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How a dead parrot led to Tom Kenny doing Rabbit's voice in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh"

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How a dead parrot led to Tom Kenny doing Rabbit's voice in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh"

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Rabbit wasn't Tom Kenny's favorite character when he was growing up. In fact, when this veteran voice actor saw the original "Winnie the Pooh" featurettes back in the 1960s, he came away from those movies with a very unique take on this character.

"I must have been about six when these films first came out. And given what a fussbudget Rabbit could be in those 'Pooh' featurettes ... Well, I came away from those Disney movies thinking that the character was a woman," Kenny laughed. "You know? Like the cranky old lady down the street?"

Well, someone eventually straightened Tom when it came to Rabbit's gender. But Kenny still wasn't a fan of the character. Which is why - when Walt Disney Animation Studios put out the word that they were doing a vocal recast of Rabbit for their new "Winnie the Pooh" feature-length theatrical release - Tom was reluctant to audition for that role.

Tom Kenny gets ready to record Rabbit. Photo by
Eric Charbonneau. Copyright Disney Enterprises
Inc. All right reserved

"I told them 'You know, I'm not really a voice match guy. I wish that I had that skill set. But I don't do dead-on impressions. That's not really my forte,' " Kenny remembered. "And my agent said 'Don't worry. Disney's not looking for a direct voice match. They're just looking for attitude, personality and maybe someone who can likability Rabbit up a little bit."

So in preparation for this vocal audition, Tom went back and rewatched the "Winnie the Pooh" featurettes. And Kenny then thought long and hard about how he could bump out the borders of Rabbit's performance a bit. Keep the character consistent with the way that he'd been portrayed in the earlier film, while - at the same time - turn Rabbit into more of a comic vessel.

"You see, Don (Hall) and Stephen (Anderson, the guys who directed 'Winnie the Pooh') knew that they really couldn't touch Pooh or Piglet or Eeyore. Those characters were written in stone. You couldn't change them. It would be like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa," Tom continued. "Whereas Rabbit and Owl were more second tier. They weren't quite as well known, quite as well defined within the Poohnaverse. Which is why Don & Stephen thought that these two characters were a perfect ways to bring more comedy and personality into their story."

Copyright Viacom International Inc.
All rights reserved

But that said, Kenny was still genuinely challenged by Hall & Anderson's new character mandate for Rabbit.

"I kind of asked myself 'Who's fussy and persnickety but is still likable? Who would that person be? And Jack Lemmon is who I hit on," Tom recalled. "I mean, if you look at Lemmon's performance in 'The Odd Couple,' here's a guy who's kind of nervous. Felix is waiting for the Pigeon Sisters to come over, and he's got the apron on, and he's burning the dinner. As Jack plays this character, Felix is kind of very orderly and anal. But he never seems like a woman.  More importantly, the Felix Ungar character - as Lemmon portrays him - is never unlikable. It's a really brilliant performance."

" So I tried to channel some of that.  I just kind of went to Jack Lemmon Land when I auditioned for Rabbit, without ever really doing an impression of Jack while I was voicing that character," Kenny continued. "And no one was more surprised than I was when my agent called and said that Don & Steven wanted me for this part."

Tom Kenny and his buddy, Spongey.  Copyright Viacom
International Inc. All rights reserved

Which - I know - may sound kind of weird. Especially since this is Tom voice-of-SpongeBob-SquarePants Kenny that we're talking about here. But even though he's been voicing that pop culture icon for 13 years now, Tom doesn't assume that his close association with this hugely popular cartoon character will then automatically translate into Kenny getting other voiceover gigs in animation.

"Look, I knew that a lot of people were auditioning for Rabbit. It's a numbers game. Most of the stuff that you audition for - just by the law of averages - you don't get. Sometimes you come close and you still don't get. And a certain percentage of, you do get. It's just basically stepping up to the plate and taking your swings," Tom stated.

But that said, if you talk with Kenny long enough, what comes through loud and clear is that this former East Syracuse, NY resident is really living the dream these days in Hollywood.

Voiceover legend Mel Blanc (1908 - 1989)

"You have to understand that - when I was growing up - I was the kid who fantasized about meeting Mel Blanc. Those old-school voiceover guys, they were bigger than movie stars to me," Tom enthused. "So to now get paid to do what Mel Blanc did, I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was a kid. And it doesn't suck."

So what's Kenny's favorite part of doing voiceovers? Aside from hanging out with other voice actors (i.e. "We're a very close-knit community. There's not a lot of backbiting or psychodrama. In fact, I'd have to say that voiceover work may be the most functional area in show business. From a psychological point of view, anyway."), Tom was quick to talk about all of the other creatively stimulating people that he gets to work with."

"Look at 'Winnie the Pooh.' I got the chance to hang out with Don & Stephen. Who are extremely passionate about this project and the sort of storytelling that they're trying to do here," Kenny continued. "And to then have Eric Goldberg be the guy who's animating Rabbit, he's such a ... He's legendary. He's like Nine-Old-Men legendary to me. He's so gifted, so funny and great. That was a complete thrill for me, man.

Animation master Eric Goldberg and his latest Disney character
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And speaking of thrills ... Given that Tom - as a teenager - was absolutely obsessed about Monty Python and used to play this British comedy troupe's LPs constantly, there's one member of the "Winnie the Pooh" vocal cast (i.e. the film's narrator) that Kenny really, really, REALLY wants to meet.

"Is John Cleese going to be at the premiere?," Tom tentatively asked his Disney press handler as his portion of last month's "Winnie the Pooh" media roundtable drew to a close. "Will I get the chance to meet him then?"

Which - I have to admit - was kind of cool to see. That a voiceover veteran like Kenny (who - to many young kids growing up today watching "SpongeBob" - is their Mel Blanc. The guy that they want to be when they grow up) could get still get excited about the possibility of meeting someone like Cleese ("All of that Monty Python stuff is seminal for guys like me who grew up in the 1970s. Those sketches & routines that they did back then really informed the way that I make a living now").

"Wake up, Polly! Wake up Polly Parrot. I've got a nice cuttlefish for you if you
wake up, Polly!" : Copyright New Media Broadcasting Company, Inc.
All rights reserved

I mean, who knew that repeatedly listening to John complain about a dead parrot would eventually lead to Tom's current gig? Which is voicing the character of Rabbit for Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" feature? Upon reflection, Kenny chuckled at the way his life had turned out.

"As a kid, I always felt a little weird that I didn't care about algebra. But man, I was obsessed with those Monty Python records," Tom concluded.  "So in the end, I guess that my instincts were correct for what I'm doing now. But I can't tell my own kids that, though. I just got lucky. Which is why they actually have to do their math homework."

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  • Great article!  Thanks for posting it!

  • It's a Norwegian blue - lovely plumage!

    Thanks Jim, I used to be able to quote loads of Monty Python sketches, oh to be 16 again!

  • Hmm, that's weird.

    I've always thought that Rabbit was a woman.

    Guess I was wrong.

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