Dan Castellaneta has created a cultural icon recognized the world over. But walking down any busy street in Los Angeles, the actor is rarely recognized at all.
Castellaneta provides the voice for Homer Simpson, the quintessential average American joe: lazy, dumb, a coward, a slave to technology and every addiction from donuts to beer, but loyal to his family and lovable in the extreme. Homer is the Everyman of the late 20th century, our national id, on display every Sunday night and twice every weekday in syndication. Dan Castellaneta, on the other hand, is to many people simply a name in the credits. Such is the tragedy--or the saving grace--of a high-profile voiceover career.
"It's a double-edged sword," admitted Castellaneta in a recent interview. "I know that if I were playing Homer in a sitcom, I would be getting movie offers. Of course, if it was live and I was playing that character, I might be typecast as Homer. So it's hard to say which would be better. If I think about it too much, I go crazy. And I have."
Indeed, Castellaneta and three of his fellow Simpsons' cast members--Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, and Yeardley Smith--recently had to fight for the recognition they deserve as voiceover actors. Only weeks ago, 20th Century Fox, challenging the group's demand for $150,000 apiece an episode, began auditioning replacements. Luckily, an agreement was reached: The performers will receive $50,000 a week, with that amount increasing by $10,000 every year. Castellaneta said he's pleased with the outcome.
"I don't think I would have come back if there was any sort of resentment," said the actor. "I wanted to know for myself that I would be OK. And yeah, I'm actually very happy with the deal that we made."
Coincidentally, the cast had another reason to celebrate recently: the 200th episode of the series aired on Apr. 26, a marker only a few select shows have reached in television history.
Despite the show's long run, Castellaneta still finds the work exciting. For one thing, there's something new for him to do every week. Like the other performers on the show, he voices a number of different characters, new and old, in each episode, including Grandpa Simpson, Krusty the Klown, Barney Gumble, Mayor Quimby, and Groundskeeper Willy, among others.
Castellaneta's ability to jump from voice to voice and to come up with original characters in seconds is a result of his years of experience in improv. He trained at and then performed with Second City in Chicago, studying with teachers such as Paul Sills. For Castellaneta, improv--specifically as taught in Viola Spolin's theatre games--is a sturdy basis for honest acting.
"What I learned from Spolin Games is how to have genuine moments," he said. "Improvising is a good b.s. detector, because in improv, you know when you're faking it and when it's genuine. So when you're reading a text, you'll be able to say, I think it would be better this way. It doesn't feel comfortable or what a real person would say--or for me, what Homer would say at that moment."
Of course, the nuances Castellaneta has added to his characters to make them real have often come from stranger places than training or instinct. He recalled that for one of the original one-minute Tracey Ullman Show spots, on which the Simpson family premiered, Matt Groening wrote "frustrated grunt" as a line for Homer.
"I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'Whatever you want.' So I remembered this actor from Laurel and Hardy movies, Jim Finlayson, a Scottish comedian who did a lot of films in the 1930s. Whenever he would get frustrated, he would go, 'Da Ohhh.' I think it's a euphemism for 'damn'--he would start to say damn and then realize he couldn't say it, like, 'Ohhh, I can't even say damn.'
"So I did that and Matt said, 'You've got to speed it up, this is animation, we've only got a minute.' So I had to go 'D'oh!' really quick. That's the origin of d'oh."
While The Simpsons is still a challenge, the actor said he has missed performing live recently, which is one of the reasons he produced his one-man show, Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?, currently playing Thursday nights at the bang. Improv Theatre in L.A. Not wanting to reveal too much of the plot, Castellaneta merely said, "It starts out as a one-man show about Vincent Van Gogh, but eventually the actor who plays Van Gogh suffers a nervous breakdown."
Working nights in the theatre and days on the show is fine by Castellaneta. In fact, the freedom to work in the evenings is another advantage of a voiceover career, he said.
"I always think of myself as doing what actors did in New York in the '30s and '40s: They would do voiceovers on radio shows during the day, and then they would do their plays or whatever during the evening. That's ideal."
Nice work if you can get it, and if you don't mind being the man behind the d'oh.