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"Transformers:Animated"/"Spongebob Squarepants"/"Coach" - Bill Fagerbakke (2008) Print
Written by Patrick Douglas   
Monday, 14 January 2008

Image    Sporting one of the most recognizable voices in television history, Bill Fagerbakke has made a career out of voicing memorable cartoon characters.

    The man behind the lovable, yet slightly moronic, Patrick Starfish on “SpongeBob Squarepants,” Fagerbakke is also widely known for playing Dauber Dybinski on the show “Coach” which aired nearly 200 episodes over the span of a decade.

    Today, he’s joined yet another extremely successful franchise, voicing the character Bulkhead on the new Cartoon Network show “Transformers: Animated,” something he’s extremely excited to be a part of. He took a moment to talk to TCS about his new project Monday, January 14, 2008, from his home in Los Angeles.


Hi Pat.

Hi Bill, how you doing?

I’m doing fine, thank you. How’s the weather up there?

It’s like it is everywhere else. We’ll get overcast and think we’re gonna get snow and then nothing happens. We’ve had one snowstorm in this area all year. It’s been bizarre.

Huh. You usually have some pretty stiff winters there as I recall. I’ve been to Great Falls a few times. I have cousins there and of course, it’s the home of Ryan Leaf. (laughs).

That’s our infamous claim to fame (laughs). You spent some time in this region. You went to Idaho State. What’s your background in this area?

Well, yeah, I grew up in southern Idaho and went to school in Moscow and for years my parents lived in North Dakota so I went back and forth through Montana many times. I love Montana. I’ve ridden my bicycle across through Glacier. I love Montana. I’m yet another Californian who’d love to live up there.

You say you rode your bicycle across. Did you literally ride it across the state in one shot or did you just ride it all over the place?

It was a trip. It was when I was living in New York. I flew into southern Idaho for my high school reunion. Rode up the length of Idaho and then across Montana. I think my mother met me. Where did she meet me? I think she got antsy and … where did she meet me? I think she met me in Shelby. I was looking forward to a nice flat ride with a tail wind for awhile but she came over and met me in Shelby.

You say you have cousins that actually live in Great Falls?

Yes.

Do you mind saying who they are?

Roxy Tveter. I’m not sure if she’s taken her husband Lynn’s last name or not. The rest of that family moved out but I think Roxy’s the only one that stayed. You could say her name.

T-v?

Yeah, T-v as in transvestite (laughs).

I’m glad you spelled it. I would not have guessed that.

It’s one of those crazy names much like my own.

Awesome. Down to business. Congrats on being a part of another hit cartoon. It looks like it’s on its way.

I certainly hope so. It’s pretty interesting being involved with something that was starting out like so many pilots do but with this back story already. Our voice over director Sue Blu was actually a voice on the original ‘Transformers’ cartoon in the … god, when was that? I think in the early ‘80s. So there’s this back story already to the cartoon, which has been kind of cool. It wasn’t really a cartoon I ever saw. I was in New York at the time as a young actor making my way. I’m excited that I’m working with great people and that’s always the best thing about my business is when you get to do good material with good people, it just doesn’t get better than that.

When did you first become involved in this series? Did you push for it?

I think when they were casting the voices and I know when I went in there I saw a lot of the heavy weights in voice over were there, so I think they looked at a lot of different voices, or I should say they heard a lot of different voices, including Billy West and I remember seeing the guy that does Winnie The Pooh. I can’t remember his name but he’s a very accomplished voice over guy. I was lucky enough, I think Sue Blu, she does a lot of voice over work and I’ve been lucky enough to work with her a few times and she helped get me in for the auditions and I got lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Were you a fan of ‘Transformers’ in any capacity before joining the show? I know you have kids, were they ever interested in that?

