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Twenty five years after the groundbreaking animated-live-action hybrid film became an instant hit, you probably recall the lead character in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” But do you remember who voiced Roger Rabbit?
Charles Fleischer, an actor and standup comic whose off-kilter, rapid-fire onstage persona was known to rival his friend and contemporary Robin Williams for sheer manic inventiveness, was the man tapped to craft the perfect voice for the carrot-fancying character at the center of the murder mystery in Toontown. Fleischer’s distinctive vocals (he also voiced Benny the Cab and the weasel thugs Greasy and Psycho) defined the persona of an antic ‘toon that, while brand-new to the real world, fit perfectly alongside the 1940s-era animated icons like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Betty Boop that Roger would historically share the screen with in director Robert Zemeckis, producer Steven Spielberg and animator Richard Williams’ ambitious production.
To mark the film’s 25th anniversary and debut on Blu Ray, Fleischer looks back at putting the “P-p-p-p-please” into Roger’s pleas to Eddie Valiant, and reveals his latest attempts at breaking new ground, this time in the world of science.
What does it mean to you to have been part of something that so many people have just adored for so many years?
It's an extraordinary experience to be involved in anything that has the magnitude of ‘Roger Rabbit,’ and the moment that I became involved with it, I had a sense that it was going to be an important piece of film and entertainment, and I think that has come to be.
How did the project first come your way?
I was asked to come in and assist them in the process of auditioning the Eddie Valiant character, so the actors had to do lines with someone off camera. Bob Zemeckis had seen me do my stand up at Comedy Store and remembered me, and they brought me in to do that. And after several auditions – including Ed Harris and James Woods – Zemeckis asked me if I wanted to go to England and do this as Roger Rabbit. I thought about for maybe a millisecond – just to let him know I'm not going to be easy! – and said ‘Yeah.’ And it was still one of the highlights of my early life.
You made the then-inspired decision to actually be put on a Roger Rabbit outfit while you did the line readings for people on set.
My voice was recorded on set because the animators needed it to begin working on it immediately. And it just made sense to me: if I'm going to be there every day, I should have a costume. I didn't want to look like, “He's wearing the same pants he wore yesterday.” So I said to Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, “Could you make me a Roger Rabbit suit to wear?” And they did. It had the ears and it helped Bob Hoskins a lot because it helped him to visualize me when I was there – and it was also good press too because I was at the Elstree Studios in Borehamwood outside of England, and I think there was somebody from ‘Willow’ or ‘Superman [IV]’ that was still filming at the same time, and they saw me in the commissary and said something like, “That rabbit movie's not going to be good. We saw the rabbit, and he doesn't even look like a rabbit!” They thought that was the extent of it.
How was the process for finding the right voice for Roger?
Well, I do, do many voices. Like any part, I would undertake what is written, describes certain aspects of the character. In addition to that, it is the appearance of the character. So if the character is very small, it's not going to make sense for him to have a very deep voice. So based on what he looked like and how he moved it just evolved. As an actor, that what's what you do. You find different voices for different people.
What does it mean for you to be able to occasionally bust out Roger Rabbit for a little kid and see their reaction when they realize “Oh, wow – that's actually the real guy?”
Little kid, big kid, old kid – even small animals seem to be amused. I'm happy to do it for people. It's an honor and a privilege especially because Roger Rabbit was such an iconic and extraordinary character. And I think one of the reasons it was so successful was because the movie took place in the 40s and it kind of made you feel that he was always there, that kind of he fit into it.
Were you a big animation buff? Were you as into the historic nature of all these enduring characters appearing in one movie for the first time like Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, were?
Well, certainly, the name, Fleischer – I’m not related, but Fleischer studios which gave us Betty Boop and KoKo the Clown, and in addition to that, I'm also an artist, and I've always had a love of animation and the correlation of art and technology which this movie exemplifies to the nth – or nth plus n1 – degree.
You continue your long career as an actor and a voice artist, but you also have a lot of other widely varied interests and pursuits. What's front and center in your life right now?
I'm still doing stand-up, and I still do a lot of artwork, and all the artistic aspects. In addition to that I've always been into science. I have a patent on a device that measures golden ratio, and I began a discovery process many years ago considering something called gamma-ray bursts which are the most dynamic expression of energy in the universe.
I made a discovery about them and I wrote a scientific paper, which was endorsed by an astrophysicist and appears on the Cornell University web site. To get on this site, you have to be endorsed by a well-known scientist, and my paper on gamma-ray bursts is now published with all these other esteemed scientists. Discovering something is difficult, but then getting the next step is even more problematic – that is more or less a quote from Murray Gell-Mann who is the scientist that got a Nobel prize for discovering quarks, the constituents of protons which make up part of the nucleus of an atom. If I'm right about my discovery – it is a hypothesis – it will elementally change certain aspects of science ,which would be cool. And it would also be cool for maybe the Roger Rabbit sequel when Roger Rabbit comes out on Violet Ray.
Did you have to make a choice at some point in your life, like comedy or science, given that your brain is wired for both?
I read a book by Arthur Koestler once called "The Act of Creation," and in it he compares the scientist and the comedian, they are both performing what he called a bio-associative act bringing together two things that weren't related. Maxwell, conceived of electromagnetic spectrum, before that there was electricity and magnetism, so he kind of combined them into one, and for instance in my stand-up, I do an impression of a Japanese Bob Dylan. So it's two things that you wouldn't expect to see together that combining bio-association is something that is common to both comedy and science. So after I read that book, I felt a little more comfortable with my love of both things right and left brain.