Bowing Out: June Foray (1917-2017)

| July 29, 2017

If the word ‘ubiquitous’ can be a person, it might as well have been June Foray.  For more than 85 years, she seemed to be everywhere; she seems to have done everything in nearly every show business medium imaginable.  She was a rare bird; a voice actor who became a legend in her own time who seems to have touched every part of the show business canvas.  Let’s put it this way, if animation was a global village than she surely traveled the globe: radio, television, movies, video games.  She worked with all titans of the animated form: Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, Walter Lantz, Walt Disney, Jay Ward, Hanna Barbara.  She was famous for the voices of characters you might know: Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Witch Hazel, Cindy Lou Who. Even when she wasn’t creating a character, she could be heard somewhere providing a cackle or a grunt or a meow.

Foray died Tuesday at the age of 99, just six weeks shy of her 100th birthday and for those of us who practically worship the animated form, she was a true legend.  She was born nearly a century ago on September 18, 1917 in Springfield, Massachusetts to Russian Jewish immigrants who, she said, filled her head and her time with an exposure to the theater and movies and the opera.  It caught on, and Foray made a habit of imitating everyone that she saw.  She said that it inspired her, at the age of 5, to pursue a career as either an actress or a fairy princess – given her roles, some might say she did both.

She started on radio in 1929 at the age of 12 working on a radio program on WBZA for one of her teachers.  At the age of 15, she convinced the owner of the radio station to let her be part of the WBZA players.  She portrayed dozens of characters on radio all through the 30s and 40s, and for the next sixty years her voice could be heard in everything from movies to television to albums to talking toys.

She would become known as the female counterpart to Mel Blanc, but Foray’s voice wasn’t quite as enmeshed.  If you had the right ear, you could always tell it was her.  That’s particularly true of the Warner Brothers shorts, in which for many years she was the only female voice artist.  She worked tirelessly creating voices in nearly 300 animated shorts often shifting from one dialect to another.

While not as well known as Mel Blanc to those outside of the animation tapestry, she was well-respected in the industry.  In 2012, at 94, she received her first Emmy Award nomination in the category of Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program for her role as Mrs. Cauldron on The Garfield Show (2008).  She was given the Governor’s Award, also the oldest performer so honored.

In 2000, she was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after a campaign spurred by Chuck Jones.

But where do you know her from?  Well, the short answer is, almost anywhere.  Aside from Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Witch Hazel, Natasha and Cindy Lou Who, she was famous as Granny on the Looney Tunes cartoons.  She worked for Walt Disney as Lucifer the cat in Cinderella (1950) and a mermaid in Peter Pan (1953).  She was Lena Hyena in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). She provided the barks for Little Ricky’s dog on “I Love Lucy.”  She was Aunt May on “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” TV show from 1981 to 1982.  She was Marigold on Tom Slick.  She provided the voices of several  laughing beach children in “Jaws.”  She was on a legendary episode of “The Twilight Zone” as the voice of the Talky Tina doll who kills Telly Savalas (a role she got after Rod Serling heard her do the voice of the Chatty Cathy doll).  She was on “Bewitched” as the voice of baby versions Darrin and Gladys.  And she did voices for “The Brady Bunch”, “Green Acres”, “Get Smart’ and possibly twelve other famous shows.

She was on a memorable early episode of “The Simpsons” in which she played the receptionist of The Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper Babysitting Service.  When Marge calls to inquire about a babysitter for Bart and Lisa, the receptionist immediately retorts “Lady, you’ve gotta be KIDDING!

Foray worked most often with another legend, Chuck Jones in adaptations of Horton Hears a Who, A Cricket in Time Square, The Phantom Tollbooth, The White Seal, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Mowgli’s Brothers, Rikki Tiki Tavi and The Jungle Book (not the Disney one).  This, in addition to the hundreds of cartoon shorts for Warner Brothers under Jones’ direction.

Those who recognized her, loved her.  She was beloved by the industry for nearly a century.  Probably the only person who didn’t love her was Richard Nixon.  In 1973, when meat prices started to sky-rocket, she joined in a protest that led all the way to Washington.  She made Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemies List’ and led to an audit by the IRS at the same moment that Foray was trying to pay medical expenses for her aging mother.

That might very well be the only dark moment in Foray’s career.  The exposure didn’t hurt her career one bit nor did it stop her.  She worked tirelessly for the rest of her life.  Courted as The First Lady of Voice Acting she was one of the original members of animation organization ASIFA-Hollywood (the International Animated Film Association) and founder of the annual Annie Awards which recognized achievements in animation.  Short of stature, she was a women who could command, and did.  She chaired the short subject branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for many years, and fought tooth-and-nail to keep animated shorts a part of the annual Oscar broadcast.  And she was instrumental in the creation of the Oscars’ animated feature category, which has been handed out every year since 2001.

And yet, the one legacy that must be mentioned is that her death brings down the curtain on the legend of Termite Terrace, that bizarre annex animation house of Warner Brothers that, during the 40s and 50s brought life the characters of The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.  She is its last surviving legacy and with her passing, all the laughing denizens of Termite Terrace are now gone.

What she leaves behind is the work of a true voice artist.  There aren’t many left.  Those who work in the form are being nosed out by casting agents who want animated features to be headlined by big-named stars.  That puts professional voice artists – who know now to create a character with their voice – out of work.  Foray’s legacy brings hope to those who want to work using their voice.  She had a passion for it.

“I love everything I do with all of the parts that I do”, she once said. ”Because there’s a little bit of me in all of them.  We all have anger and jealousy and love and hope in our natures. We try to communicate that vocally with just sketches that you see on the screen and make it come alive and make it human. That’s what I enjoy doing.”

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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