One of my favorite episodes of the Disney weekly television show was A Day in the Life of Donald Duck (February 1956) where the real life Clarence Nash meets an angry animated Donald Duck in Donald’s office at the Disney Studio.
Donald Duck [handing Clarence Nash a fan letter]: Read this.
Clarence Nash [reading letter]: Can’t understand me?
Donald Duck: ME, you fathead!
Clarence Nash: Oh, can’t understand you. Must be that fat beak of yours. [Nash shapes his hand like a duck’s beak and opens and closes it.] Can’t mouth the words right.
Donald Duck: Why, you pigeon brain, you just don’t articulate!
Clarence Nash: Oh, yeah? Well, listen to this… [In Donald’s voice:] Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers!
Donald Duck: Phooey! Can’t understand you myself!
Donald’s voice was known as a “stunt voice” because it was not created using the familiar voice placements or combinations that most voice actors use to create a voice nor was it an imitation of a celebrity voice.
However, this did not prevent Hanna-Barbera from trying to duplicate that ducky sound both in several of the Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons with Little Quacker (voiced by “Red” Coffey, the stage name of Merle Coffman) and later on in their Yogi Bear television series with Yakky Doodle (voiced originally by Jimmy Weldon, who was a local Los Angeles children’s show host with a ventriloquist doll named Webster Webfoot who also spoke like Donald Duck).
In 1977, when I talked with him, Clarence Nash was not happy: “Everybody thinks Mel Blanc is Donald Duck! He’s not. I’m Donald Duck. We’ve had some problems with people who say they’re the “original Donald Duck” and we’ve even had some problems with them at the Disney Studio in the past. Every once in a while, we hear that I died and we get Christmas cards saying they’re sorry I passed away during the year.
Donald cartoons are shown in dozens of countries and are usually dubbed rather than subtitled. In the beginning, for foreign releases, Donald’s voice was dubbed by Nash into a foreign language. The words were written out phonetically for him, but generally, Donald had very little spoken dialog.
Nash stated: “I had to learn to quack in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish, and even Chinese. There were, however, foreign language coaches who helped me. I listened through earphones to the English dialogue, and I’d match the length and mood of the dialogue in that other language. It was critical to get everything down pat so they never had to re-animate. It had to seem like the language came out smoothly and matched the mouth movements of Donald.
Disney Legend Carl Barks recalled at NEWCON 1976: “Donald evolved out of Ducky Nash’s way of saying things in duck talk. He would quack, quack, quack, and blow words out of the side of his mouth or something and that created Donald. They just wanted some character that would fit the crazy sound that Clarence Nash was making. He used to come in on the story meetings.
“We had a lot of dialogue that he had to practice. And it would determine, sometimes, what the dialogue would finally be, whether or not he could say the words. Of course, none of us could understand him even when he said, “Well, I said that all right.”
When I interviewed Donald Duck director Jack Hannah in 1979, he said:
“Clarence was always nice to work with. He did many little side voices, such as meowing cats or miscellaneous characters. One problem we always had was the understanding of Duck lines. He was great when he lost his temper and all of that.
“However we had to pantomime pretty well in the drawing what the Duck was thinking or doing because if you tried to get over a gag or a line of dialog with understanding, you were in trouble using that voice. One thing I’ll say about Clarence Nash: he was a hard worker and I actually thought a couple of times he was going to faint on me. The blood would come to his face on these wild tantrums especially where they were prolonged.
“It was the bane of my existence to get that voice understood! It was aggravating as hell to do a picture with dialogue and not be able to understand the main character. But he did have a variety of moods and you could get over with strong poses what he was trying to tell you.
“I got some old acetates of a television show I made and I noticed that Jimmie Dodd says, “And now Donald we’re going to take you around the world.” The Duck asks, “Around the world?” Jimmie replies, “Yes, that’s right. Around the world.” We did it that way to be damn sure you could understand what was being said. Once a human said it, then you could understand the way the Duck said it. We did that in some of the cartoons, as well. If you heard the line repeated by a straight voice, it made it easier to understand the Duck.
“We always did a minus dialogue track whenever we did a cartoon so they could do foreign voices and fill them in for foreign release. Jack Cutting was in charge of the foreign department and he made sure the foreign voices were done and I never had anything to do with any of that.
“Well, not long ago, I talked with Clarence Nash on the phone. I mentioned something like, “Well, on those foreign voices, that was one good thing. You didn’t have to redo the Duck in different languages.” But Clarence was very proud of the fact that anybody could understand him doing the Duck and he replied, “Oh, yes, I do Spanish. Listen to this.”
“And he did it in Spanish over the phone and he did a couple of other languages and to me it still sounded like the same old English you couldn’t understand. But, Clarence, knowing what he was supposed to be saying, naturally thought everyone else could understand him.”
On the Donald’s Silver Anniversary episode (November 1960) of the weekly Disney television show, Walt Disney stated: “But of all Donald’s accomplishments, we’re the most proud of his efforts in spreading good will throughout the world. You might say Donald speaks a universal language. That is to say, that no one can understand what he says in any language, but the whole world laughs at him.”
Besides Donald, Nash often supplied bird calls and animal sounds for Disney characters, from Uncle Remus’ bluebird in Song of the South to the meows for little Figaro the kitten in a handful of short cartoons to the earliest voices for Huey, Dewey, and Louie.