Monday, July 20, 2015

John Stephenson: 1923-2015

I hadn't put together a memorial blog for John Stephenson because of the limited resources available regarding his personal life and the lack of information surrounding his timeline. I've posted several blogs over the years focusing on Stephenson's under-rated career and the last one I posted centered around Scooby Doo's 45th anniversary last year. In that particular blog entry it features the numerous collage's I created that spotlighted the various characters that John Stephenson voiced during his association with the Scooby franchise. Little did anyone (outside of his family) really know at that time that John Stephenson was battling a serious disease.

You can take a look at that particular Scooby Doo/John Stephenson blog entry I wrote last year by clicking HERE

Rumors of John's 'death' had circulated numerous times on the such rumor that gained traction not too long ago eventually was proven to be false.

According to reports John Stephenson died of Alzheimer's Disease at a nursing home on May 15th at the age of 91. The articles I'd read never mentioned how long he'd been diagnosed with the disease but it couldn't have been too long because his last screen credit arrived in a bit part in 2010 on a Scooby Doo project. I've heard the audio and he seemed to be in fine voice but the role, generically referred to as The Sheriff, is super brief but the vocal is immediately recognizable. It could have been an archived recording and placed in the animated film as a salute to him but I don't think we'd ever know.

He had a reputation of avoiding the very little to no interviews for any publication or television broadcast...but you could hear his voice on numerous radio broadcasts and see him pop up as a guest star in television dramas of the '50s and '60s. One of his most visual roles happened to be his participation in Johnny Carson's 1950s comedy program. In that series Stephenson portrayed a fictional news reporter usually reading absurd stories in a serious tone and in each scenario it set up a forthcoming sketch that Carson and other members of the cast participated in.
In the Carson series John Stephenson acted out his part as a stressed news anchor. Only a couple of clips of Carson's mid '50s program exists on YouTube. I have some of those episodes on DVD but unfortunately the disc's must have been made by an inferior company because they stopped playing several weeks after I purchased them and I hadn't been able to play them since. It's a shame, too, because those fictional newsbreaks helped set up various Carson sketches; more than one "Catch Up with the News" segment aired in a single episode but YouTube only has clips of the mid '50s program and so there's not many to see on-line. The program aired on CBS for a single season, 1955-1956, and there happened to be 10 kinescopes of the program issued on DVD in 2007. More than likely those are the same programs that I have on a admittedly low-budget compilation DVD of assorted comedy programs from the early days of television (the DVD that stopped playing). Hopefully those episodes of Carson's mid '50s program become available on a better quality DVD project.

In addition to the visibility John Stephenson experienced as a part of Johnny Carson's CBS series he also gained some visibility in the sitcom The People's Choice starring Jackie Cooper. In that particular sitcom, running from 1955 to 1958 and producing 108 episodes, Cooper portrays a character named Socrates Miller...called "Sock" for short. He marries a woman named Mandy Peoples...she happens to be the daughter of the local Mayor. The running gag for most of the episodes stems from Sock and Mandy's attempts to keep their marriage a secret from her father (Sock and Mandy eloped in Nevada). John Stephenson portrays the program's resident antagonist, Roger Crutcher, on a recurring basis. A capture from one of Stephenson's scenes has him looking on as Patricia Breslin (Mandy) and Jackie Cooper (Sock) are in the middle of some sort of comical revelation.

If one happens to visit the Internet Movie Data Base or other on-line sources in the search for "John Stephenson + actor" you're going to be hit with a lot of television credits. Stephenson appeared in several episodes of Perry Mason, Hogan's Heroes, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Gomer Pyle, USMC just to name a couple and he appeared as a semi-regular in the soap opera, Morning Star. Yes, for an actor that shunned the media and didn't grant interviews he certainly appeared on a number of programs during the early years of television...but given the lack of publicity surrounding his vast amount of work he didn't get the recognition or rightful attention he deserved.

John Stephenson's greatest impact exists in cartoon voice overs.

Many a villain in the Scooby Doo franchise have Stephenson to thank for providing a voice. Also many a red herring (someone suspected of being a bad guy but ends up being innocent) also have Stephenson's voice to thank. In the blog entry I provided a link to you can gaze upon the many characters that John Stephenson gave voice to...but I left off characters that weren't a part of Scooby's various cartoon mystery programs of the '70s and '80s. Some may find it interesting that Stephenson voiced Col. Wilcox in the first season of Super Friends and then returned later to provide incidental voices...most notably The Sculpin in a 1977 episode featuring Superman and Aquaman. In that first season of Super Friends the overall narration came from Ted Knight...reprising a role he previously held for Filmation in the mid-late '60s on their run of superhero cartoons.

In a series called Scooby's All-Star Laff-a-Lympics (not a mystery cartoon) Stephenson provided the voices for a series of characters. The late '70s series spoofed the Olympics, Battle of the Network Stars, and ABC sports. Three teams of "athletes" composed of The Yogi Yahooeys, The Scooby Doobies, and the Really Rottens competed in Olympic-style events.

A talented mimic he provided a Paul Lynde impression for the character Mildew Wolf (co-host of Laff-a-Lympics). Lynde had originally voiced the character in the late 1960s but didn't reprise the role for the Scooby series and so Stephenson did an impression. John's mimicry is also on full display as The Great Fondoo, an inept magician of The Really Rottens team. Fondoo's voice is highly reminiscent of Bela Lugosi. A good guy character from The Yogi Yahooeys team, Doggy Daddy, is Stephenson's impression of Jimmy Durante. Stephenson returned to the character in several animated specials in the 1980s.

