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When it came time to find just the right voice for Papa Smurf, Raja Gosnell and
Jordan Kerner were admittedly feeling a little blue. Why For? Because the
casting department at Sony Pictures Animation kept coming up short.
(L to R) Sony Pictures Digital Production president Bob Osher, director Raja Gosnell and producer Jordan Kerner at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Smurfs 2." Photo by Michael Buckner / Getty Images North America
"This was back in early 2010 when we had just begun
casting the first film," Kerner -- the producer of "The Smurfs
and "The Smurfs 2
" (which was released earlier this week on Blu-ray 3D,
Blu-ray, DVD and digital) recalled during a recent phone interview. "And
we were genuinely struggling when it came to finding just the right performer
to come voice Papa Smurf. The person we were looking for had to have a certain
amount of gravitas in their voice because, of course, Papa is the leader of the
Smurfs. But -- at the same time -- this voice also had to have a certain impish
quality because of that humorous glint you often see in Papa's eye."
"So we were listening to a lot of different
people," Gosnell -- the director of both of SPA's "Smurfs" films
-- continued. "And as we listened to all of these tapes that David Rubin
-- our casting director -- had put together, Jordan and I would stare at this
still image of Papa Smurf that we had taped up on the wall. And we'd then try
and imagine that voice coming out of Papa's mouth in our movie."
But then one day, David played Jordan & Raja a recording
that had everything that they had been looking for. Here finally was a voice
that had the sound of wisdom & life experience as well as a twinkle of fun.
"So I asked David who we were listening to. And he said
Jonathan Winters," Kerner remembered. "Which kind of shocked me
because -- when I was growing up -- Winters had been a family favorite.
Whenever Jonathan appeared on shows like Jack Paar, my parents and I would then
gather around the television and then laugh ourselves sick over his amazing
improv routines. So to have not been able to initially recognize his voice when
I'd been such a huge Winters fan for so long was kind of a surprise to me. But
then again, given that Jonathan had this seemingly magical ability to conjure
up new characters & voices out of thin air, I guess that it really
shouldn't have surprised me that a performer of his stature still had the
ability to surprise."
"Even so, it had been quite a while since Jonathan had
last worked. He was in his 80s at this point and we didn't know if he'd even be
willing or able to take on a new project at this point in his career. But even
so, Jordan and I had to try. Because if we could convince Jonathan Winters to
come voice Papa Smurf, that would be a huge casting coup for our
production," Gosnell said. "So Jordan and I did this Skype interview
with Jonathan. And he was so sweet and still so sharp. Right in the middle of
that call, Jonathan just sort of went off and did all of these fantastic
characters for us. And from that moment on, we knew that we had found our Papa
Which isn't to say that there weren't some challenges
involved when it came to working with a comedy legend like Jonathan Winters.
Kerner recalled with equal parts affection & frustration the many hours
that he spent in a recording booth trying to rein in this improvisational
Copyright Sony Pictures Animation.All rights reserved
"This is a guy who could hear one word -- it might have
been a comment that Raj made during a recording session -- and then for the
next 20 minutes, Jonathan would just take off on some wild extemporaneous
comedic run. Right there in front of you, he'd improvise this bit where he was
playing every single character in a World War II movie. And he had the entire
room in hysterics," Jordan
said. "Now as the little kid who grew up watching Jonathan Winters on
television, I loved this. But as the producer of a motion picture who was
paying for this studio recording time on an hourly basis, all I could think was
that I was laughing my way through our production budget. So every so often, I
had to put on my producer's hat and then say 'Jonathan, I love this. I love
you. But could we please maybe save of this stuff for lunchtime? ' "
And given what a complete professional Winters was, Jonathan would then -- of
course -- get right back to work and then give Gosnell & Kerner everything
that they were looking for, and then some, when it came to voicing Papa Smurf.
But in the end, what mattered more to
Raja & Jordan was how frank & open this comedy legend was with them
once these three got away from that recording booth.
"We'd always take Jonathan to lunch after our 'Smurfs'
recording sessions. And during those sorts of down times, it wasn't always him
putting up a character. He was very open about his personal life. Very open
about the darker times and some of the struggles that he'd had over the course
of his career," Raja said. "And especially when we were working on
the first film ... Well, Jonathan never actually came out and said these words.
But it felt like -- this is me analyzing here -- he sort of felt forgotten.
