Interview with Bill Farmer
Bill Farmer was the voice of Sam in Hit the Road (along with many other characters) and I had the absolute pleasure of being able to talk to him. Bill is a genuine man who has a real love of his craft – and a killer memory!
We talked about how he got into voice acting, his role as the iconic Disney character Goofy, along with his involvement in the original Sam & Max video game.
I hope you enjoy reading! It’s the longest interview on the site, which is great – Bill is full of stories and is really interesting.
When did you first realise you had a talent for doing voices?
When I was a kid I grew up in a little town in Pratt, Kansas. South Central Kansas. Middle of the US and it’s a little dinky town about seven thousand. Not much to do, so I was a big TV and movie fanatic. Probably when I was around 12 I figured I could copy voices that I heard and in those days the Westerns were big. I would start doing impressions of John Wayne and all them old wagon train things and Jimmy Stewart and voices like that. I just found that I had an ear for that. And my friends, of course, thought it was great. But I never thought it would be a career, but it turned out that way.
Did you naturally teach yourself these voices, or did you learn somehow?
The first couple I just kinda did it and a friend of mine said, “Hey, you kinda sound like John Wayne!” So I started listening to the voice more and getting the cadence and the timing and I just had a propensity for that. I did have to study to learn nuance, but it seemed to come fairly easily to me.
When you were doing these voices did you ever think it could become a career?
Not in the middle of Kansas, no. Hollywood is a million miles away and the closest I thought I might be able to do is be a DJ at a local radio station. Which I did for a few years.
How did you transition to become a professional voice actor?
My degree from the University of Kansas was in broadcast journalism. I worked at several radio stations throughout the Midwest – Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas – and most of them were country based radio stations. And there was very little supervision, it was like, “Play a box of these, play about 20 out of this box and a few out of this box, and the rest of time just make sure people listen.” So I would come up with characters. At the time there was a DJ called Wolfman Jack and if you’ve ever seen the movie American Graffiti he’s featured in that. He had a voice way down there that was kind of gravely. So I would do that kind of thing. I would start developing characters that I would talk back and forth, mostly out of boredom. And it seemed to catch on with the audience.
I did that for a few years, then got out of radio and into stand-up comedy in the early 80s in Dallas, Texas, which is where I was living. And that was some pretty good success there. Within six or seven months I started travelling around to other clubs – this was 82, 83 – and started being a stand-up comic. And that was kind of the golden age of stand-up comedy, in those early years, and it was great training for me. In 1986, on the advice of an agent that I had in Dallas, I came out to Hollywood to see what I could do out here. And as luck would have it, I was able to get an agent right away and the very first character audition that I did was for Goofy.
Wow – your first one?
Yes! It started very slow in those days and it wasn’t too long after that that I got a call – I did some video games… Sam & Max was one of the first ones, actually. I got to audition for that and I love that game. It is brilliantly written and actually is my favourite game that I’ve done ever.
Well, I’m glad you like it. It’s got a huge fan base, people always ask me to interview you, to hear from you.
It was so sharp and Steve Purcell, his writing was so funny that it was just a joy to do. I had a blast doing that.
You mentioned stand-up comedy, what did you learn from that that you then applied to voice acting in the future?
Actually, voice acting is very similar to stage acting. It’s usually a little reality-plus. You have to make things bigger for the stage, you have to sell the jokes a little harder. It’s heightened reality. In a club, or in a play, you have to do it so people in the back seats can see your gestures and kind of get the emotion of the character. In the same way, voice acting is reality but you gotta push it a little bit. Especially in animation.
I learned when I first came out to Hollywood, I took classes from a guy named Daws Butler, who was one of the all time great voice actors, for Hanna-Barbera especially. Did Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, over 40 major characters. He was the one who really stressed that you’re not someone doing funny voices, you are a character that happens to have a funny voice. In other words, it’s not the cart before the voice. The acting leads the voice, not the other way round.
When you do visual acting, you have all your facial expression and body movements to get across the character, whereas in voice acting it’s literally just the voice.
