Top Cat was originally a children’s television cartoon show, created by Hanna Barbera in the sixties and based on the Phil Silvers Show, with Top Cat himself taking on the mantle of Sergeant Bilko in his guise as the leader of a group of miscreant alley cats, determined to beat local policeman Office Dibble from attempting to oust them from their alley home.
Now the feline gang has been reinvented for the 21st century, with TC still at the helm and Benny, Brain, Spook, Fancy Fancy and Choo Choo all still in the gang. View’s Matthew Turner spoke to voice artist Jason Harris, who played various members of the cast, about his work on the project and how he went about creating that instantly regognisable voice.
How did you get involved in the film? Were you involved from an early stage or was the Mexican version completed before you came on board?
I actually initially did the scratch track as a favour for a friend who was working on the version for Mexico. He figured I could do the voices, so he asked me to do ALL the male voices and my wife did the female voices - she plays Miss Kitty in the final. We recorded it in my home booth in L.A. and they were simply going to dub it into Spanish and that would be that. It wasn't until later that they approached me about doing a final version in English.
Were you already a Top Cat fan? Or a Sergeant Bilko fan?
In the States, in all honesty, Top Cat is a little before my time. So I had to learn the style and voices from watching the old episodes on YouTube.
As a huge fan of the original cartoons, I was extremely impressed with the accuracy of your Top Cat impression, or perhaps I should say your Arnold Stang impression. Did you watch a lot of Top Cat cartoons in preparation? How difficult was it to get the voice right?
It wasn't easy and it was a big concern for me, frankly. My interpretation is actually a little different, a little deeper because when I tried to hard to make it dead on Arnie Stang, it sounded phony. I wanted Top Cat to embody the original character but be believable as well. So yes, I did watch a lot of the old episodes, did my best to match him, and then stopped trying and let it come to life.
As well as voicing five other characters, you also voice directed the film. Can you explain how that works? What challenges did you face?
Frankly, it was a bit insane. I voice directed the English version and played Griswald, Big Gus, Brain, Strickland, Choo Choo, the Maharaja and countless smaller roles. Initially my friend was going to co-voice direct with me but he landed a job working on the TV show Terra Nova. So he said adios and next [thing] I know, the gig is mine.
I had a list of roles that the Mexican production team wanted me to play. The others I cast in New York and L.A. and I voice directed the session in New York and L.A. Usually I would act in a four hour session in the morning and then direct a four hour session of someone else in the afternoon. The biggest challenge was directing myself. It got pretty lonely in that voice over booth with only the engineer to banter with and say, "Was that any good?!"
When you're voicing a total of six characters in one film, do you find yourself living with all six voices in your head? Do you find it difficult to switch off at the end of the day?
Yes. Difficult. Mainly because I was the final critic and it would've been helpful to have some outside help when doing so many voices. There are some I was never 100% happy with. Strickland landed better in the scratch track than the final, in my opinion. He was a cross between [American stand up] Wallace Shawn and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. But it was a little more pushed in the final and I just didn't have [the] time or budget to fix it and they couldn't use the scratch. I actually find it easier to switch voices on the fly, because it brings the story to life for me. And that is what I did for the scratch. But for the final we dedicated sessions to each character.
Which voice was your favourite?
I LOVED playing Top Cat, Griswald, Brain, Choo Choo, the Maharaja, and Big Gus. Strickland - because of his somewhat maniacal nature and high voice - got a little exhausting after hours of work. But hey, so be it - better than digging ditches!
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
I kind of like the scene in prison where Top Cat convinces Griswald that he's a cat. To me that was the most clever writing and interesting relationship. I also enjoyed some of the group scenes, like the prison cafeteria, because they had good energy. One of the problems we had is that they ultimately animated the film to my initial scratch track and then we had to re-dub it back into English, which meant the pacing was sort of imposed. I tried to change things with off-camera lines and improvised banter between the mouthless robots but the final say on what was used went to the director from Anima and he stuck with the script.
Do you have a favourite Top Cat episode?
I'll be honest, they are a blur now, but who could resist Benny singing about Hawaii!
As something of a Top Cat purist, I noticed that there were changes made to the character of Spook, who was his own joke in the 60s, since he was the jive-talking "hep cat". Why was that character changed when the other characters were played so close to the original versions?
We made those decisions way back doing the scratch track. We felt there were places we could modernise it just a bit. So instead of the hep cat, we made Spook a surfer dude and instead of Tony Curtis we made Fancy a bit of Vince Vaughn. Overall the tone was the original 60s style with winks to the future - cell phones, etc.
The film was a huge success in Mexico, suggesting that there could very well be a Top Cat 2. Are you on board if that happens?
If they'll have me, I'd be thrilled to do it again, and hopefully even better.