The human leader of The Really Rottens, Dread Baron, is another Stephenson vocalization...not exactly an impression of any celebrity in particular but it's apparent it's his vocal characterization of a slick, con-artist type complete with the sort of "nya, ha ha" sinister laugh that harkens back to 1930s and 1940s melodramas.

Stephenson's vocal impressions of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Paul Lynde, and Joe Flynn played a vital part in a lot of his voice-over performances in an assortment of cartoons throughout the '60s and into the early '90s. Stephenson's natural speaking voice being pretty great, too, enabled him to act in his natural voice or in an affected voice with equal proficiency. If you're familiar with the late '60s version of Dragnet you could hear John Stephenson's natural voice at the end of every episode providing the lead-up and the details of the outcome of that episode's unseen court trial. A typical line went like this: "On Saturday August 4th trial was held in Los Angeles for the State of a moment the results of that trial". After the commercial break you'd hear Stephenson giving the details of the conviction or the acquittal.

In the mid-late '70s era Stephenson provided voices for an assortment of villains in The Dynomutt, Dog Wonder series including The Red Vulture, The Blimp, Eric von Flick, The Glob, and at various times the Chief of police (sometimes referred to as Chief Grimsley and other times as Chief Wiggins).

In the Inch High Private Eye series Stephenson could be heard in a variety of roles but his main role happened to be the irascible Mr. Finkerton (Stephenson doing his Joe Flynn impression). In another cartoon, using the same Joe Flynn impression, Stephenson gave voice to Mr. Peevely in Help! It's the Hair Bear Bunch series. The high nasal Joe Flynn impression apparently became a favored, go-to voice because Stephenson used it a couple of other times for different but similar characters. In Galaxy Goof-Ups the Flynn inflection infected the commanding officer, Captain Snerdley. In the Inspector Mumbly series of cartoons Stephenson gave the Flynn impression to the antagonistic Officer Schnooker. The highlight of those characters happened to be the inevitable explosion of anger that built under the surface. Popularly referred to as "slow burn", these characters would work themselves up into a state of bombastic stress before blowing their top in a comedic kind of way. In the opening minutes of this episode of Galaxy Goof-Ups titled "Whose Zoo" you'll hear what I mean. As is the case in a lot of Hanna-Barbera cartoons the voice actors and actresses often provided the voices for multiple characters within an episode. This one is no different. Not only is John Stephenson voicing his regular character, Captain Snerdley, but he's also the voice of the villain monster bent on poaching the planet of animals. You'll hear and see that character first along with the sidekick.

In the video's image below there's Captain Snerdley on the monitor giving a harsh lecture to Huckleberry Hound (Daws Butler) and Quack-Up (Mel Blanc).

As far as longevity goes, arguably, John Stephenson's greatest impact in cartoon voice overs is in the role of Mr. Slate in numerous episodes of The Flintstones. From the debut of Mr. Slate in the 1960s and lasting into the 1990s virtually every animated appearance of Mr. Slate had a voice provided by John Stephenson. Promos for Cartoon Network included Stephenson being recruited to deliver a line or two as Slate in that distinctive John Stephenson voice. The ultimate event in Flintstones lore is the release of The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones on November 7, 1987

The reason that the Jetsons received top billing is because their series happened to be in first-run production and the plot of the animated movie deals with Elroy Jetson inventing a time machine...and during a moment of harmless experimenting all of the other Jetsons (George, Jane, Judy, and their talking dog, Astro) decided to humor Elroy and pretend that they were headed to the future. However, much to their horror and disbelief the time machine ended up working...taking the Jetsons into the past rather than into the future. Eventually the Flintstones get zapped into the future and they meet Rosie, Henry, and Spacely while the Jetsons, themselves, remain stuck in Bedrock.

John Stephenson returned to his familiar role as Mr. Slate. Ironically, George Jetson's emergence in Bedrock creates an economical boost to whatever business aligns itself with the stranger's futuristic gadgets. Jetson ends up working for Slate while Fred ends up working for Mr. Spacely in the future. Fred's car becomes a huge hit. Barney becomes a spokesperson for Spacely's competitor, Cogswell. Unfortunately neither Mr. Slate nor Mr. Spacely come face to face considering Slate remained in Bedrock and Spacely remained in the Jetson's futuristic universe.

Some of Stephenson's 1980's work can be heard in various episodes of The Transformers and G.I. Joe and various cartoon specials from Hanna-Barbera requiring him to revive classic characters such as Mr. Slate and Doggie Daddy.

John Stephenson's contributions to animated cartoons from Hanna-Barbera had a major impact on generations of people and they are going to continue getting discovered as the years go by. John Stephenson's voice was immediately recognizable and a familiar presence for generations of cartoon fans.

I made a special collage just for this blog entry...the larger picture is the Chief from the Dynomutt series. The other remaining seven characters are Col. Wilcox, zoo keeper Mr. Peevly, Mr. Finkerton, Mr. Slate, Captain Leech, Col. Fuzzby, and Chief Wenchly. I'll more than likely make another collage because I have other characters saved on my computer that John Stephenson gave voice to.

John Stephenson: August 9, 1923-May 15, 2015.

No comments: