Nothing defines Christmas TV like the old Rankin-Bass specials. Rudolph! Frosty! The Narwhal! But what do you know about the Rankin-Bass voice actors, the people behind those wonderful characters?
The specials are over 50 years old now. The first one, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, aired in 1964.
Despite their age, the stop motion extravaganzas are still extraordinarily popular. They’ve entered the cultural zeitgeist in a way that many studios today could only dream of.
According Hollywood Reporter, the 2016 airing of Rudolph achieved higher ratings among adults 18-49 than anything except NBC’s new series This Is Us. That’s unbelievable for any cartoon that doesn’t feature a certain castle at the top of the credits.
What’s the appeal? One big piece is the amazing art. The specials were made long before CGI existed at all, and so all those little dolls and toys dancing across the screen are real objects. Animators painstakingly posted and photographed them over and over.
If you’d like to learn more about Arthur Rankin, Jules Bass, and their craft, we recommend the excellent book by Rick Goldschmidt. The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass: A Portfolio is getting a 20th-anniversary edition this December, just in time for the holidays.
The Vocal Range is all about voice actors, and we’ve got some pretty interesting facts about that side of the Christmas specials.
Stop Motion By the Numbers
From 1964 until 1985, Rankin-Bass Productions created a total of 22 stop motion animation projects. That’s slightly more than 1 per year, which is an amazing feat considering the state of the technology at the time.
There aren’t many studios that focus on stop motion. Rankin-Bass was arguably the first, and is certainly the most well-known. What many people don’t know is how unbelievably fast they were. This kind of animation is laborious, grueling work, and yet Rankin-Bass produced one per year for over 20 years.
Let’s compare the numbers between the big stop motion studios.
Laika was founded in 2005, but did not release their first film until 2009. Coraline was a critical success, and landed them their next gig. ParaNorman didn’t release until 2012, though, three years later. Since then they’ve created The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two String (2016).
The studio announced this year that they were expanding to achieve a production rate of 1 film per year. For now, they’re averaging a little over 2 years between projects.
Henry Selick isn’t a studio, but he’s dedicated much of his career to stop motion animation. He’s the man behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). In 2004, he joined Laika where he directed Coraline.
Aardman Studios, the people behind the delightful Wallace & Gromit shorts, are the other modern masters of stop motion. Their stop motion feature films include Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). A five-year gap between films might be why they ditched stop motion entirely.
Yes, that’s right. We love Flushed Away, but it’s not clay. The film was computer animated in a “stop motion style”. No actual stop motion was used in the production.
The Revolving Door of Voice Actors
Those 22 stop motion projects were made up of 4 theatrical films, 17 of those TV specials we all know and love, and 1 TV show.
The show, The New Adventures of Pinocchio, ran for 26 episodes from 1960-1961. Furthermore, each 25-minute episode was made up of five 5-minute shorts. Rankin-Bass created 130 of these shorts. Each of which was entirely separate, often featuring entirely new characters.
That’s a lot of characters, and a lot of voices! What’s surprising is that Rankin-Bass, for the most part, didn’t invite voice actors back for a second gig. Rather than maintaining a large stable of “go-to” actors like Filmation and Disney, Rankin-Bass apparently just kept putting out those casting calls.
Overall, Rankin-Bass employed 147 voice actors over their 22 projects, most of which featured less than 10 characters.
The Rankin-Bass Crew
So, was Rankin-Bass a place for a voice actor to pick up a little bit of quick cash, and then ride off into the sunset? Not quite.
The company did maintain a very small roster of actors who would pop up in multiple projects. But it was very small.
Of the 147 Rankin-Bass voice actors, only 26 were ever hired again for a second part. Rankin-Bass even recast recurring characters.
Most of those returning actors only came back once. There are only 10 voice actors who worked for Rankin-Bass three or more times.
Who was their favorite actor? It seems to have been Bob McFadden, who is one of those voice actors to appear in just about everything. He’s listed in the credits of 8 Rankin-Bass productions.
Pioneers in Celebrity Voice Casting
One thing that Rankin-Bass loved to do was cast big name actors in voice roles. There wasn’t a lot of this kind of celebrity casting going on at the time. Early Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs mostly cast musicians and stage actors.
Over the years, the company cast no less than 62 bona fide celebrities in their stop motion projects. The list includes huge names like horror mainstays Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Boris Karloff. They also recruited dramatic actors like Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, and James Cagney.
Quite a few comedians also took a turn at voicing characters like the Snowman. Andy Griffith, Casey Kasem, and Phyllis Diller have been immortalized in those holiday specials.
It was a novel idea at the time. Celebrity casting wouldn’t really take off until 10 years later with Filmation projects like The New Adventures of Batman, which cast actors from the live-action Batman series.
Forging Legendary Voice Actors
Of course, more than a few of the recurring Rankin-Bass actors would build impressive careers from voice work.
Allen Swift did most of the voices in Mad Monster Party all by himself. This was something of a specialty for Swift. He did the same thing in the original Tom and Jerry cartoons, The Bluffers, and Diver Dan.
Billie Mae Richards was one of the most prolific Rankin-Bass actors, best known as the voice of Rudolph himself. She also appeared in the original Care Bears movies and TV series as both Tenderheart Bear and Brightheart Racoon, and in the 60s Spider-Man show.
June Foray is undoubtedly the biggest voice actress ever to star in a Rankin-Bass production, not counting the live action stars topped the marquee. Bizarrely, Foray was practically expunged from the record due to contractual issues. Her work as Karen in Frosty the Snowman was redubbed by an uncredited (and presumably cheaper) actress.
In the meantime, Foray was becoming a voice acting legend at Hanna-Barbera, as well as voicing Rocky from Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Rankin-Bass is a big topic, and there’s so much interesting information that it’s hard to know where to stop. We didn’t even touch on the strange sci-fi trippiness of many of the specials. What the heck was the deal with the Narwhal? Did they really put in a caveman named One Million BC?
They did. It was weird. Stay tuned for another article.