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How Don Rickles became Mr. Potato Head's voice for Disney Pixar's "Toy Story" films

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How Don Rickles became Mr. Potato Head's voice for Disney Pixar's "Toy Story" films

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In honor of Super Bowl Sunday (that annual television event that turns tens of millions of us into couch potatoes, when we wolf down handful of greasy potato chips and/or platters full of toppings-laden potato skins), I thought that - today - it might be appropriate to pay tribute to that most cinematic of spuds. And that's Mr. Potato Head of "Toy Story" fame.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

It was John Lasseter himself - back in the early 1990s when Pixar Animation Studios was developing its first feature-length project - who insisted that Andy's room feature some classic Baby Boom-era playthings like Barbie, G.I. Joe and Mr. Potato Head. Toys that audience members would then have characters that they could immediately recognize. Which would then - in theory, anyway  - make it that much easier for moviegoers to embrace Buzz & Woody.

But then Mattel flat-out refused to allow Barbie to take part in the original "Toy Story." And Hasbro also put the brakes on G.I. Joe making an appearance in the world's first feature-length computer animated film (Which is why Sid wound up blowing up a Combat Carl action figure in his backyard instead of a G.I. Joe). As for Mr. Potato Head ... Well, let's just say that this Pawtucket, RI-based toy company was extremely reluctant to let its top tater make his cinematic debut in this Pixar production.

As "Toy Story" producer Ralph Guggenheim recalled in David A. Price's "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company" (Knopf, May 2008):

Copyright Knopf. All rights reserved

There was a running gag in the production team about the endless conversations with Mr. Potato Head's lawyers to get him to appear in our film.

In the end, Hasbro did sign off on Mr. Potato Head appearing in "Toy Story." Which turned out to be a good thing when Pixar's first feature-length film was released to theaters in November of 1995. "Toy Story" was such a huge hit with audiences that any toy that was associated with this motion picture was immediately snatched off of store shelves. Which is what led to what Hasbro execs now like to call the "Great Potato Famine of '95."  Which is what happened when every Mr. Potato Head toy in the United States was sold in the weeks before Christmas. It then took the Company 5 ½ months to restock.

Mind you, one of the reasons that Mr. Potato Head was such a break-out character in "Toy Story" was because Don Rickles provided such a distinct voice for him. But how did Lasseter & Co. settle on what Mr. Potato Head would sound like? What this character's personality would be like?

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

As it turns out, Mr. Potato Head was one of John's favorite playthings when he was growing up. And as he recalled in a "Toy Story 3" video that this filmmaker made for Disney Living's YouTube Channel

One of the things is - as a toy - (Mr. Potato Head's ) facial features would always fall off. And I thought: "You know, if my facial features fell off every day all the time, I would have kind of a big chip on my shoulder." So out of that, we came up with a personality. That (Mr. Potato Head) would be the guy who always questioned authority. This guy is always the one who gives Woody a hard time. Always. And with that, we had Don Rickles do the voice and he's been fantastic.

Well, it wasn't quite as simple as that. Lasseter actually had to go to Rickles' home in Malibu in order to convince this legendary insult comic to come do a voice for a cartoon. But the way John tells this story, it was this visit that convinced John that Don was born to play this role.

Copyright 2008 Salient Media. All rights reserved

So what happened? When Lasseter arrived at Rickles' front door, he had a Mr. Potato Head doll in his hand. Which he hoped to use to convince Mr. Warmth to come play a part in "Toy Story."

But when Don opened the door and John then tried to hand him that Mr. Potato Head ... Well, pieces immediately began falling off of this doll. And as Rickles bent over to pick up Mr. Potato Head's hat, Lasseter noticed that the comedian's head was shaped just like a potato. Which "Toy Story" 's director saw a sign that Don was genuinely meant to be part of this motion picture.

Which isn't to say that Rickles immediately got the hang of doing a voice for an animated feature. As Don told Melena Ryzik in a recent interview for the New York Times, when John was trying to give him directions in the recording booth, Rickles would say things like ...

