It's too hard to write about the nefarious ongoings of the Trump Administration every day, so instead, I'm going to write about someone who was an essential part of my childhood, voice actress June Foray, who died yesterday at 99 years old. Most famous for voicing Rocky the Flying Squirrel on The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, she last woman standing from her generation. Along with colleagues like Mel Blanc (all the Looney Tunes) and Daws Butler (Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound), she helped make animation voiceover the art that it is today, opening doors for voice actors like Homer Simpson's Dan Castellaneta and Better Things star/Louie co-writer Pamela Adlon, who also voiced Hank Hill's good-natured son Bobby on King of the Hill.
Foray's career spanned more than sixty years, encompassing both the cartoons our parents grew up with and the ones we did too. In addition to Rocky, her voiceover work included many of the Looney Tunes, Lucifer the cat in Cinderella, The Flintstones, George of the Jungle, Scooby-Doo, Tiny Toons, and Mulan's Grandmother in Mulan. She came back to voice Rocky in the movie version of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000, and she continued working into her mid-90s, when she voiced Granny on The Looney Tunes Show.
When I was growing up, Cartoon Network wasn't the animation-producing powerhouse it has become today, with Adult Swim and Adventure Time. It was an Atlanta-based station which aired shows from the Turner catalog, a treasury that includes all the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the Looney Tunes, and Tom and Jerry. I was lucky because I got to see things via Cartoon Network that I couldn't always find on video or laserdisc, or at the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) in LA. I loved the cartoons of Tex Avery, which aired in a half-hour block on Sunday Mornings called "The Tex Avery Show," and I credit the absurdity of cartoons like "King-Size Canary" and "Red Hot Riding Hood" preparing me for the visual anarchy of movies like Airplane! when I was older.
But the show I loved the most back then, and the one that had the biggest influence on my sense of humor, was Rocky and Bullwinkle. Although the animation was crude and jerky even by the standards of the early 1960s, it made up for it with a series of jokes, both visual and verbal, that set it apart from every other cartoon at the time. I could admire The Flintstones and The Jetsons for what they achieved, but they never made me laugh out loud the way Rocky and Bullwinkle did. The insanity of the plots (my favorite is the one where a mysterious gas starts making people stupid) combined with both low-grade puns like "Wossamatta U," Bullwinkle's alma mater, and the jokes no kids would possibly get, like the Narrator saying to "tune in next time for 'The Nose Tattoo'" - except of course, for me, the only first grader in all of Southern California who had heard of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo.
The voice acting on the show is still among the best there's been in cartoons. As Rocky, Foray was the perfect foil to Bullwinkle's idiocy. It's a testament to her talents that quotes like, "But that trick never works!" and "Now, here's something we hope you really like" are part of our cultural lexicon, impossible to say without imitating the cadences of her voice, the same way every Dracula voice sounds like Bela Lugosi. Her other major role on the show was as Natasha Fatale, the Russian spy who, along with her male counterpart, Boris Badenov, always fails in her attempts to kill "the moose and squirrel." Truth be told, it wasn't until I sat down to write this article that I had any idea Foray was Natasha - that's how distinct her vocal stylings are in each part. One of the major reasons I love animation so much is because of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I know the show wouldn't be the same without her performances.
In addition to having a role in the first TV show that made me love the medium, Foray also had a second role in the show that made me realize TV wasn't just about drawings, it was about writing, and that was the original Twilight Zone, which I started watching in third grade and, by fifth grade, had seen every episode of, but my introduction to it was through learning the plot of "Living Doll," the season 5 classic about a doll named Talky Tina who torments its owner's father, played by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas. The voice of the doll? Who else but June Foray - who also provided the voice of Chatty Cathy, the doll that Talky Tina is based on.
"Living Doll" is one of the most iconic episodes in the show's history, parodied in countless art forms (including the classic Simpsons Halloween segment, "Clown Without Pity.") Erich Streator, played by Savalas, is a misanthrope whose life is interrupted when Talky Tina tells him she doesn't like him. When he tries to get rid of her, she tells him she's going to kill him. No matter what he does, Erich is unable to destroy the doll, and true to her word, she does kill him when he trips over her and falls down the stairs.
Foray's voice, sweet as ever, becomes blackly humorous as she utters lines like, "My name is Talky Tina, and I'm beginning to hate you." The whole episode plays out as a black comedy, as we take joy in Erich's frustration when he attempts to saw Tina in half and can't. By the end of the episode, we're rooting for the doll to take down this joyless bastard, and find ourselves laughing when his wife picks up the doll and hears her say the closing line, "My name is Talky Tina - and you'd better be nice to me!"
In the mess that's going on in the United States and around the world, it's important that we honor those who have made our lives a little better. June Foray was a huge part of why I love what I love, and she inspired many people who now work in voiceover, carrying out her legacy. She will be missed.
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