I pretty much didn't talk about it again until my late teens.

Do you remember what you earned per episode, and did it increase over time?

Sorry, I don't know.

Were you working other voice acting jobs at the time?

No other voicing work than Tom and Jerry. However, I was doing work as an extra and getting larger and larger parts. I was one of the street urchins with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. In the street scene, I'm the one holding on to his pocket who says "I got" ["I Got Rhythm"]. [There is, of course, another Tom and Jerry/Gene Kelly connection: Gene and Jerry dance together in Anchors Aweigh.]

 Françoise is the one in the muted pink dress 
with puffy pink short sleeves.
On the braids crisis-crossed over her head: 
"OMG how I hated those."

Though the income was important in the beginning, it was all just a lark with a little pressure to "focus" until I met Frank Capra. He was casting for Here Comes the Groom and tested me for one of the orphan parts. He totally became smitten and tried to make me look like an urchin, putting soot on my face. But I still projected radiant health, even with missing front teeth. I suspect I made him laugh. I remember the first test, where he sat on a stool across from me and asked me to say the same lines with different emotions—teary, joking, fearful. Given massive recent losses I had in my life then (which we won't go into), it was the first time I realized how far one could dig inside to reflect or hide emotions. I did not get the part but he kept me around for a few days just for "good luck." Also my grandmother, whom he called "Mon Generale."

What ended your stint on Tom and Jerry?

In 1954 my mother married her second husband, the wonderful man and screenwriter Franklin Coen. After I'd had a birthday party in one of the studio's screen rooms, I casually commented that the next year I wanted a bigger party. Within a week, all scheduled screen tests were cancelled. I'd already missed a lot of schooling and Frank and my mom did not want to raise an entitled ignoramus. I was seriously in the running for The Bad Seed, my accent pretty much gone by then. Never would have been near as good as Patty McCormack. I wasn't happy, but there wasn't anything I could do about it.

What are you doing these days?

I'm basically retired and only taking on short work projects. I volunteer at my local elementary school, raise as much of the produce as I can eat on a small urban farm, and talk to whoever is interested about the value of using qualitative research methods to inform the design of technologies and of organizational change. You can find out much, much more on LinkedIn. You can read publications on (You actually might enjoy the first few chapters of my Ph.D. where I report on a "field ethnography" of Hollywood. The casual tone there—unlike the rest of the bloody thing—was allowed because I actually did poke a big hole in a very respected anthropologist's work on Hollywood, Hortense Powdermaker's Hollywood, the Dream Factory.)

Where do you live?

Portland, OR.

If you have children, any stories about their reactions when they learned of your Tom and Jerry connection?

She'd have to tell you that. I can't remember when she learned of it.

Have you appeared at a pop culture convention to meet fans and sign autographs? If not, would you be open to it?

I haven't. I might do, depending on what, where, and when.

Do you have a favorite short you were in?

"The Two Mouseketeers."

Do you have any mementos from the experience such as photos from the recording studio, a script, pay stubs, etc.?

Only a 78 of one of the sessions at Metro. And a cel.

Have you been interviewed about this before?


What did you think when you first heard from me?

Well, it was odd. Steve Portigal [consultant who has a professional connection to Françoise] forwarded your request [not finding a direct route to
Françoise, I asked several who might have one]. So I thought it might have to do with doing, or writing about, ethnographic project work. But anyone in that world wanting to know how to reach me would probably get a message to me via LinkedIn.

Or [I thought] it might have to do with storytelling; Steve is putting together a book with war stories.

But I actually hoped against hope you might be an agent who somehow got a copy of a treatment my brother and I wrote about American and Israeli fundamentalists trying to raise a pure red heifer (this, by the way, is true; see The New Yorker) to start the end days, an Islamic plot to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to blame Israel, and environmentalists headed for the Norwegian seed bank.

It's a political comedy. (You don't happen to know Bill Maher or Seth MacFarlane? My old employer and friend Michael Douglas doesn't have a sense of humor about these things.)

I've had agents fall over laughing but say it will never get made. Ah well, Cuckoo's Nest took ten years.

You worked for Michael Douglas?

From 1976 to '84. Officially, started as a reader right after
Cuckoo's Nest (the production company was called Bigstick Productions). There were three of us, including Michael. Became Director of Project Development around Romancing the Stone and we had grand offices at the Burbank Studios. It was supposed to be half-time work while I was supposed to be writing a thesis [but] became a 6+ year detour. I'd hate to tell you the projects we turned down because Michael didn't want to do science fiction. His prerogative, for sure. Can't say his bio suffered. :>)

How do you look back on your Tom and Jerry experience?

It was mainly a lot of fun. Hanging around the lot was a lot of fun. Missing school was fun.

If the experience changed your life in any way, how?

It helped prepare me for later stints in the biz. See LinkedIn for details.

Anything you'd like to add?

Wish I got residuals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend LOVES "Tom & Jerry" :) Sharing this link with him. AND, Marc, I see you have a picture book coming out :D