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

...  the bird and the duck is sick, and the elephant is tired, and I said, it's 6:30, just tell me, do you want me to be mad? I don't care about the duck! I don't care about the elephant! I just want to go to dinner, my wife is waiting for me.

Which isn't to say that Rickles doesn't actually appreciate what appearing in the "Toy Story" films has done for his career. Over the past 16 years, Don has often talked about what a joy it's been to play Mr. Potato Head. How it's given him a whole new audience, made an entire generation of children fans of his work. More importantly, that Rickles' own grandchildren are far more impressed with his voice work that he's done on these three Pixar pictures than anything else that Don has done in his 60+-year-long show business career.

Which is why - whenever Disney calls this veteran insult comic and lets him know that there's yet another "Toy Story" -related project in development - Rickles happily now reports to work. Eager to get back in that recording booth and once again play Mr. Potato Head.

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Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting part of this story. For those Baby Boomers who  now work at Disney, Pixar & WDI who grew up watching Don hurl insults on those Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, where Rickles would then rip into such entertainment legends as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson ... It's almost a disappointment for these guys when they get Don in a recording booth and then discover what a good-natured, soft-spoken show biz professional he is.

I mean, even when Rickles was working with the Imagineers on the "Toy Story Mania!" project (where - in order to make sure that this attraction's 5-foot-2-inch carnival barker AA figure had enough dialogue to properly interact with all the Guests who were going to move through this attraction's queue on a daily basis - WDI had Don record 750 different lines for Mr. Potato Head. Which translated into Rickles spending 30 - 35 hours behind a microphone. Which eventually resulted in this veteran comic losing his voice for a couple of days after these recording sessions), Don never once complained. He never ever gave the guys in the booth a hard time.

Well, almost never.

(L to R) Imagineer Kevin Rafferty and Roger Gould from Pixar's Theme Park Group work
with Don Rickles during a "Toy Story Mania!" recording session. Copyright Disney
Pixar. All rights reserved

As Kevin Rafferty recalled in an 2009 interview with Disunplugged:

(Rickles) showed up at one of the recording sessions and he saw me and he shook his head and he said, "You're like the son I never wanted" ...

FYI: If today's JHM article has put you in the mood to once again hear Don's vocal performance as Mr. Potato Head ... Well there's two things that you can do. You can go pick up a Blu-ray or DVD copy of one of this year's Best Picture nominees, "Toy Story 3." Or you can check out  "Toy Story Weekend" which ABC Family will be presenting on February 5th & 6th.

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Which means that - on Saturday - starting at 5:30 p.m. / 4:30 central, you'll be able to watch back-to-back Pixar Short Films, Toy Story and Toy Story 2. A solid 6-hour-long block of Pixar Animation goodness.

But wait. On Super Bowl Sunday, it gets even better. Starting at 11 a.m., you can watch back-to-back Cars, Pixar Short Films, Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and Toy Story 2. Which is then followed by a second airing of Cars. That's 11 ½ hours of Super Bowl counter-programming for all you folks who aren't that fond of football.

So if you're a couch potato who finds that you're still hankering for cinematic spuds after you've scarfed down all those potato skins & chips, please keep ABC's "Toy Story Weekend" programming event in mind. And then let Mr. Warmth brighten up a frigid February afternoon.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

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  • Great story! Thank you!

    We honored the inventor of Mr. Potato Head, George Lerner, In Memoriam last November at the Toy and Game Inventor of the Year Awards, www.tagieawards.com. His partner, Julius Ellman, accepted on George's behalf. Ellen Hassenfeld Block told a story about how she and her brother Stephen thought they had invented Mr. Potato Head for Hasbro (their father was Hasbro's President and they discovered the pieces in his briefcase). John Ratzenberger, voice of Hammy, was also on hand.  A lot of fabulous stories were shared that evening. Memorable.

    Mary Couzin

    Chicago Toy and Game Fair

    TAGIE Awards

  • Golden Potato for Mary Couzin

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