On July 10, 1989, actor Mel Blanc, who gave a voice to Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble and many other beloved animated characters, died, at the age of 81. Although he almost never appeared on screen, Blanc became something of a legend in his lifetime, and was the first voice actor to have his name appear in a film’s credits for his work.
Melvin Jerome Blank was born on May 30, 1908, in San Francisco, the younger of the two sons of Frederick Blank and the former Eva Katz. Together Frederick and Eva owned and ran a women’s clothing store in the city’s Mission District. When Mel was still a young child, the family moved to Portland, Oregon. He was not a sterling student, but had a reputation among both classmates and teachers as a joker. When one teacher, Mrs. Washburn, supposedly told him, “You’ll never amount to anything, you’re just like your name – a blank,” Mel decided to change the spelling of his last name, so that, at age 16, he legally became “Mel Blanc.”
Some accounts say that he finished Lincoln High School, others report that he dropped out. Whatever the case, able to play several instruments, Blanc began developing a musical career while still in his teens. He played in a variety of ensembles in Portland, and by age 22, he was directing the pit orchestra at the city’s Orpheum Theater. He also began appearing on radio, both as a musician and as an on-air announcer.
In late 1932, in Los Angeles, Blanc met Estelle Rosenbaum. They had a civil marriage, on January 4, 1933, and a Jewish ceremony, in the presence of a rabbi and their families, on May 14, after they had moved back to Portland. Together, Mel and Estelle wrote, produced and performed in a weekly radio show called “Cobwebs and Nuts,” for which they were paid $15 per show. Because the station wouldn’t pay for additional actors, Blanc performed all the roles, developing a wide repertoire of different characters and voices.
When the show became too exhausting, the young couple moved back to Los Angeles. There, in 1936, Blanc began working for Leon Schlesinger Productions, which produced animated shorts for Warner Brothers. There, his first character was a drunken bull in a movie called “Picador Porky,” but soon he moved up to the title role, for which he prepared with a visit to an upstate pig farm. Blanc developed the character of Bugs Bunny, including his trademark line, “What’s Up Doc?” in 1940, years later describing him affectionately as “a tough little stinker.”
In 1944, when Schlesinger refused to pay him more, Blanc demanded on-screen credit, and he was the first voice actor to be so recognized. He worked briefly for Walter Lanz, providing the original voice for Woody Woodpecker, and did one film with Walt Disney, “Pinocchio,” in which the studio decided in post-production that it didn’t want his character to speak, and cut his lines out of the film. After his contract with Schlesinger expired, Blanc also began working with Hanna-Barbera, where he created such characters as “The Flintstones’” Barney Rubble, and also acted Cosmo Spacely (“The Jetsons”), among other roles.
After a car accident that put Blanc into a coma for three weeks (he is said to have begun to regain consciousness after his doctor addressed him as “Bugs,” and he began talking in his rabbit voice), and then left him in a body cast for some time, he had to record Barney Rubble’s voice from his hospital bed. Later the cast would come to his home and record their parts from an ad hoc studio in his bedroom.
In 1988, Blanc got to reprise several of his Warner’s roles in “Who Killed Roger Rabbit,” which was peopled with numerous classic cartoon characters. He died just a year later, of advanced coronary disease. Both he and Bugs Bunny are commemorated with stars on Hollywood Boulevard.