First up as part of my participation in the classic film book summer reading challenge is Welcome, Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees by Ben Ohmart. The name Paul Frees may not be immediately recognizable but, as the title suggests, you're more than likely familiar with one of his many voices. Some of my favorites include his voices as the Ghost Host in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion attraction, as John Lennon and George Harrison for The Beatles TV series (1965-1969), the Pillsbury Doughboy, as various characters in those Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials, as well as various voices on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Prior to reading this book I knew of many of Frees' voice credits but I knew little about the man himself.
Born in Chicago, Frees got his start in entertainment in the 1930s doing impressions. He then got established in radio and developed the reputation as a talent you could count on. He appeared on popular radio programs such as Suspense and Crime Classics. Many times Frees was called in to fill in as the voices of popular celebrities such as Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart. According to Frees, Bogart once told him that "you sound more like me than I do." Later in his career, once while seeing Sammy Davis Jr. perform in Vegas, Davis admitted to the audience that he was embarrassed to do impressions for them because there was someone who was sitting in the audience they probably didn't know that was considered the best at doing impressions - referring to Frees.
Frees was known to antagonize his coworkers on occasion and one of my favorite stories involves a time he worked at NBC in Hollywood with Lionel Barrymore on the Dr. Kildare radio program. Frees explained, "Oh, the terrible things I used to do to Lionel Barrymore. He was in a wheelchair and outside of NBC at the corner of Sunset and Vine across the way there was a place called The Key Club we used to go to. I would wheel the old man behind there, and I would start running and I would wheel his wheelchair so fast down the ramp. I'd be wheeling him at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour and he'd be shouting, 'You sonofabitch, if you don't stop this chair...!" I can just picture a perturbed Barrymore yelling at Frees.
Paul Frees with Fred MacMurray in the Shaggy Dog (1959).
Frees did appear in some films, but mostly in minor roles. Some of his film credits include Reverend Morrison in A Place in the Sun (1951), Corley in His Kind of Woman (1951), and as one of Sinatra's thugs, Benny in the film Suddenly (1954). However, Frees never got beyond minor roles and was more likely to be hired to do voice-over work and provide dubbing for films. For example, in Patton (1970) he provided the voices for a war correspondent, one of Patton's staff members, and the voice of a sheik. He also dubbed for Humphrey Bogart in Bogart's last film role, The Harder They Fall (1956).
Paul Frees in one of his three-piece suits.
I was most interested in learning some of the quirky things about Frees. Like how Frees grew a big, Edwardian looking mustache and how he was always impeccably dressed. Frees often wore three piece suits and had a large collection of pocket watches, along with a large collection of different watch fobs. Frees was short but would talk like he was the biggest person in the room. Because he was short and he dressed flashy, Frees always carried a gun for protection. During the 1960s, he had a side gig working as an undercover narcotics agent for the DEA in Marin County. In addition to voice talents, Frees was also a gifted painter, writer and singer. He got around in a Rolls Royce and frequently had someone else drive him. Frees purchased one of the first VCRs and recorded thousands of tapes worth of TV and movies. He was a homebody who loved watching TV.
After establishing himself in Hollywood Frees moved to Tiburon, California near San Francisco. Frees built his dream house, a multi-story home on the side of a cliff. Frees no longer needed to be in Hollywood to find work. The work came to him. At his peak Frees would make the claim that he earned more per hour than any other star in Hollywood. He could go into his home studio or fly down to a studio in LA, and in less than an hour be finished, earning sometimes as much money in that time as some actors would for working through a whole film. Meanwhile Frees was ready already on to the next gig.
The highlight of Frees career was the work he did for Rankin/Bass such as the animated version of The Hobbit or the stop-motion Christmas classics Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), or Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976) and the work he did for Jay Ward Productions including The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Dudley Do-Right.
One of the many advertisement characters Frees voiced - the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Providing his voice to advertisements was another lucrative gig. In addition to the Pillsbury Doughboy, Frees voiced Toucan Sam, the 7-Up bird Fresh Up Freddie, the Little Green Sprout from the Jolly the Giant commercials, and as the announcer for the Mr. Goodwrench advertising campaign just to name a few.
For me, I'm reminded of Paul Frees every time I go to Disneyland. His voice can be heard on the Haunted Mansion ride and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and he also lent his voice to numerous other Disney projects.
I really enjoyed reading about the interesting life of Paul Frees. The book was filled with plenty of fun facts, and the author, Ben Ohmart, has also released an updated edition with additional information and photos.