Exactly, yes. If you have to show that you’re afraid or scared, you can’t tremble because no-one’s gonna see it. So you have to do that in your voice. You have to take on all that and ramp up the voice to take care of those things you can’t do.
You’ve been voicing Goofy for nearly 28 years. That’s a pretty long time to keep doing the same character. And I imagine you’re always having to do Goofy related things, whether it’s merchandise or shows…
Yes, we have a new series on now called the Mickey Mouse shorts, which are available on YouTube as a matter of fact.
Oh yeah, I’ve watched them. I think they’re brilliant.
They are. They’re a totally different take on the characters. For the last eight years we’ve been doing Mickey Mouse Club House, which is of course for the 5 and under crowd. And this one is much more adult and hipper. They’re a lot of fun to do and we get to do some really weird and fun stuff with the characters.
Yeah, I think they’re a great take on the characters. It’s very good.
As an actor it’s always a challenge to keep it real and within the bounds of the character. And I’m so happy that they’ve done them. They’re real fun to do.
I was going to ask you how you keep yourself interested in the character of Goofy, but I suppose that kind of answers it as Disney are doing different takes on the characters like that.
Well, Goofy was my favourite Disney character growing up. He has always had a special place in my heart and it is never boring doing animation. It’s always a lot of fun and so to keep it fresh. He’s just ever fresh. It’s real easy to keep him going.
How has your voice for Goofy developed over the years, if it has?
Yes, it has. The original voice was Pinto Colvig back in the 1930s and was less articulate and a little bit more swallowed. It was more in the back of the throat. Over the years we’ve had to articulate more so it’s more in the front of the mouth. Even for Mickey Mouse, the shorts, it’s kind of Dippy the Goof. It’s kind of a retro goofy, so we’re making him a little bit more country. And he’s got a bit more of a rural kind of sound. So we get to do little new things with him from time to time.
I can sense some Goofy in your natural voice. Do people ever recognise you for being Goofy?
Rarely. When I do Goofy’s voice they of course obviously recognise – then they say, “Oh, I can hear you in it!” Yeah, it is very close. It was just kind of the right timber and not that far of a stretch to do for me.
I suppose one of the benefits of that is that you can go out in public and people don’t flock around you and bother you because they don’t know that you’re one of the most iconic voice actors.
As Daws Butler said, “It’s the best kind of celebrity because you can turn it on and off.”
How did you get the role of Sam in Hit the Road back in 1993?
It was very early on with LucasArts. They were doing a lot of video games at the time. It was just an audition through my agent and they showed me the sheets of what Sam & Max looked like. Sam was a detective, he’s a dog. Again with the dogs, I seem to gravitate towards them. He’s a wise cracking detective, so I was kind of thinking of the Sam Spade sort of thing, with the Bogart thing. But the voice was too much of a Bogart, and I thought Sam was very dry and deadpan, the way he rattled off jokes. It didn’t really show much emotion. So I was thinking very kind of flat and I came upon Johnny Carson, which was very flat and I ended up putting them together and before long I had Sam. “That’s right, little buddy!” Haven’t done that in a long time. “That’s a completely unusable thing-a-me-bob.”
Were you aware of the comics before you took on the role or did you become aware of them?
I became much more aware of them, but I was aware of them and I had read them before and always thought the writing was very sharp because I was a big comic book fan when I was a kid.
In general, how does voice acting in games differ to other mediums?
I recorded on that game for nine days straight. I actually recorded just into a little laptop, it wasn’t even a good studio. It wasn’t that long after the Northridge earthquake and I remember the little studio, which I believe was on Hollywood Boulevard, or Sunset, and it still had big cracks in the wall from the earthquake and hadn’t really been repaired. I remember I was sitting on a stool in this room, which was hardly anything you would call a studio. Talking into a laptop and a microphone and just doing line after line after line.
