Rob Paulsen is one of the most talented people on the planet Earth. His numerous voice acting credits, including Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain and two iterations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, have brought joy and inspiration to generations of people around the world. But Rob’s current role is even more important and moving than that: he’s this year’s celebrity spokesperson for the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.
For those who may not be aware, Rob was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2016, and turned what could have been a crushing negative into an incredible positive. He penned his memoir, Voice Lessons, and shared his story to educate and inspire. And his work off-screen is as important as anything he’s doing on-screen, as he works to help others through projects like his work with the HNCA. On TV, Rob Paulsen is a living legend; off of it, he’s a hero.
With Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week fast approaching – it runs from April 13-19 this year – I connected with Rob to talk about his charitable work and how life has been for him since the release of Voice Lessons and his newfound platform to be heard for more than just the characters he’s played. Check out our latest interview below, and learn more about the HNCA here.
Brittany Frederick: How did you become this year’s spokesperson for the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance? Were you looking to become more involved in cancer charities, or was this something that came to you after the release of Voice Lessons and more people were aware of your story?
Rob Paulsen: I don’t know if they read the book. But last fall, I don’t recall how it happened, but I ended up speaking with the folks at the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and they offered me this wonderful opportunity. I could not say yes fast enough. I said oh my God, that’s precisely why I wrote the book. I wanted to elevate my profile but in doing so, as the book started coming around, I thought oh my God, I’m going to be able to help people with this.
It’s nice to be able to make a difference. [The position] was previously held by Michael Douglas and Jim Kelly, the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, who sadly is still dealing with the same type of cancer I had. And so I was very flattered, very humbled, and said, “You bet.” And this year I’m their official spokes-toon.
BF: What’s it like for you to gain more notoriety for being Rob Paulsen when you’ve been so well known for so many fictional characters? Is it different to now have the spotlight on you, just as yourself?
RP: I’m really looking forward to sort of chumming the waters and doing a lot more public speaking. I have no trouble shutting up. But now I’m a de facto expert on my type of cancer and the prevalence of it; the folks who will die from it. I’m armed with really good information now. And so I think I offer a unique circumstance in which I can be entertaining. People love the characters, and then we talk about a serious circumstance that I’ve actually gone through, and those are really powerful things to have together.
I did a TED Talk in Detroit and it went really well, precisely because I could weave in important personal issues that apply to all of us with humor and joy, and all the things that Yakko, and Pinky, and Carl, and Donatello, and Raphael bring, especially to me. I’m looking for more speaking opportunities to do. It’s a great way to help, and I love it.
BF: Is it strange at all given that you work in a profession where you’re usually not in the public eye?
RP: it’s not weird for me because I started out my career doing stage, and live music, and so for me it’s kind of coming back full circle. I love it. And look, I’m an actor, and I’d be lying to you if I said I don’t care if people recognize me. I love it when I’m recognized. In my case, there’s no downside. It’s not like I get mobbed in a restaurant. I can go anywhere, but when people recognize me, all it does is make them happy because they love [the characters].
So I love it, and I love the instantaneous nature of having a live audience. That feedback is just electric. It’s why people who don’t need the money do theater all the time, because it’s why you become an actor in the first place. So I have the best of both worlds. I have arguably half a dozen characters or so that have become pretty iconic. I’m still able to do my work at the same high level.
Now we’re doing [Animaniacs] with Mr. Spielberg and Hulu, again. Very unusual that the original actors on any show will come back at this level with brand new technology with the King of Hollywood 25 years later. And the fan base for Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain alone is astronomical. It’s so much bigger than it was when the show premiered. We have an incredibly fortunate opportunity [and] I get to take it even one step further because of my health issues. So it’s not strange for me at all; I embrace it.
BF: The last time we spoke was last fall just before the release of Voice Lessons. Now that the book is out, has the reception exceeded your expectations? Because it was wonderful to see so many people, readers and media alike, embrace it.
RP: I think it has exceeded my expectations. And all of it, again, is a happy circumstance because what people say is exactly what [co-author] Mike [Fleeman] and I wanted them to say, which is I laughed, I cried, I got the message. I see how powerful these characters are. And Mr. Paulsen, you have no idea what they mean to me. I hear that over and over again. And I did not know until I was an author and I went out there…how deeply they connect with these characters. That’s what the book is about, and I could not be more gratified.
BF: Was it cathartic for you to get all of what you’ve been through down on paper and now, out in the world where you’ve been able to share it with everyone?
RP: Very cathartic. I’m just a lucky, working actor who happened to get cancer right where you don’t want to get it if you do what I do. Nobody wants cancer, but I never felt when I was diagnosed like, “Oh my God, poor me.” Right now people are getting the phone call about their four-year-old getting cancer. So why am I any more special? I got it in my throat, oh well. I had no reason to fall apart. None. Even if the doctors had said, “You’re done.” I’ve got nothing but happiness. I chose my career, I’m doing it, I’m still able to do it. I’ve got nothing I feel sorry for myself about.
It was cathartic, but in a happy way, like oh my God, let me tell you what I’ve learned about these characters Not that was awful, and somehow I made it through. Everybody’s got their stuff, but I got to tell a really happy story.
Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week is April 13-19, 2020. For more information on the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, click here. If you haven’t read Voice Lessons by Rob Paulsen yet, you can get your copy here.