Dan CastellanetaBy Robert Loerzel
"D'oh! Now He's Van Gogh"
Dan Castellaneta plays one of the most famous characters on television, but most people wouldn't recognize him.
"It's the weirdest thing," says Castellaneta, the voice — the cartoon character Homer Simpson. "When you go into acting, you expect to be a huge star and to be recognized... It did happen, but not in the way you expect it to... In L.A., I'm just another character actor."
Castellaneta, 42, does get his share of cameos on TV and he does a lot of voice work for animation. But he isn't exactly swamped with offers for big roles in movies and stage plays.
"If I were actually Homer Simpson, I'd be getting scripts out the wazoo," he says.
Because he loves doing live theater, Castellaneta turned to his own writing talents to come up with the right vehicle for his comedic acting.
"It's hard to find a play that's right for me to do," he says. "Rather than waiting around for the right script to come along, I decided to write one myself."
Castellaneta has won rave reviews in Los Angeles, Denver, New York and Arlington Heights, Ill., for his one-man show, "Where Did Vincent van Gogh?"
"It starts out as a one-man show about Vincent van Gogh," Castellaneta explains. "Then the actor playing it appears to have a nervous breakdown. An entity takes over the actor's body."
That entity is an alien who had apparently been in the audience, watching the Kirk Douglas-like portrayal of van Gogh.
"He's bored with the show and doesn't like it, so he's going to do a different show," Castellaneta says.
From there, the show zigzags in dozens of directions. It turns out the alien is on a "recruiting mission," channeling the various human beings it comes into contact with.
As several critics have noted, this is all essentially an excuse for Castellaneta to play some 25 to 30 characters in the course of one stage show. But few critics complained about the gimmick; instead, they lauded Castellaneta for his ability to shift fluidly from one funny persona to another.
The characters he portrays include an art-loving nun, a florist who speaks the language of flowers, a Japanese ninja, a bike messenger who likes striking up conversations with people in fast-food restaurants, a wooden ventriloquist's dummy and Billie Holiday.
Castellaneta said he's pleased by the positive reviews he has received for the play. Getting a good review in the New York Times means a lot to him, he said.
Crowds have responded well to the play, though Castellaneta says some people go into it with the wrong expectations, hoping to see a version of "The Simpsons" on stage.
"People are expecting out-and-out laughs," he says. "This is more of a theatrical show."
Coming up with enough nonstop hilarity to fill a stage show is no easy task, he says.
"I don't have a staff of 12 guys writing for me," he says.
Castellaneta, who grew up in Oak Park, Ill., and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, says he learned a lot about acting as well as writing when he was a member of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe from 1983 to 1987.
"I always enjoyed writing. I did playlets in high school, I did radio shows in college," he says. "That's one of the reasons I went down to Second City, because you could do acting and writing.
"It's a great training ground for television. When I first did 'The Tracey Ullman Show,' there were times when I could offer a solution on stage, and I could understand the writers."
Making up dialogue isn't the only skill needed for good improvisation, he says. The key is understanding your character -- or changing that character to make the whole play or sketch better, Castellaneta says.
Castellaneta didn't do any voices for cartoon characters while he was in Chicago, but he did get superb training for it by doing voiceovers for commercials and radio programs. He and his wife, Deb Lacusta, used to do short comedy bits on the WXRT FM program "Saturday Morning Flashbacks," including one routine that Castellaneta still cracks up about.
"One time we did a bit where I was Howard Cosell and my wife was a brain-addled Muhammad Ali."
Castellaneta was a cast member on Ullman's comedy sketch television show when the producers made plans to include short cartoons by Matt Groening about a family called the Simpsons.
Castellaneta landed the role of the father, Homer, but the voice he used in those early short cartoons is barely recognizable as the Homer everyone knows today. It was more nasal, with a perhaps bit of Walter Matthau.
"When we were doing it for 'The Tracey Ullman Show,' (the Simpsons) were drawn differently. They had droopier foreheads," he says, explaining why a cruder voice seemed appropriate at the time.
