By Guy D’Astolfo
Youngstown native Jim Cummings has brought to life many Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons.
Jim Cummings used to do some pretty good imitations of dogs and chickens when he was in grade school.
“I got kicked out of class a lot,” said the Youngstown native
He didn’t realize it at the time, but he was actually preparing himself for a unique career.
Cummings, a 1970 graduate of Ursuline High School, is a voice actor who has brought to life more than a dozen animated cartoon characters, including both Winnie the Pooh and Tigger from The Disney Channel’s “My Friends Tigger and Pooh” show.
He has also lent his voice to a variety of Warner Bros. cartoons, including the characters Darkwing Duck and Taz the Tasmanian Devil, and has done work for the cartoons “Batman,” “Pinky and the Brain” and “Animaniacs.”
Cummings, whose list of credits is a mile long, has also done films and a heavy volume of commercial work. Remember the California Raisins? Cummings voiced AC, the lead raisin, in the popular TV ads.
His next project is the voice of Ray the Cajun Firefly in Disney’s upcoming animated movie, “The Princess and the Frog.” The film, due in December, will feature Disney’s first black princess.
Playful and enthusiastic, Cummings spoke to The Vindicator last week in a phone interview from his California home.
Like many Youngstowners, Cummings’ first post-high school job — he has never attended college — was in a steel mill.
He soon realized that it wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“I worked for Sheet and Tube at Brier Hill for six months, then I moved over to the coke plant in Campbell,” he said. “One day I was walking home from work at about 3 o’clock in the morning and it was about 15 below. Snow was up to my thighs and the wind was blowing. I heard a voice from God say to me [using his deepest voice from the heavens], ‘What do you want me to do?’”
Luckily, Cummings didn’t have to think of an answer. A friend soon told him he was going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “I went with him and I never came back,” said Cummings. He was 19.
While growing up in Youngstown, Cummings acted in plays at both Ursuline High and the Youngstown Playhouse. He also was a drummer and singer (his first gig was a junior high dance at Our Lady of Mount Carmel social hall at age 13).
While in New Orleans, he sang in a band, worked as a riverboat deckhand and also designed Mardi Gras parade floats.
He drew on his New Orleans experience in creating the voice of Ray the Cajun Firefly, he said.
Cummings moved to California in the early ’80s and got his big break into voice work in 1984, when he landed the part of Lionel the Lion in Disney’s “Dumbo’s Circus” television show. The role got his foot in the door at Disney, for whom he’s done much work over the years.
While Cummings has played all types of characters, he gravitates toward the bad guys, like the evil Rasul in Disney’s “Aladdin,” whom he has voiced.
“I like the bad guys because they’re closer to my personality,” he said. “Even as a kid I’d rather be the old wizard than the prince. It always seemed liked they had more fun.”
These days, Cummings is prized by filmmakers, not only for his vocal talent but his ability to create new characters and improvise lines.
He credits his hometown for providing ideas which he’s incorporated into his work.
“Youngstown had so many characters,” said Cummings. “Neighbors, aunts and uncles have all shown up in my characters over the years. You know, a bad enough impression of somebody can be a whole new character.”
His ad libbing while in character also is valued. “At this point I’m usually hired because I do bring more than what’s written on the page,” he said.
Although he voices Taz and other characters made famous by legendary cartoon voice Mel Blanc, Cummings has never met the man. But he said he did get Blanc’s seal of approval.
It was back in 1984, when Blanc was 76. After listening to Cummings’ demo tape, Blanc looked up and said “Tell the kid he’s got it.” Blanc, who was the original voice of the Warner Bros. cartoons Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester the Cat and others, died in 1989.
Preparing to voice a cartoon character is no different than any other acting job, said Cummings. “You have to immerse yourself in their viewpoint,” he said. “Winnie the Pooh sees the world with rose-colored glasses, and everyone is just a variation on a good guy. Taz sees everyone as food.”
Cummings admits to occasionally breaking into character while off the set.
He recalled a shopping trip during which he picked up a Winnie the Pooh greeting card in a store, and went into character for his children. A nearby clerk heard him and squealed, “Oooh, you sound just like him!”