Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Actor Jeff Bergman has been voicing some of the most iconic animated characters for decades now. He was the first person chosen to voice Bugs Bunny after creator Mel Blanc passed away in 1989 and in subsequent years has lent his talents to others in the Looney Tunes stables. He’s back to voice that rascally rabbit – and a few others – in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY, which has Bugs and friends working with basketball superstar LeBron James to mend a fracture in his relationship with his son Dom (Cedric Joe).
I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with the affable actor about everything from the magnitude of filling the shoes of such a veritable performer, to what he likes about this iteration of the legendary furry character, to the wackiest credit on his resume. He even took a moment to sing both parts of “What’s Opera Doc?”
Walk me back to when you first got the job to voice Bugs – and what that was like for you?
“I don’t know if it was serendipity, or fate, or what, but after I met him 40 years ago, back in March of 1981, he was very nice to me. I don’t think I knew anything was really happening there. When we left the conversation, he said to me, ‘If you’re ever in Los Angeles, look me up.’ 8 years later, he passed away on my birthday and not even 3 weeks later, they were casting for Steven Spielberg’s Tiny Toon Adventures. I auditioned for the role of Bugs Bunny and several of the other Looney Tunes characters.
It was very fast, but that was their schedule. I was kinda stunned and don’t think I processed it for a while. I was 29 at the time – pretty young and new into the business. I didn’t feel like I was taking over, because how do you do that to somebody of that stature. He had been doing it for 50 years. Still, today, I think back on that time and think how cool it was to meet Steven Spielberg at the wrap party and he signed a model sheet for me that said, ‘To Jeff, Mel would be proud. Steve Spielberg.’ It was an incredible first experience.”
Have you observed many changes to the Tunes throughout these past decades? They all are still pretty much rooted in the same level of absurdity.
‘No, you’re absolutely right. Even though there have been several iterations, from Tiny Toons, to the Looney Tunes show, to The New Looney Tunes cartoons, to SPACE JAM of ’96 and the current SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY, they’re all still the essence of who the characters are. But every director and the writers have their own sensibility that they bring to it, including all the voice actors. They all bring their own spice to it. It’s still kept in that Looney-verse.”
Where did start to find the essence of your Bugs, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear?
“We all have different reference points. My connection to the Looney Tunes characters, and we’re talking late 60’s/ early 70’s, I remember seeing Bugs Bunny advertise for Tang and I’d hear Bugs Bunny say, [slips into Bugs Bunny voice] ‘That’s right! You too can have Tang. Start your breakfast with Tang, the great breakfast drink.’ [Back into regular voice] I remember thinking, ‘How is it possible Bugs Bunny is advertising for Tang?!’ That was crazy the two worlds were mixing together. Anything animated on TV was the most exciting thing in the world for somebody of my generation.
Same thing for The Flintstones. Fred and Barney were advertising for Winston Cigarettes – and that was normal! Fred would be talking to Barney, [Slips into Fred Flintstone’s voice] ‘Hey Barn. The girls sure do work hard. Why don’t we sit out back and have a smoke?’ [Goes back into regular voice] But I bring all of that to it. That was my initial exposure to the characters.”
It’s funny. Someone on Twitter had done a whole threat of Bugs Bunny clips illustrating that those shorts were how many of us learned about classical music growing up. There’s an educational component to this animated absurdity.
“Totally! ‘What’s Opera Doc?’ [Slips into Bugs singing] Return my love, I want you always beside me.’ [Elmer Fudd voice] ‘Love like ours must be.’ [Bugs] ‘Made for you and for me. Return.’ [Elmer] ‘Won’t you return my love’ [Bugs] ‘For my love is yours!’”
I am sitting here with a big grin on my face right now. It’s nostalgia central here and now. I’m curious if you also have that same audience reaction – smile and giggle – when you read in the script what you’re going to be doing with Bugs?
“I do. Absolutely. Depending on what the scene is. When I saw the film, I’m so surprised. We recorded it over a period of two years and I don’t remember doing all the things we recorded. We did a lot of ad-libs – some of them got in, some of them didn’t. You never really know what’s going to happen. I like that. Yes, it’s all there on the page. But once you get into the studio to record and you’re getting the direction, something sort of happens that’s kind of strange where we go, ‘That’s the script. Let’s lift it off the page and bring it to life and make something happen.’
It was just in May that we were doing post-production and Bugs, as you saw in the first trailer, morphing from 2D animation into the 3D animation, and I remember having to make the sound effect for that. And I thought, ‘That’s the coolest. I get to do that?!’ It was just me making that sound of what I thought maybe it would be. It was amazing.
You don’t want to get too heady about it. People are such die-hard fans of the first SPACE JAM and now there’s going to be a whole new generation that this will be their jam – they’re SPACE JAM. I try not to think about it too much. I try to bring as much spontaneity to all the sessions.”