Not really because by the time ‘Transformers’ happened, like I said, I was well into adulthood as we kind of loosely define it in this day and age. I didn’t have children until the early ‘90s. My first daughter was born in ’92 and the second one in ’94. They’re girls so it was never really something that was a part of my own personal entertainment experience really. It’s been a discovering for me getting to know it. It’s got such a great legion of followers. It’s a subculture that is quite loyal and is quite passionate.

I’m actually from that. I’m 32 years old, so when I was a kid it was during that boom. I remember being undyingly devoted to the toys when I was younger, definitely from that generation.

Oh yeah. You’re right in the wheel house there.

Yeah. I collected the toys  and have a place in my heart for this franchise for the rest of my life. Do you have a sense of pride in being a part of something so important to so many eternal youths like myself who are 30 going on 15?

Yeah, it gives you a sense of responsibility apart from your typical job where you’re just trying to do a good job and trying to fulfill your creative and performing desires, aside from that there’s a sense of responsibility of carrying on the legacy of something that was established a generation ago.

ImageBulkhead, your character, is the big dominating kind of goofy Autobot on the show and definitely has a stand-alone, goofy personality. How much artistic freedom do you have in a part like this in terms of adding your own traits to a character?

With animation there’s always a fairly limited amount of improvisation or ad-libbing or just freedom to play around because there’s so much work done before you set foot in the sound studio. There’s so much work done that it’s extremely specific, so that when they write that certain line it’s already designed in terms of how exactly it’s going to look. That being said there are times that are a little more open when you can play a little bit. Within those times you can often discover some neat qualities about your character that the writers who usually sit in the recording can also discover and thereby be woven into the ongoing development of the character. It can happen, but it’s a little different than non-voice acting.

On a show like this, do you get a storyboard of what’s going on or is it already animated by the time you come in? How does that work?

Generally speaking, with pretty much all animation, it is first written and designed, typically with storyboards I would say, and then you record it and then they put the recording together with the storyboard, sometimes on a tape and that’s called an animatic and then that animatic is used as a guide for the actual animators. So you are recording before it is being animated. It’s much easier to animate to the recorded dialogue than vice-versa. At times you’ll go back after it’s animated to tweak certain things here and there. Sometimes lines need to be changed. It’s called ADR or Additional Dialogue Recording but by in large, you gotta record it before it’s animated.

You are able to get a copy of the script before things are started and check it out?

Yeah. And with shows like action-oriented cartoons like ‘Transformers’ you get a script that is a lot like a movie script or a single camera television script. It’s filled with stage directions and descriptions of the characters and what they’re doing as they’re speaking. With other cartoons sometimes you’ll get the storyboard instead of the stage directions. For instance with ‘SpongeBob’ we’ll just get the storyboard so you’re looking at what they designed as they wrote the dialogue. Either way, it’s a very concise presentation of what they need the characters to be doing while they’re speaking.

So, there’s very little room for ad-libbing.

Not usually. There can be sequences where they need you to fill it or create it or pad it.

I’m guessing that the production of this cartoon has been in the works for a long time, but how much did the success of the motion picture have to do with putting together this cartoon?

I think it didn’t have a lot to do with the cartoon happening. Probably the anticipation of the movie being successful probably spurred the production of the pilot. I think that when the pilot was cast they already had an order for episodes and that was well before the movie came out. In current studio standards I suppose there was a certain amount of risk taking but I guess a little less risk knowing that this was a given product that already had a popularity base.

Definitely. The thing too is, between the motion picture and the animated version, they’re completely different. The characters are looser in the cartoon. The Autobots are definitely more, I guess for a lack of a better term, more animated and funny.

Yeah.

ImageHow important is it in a cartoon like this to have fresh and humorous characters?

Well, I’ve done action oriented cartoons that didn’t have a lot of humor and that’s ok, that can work, but humor’s entertaining and you can maybe make an argument that because these characters are machines that humor opens the door to make them more endearing and emphatic.

When the movie came out last summer, did you go to see it out of curiosity to check out the differences between the two?

