PAUL FREES-THE ACTOR YOU DID NOT KNOW YOU GREW UP WITH
A Christmas Eve Appreciation by Rob Roy Hardie
When most people think of voice actors, people often think of Mel Blanc, Tara Strong and many other iconic voices. However, Paul Frees? Who was he?
Those who know me know that I am a Christmas nerd. This is especially true of the many TV specials and movies from my childhood, and even as an adult. Last night, while watching a holiday special, it hit me that I had seen one person’s name in many of the credits. Paul Frees. I had a hunch on other voice work he may have done (He does have a distinctive style). My curiosity got the best of me, and realized that beyond my hunches, he was in much more than I could have imagined. In fact, he has 373 IMDB credits!
He was born Solomon Hersh Frees, on June 22nd, 1920. Chances are, if you ever watched one of the classic holiday specials, he made you smile or laugh. In 1962, the very first animated prime-time Christmas movie aired. No. It was not Rudolph as many think. It was, Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol. This special featured the iconic Jim Backus, and had songs written by Jule Styne, who wrote the music to the musical, Gypsy. It started a stream of TV Prime Time holiday specials in which he voiced many roles (Fezziwig, Ghost of Christmas Present, to name just two). His next notable voices were Ludwig Von Drake and Boris Badenov (Rocky and Bullwinkle). in 1967, He voiced another Dickens special, The Cricket On The Hearth for Rankin/Bass. This began a lifelong partnership, the next being, The Little Drummer Boy.
In Frosty The Snow Man, he played Santa Claus and the Traffic Cop. He actually voiced Santa for Rankin/Bass, more times than Mickey Rooney! He played Burgermeister Meister Burger and Grimsley in Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and Jack Frost in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. I could go on and on.
Don’t watch holiday specials? Ever been to Disneyland, or Disney world? He is the narrator of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride and the Ghost Host of The Haunted Mansion in both Disney parks (to this day). The strangest factoid is that in the 4 seasons of The Beatles cartoon show, he voiced both George and Ringo!
So, let’s back up. I had many questions about how his career came to be. Turns out, like many, he started in1930’s Vaudeville. He did impressions, under the name of Buddy Green. He then moved into radio. This was cut short by a little career interruption known as World War II. He fought on D-Day in Normandy and was wounded there. Back in the states, he went back to work under the pressure of his wife being in bad health. Fortunately, he met with success and moved into film. It was still a ton of voice work. In Some Like It Hot, he was the voice of the funeral director. His huge boost came in the film, The Harder They Fall, starring Humphrey Bogart. Now this is where through a series of events, he had to dub over most of Bogart’s dialogue. Bogart had lost his voice, due to esophageal cancer, and could barely be heard. Frees saved the day!
His personal life on the other hand, was a bit messy, having 5 wives, and 2 children (Fred and Sabrina). His first wife had succumbed to her illness. Three of his marriages ended in Divorce and his fifth wife was estranged to him at the time of his death.
His professional life though was hard to match. Spike Jones called him, ”The greatest impressionist in the world.” He was often referred to as “ Walt Disney’s secret weapon”. Toward the end of his career, he was making about a million dollars per year (according to his agent). Pretty high pay for a “non celebrity” voice actor, even by today’s standard.
He died, relatively young, in 1986 at only 66 years old. In the last years of his life, his health was failing with Diabetes, arthritis, and vision loss. He was in constant pain. His so, Fred continued the legacy doing voice work for commercials and a few animation voices. Another Legacy fact is that he had the esteemed honor of receiving the coveted title of “Disney Legend” by the Walt Disney Company.
So, chances are that you were affected by his work in some way. I can’t and probably won’t be able to get “There are no windows, and no doors” out of my head. I take the time to write this, (On Christmas Eve, 2023) because I owe so much joy in my childhood to him. In fact, he is a reminder of why I love this season, and I really can’t imagine the holidays without hearing his many iconic voices. So, I dedicate this Christmas to Paul Frees. And be warned… Anyone found with a toy, will be arrested and thrown in the dungeon!” You’ve been warned!