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Which professional actor was the original voice of Heimlich the caterpillar?

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Which professional actor was the original voice of Heimlich the caterpillar?

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Okay. It's time for a little audience participation here at JHM. Normally, I'm the guy who answers your questions (Speaking of which: I'm working on a new "Why For" for Friday. So if you have any Disney-related questions that you'd like to see answered on this site, please send them along ASAP to [email protected]. Anyway ...). But - this time around - I need you guys' help.

To preface this question ... Everybody knows now that Billy Crystal was Pixar's original choice to voice Buzz Lightyear. But even after this then-fledgling animation studio prepped an animation test in the early 1990s (which used Billy's wagonwheel-coffee-table rant from 1989's "When Harry Met Sally" as its soundtrack) to show Crystal, he still passed on the project.

(To be fair, Billy claims that - at that time - he just didn't understand CG and/or the animation production process. Which is why - when Crystal saw this extremely rough test - he really didn't have a clue as to what the final product might look like. Which is why he took a pass on Buzz and Tim Allen eventually wound up with this role. But as soon as "Toy Story" came out and became this monster hit, Billy immediately realized that he'd made a huge mistake. Which is why - the very next time Pixar came calling - Crystal immediately said "Yes." Which is how Billy wound up voicing Mike Wazowski in "Monsters, Inc." Anyway ... )

Billy Crystal and John Goodman recording dialogue for "Monsters, Inc."
Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

It's also fairly well known that Al Pacino was Pixar's first choice when it came to voicing Hopper in "A Bug's Life." And just like they did with that footage from "When Harry Met Sally," Pixar's animators took one of Pacino's best known screen rants and then turned that into an animation test. But Pacino allegedly wasn't interested in doing animation. Which is why Kevin Spacey wound up voicing that evil grasshopper in this 1998 Pixar Animation Studios release.

Beyond that ... There have also been actors who have been hired to voice characters for Pixar films that - for one reason or another -- didn't quite work out. William H. Macy (who was the original voice of Marlin in "Finding Nemo." Only to then be replaced by Albert Brooks) comes to mind. As does John Cusack (who was originally supposed to voice Sulley for "Monsters, Inc." But after this character went from being a Woody-Allen-like loser to a Big-Man-on-Campus , the studio then brought in John Goodman to voice this role).

But my question today deals with a somewhat different situation. In that - on "A Bug's Life" - Pixar had supposedly already hired a celebrity to come voice Heimlich the caterpillar. But then - after listening to the recordings that this actor created for this character - the studio opted to go with Story Supervisor Joe Ranft's voice instead.

Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All rights reserved

As animation historian John Canemaker tells this story in his excellent new book, "Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant & Joe Ranft" (Disney Editions, August 2010) ...

Ranft often supplied "scratch" or temporary voice tracks for films in progress. He voiced bit parts going back to The Brave Little Toaster . As Igor in The Nightmare Before Christmas, he salivated and said, "Master, the plans" and was thrown a dog biscuit.

Often (Ranft's) scratch voice ended up in the (finished versions of these films). He had five lines as Lenny the Binoculars in Toy Story, but his first "star" part was Heimlich, A Bug's Life's jolly, gluttonous Bavarian caterpillar who yearns to fly. A professional actor had been cast, but Nancy Lasseter (John's wife) "laughed really hard at my scratch over the other guy's stuff," said Ranft.

Joe Ranft pitching storyboards from Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before
Christmas." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which (finally) brings me to today's audience participation question: Who was this "professional actor" that Pixar Animation Studios hired to voice Heimlich the caterpillar? Only to then take a pass of this performer's work and go with Joe Ranft's voice for this character instead?

Mind you, over the past 12 years, I've heard a number of theories about who Pixar initially wanted to cast in this role. One version had this animation studio approaching "Cheers" star George Wendt come voice Heimlich. Which only made sense, given that Pixar had previously had such success with John Ratzenberger. Who played Cliff to Wendt's Norm on that long-running NBC sitcom.

And speaking of NBC sitcoms ... I'd also heard that "Seinfeld" 's Jason Alexander and Michael Richards were also considered as possible voices for this caterpillar clown. But in all the versions of this story that I've previously heard, Pixar had never actually got around to casting someone of stature to voice this role.