After "The Simpsons" debuted as a 30-minute sitcom in late 1989, Homer's voice evolved over the course of the first season.
"When you're doing a half-hour show, that (original) voice didn't seem appropriate," Castellaneta says, adding, "Reading all day, that voice wouldn't be comfortable for me."
Castellaneta dropped the voice from his nose down into his throat.
"When it dropped down there, I could sustain it longer than when I did it through the nose."
During a telephone interview, Castellaneta -- whose normal voice sounds nothing like Homer -- demonstrates how he developed Homer. Though he's probably told the story countless times, Castellaneta is clearly having a ball as he does several of the funny voices that merged into Homer.
One was the inarticulate moan of a mound of clay called "The Blob" on "Cartoon Town," a show hosted by Bill Jackson on Chicago's Channel 32, which later became "Gigglesnort Hotel."
Castellaneta's college friend Kevin Doyle liked to imitate the Blob, adding actual words to its voice. Castellaneta imitated Doyle imitating the Blob and mixed in some other impersonations.
"There's a little bit of Mr. Magoo in there," he says.
And there's also Castellaneta's own father.
"There was a particular tone in his voice, my father had -- when he got on his high horse, 'Son, let me tell you.' "
Homer isn't the only voice that Castellaneta provides for "The Simpsons," which is now the longest-running prime-time cartoon in history.
He's also Grampa Simpson, Groundskeeper Willie, Barney Gumble, Mayor Quimby, Itchy the mouse and the Squeaky-Voiced Teen, in addition to dozens of other minor characters.
Of the voices he does other than Homer, Castellaneta's favorite is Krusty the Clown. It's another voice inspired by Castellaneta's years of watching children's TV shows in Chicago.
"I grew up watching Bozo in Chicago," he says. "The original Bozo, Bob Bell, had a sort of gravelly voice."
Castellaneta says he thought it was a peculiar voice for a clown. He takes that gravelly voice a step further with Krusty, a chain-smoking children's performer with a somewhat seedy off-camera persona.
Castellaneta and the other cast members record the voices for each episode before the animation is done, so they have to picture in their minds what the scenes will look like on screen.
"There are times when the writers ask us to improvise," Castellaneta says.
For example, in one episode, Castellaneta and Hank Azaria played a couple of sports announcers doing the play-by-play for a bowling tournament. The writers gave them no lines at all, just asking them to ad lib.
"Sometimes the animators are inspired by what you do, and sometimes you are inspired by what the animators do."
Castellaneta says his favorite "Simpsons" episodes are those that "jump out of the genre." He particularly likes the episode where the Simpsons cast is transported to Biblical times. Another favorite is the episode where Homer and Bart mistakenly believe they have leprosy.
Castellaneta says the scripts are often surprising.
"The formula of the show is to misguide the audience into thinking it's going this way," he says.
Castellaneta and his wife co-wrote the "Simpsons" episode in which barfly Barney Gumble quits drinking. He says they thought about ending the episode with Barney reverting back to his old self, but they just couldn't do that to the character.
So far, Barney is still on the wagon, though he continues to hang out in Moe's tavern. If you look closely, Castellaneta says, you'll notice Barney is drinking coffee.
Another episode scripted by the Casstellanetas hasn't aired yet. Inspired by the fact that Homer has met a lot of famous people over the course of the show's long run, this episode satirizes "Forrest Gump," with Homer assuming the title role.
Castellaneta and the other voice actors on "The Simpsons" recently made the news when they won lucrative new contracts.
Castellaneta says he and the others deserve it because of the show's huge popularity. As in the case of other series such as "Seinfeld" and "Friends," the cast members gained the power to negotiate big salaries only after the shows had been successful for years.
"They got a nice deal in the early years," he says, referring to Fox Broadcasting Co.
And even if people don't recognize Castellaneta when they bump into him, say, at a Kwik-E-Mart, he says the popularity of "The Simpsons" means a lot of people will be interested in seeing his other work.
"People will come out of curiosity to see the actor who plays Homer Simpson," he says.
Last updated on September 22, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)