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A & E
Man of many voices knows how to make an impression

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

By Barbara Klein

Gesturing madly and mumbling to himself, Jeff Bergman sits alone in a small soundproof room. There's no need to worry -- he's simply doing his job. This rather shy, 41-year-old father of two makes his living speaking in the tongues of presidents, actors, anchors and cartoon characters. The week before, for example, he was called upon to give voice to George Jetson. Today, his assignment is to hone the vocal idiosyncrasies of our nation's president.

During a recent recording session at Production Masters Inc., Downtown, Jeff Bergman does introductions for cartoons on the Boomerang channel. He has given voice to such illustrious characters as Bugs Bunny and Yogi Bear. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Sequestered on the ground floor of Production Masters Inc., a Downtown production facility, Bergman awaits his cue. It arrives in the form of a disembodied voice. The director, who is alive and well but working from a studio somewhere in Baltimore, wastes no time setting the scene.

"We want a lot of feeling and emotion," he explains, "like you're making a speech. Purse your lips and crinkle your brow. Here we go. Three in a row. Take 1."

Without missing a beat, the quirky, cadenced speech of George W. Bush is heard touting the virtues of patios and fences. This is no inaugural address, but rather a 30-second radio commercial that Bergman is literally phoning in via a digital line.

"He tawlks like he's got schwomthing in his shmouth," Bergman says of the president. "You waaant to tell him to schpit it out."

"You know," he adds in the nasal tones of the elder Bush. "Barbara and I. Our pride knows no bounds."

Bergman's voice may change in the blink of an eye, but his facial expression remains surprisingly placid. "I rely on my ear and my vocal abilities more than my body and my physicality."

It might seem like an unusual way to earn a paycheck. But for Bergman, it's a perfect fit. From his first moments of consciousness, this once-and-again Pittsburgher knew he wasn't like other children. After all, how many kids would beg their parents to stay up late so they could watch impersonators Rich Little and John Byner do their shtick on "The Ed Sullivan Show"?

Bergman was always fascinated by sounds -- and his ability to mimic them. At a young age, he says, "I was acutely aware I could do something different."

So were his parents. They were amused by their son's funny voices and impressions. Then they began to ask themselves, "Does this really qualify as a talent?" The answer slowly but surely became clear.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Bergman began working the high school circuit. By his own admission, he was "charmingly disruptive in class." Then his ever-expanding repertoire of voices -- Jimmy Cagney, Johnny Carson, Rodney Dangerfield -- earned him a first-place win in his school's annual talent show. The next year, he was tapped as the emcee.

For a shy teen-ager who wasn't much of a jock, it provided the perfect means to pick up girls. "The idea of being someone else was very appealing," he recalls.

But eventually he had to start thinking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Since a bachelor's degree in impersonations is not a standard college offering, Bergman opted to study communications at the University of Pittsburgh.

Although Bergman did check out the theater arts department, it was the campus radio station that really intrigued him. He quickly emerged as a one-man crew -- writing, producing and doing the voice-overs for various commercials.

His next stop was an internship at KQV-AM, where once again his aptitude for aping landed him a job in front of the microphone. But it was a not-exactly chance encounter with the legendary Mel Blanc that sealed his fate.

It just so happened that in 1981 the man who gave the world Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird was speaking at Pitt. And it just so happened that after listening to the lecture, Bergman became so enthralled with his hero he decided to follow him back to his hotel.

"It seems inconceivable now that I would have done this," Bergman admits. "But I knocked on his door and said, 'Mr. Blanc, I think you're great.' He said, 'Come on in, kid.' So we sat on his bed and I did my George Burns and a couple other voices for him. Although he did tell me to stay in school, he also said I had a real ability. He was really encouraging, and from that meeting on I became much more focused."

That new-found concentration prompted him to travel to New York so he could personally present his demo tape to the William Morris Agency. The problem was, he didn't have an appointment. So, in typical Bergman fashion, he masqueraded as a delivery boy, complete with uniform and receipt book. When he was finally called back for an interview, the receptionist recognized him but never blew his cover.

By 1985, Bergman's life had changed dramatically. He had graduated from Pitt, relocated to the Big Apple, signed a contract with William Morris, married his college sweetheart and begun leaving his voiceprint on television commercials for national brands like Star Kist Tuna and Hawaiian Punch.

Ironically, one of his biggest breaks came as a result of Blanc's death in 1989. Left speechless, Warner Bros. put out the word that Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and the entire franchise needed someone new to do their talking for them. Bergman got the job and for years would fly back and forth to Los Angeles to lend his voice to Steven Spielberg's "Tiny Toons," Bugs Bunny's 50th birthday celebration and a number of cartoon shorts.

Then when Bergman and his wife divorced and she and the kids moved back to Pittsburgh, he found himself logging even more frequent-flier miles.

"It was wearing me out," he says.

Eventually technology offered him an alternative to commuting. Nowadays, Bergman can live in one part of the world -- Pittsburgh, near his sons, who are now 10 and 8 -- and have his voice beamed anywhere.

Still, according to his agent Marcia Hurwitz, it's a pretty unconventional arrangement.

"The Cartoon Network is based in Atlanta. I'm in L.A., and Jeff's in a studio in Pittsburgh. But it's never been a problem."

That may have more to do with Bergman, she speculates, than with technology.

"Jeff has great instincts and great ideas," says Hurwitz, of the Special Artist Agency. "He creates voices and mimics them, and he's dead-on. He's taken over the mantle for some amazing people.

"It's been fantastic professionally and financially for both of us," she adds. "And with the Internet and cable cartoon networks, it gets better and better."

Bergman continues doing work for Warner Bros., which owns the Cartoon Network and the Hanna-Barbera stable of stars including the Jetsons, Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. For the Cartoon Network and Boomerang, a subsidiary that runs mostly cartoons of the 1960s and '70s, he's supplied the voices of Barney Rubble, Fred Flintstone, Elroy Jetson, Yogi and Boo-Boo Bear and Shaggy on "Scooby-Doo."

But it's not all fun and games.

"It's important to become an actor first," Bergman says, "to become aware of movement and how to react with other people and to capture the inflections and nuances -- the essence of a character. Everybody has the ability to mimic, that's how we learn. But we let it go because we're afraid of looking silly.

"It's pretty obvious I have no problem being silly."

Barbara Klein is a free-lance writer.

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