Yes. I went and saw it. I wanted to see what was going to happen with the movie. I knew it was going to be a big time CGI festival and it was and I thought they did a nice job and I thought the actors did a nice job too. Obviously I was excited and the prospect of that kind of success. It’s always nice to have everyone excited about the product. That’s important. Further set the table for the show having a quick audience.

Like I said, I’m in my ‘30s but I drive a truck that’s had an Autobot sticker on it for the last ten years and occasionally wear a T-shirt with the logo on it.

(laughs) That’s awesome.

That’s the funny thing. It’s all based on a toy that you can shift around and make into a car or robot.

Yeah. That toy. What did I read? What’s his name? Early ‘80s, this fellow, I would recognize his name if I heard it, he saw this toy, he was at a toy show somewhere and it was a Japanese company that had this little thing that was a machine that turned into something different and he was the one who introduced it to Hasbro. I can’t remember his name. The reason it stands out to me is I happened to be reading about it. He was the same guy that developed the little lipstick camera that’s used in poker tables on television. He’s the same guy. I think he has the patent on that or something. There’s an interesting back story there.

So what you’re saying is that he’s wealthy individual?

I don’t think they’re passing the hat for him. (laughs).

With the ‘Transformers’ is that you can pretty much take the story where you want. What has you most excited about the future of this series?

Working with these people ‘cause all of them are good, talented people. Obviously Tom Kenny is a guy that I’ve been working with on ‘SpongeBob,’ I think we first started in ’98, so I’ve known Tom for a long time and I love Tom, he’s a great guy and he’s extremely talented and he’s a very versatile person unlike me (laughs). Some of the other actors, I’m a big fan of everyone that works on the show and Sue Blu is a terrific voice director and Marty Isenberg is a great writer and the staff of writers he has, they’re huge fans of what they’re doing and that’s really cool. That’s really cool. A lot of times in television, the writers are not always a huge fan of what they’re doing. They’re might be a certain amount of actual contempt for what they’re doing but these guys really love the cartoon and they love the characters. It’s really great. It’s a nice environment.

Looking at all of the children’s shows that you’ve been a part of, is it safe to say that you’re a big kid at heart?

Image(laughs). I hope so. I believe in the mantra that being young at heart is one of the great things in life. I guess I’m lucky enough to have a certain kind of voice that works for animation in some regard. Any time you can make a living in this ridiculous business it’s a small miracle. I’m a lucky man. At some point as an actor, you hope to do material written for adults, but that’s cool ‘cause the stuff I’m doing is good and I enjoy it. Again, I like the people.

You’ve been a large part of one of the most important animated shows of all time in ‘SpongeBob.’ How do you reflect on being a part of that show in particular? Is it weird to think about it and think that out of all the kids shows that have been on TV, it’s going to be looked back on as being up there with the ‘Looney Tunes’ or Disney shows. How do you reflect on being a part of it?

It’s extremely gratifying. The creator of ‘SpongeBob,’ Stephen Hillenburg, he is such a unique, wonderful guy and I’m so happy for him because he was able to create this, I think, really unique world and this character SpongeBob, who in a lot of ways, is an extension of himself. You never know when something you do that’s good and has quality is gonna resonate in any way and then you never know if it’s going to get the right kind of studio handling. There’s a lot of stuff that’s good but maybe the right people don’t support it or whatever, but it’s all laid out in such a way that we got to continue it and develop it and really fly with it. Being part of something that’s become iconic, it’s great. (laughs). It’s really exciting. And, also, to get to do it as a voice over actor and to do it in my business and in an arena that’s not fraught with cosmetic hysteria is really awesome. I don’t sweat my wrinkles or my crappy hair one bit (laughs). That’s nice.

You can go to any random store and see SpongeBob and Patrick all over. Do you ever look at that starfish and think ‘that’s me?’ Or are you too close to think about it?