Like the entertainment world had kind of passed him by. Which is why he was so thrilled
that we'd invited him to be part of our movie. And -- of course -- Jordan &
I were just as thrilled that Jonathan had agreed to come out of semi-retirement and then come voice Papa
Copyright Sony Pictures Animation. All rights reserved
Now jump ahead to the Summer of 2011 when "The Smurfs" is this
worldwide smash hit, having grossed over a half a billion dollars worldwide. As
every good producer does, Kerner would send out regular e-mails to that film's
cast & crew to then keep them abreast of how well their movie was doing at
"And Jonathan would always e-mail me back. Which is when it quickly became
clear that he was getting this huge kick out of how successful 'The Smurfs'
remembered. "In fact, when we first began working on the second 'Smurfs'
movie, Jonathan actually went out of his way to tell Raja and I what a grand
thing it was for a person at this point
in their lives to now be part of this worldwide hit where you are the voice of
the most loved character in this movie. Of course, we then had to remind
Jonathan that the main reason that people loved Papa Smurf so much was the unique
way that he did the voice of this character."
Speaking of "The Smurfs 2" ... As production began to gear up on this
live action / animated hybrid, Gosnell & Kerner began to hear from members
of Winters' family that this 87 year-old's health was fading.
Jordan Kerner with Jonathan Winters at this comedy legend's last recording session on "The Smurfs 2." Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation
"So we'd sort of check in him regularly, ask how's he
doing. Not so much because we were worried about our movie. But -- rather --
because Jordan and I now thought of Jonathan as a friend. More importantly,
because Jonathan had already told us that he was really looking forward to
working on 'Smurfs 2' and voicing Papa Smurf again," Raja said. "So
we eventually got started on that movie. And there were a couple of times that
Jonathan couldn't record. We'd hear that he was weak and that he wasn't doing
very well. So we hoped for the best. But from knowing him and reading the tea
leaves, we kind of sensed that the end was near."
But even so, given that Winters so obviously wanted to work on "The Smurfs
2," wanted to complete recording Papa Smurf's part, Raja & Jordan
journeyed to Santa Barbara and
recorded his character's last few lines of dialogue in a studio close to
"He and I, we both drove out to Santa
Barbara. We were nervous that we wouldn't see him again.
There had been this weakness right towards the end. And we just wanted to spend
some time with Jonathan because he'd done so much for us. So we went up because
he really wanted to record. At that moment, we weren't really worried about
recording. I mean, there were only three, four, five lines that we needed to
record for the movie. But we sat with him for a long time. His daughter Lucinda
was there. His caretaker was
there," Kerner recalled.
Raja Gosnell with Jonathan Winters. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation
"Jonathan had the most beautific look on his face that
day. As if he already had a foot on the other side or that he'd seen the other
side. There was something so peaceful about him. His nature then. But there was
also this weakness," Gosnell said. "Even so, Jonathan wanted to work.
He wanted to complete recording Papa Smurf's dialogue for this movie. So he'd
say a line and then sort of go away for three minutes at a time. And then he'd
circle back and you'd know that he was ready to do another take. It was kind of
beautiful & kind of sad because Jordan and I both sensed that this was
going to be the very last time that we were going to see him."
"Now you have to understand Raj and I never take photographs during a
recording session with any of our actors. But that day, I took pictures of Raja
with his arms around Jonathan and Raj took some of me. It was just one of those
moments where you realize that here is someone who was such a gift and gave us
so much on these two films. A gift of humor and a gift of humanity. And I just
wanted something to remember that day by," Kerner concluded. "He was
as bright as he could have been in that moment. And he gave a fantastic
performance. And then we all just hugged and chatted. It was a beautiful day in
Santa Barbara. And I just sat there
thinking 'What a pro.' "
Jonathan Winters passed away on April 11, 2013 just a few weeks after this
off-the-lot recording session. To honor their friend and all that he'd done for
them personally & professionally, Gosnell & Kerner went to Sony
officials and asked them to dedicate "The Smurfs 2" to this comedy
legend. Which studio exes immediately agreed to.
And what with Sony Pictures Animation having already announced an August 15, 2015 release date for their next Smurfs movie, what are Raja & Jordan's
thoughts when it comes to recasting the voice of Papa Smurf.
"Look, there was only one Jonathan Winter. So we're not going to hire
someone to come try and do a Jonathan Winters impression. That would be a huge
mistake, sad for us personally and a discredit to his memory," Kerner
explained. "So I'm thinking that we'll probably go the James Bond route.
In that -- just as it is when Sean Connery or Daniel Craig plays 007 -- a
different performer can put an entirely different spin on a character. That's
what I think we'll now do with Papa Smurf. That way, in much the same way that
baby boomers like myself who wax nostalgically for Sean Connery, there'll be
this whole generation of Smurf fans who do the same thing for Jonathan Winter's
version of Papa Smurf. Which -- given the great vocal performance he gave as
this character -- I completely
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