Suspended Animation #367
I’ve always been extremely impressed with the work of Corey Burton who among many other credits (including taking over the vocal chores of the late Paul Frees) has been performing the voice of one of my favorite Disney characters, Captain Hook, professionally since he was seventeen years old.
He was working at Radio Shack when his voice teacher, the legendary Daws Butler, suggested he audition at Disney. He had met Butler through June Foray who had a family connection with Burton’s family and began studying when he was fifteen.
Burton commented that recreating a classic voice like Hans Conried or Paul Frees is a technical challenge, “to maintain the essence, the timbre, and the soul of the original recording; the trick is not to do it mechanically, so that you’re conscious of every aspect of pitch and placement and pace, and it sometimes takes a while to establish it fully, and make it your own in a way, and yet make it faithful to the original.
“I’ve always had a special affinity for Hans Conried’s voice. As a teenager I just sort of latched onto him as the host of Fractured Flickers. I’ve been doing this voice for decades now so I pretty much know where he is and what he feels like in terms of parameters of the voice, exactly the way the words are shaped, and the dynamics of the role.”Early in the Fall of 1974, Burton had been invited by the director to attend a broadcast of the last radio drama being performed live in Hollywood, Salvation Army’s Heartbeat Theater, because actor Hans Conried was performing the lead character in that week’s broadcast.
After the show, director Don Hill introduced Burton to Conried saying, “You know, the kid does a pretty good impersonation of you.”
Burton recalled. “And then Conried looks me up and down and says: ‘The kid does my voice, eh? Well, he can have it. A fat lot of good it’s done me in over 40 years of show business’. I got my first job at Disney because the educational department at the Studio was producing this film strip that Conried was supposed to narrate and they needed some additional dialogue. But Hans was out of town with a theater company at that time .
“So I filled in for him. And I must have done an okay job. It was through that recording session that I met Les Perkins who introduced me to the people who were producing Disney’s Storyteller Albums. And since then, I’ve been doing voices for Disney for decades now.”
Burton stated, “That’s me you hear as Hook in Fantasmic! Likewise in that Robin Williams’ Back to Neverland movie they used to show at Disney’s MGM Studios and the movie Peter Pan: Return to Neverland. But each time that I do Hook, I try and follow the template that Conried originally laid down for this character. So that there’s then some real consistency to the way this ‘Peter Pan’ character sounds and is portrayed in every new project at Disney.
“It’s such a privilege to carry on the work of a great character actor. To me, the immortal voice is the original actor, Hans Conried. I’m just standing in for him.
“With Hook, it’s great fun to really ham it up. There are not many characters, especially in the modern world, where you can just chew the scenery. With the dear Captain, I can open up and explore every wild, ridiculous, melodramatic, theatrical delivery that I’ve ever wanted. There aren’t many limits on this character and that’s fun.
“He the nastiest of Disney’s comical villains. He’s conceited and bombastic and takes great relish in his evil and that makes him really fun to play. Captain Hook is so theatrical, like an old ham actor of the vaudeville and music hall days. It’s not that he really scares anyone because you can see right through all of his bluster. He’s really just scrambling for the recognition afforded Blackbeard and the other great pirates.
“I’ll listen to the original movie soundtrack and then listen to myself mimicking it. It’s like a ptich pipe. I want to make sure that I’m in the same basic range of energy and expression, hitting the same, familiar notes.”
He has played the role for various cartoons like Jake and the Never Land Pirates, audiobooks, videogames (notably the Kingdom Hearts series) and theme park attractions.
In 2003, Burton was nominated for two Annie Awards for voicing Captain Hook in Return to Never Land and Ludwig Von Drake in House of Mouse, since he had also taken over all the vocal work like Von Drake done by the late Paul Frees. He won for doing Ludwig.
When he was signed to do the Disney television series Jake and the Never Land Pirates (2011) that was aimed at a younger audience, he had to do some subtle readjustments to his portrayal of Captain Hook.
Burton said, “To be honest, I just imagined what Hans would have done if he’d been asked to portray Captain Hook on the old Jack Benny or Burns and Allen television shows. Conried – being the pro that he was – would have modulated his performance so that Hook would have then worked within the confines of that particular program.
“Hook’s always been a comic villain. So for Jake and the Never Land Pirates I just played up the comedy and dialed down the villainy.
“Jeff Bennett and I have had so much fun recording Jake and the Never Land Pirates. You see, on this show, we play Hook and Smee like they’re an old vaudeville comedy team which is kind of appropriate. When you consider that Hans Conried actually got his start in vaudeville. As did Bill Thompson the radio comic who originally voiced Mr. Smee for Disney’s animated feature.”
Bennett originally played the role in Peter Pan: Return to Neverland. He had been doing previous Bill Thompson roles like the White Rabbit and Droopy Dog. For the movie, originally Burton was not only doing the voice of Hook but also Mr. Smee.
When the film moved to a different studio and the voice track was re-recorded, it was Burton who felt that Bennett would be a much better Smee, a role he has played ever since that time. Burton who had also done the White Rabbit and Droop on ocassion said, “I’ve never had a real strong Bill Thompson range to draw from.”
Donovan Cook who was a co-director on that film recalled, “Jeff was a natural for Smee. He brought a nice sense of Smee’s funny balance of character between moronic sidekick and slyly smart first mate. We had a scene where Smee walks across the deck and tosses chum over the side.
“Just for fun, we put the tape in and played it for Jeff. And Jeff just adlibbed this little song for Smee while watching the tape on the first pass. It was perfect. He really brought a lot of great stuff to the film in that way.”