Interviewed by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray
Reprinted from Funnyworld No. 18 (1978), where it appeared (in slightly different form) as part of "The Moving Drawing Speaks," a multi-part feature on cartoon voices.
Billy Bletcher was born in 1894 and entered show business more than 60 years ago. He had a full career as an actor in the silent comedies of Mack Sennett and Al Christie. In the '30's, he was teamed with Billy Gilbert in a series of two-reel Hal Roach comedies. He also did the voice of the Lone Ranger on radio in 1950, substituting for Brace Beemer. His voice is remarkably rich and deep, especially coming from a man who is only five foot two. His voice was perfect for the villains of the cartoons of the '30's and '40's.
This is an excerpt from an interview that Milt Gray and I recorded with Billy Bletcher in Hollywood on June 7, 1969. M.B.
Billy Bletcher: Many years ago, there weren't many auditions, there weren't many of us. They were doing a thing called Three Little Pigs at Disney's, and Pinto Colvig told me, "Why don't you go over and do this thing for Walt, they want a guy who can huff and puff and blow your house in." So what the hell, I did it, and I recorded this thing for Walt, as the Big Bad Wolf.
That put me in pretty solid with Walt. From then on, I had a session every week, not only to record one voice, but to record two or three voices, for Walt. One actor would do the whole damned job. Now they engage the big names and pay big money. But when we were there, the pay was very small, and if you did three or four voices you got paid just one day's salary.
I stayed with Walt for quite a few years, just on a day-to-day basis. There was one thing I never could understand. I wanted to contribute one or two of the voices in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt's answer to me was, "Billy, your voice is heard so much in all of these singles that I make, I don't think I'd want to use you as one of the Seven Dwarfs." That didn't make sense to me. Then, too, I worked for Schlesinger, who made the Warner Bros. cartoons. Between Disney and Warner Bros., I kept quite busy. At that time, understand, there were only a half dozen of us. Now, there are 600 of these characters around town, and it's been hell, especially for a man my age. They don't stop to figure whether the guy can still do the job.
They figures he's an old man, they've got to get somebody who's on his toes.
Milt Gray: Which character voices did you do for Walt, and for Warners?
Bletcher: For Walt, it was the Big Bad Wolf, and then I did a character called Pegleg Pete. Plus characters who didn't mean so much, like an Irish cop. The same at Warner Bros. There were just Mel and me. At Metro, I was the old Dutch captain in a series called The Captain and The Kids.
Michael Barrier: Did Walt attend many of the recording sessions?
Bletcher: Very few. He listened to it after it was recorded. After they moved into the new studio, he was too busy. He was a great man for story; they'd sit around for weeks and weeks arguing some story point. If he wasn't satisfied, he'd say, "Go ahead and record it and let's see what it sounds like." His ability to visualize when he was listening to recordings was marvelous; he'd say, "That just doesn't ring true to me," that sort of thing.
Barrier: Were you ever in any Disney feature-length cartoons at all?
Bletcher: Never. I guess what went for Snow White went for everything.*
Barrier: The work you did for Walt on Three Little Pigs... was that your first cartoon work of any kind?
Bletcher: I believe it was, yes.
Barrier: Were you under contract to Disney?
Bletcher: No, no. Clarence Nash is the only one. He gets a check every week, as Walt wanted, and he sure deserves it.
Barrier: Did you play primarily villains in the cartoons?
Bletcher: Mostly, yes, because it was natural for me to stay down in the lower registers.
Barrier: Do you recall any incidents from your recording sessions?
Bletcher: There was a time in the cartoon business when they would photograph you as you did the dialogue. I did a thing for Walt once called The Golden Touch, all about King Midas, and they put white on my lips, for the animator to animate from, and photographed me that way.
Barrier: When was your last cartoon work for Disney?
Bletcher: I did two or three spots with the chipmunks, Chip 'n' Dale... I did some things with them, character voices. One was an Italian. Then I went to Detroit in the spring of 1950 to do the Lone Ranger radio show.
Barrier: What other cartoon work have you done besides what we've already covered?
Bletcher: I did a little bit for Bob Clampett at Warner Bros. I was the Lone Stranger in The Lone Stranger and Porky; it won a plaque for best cartoon of the year in 1939. Clampett's a strange sort of a guy, kind of a fussbudget, can't make up his mind. Bill Hanna is the same way, although Bill stays out of the recording stages, now, he doesn't fool around with the actors.
Some people are like that, they like to stand beside you and say, "Do it my way." I always got along great with Walt and all of Walt's men, especially Jack Kinney. They left the actor alone. They'd say to themselves, "The reason I got the guy here is because he has something to contribute. I won't pick on him."
Barrier: How did you and Pinto Colvig come to know each other?
Bletcher: He was a gag writer for Mack Sennett when I first came out to California. Every now and then they'd have use for a cartoon drawing—in the titles, you know—and Pinto did those.
Pinto and I did the voices of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. In the making of The Wizard of Oz, they found that they needed some voices that could be understood. The little people didn't seem able to deliver, so to speak. Pinto and I were called out to record the dialogue for these little people, cleaning it up so it was understandable. Pinto and I handled the whole business.
This was before they paid you by check; they paid you by the day, in cash. There were a lot of robberies going on around the Metro studio, and we used to work until three and four in the morning on this sound stage. We'd wind up with $150 or $175 in cash, so Pinto and I decided we'd put our money in our socks before we left the studio.
Recording the voices of these little people, you had to watch the stuff on the screen in order to have it match. For the little that you saw on the screen, Pinto and I were there about eight nights; we'd start to work at six at night and work until four in the morning. They don't care how they spend their money.
* Bletcher did have a minor role in Dumbo; his voice is recognizable as one of the clowns.