One of the privileges of my job as movie critic for the Deseret News for a couple of decades was meeting and interviewing people whose work I had admired for many years.
James Stewart is at the top of that list, and nearby are Pearl Bailey, Horton Foote, Ray Bradbury, Teri Garr and many others, who I talked to either in person or by telephone — interviews that were usually arranged by studio publicists to sell a movie that was coming to town. (Although, in Stewart’s case, he was donating his papers to Brigham Young University.)
Another great facilitator was the Sundance Film Festival, which, in its earlier incarnations, brought a wide array of celebrities through town, dating back to 1978.
Which accounts for my happy encounter with another of my favorite performers, June Foray, who was helping the festival salute Jay Ward, an animation producer best known for the TV series “Rocky and His Friends” — which is better remembered today as “Rocky & Bullwinkle.”
For some reason, Ward was unable to attend the fete, so his friend Foray came in his stead, and she was a complete delight — open, warm and chatty, with an amazing, contagious energy that belied her diminutive stature (she was just under 5 feet tall).
Foray died last week at the age of 99 (just a couple of months shy of her 100th birthday), and she was still providing voices for various cartoons into her 90s.
I became aware of her when I was young and wondered who was doing the female voices for Warner Bros. theatrical cartoons. The only person given onscreen credit was Mel Blanc — which he deserved, of course, as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and every other iconic Warner Bros. cartoon character you can name.
But I was pretty sure Blanc wasn’t doing the voices of Granny in the Tweetie and Sylvester cartoons or Witch Hazel or Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, etc.
So I did what kids did in those pre-Google days, I went to the library and found some books on cartoons and discovered June Foray.
Then I learned that she was also doing voices on some of my favorite comedy records, Stan Freberg’s array of musical parodies, including the classic “St. George and the Dragonet,” a mash-up of the ancient story “St. George and the Dragon” with the “Dragnet” radio and TV show.
In those early days, Foray also did a lot of uncredited work for Disney animated classics, and later, uncountable TV cartoons, as well as such familiar feature films as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Space Jam.”
But it was “Rocky & Bullwinkle” that earned her the most fame, as Foray provided nearly all the female voices for the 1959-64 series, as well as title character Rocket J. Squirrel. Perhaps her second most-famous voice on the show was Russian villainess Natasha Fatale.
When I interviewed Foray in 1989, she said she never intended to be a voiceover performer, but as she began her acting career by doing radio at age 12 and quickly displayed a natural talent for doing a wide range of character voices in that medium, her career just naturally took her into the world of cartoons.
And she explained the enduring popularity of “Rocky & Bullwinkle” by saying that Jay Ward knew how to appeal to both kids and adults.
“The Saturday morning things are just for children,” Foray explained. “(But) ‘Bullwinkle’ was directed the way the Warner’s cartoons were done. Whatever made Jay laugh we went with. There was no condescension.
“It was like two plateaus — children liked the action and the look of the characters, the concept and the voices, but it was the parents who got the jokes. Now those kids are older and they get the jokes too. I guess we’ve corrupted another generation.”
“Rocky & Bullwinkle” continues to “corrupt” 21st-century generations, as well, as the show is available on DVD and various streaming platforms.
And considering some of the things that pass for cartoons today, that’s all for the good.