Did the pandemic at all mess with the normal process of recording or was all your work already in the can when it hit?
“That was the most incredible thing about this film. We recorded about 85-95% remotely. We were all working around the United States in different cities. We’re all in Zoom meetings. We had director Malcolm Lee and Spike Brandt, our animation director, and the producer, script supervisor and recording engineer. We’re all eyeballing each other. We all came together and were as prepared as we could be. It was a little wonky at first to figure out how to do all that, because there is something where you see the director on the other side of the glass and sometimes they come in and you chat about a scene or a line; we didn’t have that. And we didn’t work with the other actors. We had to adapt.”
How did you cultivate your talent and make this your career? When did you know, growing up, you had this talent to do impressions?
“In the late 1960’s, it was watching Ed Sullivan show and Johnny Carson, and there was Rich Little, who was the big impersonator of the day. I looked at him, not as an impersonator, but it was like a magic act. I thought, ‘Wow. How does somebody get up there and sound like John Wayne and Vincent Price? That’s so exciting! Maybe I could try that.’ I don’t think I sounded like anybody, but my parents got a kick out of it and encouraged me. I guess by the time I was in high school, guys voices get deeper and mature, I started to do different impersonations and my friends and parents were all, ‘You know, that’s pretty good.’ And that’s all you need if you’re a performer (laughs). I think I was fortunate in that aspect.
The real shift into high gear was when I met Mel Blanc. And I didn’t realize it in that moment, maybe 4-5 months later, I got really into it. Very passionate about working hard, developing my instrument – my ear – and developing a repertoire. I was just about to graduate college and needed to figure this out somehow. I think the combination of just being drawn to that – to mimicry and making people laugh and having to get serious to earn a living. That combo got me to wanting to work at it more. I don’t think I really understood how hard you’d have to work at this, in the industry, until I moved to Los Angeles, and that was around 10-12 years ago to live full time. That’s when I realized the competition is incredible. There’s so many gifted people out here and you just have to love what you do. I’m fortunate to be passionate about it and that helps, giving you staying power and some sustainability when things aren’t so great and you’re not getting all the jobs and auditions. That’s where it helps to love what you do. That keeps you patient and persistent.”
What did you take away from your meeting with Mel?
“Interestingly, when I knocked on his hotel room door and before he opened the door, I heard his voice and knew I had the right door. He sounded like Barney Rubble a little bit. He opened the door and we chatted for maybe ten minutes. I was not really an academic student and didn’t really love my classes – I was in my junior year of University of Pittsburgh. But he said, ‘Try to stay in school if you can.’ He did the voices and I did a few voices for him and he seemed to like them. But I didn’t get to meet him again.
Interestingly enough, when I showed up for the call back audition in Los Angeles, his son Noah Blanc was there. I guess he had either heard my audition, or heard something about me, and approached me and said, ‘If you don’t have any representation, here’s my card. Gimme a call.’ That startled me. That was incredible. That was almost an endorsement right there.
[Mel] has a body of work that’s so incredible. Thousands of cartoons, and he was on the Jack Benny Show. So much work that he did in more than half a century to refer to. I try to take that with me. I obviously bring my own take on it. But I try to stay true to the original Bugs Bunny because there’s fans. They grew up with it. They expect it to be their character, or as close as they possibly can.”
Speaking to playing Bugs as close to the spirit of him as possible, what did you like seeing from Bugs in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY?
“We make homage to the original film, but this is LeBron’s story and it’s a stand-alone. It’s a story about a father and a son and owning your own power and being comfortable in who you are. LeBron is trying to develop this relationship and understanding with his son and telling him you’ve got to have a work ethic and his son is trying to communicate he wants something very different. The cool part, for me, how I interpreted it is that the Looney Tunes help LeBron connect back to his childhood and that helps him to find a way to reconnect with his son. That might be one of my favorite parts of the film is that relationship that Bugs and LeBron have and how he helps him find his way back to connecting with his son.”
Sometimes IMDB isn’t accurate so forgive me if I get this wrong. You’re listed as the singing voice Alan Alda in EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, specifically foreign releases only.
“I think that is true. Yes, I did that so many years ago. It’s so crazy to remember that.”
Do you remember anything about how that gig came about?
“There was an engineer that was recording Woody Allen remotely in the Bronx. It was one of the location shots. Alan Alda was on set and so he [the engineer] invited me to come to set and be like the silent observer. I remember Alan Alda saying, ‘Alright. This is the chicken chow mein take.’ That meant they were gonna get it right, right before lunch and then they’d grab craft services. Then it was post-production and the engineer said, ‘We gotta get this little piece where Alan Alda does this little thing – this little ditty. You get in there and just do something.’ I don’t even know if they used it. I’ve never gotten paid for it. You’re right, I did do something, but I don’t know if it ended up in the film or not.”
SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY opens in theaters and begins streaming on HBOMax on July 16.