The above story sketch for "A Bug's Life" was actually done by Joe Ranft. Back
when Heimlich the caterpillar really was supposed to be the clown in
P.T. Flea's Circus.Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

And yet the version of this story that John Canemaker is now telling in "Two Guys Named Joe" not only has some unnamed name actor cast in this part, but they then lose this role because Nancy Lasseter thinks that their vocals for Heimlich aren't nearly as funny as the "scratch" track that Joe Ranft did for this character.

And given that Canemaker is one of the preeminent animation historian working today ... Well, I'm going to now assume that John's take on this tale is correct. That Pixar did actually hire some professional performer to come record vocals for Heimlich. Only to then chuck all of these recordings away because - in the end - the voice that this name actor came up with for the caterpillar clown just wasn't as funny as one Joe Ranft did for this film's "scratch" track.

So does anyone out there (perhaps some former Pixar employee from the Studio's old Point Richmond days who's no longer bound by an NDA) have a definitive answer to this question? And while I'm shooting for the moon here ... Does anyone out there know which Al Pacino movie Pixar pulled dialogue from in order to create that Hopper animation test?

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Again, I've heard two different versions of this story. One has Pixar pulling one of Pacino's "***-a-roach" rants out of "Scarface " and then animating test footage of Hopper (which then shows this grasshopper aggressively bullying some ant) to that. While yet another version of this "A Bug's Life" animation test story has Pixar's animators taking a piece of Pacino's performance in "Glengarry Glen Ross." Which then reportedly resulted in this prototype version of Hopper mouthing some of David Mamet's more profane dialogue. Which is a pretty funny idea, when you think about it.

Anywho ... If anyone out there has any definitive answers to these Pixar-related questions , I'm sure that I (along with hundreds of JHM readers) love to hear about them.

Soooo ... Your answers?

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  • The correct story is that a couple of well known celebrities were asked to do quick sound bites, but it became apparent that Joe Ranft was the right choice as he cracked up everybody on the set when he did his Heimlich impersonation, not just John's wife.  I know two names out there that were seriously looked at for this role, but sorry Jim, you'll have to dig them up yourself because Pixar wouldn't like it getting around that people who audition for roles will have it publicized that they didn't make the cut.

    I will say this, one of the guys who didn't get to be Heimlich still made a great impression and voiced a future Pixar character.

  • I read that Billy Crystal turned down the Buzz Lightyear role on the advice of his friend Robin Williams. Williams had soured on Disney after his experience voicing the genie in Aladdin.

  • I can't help you with your Heimlich query, but I can tell you for sure that the Pacino test comes from "Glengarry Glen Ross," because it actually appears on the original "A Bug's Life" 2-disc DVD set that came out in 1999. Watch the "Fleabie Reel" again: at one point they show an early animation test of Hopper menacing Flik, saying (in a voice that is NOT Pacino, obviously - it sounds more like Andrew Stanton to me. And obviously, they had to tone down Pacino's original vulgarities to more G-rated words) "You just cost me six thousand dollars! Where did you learn your trade, you peod? What you're hired for is to HELP US, not to screw us up!"

    Elsewhere on the same DVD (I believe in the "Design" feature) they show another, DIFFERENT early Hopper animation test, this one more of a close-up to test his facial features. Hopper is clearly mouthing some very specific dialogue, but it's mute. As the voice-over explains, "This was before we hired Kevin Spacey" so it may have been another Pacino test, but I've also heard a rumor that after Pacino turned it down, the role was offered to ANOTHER "Glengarry Glen Ross" co-star: Alec Baldwin (They REALLY wanted to cast someone from "Glengarry Glen Ross" evidently). So maybe the dialogue used in this other test was from Baldwin's legendary "Always Be Closing" speech.

  • I'm not a Tim Allen fan, but I can't imagine anyone more perfect for Buzz. The voice he used for the role has a load of cartoony bravado, sounding both chummy and arrogant at the same time - it's just pitch perfect for the character. I can't imagine Crystal's small neurotic tone working for a Space Commander action figure.

  • It was Charles Durning!

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