And they’re disconnected lines, because whatever the player does you might have a dozen or so lines that you need to say. “That’s right, little buddy!”, “Come on, let’s go!”, “There’s no-one we care about out there.” Whatever the line was. And I did about five or six characters in that. But Sam was definitely a lot of fun.
I did Flambe the fire-eater, which was just a very French fire-eater. I did Doug the Moleman: “Why do all you squishy, poorly-focused blobs say that?” I loved the lines, they still stick with me. Whenever you pulled into a Snuckey’s to order, I was the little clerk behind the desk. “Er, yes sir, what may I order for you?” And I think one of the clues was a pickle jar or something. And the Yeti Chief at the end, which was my Jimmy Stewart. I had to say the line “So long Sam and Max, may the night be young and the dawn shall awaken and annoy you!” I always loved that line. And assorted other characters. I was a woolly mammoth in the tar pit that I remember.
I didn’t appreciate just how many different voices you did in that game.
That’s the fun thing about doing video games. You can be multiple personalities in the same game.
When you’re voicing for the game, can you see it in front of you? Or are they not at that stage?
Especially at the time, with the technology, they would show me the scene, but no, when I was actually doing it I was not watching anything. Just a microphone and my script.
Did you ever get to meet Nick Jameson, who voiced Max?
Oh yes, I know Nick quite well. We did not work together when we were on that game, but I knew him from other auditions around town and I believe we were at the same agency for a while. I saw him from time to time but when we were actually working we were working individually.
How did you handle working off someone who wasn’t there?
That’s where the acting comes into it. You just have to create the scene from the director. “How far is Max from me? Am I yelling up to him and he’s on top of the building?” They give you that kind of thing, but the rest of it you just have to create it in your mind. The way they do it in the movie Godzilla that’s coming out today – I’m sure all those actors had to shoot on a green screen and didn’t have anything that they were looking at. It’s just imagination. Theatre of the mind, I guess.
Did you ever get to meet anyone who worked on the games, like Steve Purcell?
Oh yeah, I’ve met Steve several times. He’s actually worked at Disney several times.
Yeah, he works at Pixar now.
Yes, yes. And I’ve been in a lot of Pixar movies and I’ve met him over on the Disney lot a lot of times and at a couple of conventions, like Comic-Con type events where he’s been there greeting the fans and I’ve dropped by and said hi. Yeah, he’s a tremendous writer. He really is a great creative force. I love the way he writes.
Did he, or anyone, ever give you feedback on the voice?
There was a girl, I remember her name was Tamlynn Barra, who was the voice director on that and I think the casting director as well. At least when I went in for the first audition they kind of liked the way that I was going, the wise cracking, Carson-esque detective that I came up with and they really didn’t change it any and kind of let me go with it throughout the game. And I figured if it was broke, they’ll tell me.
Did you ever play through the game?
Oh, absolutely, yes! I wish I could play it now!
Yeah, I wish they would rerelease it.
Was it weird playing through the game and hearing your own voice or are you adjusted to that?
You do get somewhat adjusted to it. A character like Goofy, who I’ve done so many thousands of times throughout the years. But I will still think, I’ll judge myself, “Okay, I could have done that better,” “That’s a good one”. To get outside of that and just sit back and enjoy the character is a little difficult. But when I see it in context, with the other characters and the actual story that I didn’t hear when I did it, I can enjoy that.
LucasArts developed a 3D Sam & Max game called Freelance Police. You and Nick reprised your roles and they cancelled the game. I was wondering how far into recording were you?
We recorded for two or three days on that and got quite a bit of stuff done. There was one scene that I remember that I was really hoping would come out where Nick voiced Sam and I voiced Max. Like our brains got switched. That was a fun scene. Incidentally, they never really told me they’d cancelled the game. I didn’t find out until like a year later.
It was like a month or two between times we went in. We do a large block of this stuff and then we come back because there are thousands of lines in these games, so it takes days and days to do this. We did two or three days and then nothing happened and I’d ask my agent, “Hey, what about the Sam thing, is that coming up any time soon” … ”Well, we haven’t heard” … and we never heard! It was actually through fans online that I found out, “Oh, it was cancelled.”
