The 5 Greatest Voice Actors of All Time

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Diminutive cowboys, conniving snakes, inquisitive primates, seductive squids, and sensitive second graders. By giving life to these indelible characters, animated voice artists don’t just fire up our imaginations, they expand the way we look at nature and the world. While we rarely see their faces, we can hear their essence in the way they vocalize their animated alter egos’ desires and emotions. Here are five of the greatest voice actors of all time, and a glimpse into how they changed their art form forever.

Mel Blanc

By bringing not just a voice but also a chaotic, untamable soul to the full raft of classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes characters, Blanc laid the groundwork for what could be achieved in voice acting for animation, and also set an impossible standard. He even brought aspects of his own life to his characters. Bugs was described to him as a “little stinker,” so the Portland, Oregon–raised Blanc imagined him as simultaneously from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Foghorn Leghorn was inspired by a hard-of-hearing sheriff he knew as a kid. That Blanc’s oeuvre is inimitable does not mean people don’t try. “I’ve always said that you can’t be the new Mel Blanc by doing Mel Blanc’s voice,” says voice actor Billy West, who took the mantle of Bugs Bunny for the first “Space Jam” movie and still does Elmer Fudd. But the real measure of Blanc’s genius, fluidity, and comic inventiveness is that 35 years after his death, he continues to be an inspiration to all performers, not just the ones in his field. “Mel Blanc is a hero,” Oscar winner Nicolas Cage once said. “To me, he’s a great actor.”

Sterling Holloway

Most of the voices on this list evoke childhood, but perhaps none more acutely than Sterling Holloway. As Winnie-the-Pooh, one of more than a dozen Disney characters the actor brought to life after a Hollywood career limited to playing hayseeds and soda jerks, Holloway lent a voice as soft and warm as a freshly laundered blanket at bedtime. Holloway started his Hollywood career in silent film; he credited his long career as a voice-over actor to the fact that his boyish, seemingly laryngitis-inflicted voice never changed. “It was a high-tenor, raspy voice unlike anything you heard,” said former director of Disney animated voices Rick Dempsey in the Los Angeles Times obituary for Holloway, who passed away in 1992. “He was the first spoken teddy bear. That was a contradiction, unlike the ferocious bears out in nature.” 

Frank Welker

In a career that spans seven decades, Welker has displayed a vocal dexterity and creativity matched only by Blanc and a box office domination equaled by, well, nobody. Lending his voice to several Decepticons in the Transformers franchise, the conniving cat Azrael in “The Smurfs” movies, and critters large and small in over a dozen Disney flicks, films featuring Welker have grossed over $17 billion worldwide, besting Toms Cruise and Hanks. Not bad for a guy who is largely known for his television work, voicing everyone from Fred on “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” (he would later take on the voice of Scooby himself) to Curious George on the long-running PBS series. (His first monkey job was as the ill-fated capuchin in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) For Welker, it is a job that has provided a kind of freedom no other kind of performing can. “As a voice actor you can be as old as you want and play it serious, or you can be a silly [goof],” Welker has explained. “There's no limits except for the people around you."

Pat Carroll

Carroll was already an established Broadway and Emmy-winning TV actor when she landed the part that would not only serve as a career highlight, but would also reshape the kind of societal impact that an animated character could have. As Ursula in “The Little Mermaid,” she brought a brassy confidence and unapologetic sense of self to the anti-establishment cephalopod (“She is a squid,” Carroll would correct anyone who dared to call Ursula an octopus), resulting in a performance and character that resonated with people who rarely saw themselves represented in animation. This was especially true of queer people; Ursula’s design was modeled after Divine, a drag performer who rose to fame in John Waters’ movies, and Carroll based her vocal performance on Howard Ashman, the openly gay producer and lyricist on “Mermaid.” While she did other voices—including a memorable turn as Granny in the English version of “My Neighbor Totoro” (Frank Welker voiced Totoro and Catbus)—she will be forever associated with Ursula. “That’s OK with me,” said Carroll, who passed away in 2023. “That’s a pretty wonderful character and a pretty marvelous film to be remembered by.”  

Nancy Cartwright

To put in perspective just how long Cartwright has lent her puerile voice to the eternally defiant Bart Simpson, she published her autobiography, “My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy,” a whopping 24 years ago. At that point, Cartwright, whose masculine-sounding voice had been noticed even as a kid growing up in Ohio, had been imploring Principal Skinner to “eat my shorts” for a mere 13 years. As a UCLA theater major, a young Cartwright, who does an assortment of other “Simpsons” characters—including Nelson Muntz, Ralph Wiggum, and Todd Flanders—was mentored by the animation legend Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, and many other characters. Now Cartwright plays that role for aspiring voice actors.  “Make your characters very, very specific and make solid choices,” Cartwright told Backstage in 2020.

Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones has written for publications including Variety, Details, Us Weekly, and People. He’s interviewed thousands of actors, musicians, and directors, and has covered film, culture, and news for Yahoo!, the Daily Beast, and Los Angeles magazine, among others. Jones has taught film studies at Emerson College since 2012.
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