In music there are only 12 notes, so it's no wonder so many songs sound the same. But what about someone's voice? The way someone speaks is not bound by any kind of scale or music theory, rather it's the sum a person’s upbringing, their physicality, and their personality. So why do so many cartoon characters sound so eerily familiar? In this list we highlight 10 cartoon characters whose voices (and often their likenesses) are based on other actors. We also mention 5 other cartoon voices that are impressions in the bonus sections of related entries. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, these actors have been thoroughly praised by some of the best.
Homer Simpson (The Simpsons) - Walter Matthau
Over the past 3 decades The Simpsons has been on the air, America’s favorite family has gone through many changes. Aside from the quality of the animation, the most noticeable difference to audiences is likely the voice of the Simpson clan’s loveable oaf of a father, Homer J. Simpson. In early seasons of the show, Homer sounded like Walter Matthau. However, as the show progressed and the character evolved, Homer’s emotions became more erratic and unpredictable, so Dan Castellaneta, the voice behind Homer and a cavalcade of other Simpsons characters, found a place deeper in the throat for the voice that made it easier to yell.
In the interview below, Castellaneta explains how he auditioned for the role, and goes into detail about how the voice evolved from a Walter Matthau impression into what we know and recognize today.
Bonus: Castellaneta has also stated that he drew inspiration from actors for two of his other well-known Simpson characters. The always down on his luck Gil Gunderson is based on Shelley "The Machine" Levene from Glengarry Glen Ross, who was played by Walter Matthau’s Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men co-star Jack Lemmon. Groundskeeper Willie is taken from a Scottish character Dave Thomas did for SCTV.
Bugs Bunny (Looney Toons) - Clark Gable
Originally voiced by the godfather of voice acting, Mel Blanc, Bugs Bunny has become one of the most recognizable and beloved cartoon characters in history. He also just so happens to be an impression of one of the most recognizable and beloved actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The 1934 film It Happened One Night swept the major categories at The Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Clark Gable’s Oscar-winning performance in the film would go on to be heavily used as the basis for Bugs Bunny, who made his debut six years later. In this clip from It Happened One Night, it is easy to see where Bugs Bunny’s leisurely lean, fast talking, and nonchalant carrot chewing came from.
Bonus: In Looney Toons director Friz Freleng’s unpublished memoirs, he not only points out Gable’s character as an influence for Bugs, but also mentions two other It Happened One Night characters as being the inspirations for the gun-toting Yosemite Sam and the suave skunk Pepé LePew, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) and King Westley (Jameson Thomas), respectively.
Chris Griffin (Family Guy) - Ted Levine
According to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, every voice actor who auditioned for Chris Griffin, the middle child of the Griffin family, would look at the character design and come in and do a “surfer dude voice.” Actor Seth Green, who, along with many notable roles in film, had done voiceovers for Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, came in and also tried a similar “what’s up dude” take on Chris before asking if he could “try something silly.” He proceeded to do an impression of Buffalo Bill, the killer from Silence of the Lambs played by Ted Levine, and won the part. In the video below, Green talks about how he and a friend started doing the Buffalo Bill voice to make each other laugh and talks about the joke in the pilot episode that made him want to audition for Family Guy.
Brain (Pinky and the Brain) - Orson Welles
The human inspirations for Pinky and the Brain were writers Eddie Fitzgerald and Tom Minton, whom creator Tom Ruegger worked with on Tiny Toon Adventures. Pinky’s catchphrases “narf” and “egad” were directly inspired by how Fitzgerald excitedly described sound effects when pitching a story or sequence. Brain’s voice and mannerisms were likewise to be patterned after Minton, but that all changed when when Maurice LaMarche was brought in to read for the character. Lamarche mistakenly assumed the design of Brain was modeled after Orson Welles, a voice he was known for doing during sound checks, and booked the role by doing a voice he has described in DVD commentaries as being "65% Orson Welles, 35% Vincent Price."
In the video below, Lamarche explains how he learned to do Welles’ voice by repeatedly listening to and memorizing a now notorious tape of outtakes from a commercial Welles did for frozen peas. He then hilariously reenacts the whole reading, hissy fits and all.