I was the last to know!
You must have been disappointed when you heard.
Oh, yeah. It went to Canada and it gets into a union thing. I’m a union actor and the first job was LucasArts, which I guess was a Screen Actor’s Guild project. Then it went to the television series and they produced it in Canada, which is a non-union setting. So they replaced me on that. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to voice him since, but I had a blast doing the first game and I certainly think it was a brilliant piece of writing and was at least at one time of the top 50 games of all time.
Yeah, it certainly appears on those lists a lot.
But I did several other games for LucasArts in that period too. I did one Star Wars where I was the evil Emperor.
Sam & Max did a TV show in Canada, as you mentioned, and Telltale Games have made three Sam & Max games, but they decided to get different voice actors for both Sam and Max.
Yeah, and I would have liked to audition for it. But I didn’t even get a chance to audition for it again. They just went on their own ways and LucasArts went its way and I don’t know how it works with the upper-echelon and all of the gaming…
I think a lot of fans were disappointed that they didn’t get you and Nick, the original actors, to reprise your roles.
Well, I know Nick would have loved to and I certainly would have loved to too.
Have you heard the other versions of Sam?
I have heard bits of it, yeah. I don’t know if it’s a union thing, or a money thing, ‘cus hey, I work for scale! I would have liked to continue the game, of course, because I think if it was as brilliantly written as the first game was, certainly would have liked to be part of that.
You have a company that helps train voice actors, is that correct?
That is correct. A company that I have with my son who is an audio engineer and a rock drummer, as a matter of fact. He went through audio engineering school, so he does all the hard work and the editing and the mixing and I do the directing and coaching. We make a wonderful team. I do that on the side when I’m not acting on games and stuff like that. Try and give people a hand up and get into the business.
It’s a fascinating business, but very tough. There’s thousands and thousands of people wanting to get into this business, and unfortunately, here in Hollywood, you’re up against Tom Hanks and all the other celebrities who like to do these games as well.
Yeah, a lot of screen actors have started moving into more voice acting.
Yeah, and they’re tough competition, so you gotta really be good. And the advice I’d give to someone who wanted to get into this business would be have a backup source of income before you do this. And do it because you love it, not because you think you’re gonna make a ton of money. You gotta do it because you have the passion for it.
What do you enjoy about training other voice actors?
It is seeing someone who has talent develop that talent. I’ve had very good luck so far. We’ve had about over half of the students able to get agents. These are very beginning students. And get agents in Hollywood and a few have already got series, which is really gratifying to see someone get on the right path with the right talent and get noticed.
Do you believe that anyone has the ability to be a voice actor or is it something that you naturally have and you have to hone your craft?
People can always get better, but people are born with a certain knack that, yeah, I can play basketball, I’m never going to play for the NBA. A lot of people just have that gift and can develop it to a higher degree. But everyone can be better than they are with the right training.
That about wraps up my questions, Bill. Do you have any upcoming projects or anything that you’d like to plug?
Sure, as a matter of fact people can always contact me at billfarmer.com or my business website toonhouseinc.com. and of course they can find me on twitter @goofybill and on Facebook… and look for me in the movies!
I have a new series that’s coming out next month, which is fun. For Disney called The Seven Ds, as in seven dwarfs. And that’s a new look at the seven dwarfs. One of the lead actresses is Kelly Osbourne, who is very interesting, I think her first cartoon series. That will be premièring, since it’s seven dwarves, 7/7/14. And I’m Doc, by the way, of the seven dwarves. I’m kind of, not the leader, but he’s kind of the inventor and the elder statesmen of the dwarves.
Well, thank you very much, Bill. I really appreciate it.
I appreciate the time, it was a lot of fun.
Thank you, that’s very kind. It was an honour talking to you. It’s brilliant to talk to you and ask you about the game.
It was my pleasure. Thanks.