Suspended Animation #365
Clarence Nash was not immediately known to the public as the voice of Donald Duck. Walt Disney always felt that the voice was just one of many elements in a character and so actively tried not to publicize any particular vocal artist.
Walt felt that the lines the storyman wrote, the design of the character by the animator, and even how other animators made the character move and react were equally important in the final character. In addition, Walt was probably fearful that another studio might steal his voice talent if he publicized someone’s name.
“It was all right with me that people didn’t know who I was but I was happy when they eventually did find out,” Nash stated. “In the early days, Walt didn’t want us voices to have any publicity. I went along with his wishes but one time my name got out in the newspapers. Walt and I had a big argument over it, but, when I left his office, I wasn’t upset. Walt was a very fair man. I ended up with a raise.
“Before Walt came up with the idea, I had never even thought of being angry or laughing in that voice. But the more I learned to use it, the more it developed. Walt believed it was important for Donald to have a strong personality so he would seem alive.”
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 and repeat a voice.
However, this did not prevent Hanna-Barbera animation studios 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 their Yogi Bear television series with “Yakky Doodle” (voiced originally by Jimmy Weldon, who was a local Los Angeles area children’s show host with a ventriloquist doll named Webster Webfoot who also spoke like Donald Duck).
These imitations often led to some confusion.
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,” he said. “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 Studios 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 use subtitles. 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.
“I had to learn to quack in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish and even Chinese,” stated Nash. “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.”
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 notice 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.'”
As Walt Disney stated on the Donald’s Silver Anniversary episode (November 1960) of the weekly Disney television show, “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.”
Nash was actively involved in 1984 with the 50th birthday celebration for Donald Duck, touring the country, giving interviews and appearing at special events.
In order not to spoil the festivities, Nash did not let people know he was suffering from leukemia. In what turned out to be his final public appearance, he went back to his hometown of Watonga, Oklahoma, on December 7, 1984, where Governor George Nigh declared that day to be “Clarence Nash Day” throughout the state of Oklahoma. Watonga renamed a street “Clarence Nash Boulevard” in his honor.
Nash was unfortunately too ill to ride on the City of Glendale Tournament of Roses float on January 1, 1985, which was themed to Donald Duck. I worked on that float and since I lived in Glendale knew and had interviewed Nash. He died February 20, 1985 at the age of 80. Today, animator Tony Anselmo does Donald’s voice, as he has done since Nash’s passing.
Besides Donald, Nash often supplied bird calls and animal sounds for Disney characters from Uncle Remus’ bluebird in The 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.
By the way, Nash’s tombstone in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, is shared with his wife (who died in 1993) and has a carving of Donald and Daisy Duck holding hands.