Moe Szyslak (The Simpsons) - Al Pacino
In addition to his Emmy win for the television movie Tuesdays with Morrie, Hank Azaria has taken home three Emmys for his voice work on The Simpsons. Those awards came specifically for his roles as the Kwik-E Mart clerk Apu, Comic Book Guy, and the bartender Moe. When Azaria came in to audition for the role of Moe Szyslak, he did an impression of Al Pacino, but was told that the voice needed to be gravelly. Azaria told THR, “If you make Al Pacino from Dog Day Afternoon gravelly, you get Moe.”
In the full interview below, Azaria talks about the play that he originally used the Pacino impression for and demonstrates how he turned that into Moe.
Bonus: During the second year of The Simpsons, Hank Azaria gave the writers a list of all the impressions and accents he could do. The one voice he said he explicitly requested to be able to do for the show was his Jerry Lewis impression, which would become the voice of Springfield’s nerdy scientist Professor Frink. The real Jerry Lewis would later guest star as Professor Frink’s father.
Betty Boop - Helen Kane
America’s first cartoon sex symbol, Betty Boop starred in over 100 cartoons throughout the 1930s and represented the carefree days of jazz. A caricature of singer-actress Helen Kane, the character first appeared as an anthropomorphic french poodle voiced by Margie Hines (also known for being the voice of Olive Oyl). Two years later she would be changed to a human. Betty Boop’s similarities to Kane — from her curly black hair and baby squeak voice, down to the catchphrase “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” — weren’t seen by Kane as a flattering impression, but rather a blatant imitation that exploited her image and were detrimental to her career. Kane would go on to sue Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer. Though the judge would rule against her, citing that both Kane and Betty Boop bore resemblance to Paramount top-star Clara Bow, this video comparison clearly shows how Kane’s voice and mannerisms were used as reference for the cartoon character.
Wakko Warner (Animaniacs) - Ringo Starr, John Lennon
When he came in to audition for the fun-loving Wakko Warner, Jess Harnell had very little voice work under his belt, but he was an accomplished impressionist. Harnell initially pitched a “crazy cartoon” voice, which earned him a callback, and was then asked by voice director Andrea Romano if he could try impersonating musicians, including Elvis and all four of The Beatles. He landed the part with his impressions of the legendary English rock group. Harnell has said that the voice started off lower as Ringo Starr, but later evolved into more of a “tiny” John Lennon “going through puberty.”
In this Making of Animaniacs documentary hosted by Maurice Lamarche, members of the cast and crew, including Harnell, Romano, Rob Paulsen (Yakko Warner), Tress MacNeille (Dot Warner), and many more, go in-depth about the characters and creative process of the show.
Zapp Brannigan (Futurama) - Phil Hartman
After Phil Hartman’s death in 1998, Simpsons creator Matt Groening retired the actor’s characters and dedicated an episode to him. Before his passing, Hartman was also intended to play Zap Brannigan on Futurama, another cartoon series Groening was developing. Along with naming the show’s main character, Philip J. Fry, after the late comedian, Groening also tapped Billy West, a longtime friend of Hartman, to take over the role of the self absorbed military officer. West, who was already performing triple duty on Futurama as the voices for Fry, Prof. Farnsworth, and Dr. Zoidberg, would use Hartman’s habit of channeling “big dumb announcers” as a direct influence for his take on Brannigan. In the video below, you can listen to West talk about how he met Hartman, who convinced West to move out to California to further pursue a career in voice acting.
The Flintstones - The Cast of The Honeymooners
Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones was the first animated primetime show, and it paved the way for shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park. The most popular show at the time of its inception was The Honeymooners, which starred and was created by Jackie Gleason. The Honeymooners wasn’t just used as a template for the cartoon show’s sitcom format, but the cast’s likenesses, voices, and character dynamics were all closely replicated. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble’s voices in particular were clearly impressions of Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and Ed Norton (Art Carney). Alan Reed, the voice of Fred, had even done voice-overs for Gleason early in his career. Gleason was told by his lawyers that he could “probably have The Flintstones pulled right off the air.” They also cautioned though that he probably wouldn’t want to be the man responsible for taking away a show beloved by children and adults alike.
Even though William Hanna has admitted that The Honeymooners greatly influenced their cartoon series, Joe Barbera states in the video below that, while flattered by the comparison, the shows are very different. His argument is pretty thin, but he does say the classic sitcom was one of his favorite shows, and goes into their original concepts for the show and how hard it was to sell the idea of a modern stone age family to networks.
Just for Fun: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, and Jayne Eastwood argue about whether or not The Flintstones is a rip-off of The Honeymooners in this amusing SCTV sketch.