The unique voice of Bugs Bunny was his idol. Now he performs the character within the sequel to ‘House Jam’ | way of life
When the opportunity knocks, sometimes it pays to respond in a funny voice. Check out where Jeff Bergman took it.
The actor lends his resilient larynx to a number of animated characters in the new sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy, most notably Bugs Bunny in his stream of street-wise riffing opposite LeBron James – who is following in the footsteps of Nike by Michael Jordan the original hit from 1996.
For the experienced vocal artist, it all began 40 years ago when Mel Blanc was on a lecture tour through Pittsburgh. The legendary actor had developed and cultivated the sounds of Bugs and other Looney Tunes characters, and worked on Hanna Barbera shows such as “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons”. Bergman, then a 20-year-old theater student at the University of Pittsburgh, discovered where Blanc was on campus and plucked up the courage to meet the man.
“Something made me do it without hesitation,” Bergman says of his 10pm cold call. “I knocked on that door and when I heard a voice that sounded like Barney Rubble saying, ‘Just a snap,’ I just shuddered.”
The preppy Blanc, then over 70, opened the door, clad in a glowing Cordovan robe, and the conversation soon flowed. “We sat on these two small, uncomfortable single beds and faced each other like father and son,” says Bergman, “and he couldn’t have been more warm and sweet.”
Bergman made some of his impressions for Blanc, including George Burns and Jack Benny. The older actor advised Bergman to stay in school and develop his talents. The visit lasted about 45 minutes.
“That was the turning point for me,” says Bergman. Maybe he could actually build a career with “silly voices”. For the next several months, “I was like a madman in my room, working on television and movie characters. I got 100 to 150 votes this summer. “
Also in 1981, Bergman says, he tried a stunt worthy of a Bugs cartoon: he disguised himself as a delivery man to get a casting band into the hands of decision-makers at the William Morris Agency. Within a few months he had an agent and his first booking.
The actor worked steadily until the big break came at the end of the decade. Executive producer Steven Spielberg and his team hired Bergman for the show “Tiny Toon Adventures” to set characters as diverse as Bugs, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Tweety and Sylvester to music.
Blanc, known as “the Man of a Thousand Voices”, had repeated some of these roles in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988, but he died on July 10, 1989 – Bergman’s 29th birthday.
Bergman wasn’t involved in the first “Space Jam” movie – he left Hollywood and stayed on the East Coast while raising his family – but in his late 40s he moved west and returned to the Looney group.
“I never thought they would do ‘Space Jam’ again,” says Bergman of the family comedy that combines animation and live action. “You’ve talked about it for years.”
Then in 2019 came what he calls the “infinite” casting process. In March 2020, shortly before the California lockdown, Bergman finally learned that he would be voicing bugs alongside Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear, whom he also speaks on the show “Jellystone”. (His castmate on the series, Eric Bauza, also speaks several “Space Jam 2” characters, including Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Porky Pig.)
With the coronavirus pandemic, Bergman would now have to record these characters from his home studio. He brought in sound engineer Matt Kulewicz from Showtimes “Our Cartoon President,” in which Bergman voiced Donald Trump.
The recording conditions ensured that Bergman and LeBron James would never meet during production. But the voice actor says the Zoom meetings with the filmmakers, including director Malcolm D. Lee, fostered an attentive intimacy that helped his lead role as Bugs.
By the way, Bergman’s secret on how to pronounce Bugs Bunny? The Philadelphia-born actor says he gives the character “an inherent ethnicity,” noting that Blanc himself was in part inspired by East Coast accents and Yiddish.
Bergman attended the film’s premiere on the red carpet in Los Angeles. The 5-foot-10 actor still hadn’t met his 6-foot-9 co-star. But once again Bergman used a funny voice when the opportunity arose.
After the premiere, LeBron James was surrounded by many fans. What could Bergman do to get the NBA star’s attention despite the distance and noise? “I yelled from about 20 feet and said in Bugs Bunny’s voice, ‘Hey, Doc, we really are family,'” says Bergman. “He heard and saw me.” Bergman was shown through the crowd to greet him.
“He was holding his daughter and we hugged and thanked each other,” says Bergman. Even in the midst of the crowd, it felt like “a very private moment of congratulations”.