(laughs). I can tell you this. Some time ago, I think maybe last year, the voice over actor, and I can’t remember his name, but he did the voice of the Jolly Green Giant, ‘ho, ho, ho,’ right? And on the front page of the L.A. Times down in the corner was a picture of the Jolly Green Giant and it said ‘section B, so and so actor, voice over actor passes away.’ So, I immediately called Tom Kenny and I told him ‘well, it’s nice to know that when you die there will be a picture of SpongeBob on the front page of the paper.’ (laughs).

That sums it up (laughs). It’s one of the most recognizable voices in cartoons. Do you ever have the urge to mess with telemarketers …

(laughs). You know I haven’t been that clever. Thank you for giving me that idea because evidentially rudeness doesn’t work with them. Yeah, maybe I’ll pretend they’ve dialed Bikini Bottom (laughs). I like that. I bust Patrick out around the school ground and it’s pretty great. It’s a currency with young people that I try not to exploit for evil (laughs) but it’s been really fun. When I would go to pick up my daughter from school and there’d be this mob from school going ‘say something like Patrick!’ where otherwise you go to pick up your kids and they just pretend that you’re not there. I really enjoy that. Fortunately I love children, so I enjoy that.

It’s funny ‘cause about a year or two ago I was interviewing another Idaho native in Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine and he saw my name and starts off by telling me a story about how his daughter’s favorite cartoon character is Patrick Starfish.

(laughs).

That was an interesting way to start an interview with Dave Mustaine by hearing how much he loves SpongeBob and Patrick Starfish.

(laughs). That’s cool. I remember reading in an interview with Michelle Pfeifer and she did some animated voice over for some kind of movie, for ‘Sinbad’ or something, and so she was doing an interview in USA Today and they asked her about the animation she watched and she talked about watching ‘SpongeBob’ with her kids and she just loved Patrick, so I had to cut that out and put it up on the wall. I had a poker game that night. I was gonna tell the kids that they were gonna get a new mommy soon. She was going to be a really pretty actress. (laughs). I’m joking.

Dave Mustaine also told me that his daughter also played Patrick Starfish at a play at her school.

(laughs). Great. That’s awesome.

Do you prefer playing roles in a live setting or doing voice overs?

I’m going to say what most actors would say and that’s the most enjoyable work is theater. That is the most rewarding, fun, complete kind of work, but that being said, I’ve gotta make a living, I’ve got a family to support, that being said, I’m not doing much theater. I can’t really say I have a preference. My preference is good material with good people whatever the avenue.

That makes sense, if you’re working theater with bad people, I don’t imagine that’d be a good thing.

Yeah. That’s a good way to look at it. I’d rather do theater with bad people than television with bad people (laughs).

Bill, I appreciate the conversation. I’m a big fan of your work. I’m looking forward to the upcoming ‘Transformers’ episodes.

ImageThanks. Good luck with your work up there in Great Falls. Where did you graduate?

I’m from Colorado, so I graduated down there.

So, you’re a Rockies man. Have you plugged into the whole shift we’re seeing from print media to the Internet? It’s gotta be a weird transitional period for you.

It is. Actually what I was able to do, I’ve been working at the paper here since ’94 and what I was able to do was, my wife and I had our first child about 19 months ago …

Congratulations.

I’ve been conducting interviews for entertainment stories for the last four years, so what I was able to do was stay at home with my son and work from home while the newspaper in the last few years has gone through some massive changes. I was able to take my work and go home, which has been great.

That’s terrific. You get to spend time with your kid during a great point in their lives where they’re changing every day. That’s great. Good for you.

Yeah, I started doing this when he was only two months old and having done that, I can’t imagine it being the other way where I’m off at work.

Yeah, working 12 or 14 hour days or whatever and you hardly see your kid and they’re asleep when you get home.

Right. My transition is that I don’t need to be at the paper anymore to do what I do. I can be at home and do it.

Good for you, man.

Maybe I’ll run into you here in town someday.

Yeah. You never know.

Have a good one.

You too.

Talk to you later.

Bye.

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