Voice of our times:

'Simpsons' fans won't recognize Nancy Cartwright until she speaks

By Nancy Mills

© Chicago Tribune - August 24, 1998

Nancy Cartwright, the star of one of the most popular shows on TV, still can shop in peace because because absolutely nobody recognizes her. How can that be?

Cartwright's 6-year-old son Jack is ever-eager to dispel the mystery. "My mother's Bart Simpson," he announces whenever they run errands together. Or sometimes when Cartwright herself is feeling especially perky, she'll ask a restaurant maitre d', "Are you a 'Simpsons' fan?" If the answer is yes, out comes this raspy "Hi! I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?"

Curled up on the sofa of her home, a "Simpsons" pinball machine off in one corner and two 8-week-old kittens wandering in and out, Cartwright admits to enjoying her semi-celebrity. "It creates a wonderful effect," she says of her occasional revelations of her alter ego. "If people are having a bad day, it brightens them up."

A 5-foot-tall, non-stop-talking blond, Cartwright, 38, doesn't naturally sound like Bart. In fact, before Marge and Homer Simpson's trouble-prone 10-year-old son came along, she provided voices for such shows as "Animaniacs," "Goof Troops" and "Pound Puppies." She has appeared on-camera occasionally, most recently playing a waitress in "Godzilla."

But it's Bart who has given Cartwright a comfortable lifestyle in Northridge, a Los Angeles suburb. She now earns $50,000 (plus residuals) per show, thanks to the cast's recent strike threat.

It's a long way from Kettering, Ohio, where Cartwright grew up the fourth of six children of a graphic artist and his homemaker wife. "From when I was about seven, people told me I had an unusual voice," she recalls, "an androgynous sort of sound. I can rough it up" - and when she does, out come the distinctive tones of Bart Simpson.

Eleven years ago, when Cartwright went to audition for "The Simpsons," she planned to read for Lisa. But she couldn't get a handle on the character, so she tried Bart, and the voice just popped out.

Cartwright doesn't have much in common with Bart, apart from the voice. She wakes up at six every morning for a 40-minute run through the neighborhood, starting and finishing next to a big sign across her driveway, "Once there Was a House, a Happy House." Then she rouses her husband, producer/writer Warren Murphy, and two children, Lucy, 8, and Jack, and makes breakfast.

"I never rebelled against my parents, ever," she says. "I was too busy with choir, the marching band and theater." As for her children turning into brats, she notes, "Never once have my kids used the phrase, 'Well, Bart would do this, Mommy.' I'm a strong advocate of getting in there and teaching kids the difference between right and wrong."

Cartwright's face barely changes when she talks in Bart's voice, but when she switches to Nelson her forehead goes up and her face scrunches up. "It's not conscious," she says of her physical transformation. "It just helps me get it right. Whenever you're doing a voice-over, all you have is your voice. Your intention has to be much stronger."

Cartwright learned this early from her mentor, the late Daws Butler, who voiced such legendary cartoon characters as Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound. The story of how he became her mentor should be instructive to wannabees eager to ditch their small town for Hollywood.

"I called him up in California and got his answering machine. This was Ohio, 1977. I didn't know what an answering machine was. Anyway, I'm listening to this message, and Daws was doing his British butler voice. I just picked up on it and did this little Cockney response, asking him to call me collect.

"He did, and we had this incredible conversation that started our long-distance student/mentor relationship. He'd send me scripts, and I'd talk into a tape recorder and send him tapes to critique. He'd write back things like, 'Here's a challenge. She's older than you.'

"When I went back to OU for my sophomore year, I knew I needed to transfer to UCLA or USC. I pulled out a map of Los Angeles, located where Daws lived and saw he was nearer UCLA. I can't believe I did it, but I went in search of this elusive dream."

When "The Simpsons" began as vignettes on "The Tracey Ullman Show" in 1987, Cartwright had no sense of how popular they would become. "When they said, 'We're going to a half-hour show,' I thought it could be fun, but this is phenomenal. We've done 200 shows, and we've got contracts for three more years. I don't want it to end. I love it. It gives me power. Sometimes now I get other voiceover work without auditions."

Cartwright spends several days a week working on "The Simpsons." Preparation of each episode begins with Cartwright and her fellow actors Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Moe), Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns) and guest stars reading the script aloud. The writers revise overnight, then the cast meets again to record the episode.

During non-"Simpsons" days, she goes on auditions or works on developing one of the six live-action films her company, Happy House Productions, is hoping to make. "I'm a character actress, so I don't know if I'd be right to star in all of them," she says. "On-camera work is a whole new ballgame for me, but I need to do it so people will know I'm not just a voice."

Submitted by Rene Carlos

[Note: I'm pretty sure it's "Goof Troop," not "Troops," but that's what they wrote. Also, the sequence could be off- Animaniacs certainly came after 1987, and probably Goof Troop, too. Note that her three-year contract does not necessarily mean three more seasons. I bet it's more of an exclusivity deal, saying Cartwright has the sole right to voice Bart, etc. for the length of the contract. -RC]

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Last updated on August 26, 1998 by Jouni Paakkinen (