How Voice Actor Maurice LaMarche Took Over the Cartoon World, Unlike His Character The Brain

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.

Whenever voice actor Maurice LaMarche gets together with his fellow actors at the numerous fan conventions they attend, he says they often spend their downtime exploring some of the better restaurants in whatever city they happen to be in for that weekend.

"The beauty of voice actors is nobody knows who we are," LaMarche says from his Los Angeles home. "So we don't get the special treatment. We get the real treatment."

Then halfway through their dinner, LaMarche says he and voice actor Rob Paulsen will start doing their famous voices from shows like Futurama, Tiny Toon Adventuresand Animaniacs, where Paulsen and LaMarche are best known as the voices of the lab mice duo Pinky and the Brain, who attempted to take over the world in every episode.

"Halfway through the meal, Rob Paulsen and I will break that fourth wall and talk to the wait staff as the characters and all of a sudden, they melt and start sending over free stuff," LaMarche says. "It's celebrity you can turn on and off."

Meeting the voice of a cartoon character that entertained you throughout your childhood can be a magical moment, whether it's in public or at a convention like the Marvelous Nerd Year's Eve, which kicks off on Thursday at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel. It feels like they've stepped off the screen and right into your life even if you have enough sense to know the difference between fantasy and reality.

LaMarche has voiced so many characters in his 40-plus years as a cartoon voice actor that he's part of a whole generation of fans' childhoods.

"I feel very honored to have been part of people's childhoods," LaMarche says. "They let it be their diversion from whatever the drudgeries of childhood life is and believe me, when you're a child, there's some big stuff going on, like the pretty girl in class doesn't like me, or the big jock beat me up, or the teacher held me for detention.

"For me, it was The Flintstones that did that for me. When I got home from school, I'd flip on The Flintstones and even though I'd seen it over and over again, it made me laugh. Barney's laugh made me laugh and it was my escape for me to take the pressure off of the crappy day at school. So to be that for somebody, it's as surreal for me that I'm that for a generation as it is maybe to them when they're having a surreal moment meeting me," LaMarche adds. "I'm just a guy. I'm just a dude who was lucky to get hired."

The Toronto native first sought out a career in show business in the booming comedy club scene of the 1980s as a stand-up who specialized in quick celebrity impressions, or as LaMarche describes it, "Rich Little on speed."

"I did something like 35 impressions in a 15-minute set," he says. "It was fairly rapid fire so it was wonderful practice for me because I was never myself except for a little moment of commentary and in fact, that's what got me into voice over."

A talent agent who specialized in voice-over work suggested he give voice over acting a shot despite some discouraging, earlier advice from another agent who told him he'd never get a shot because "voice-over's a closed door. There's only 20 people doing it and [voice actor] Frank Welker's doing half of that work."

LaMarche auditioned for voice-over jobs for a whole year before landing his first TV gigs on Saturday morning cartoons like The Littles and Wolf Rock TV, a short-lived animated vehicle for the famous gravel-voiced radio DJ Wolfman Jack. LaMarche continued to do stand-up until the death of his father Guy LaMarche, who was murdered in the lobby of a Toronto hotel by a close friend in 1987.

"That kind of derailed me from the world of comedy and getting up on stage, especially when it was the one thing that really made him super proud of me and the thought he would never be out there again and I'd never see those gleaming teeth in the audience from his smile," LaMarche says. "I just never really got back on that horse, but I credit that decade in stand-up for giving me whatever chops I have regarding comedic timing: how to lay a joke out, how to pause in the right place, how to finesse something so it has a maximum tickle to it."

LaMarche's joke-telling ability became a perfect fit for voice acting and the increase in work led to his first regular, popular TV role as the pipe-smoking Chief Quimby on Inspector Gadget.

"All of a sudden, it became not this one-off thing I was doing to stick my toe in," LaMarche says. "It was a serious commitment and I said, 'I'm gonna make how much in how many weeks? And there's no memorization? And there's no makeup or sitting in a trailer for five hours to do one line?' Nope, you're pretty much done in two to three hours and you get to sit with Don Adams and hear him tell stories about Get Smart on coffee breaks."

As the work piled up and LaMarche found his place as a voice actor, he would go on to work for storied animation houses like Hanna-Barbera and Warners Bros. Animation. The latter gave him perhaps his most famous and beloved role as the Brain, the smarter half of the Animaniacs duo whose voice features a mix of Vincent Price's timbre hidden beneath his renowned Orson Welles impression that he also got to do for some short bits on the cult animated sitcom The Critic.

"I do have an obsession with Orson Welles, but I haven't seen all of his films," he says. "It's his behavior in the act of him being himself. I'm more fascinated with Orson Welles when he's on The Merv Griffin Show than I am with Charles Foster Kane."

LaMarche's obsession with the renowned star and director of Citizen Kane stems from an outtake of Welles' commercial voice-over work for a brand of frozen peas that completely disintegrates when Welles argues with the director over the ad copy and a Paul Masson Wine commercial in which Welles seems to have tried more than a few glasses of the product before filming started. The writers of Animaniacs once worked Welles' frozen peas outtake into a Pinky and the Brain episode word for word except, of course, for the part when Welles quips, "Get me a jury and show me how you can say 'in July' and I'll go down on you."

"For me, Brain is more Orson Welles from those outtakes than Orson Welles from The Magnificent Ambersons," LaMarche says. "He's that genius that won't be recognized no matter how genius he is and is constantly thwarted at every turn."

LaMarche has since amassed one of Hollywood's most impressive bodies of voice-over work. He's done voices in just about every popular animated series for kids and adults in the last three decades including regular roles on the sci-fi comedy Futurama and the cult kids series Adventure Time. He's voiced characters in animated films most recently as the Godfather-esque shrew Mr. Big in Disney's Zootopia and the root beer tapper in Wreck-It Ralph. He's done voices for video games, commercials and even short voice appearances in films such as Tim Burton's Ed Wood as the voice of Orson Welles for Vincent D'Onofrio's cameo and the Will Ferrell Christmas classic Elf where he provided Buddy's massive belch at James Caan's dinner table.

However, he says his most requested character is still the Brain, even among younger fans who weren't alive when the show first aired on TV. LaMarche says Brain is probably his favorite character too because the show does a great job of mining Pinky and the Brain's strange relationship for comedy and fans connect so easily with the timeless struggles of "the uninformed idiot and the informed idiot, that magic combination that Peter Cook described so succinctly as him and Dudley Moore when they did their characters."

"The beauty is that the smart one isn't smart enough to know that his goal is unachievable," he says. "As brilliant as Brain is, he doesn't know that a 3-inch-tall lab mouse cannot take over the world, which is good news for us because we've got our own problems."

LaMarche says all of these successes aren't the result of some Brain-esque scheme to take over the world of voice acting.

"That all happened the same way you eat an entire cow, one bite at a time," LaMarche says. "It all happened with one animation job at a time and I'm always thrilled, humbled and honored as I look back and see that I've done a lot of stuff. I didn't set out to do that. I just set out to survive in the show biz game and the acting game no matter what it was."

Maurice LaMarche will appear at the Marvelous Nerd Year's Eve Convention running this Thursday through Sunday at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, 400 N. Olive St. Visit the convention's website for registration information and showtimes.

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.