There are so many cartoons and movies from the 80s that are near and dear to our hearts. We loved the shows, and we loved the characters. But digging behind the scenes a bit, one man stands out with being one of the most important voices of movies and TV in the 80s.
Frank Welker is an American actor and voice actor who has done some iconic voices including Fred from Scooby-Doo and Megatron from Transformers. He has appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows an has an Emmy Award for lifetime achievement.
The 80s was an explosion of pop culture and it introduced us to so many new cartoons, TV shows, and movies. With all this new content, there needed to be the voice talent to go along with it. Instead of hiring dozens of people, what if you had one guy that could do multiple voices?
That’s what you had in Frank Welker as he is a phenomenally talented man that helps create some of our most beloved characters. It goes a lot farther than that too as he has provided voices and sound effects for things you are guaranteed to have watched.
This article will look at his life, all his work, and all the amazing shows and movies he has shown up in.
Prepare to have your mind blown
The Early Life Of Frank Welker
Frank Welker is from Denver, Colorado and was born on March 12, 1946. When he grew up, he ended up moving to California and would attend Santa Monica College where he would study theatrical arts. He was a notable performer and played the role of the Cowardly Lion in a stage production of the Wizard of Oz in 1966.
He was given rave reviews for this role after performing it for the college and it encouraged him to pursue more of a career in entertainment. Besides acting, he also had a passion for stand-up comedy and this is what helped lead him onto the path that he would follow for his whole career.
One of his standup routines involved a fight between a cat and dog. Welker has the ability to recreate these animal type noises, and it caught the eye of a commercial producer who had come into Ledbetter’s comedy club on Westwood Blvd.
The producer was doing a commercial for a dog food called “Friskies” and they needed a voice for the tail of the dog in the commercial that had a mind of its own. Fun fact: Friskies used to use lean horse meat in their dog food which they would actually promote in commercials in the 50s.
Right Place At The Right Time
So this is 1969 and a new show was being developed for CBS about a talking dog and a group of teenagers that would go around solving mysteries. As chance would have it, the producers of the dog food commercial had his girlfriend there when Frank was recording and she thought he would be perfect for the voice of the dog that they were calling “Scooby-Doo”.
Welker showed up at Hanna-Barbera with the intention of auditioning for Scooby and he ran into a radio DJ Casey Kasem who was auditioning for the character of Fred. They ended up preferring Welker to do the voice of Fred and Casey they preferred for the character of Shaggy (which Welker had also auditioned for).
A guy named Don Messick would end up voicing Scooby-Doo (Messick was also the voice of Boo-Boo Bear, Papa Smurf, and Astro on the Jetsons). It was thought that Messick could handle a majority of the voices but they were really impressed with Welker and wanted him on board as the voice of Fred.
They were also impressed how they could throw and voice possibilities at him and he could come up with something on the spot. He also had the amazing ability to recreate animal sounds, and it occurred to him that every cartoon usually featured animals so this could be a way to get on to the shows and then maybe provide some other voices.
The Success Of Scooby-Doo
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Was a monster hit and became a staple of after school viewing for years to come. Scooby-Doo was actually a response to the Action for Children’s Television which believed there was too much violence in Saturday morning cartoons going into the late 60s.
CBS would lose some of their big Saturday morning cartoons because of this and needed something to stay in the mix going into 1969. You can argue about the potential drug influences of it but that’s for another time. Either way, when Scooby-Doo came out in 1969/70, 65% of viewing audiences were tuned in to CBS when it aired.
Welker was also continued to impress Joe Barbera as he was not only talented but funny and able to improvise a lot. Barbera knew that the ability to ad-lib was pretty valuable and could create some great lines as was done by Alan Reed – the voice of Fred Flintstone – who ad-libbed the line “Yabba Dabba Do!”.
This gave Welker a relaxed and loose approach to the recording process that allowed for real creativity and would serve him well over the years.
Welker would be involved in some other shows going into the late 70s including:
- Fang face
- Heckle & Jeckle on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse
- Spike, Tyke, and Slick Wolf on the Tom & Jerry Comedy Show
Early TV & Movie Work
It wasn’t all cartoons at this point as Welker was still a talented actor and was doing work in film. His first on-camera work was actually with Elvis in a movie called “The Trouble With Girls” from 1969. In it, he played a college kid from Rutgers University who befriends Elvis.
He was next in a movie called “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” alongside Kurt Russell in 1969 and the films sequel: “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t”. In 1971, he starred alongside the great Don Knotts in the movie “How To Frame A Figg” which I really want to see now.
TV-wise he appeared in various roles including:
- The Partridge Family
- American Style
- The Don Knotts Show
- Rowan & Martins Laugh-In
- The Merv Griffin Show
- The Smother Brothers Show
- The Tonight Show
- The Roast of George Burns where he impressed Burns with his impressions of Muhammad Ali, Walter Cronkite, Henry Kissinger, David Frost, and Jimmy Carter
But he was still doing Scooby-Doo which was also leading to many iterations of the show and then to a spinoff that would lead to another monster hit.
The Dynomutt/Inspector Gadget Connection
Not a ton of people remember Dynomutt, Dog Wonder but it very obviously was trying to ride the coattails with another Scooby-Doo type character. This time, however, they made their dog a little more cyborg-ish. He was paired with the Blue Falcon and the show was based on having a Batman-Esque superhero to it.
Welker would provide the voice and the concept of a cyborg-type creation led to the idea of something else based on this concept: Inspector Gadget.
Inspector Gadget (which you can read more about it my article here) was, of course, a show about a bumbling half-man/half cyborg. Welker would do the ominous voice of the evil Dr. Claw along with dog Brian, and Dr. Claw’s cat, M.A.D. Cat.
The Explosion Of 80s Cartoons
Welker was getting steady work, but this was nothing compared to what was about to come as we moved further into the 80s. Thanks to Ronald Reagan and deregulation, there were now no restrictions on what could be advertised and geared towards children. This is why you see this pop culture explosion happen in the 80s with a ton of new cartoons, toys, fast food, cereals, and snacks.
And because syndication was so valuable for these shows, it meant each series would do A LOT more episodes. A usual TV show may do around 13 shows, but for a cartoon to reach syndication it required 65 episodes. So these cartoons were pumping out the episodes.
Without being here for days, here are some notable voices Welker did as we went into the 80s:
- The Smurfs – Hefty smurf, Peewit, and Poet Smurf
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers
- The Muppet Babies – Skooter
- McDonald’s commercials – Grimace
- Challenge of the Gobots – Scooter (not the muppet baby…)
- Duck Tales
- G.I. Joe – a ton of various members of G.I. Joe and Cobra
- Super Friends – Mister Mxyzptlk, Darkseid, Kalibak
- The Real Ghostbusters – Slimer
- Curious George – George
On the commercial front, he was also the voice of the iconic Smokey the Bear in the “only you can prevent forest fires” commercials. I never had known this and my mind was blown.
More Than Meets The Eye
And then a little cartoon came out in 1984 that rocked our world forever: Transformers. If you want to learn the whole story of the Transformers just check out my article all about them.
Welker was involved with the show at first but not selected for any specific character. He mentions that he came into one of the studios and saw a collection of drawings on the table. Welker notes how it was important for him to see a visual representation of the characters and then the voice would naturally come out of him.
He, of course, did the gravely voice of Megatron, leader of the Decepticons. It sounds like it’s a very audio-enhanced voice but what you’re hearing is 100% Frank Welker with no sound adjustments. They were so busy with all the other technical details of the show that they didn’t have time to fine-tune Megatron and just let Welker go with it.
He would also voice my favorite character: Soundwave and was the voice of Galvatron in the Transformers Movie – the crappy Michael Bay one not the epic Transformers: The Movie where he voiced Megatron again. Also, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen he provided voices for Soundwave, Devastator, Grindor, Ravage, and Reedman.
So here’s a selection of other characters voiced over the seasons on Transformers:
It’s interesting to point out that both Welker and Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime) provided voices for TWO transforming robot shows as they both appeared on Transformers and Gobots that were airing around the same time.
Garfield & Friends
You might not know Welker with being associated with Garfield but he was a big part of that show. Garfield & Friends was a pretty big hit ratings-wise and lasted for 6 years, which is a lot longer than most cartoons usually do. This made it one of the real top cartoons of the 80s. It also followed a different format and would have shorter sections and cutaways including Orson’s Farm where Welker provided the voice of Bo Sheep, Booker, Sheldon, and Mort among many others.
Welker would take over as the voice of Garfield in 2007 from Lorenzo Music and would appear in things like:
- Garfield Gets Real
- Garfield’s Fun Fest
- Garfield’s Pet Force
- The Garfield Show
If You Ever Heard A Weird Animal Noise In A Movie…
Since Welker had this ability to mimic animals since he was a kid it made him very valuable for movie studios. Instead of having to design a new sound they could just bring in Welker to create a bizarre animal-type noise for whatever was required.
Here are some things that blew my mind: He provided the creature noises in Gremlins, was the sound of the deer in Tommy Boy that David Spade and Chris Farley are stuck in the car with, created noises for the dog in Cujo.
That’s pretty crazy to think that Frank Welker was behind the noises in some of these iconic movies and parts. Who knew that the voice of Megatron was creating the vicious dog sounds in Stephen King’s Cujo.
Future Work & Movies
Future is the right introduction here as Welker has kept just as busy these days as he ever has – including some very notable performances. He was the voice of Nibbler on Futurama which was a show filled with great voice talent.
He’s been part of some pretty big movies including the original Aladdin providing the voice of Abu, Rajah, and the Cave of Wonders in the animated classic. You can hear that real Megatron including especially in the Cave of Wonders.
Here’s something awesome: he was the sound of Dumbo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And just as awesome he was in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze providing the voices of Tokka and Rahzar – who should have been Bebop and Rocksteady but oh well…
Wrapping It Up
We should probably start winding down here as we could be here forever looking at the amazing body of work done by Frank Welker. There are a ton of great voice actors out there but, when it comes to the 80s, Welker may just be front and center.
It’s amazing to look at the obvious voices and creations he came up with, but just as amazing to see all the other work he contributed to that you probably had no idea about. I think my favorite thing is he provided all those sounds in Gremlins, a movie I have seen so many times but was completely unaware of.
It’s a classic 80s movie that exists at the time he was also shaping our childhood with the voices of Megatron, Soundwave, G.I. Joe, and so many other beloved shows. With regard to Transformers, Peter Cullen gets a majority of the kudos because he’s the iconic voice of Optimus Prime, but it’s really Welker that is the backbone of the entire show.
His work on it – and everything else he did – helped to shape a major part of our childhood.
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