As I mentioned in my piece about the Cards Against Humanity exclusive San Diego Comic Con one-shot, one of the elements that was most exhilarating about my experience at SDCC this year was the productive, but haphazard, chaos of the whole affair. Within the crush of tens of thousands of people excitingly walking the convention floor to check out the latest pablum from the big publishers, there are hidden gems waiting around to be discovered. This could be a long-lost issue that completes a collection, or just the rare chance to interact with a favorite creator. For me, one of those surprises was the random, thrilling, and all-too-brief encounter with Rob Paulsen.
Now, if the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, then a quick glance at his bio and career should. Rob is one of the most prominent voice actors in the business, with a resume that stretches back thirty-plus years. If you were a kid growing up on cartoons in the late-‘80s through the present, you would have heard one of Rob’s performances—in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Raphael in the 1987 original, Donatello in the 2012 reboot), Yakko in Animaniacs, Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, PJ from the Goof Troop & The Goofy Movie, Jack Fenton from Danny Phantom, and countless more—as a regular part of your childhood. For me, I still carry the memories from these shows, and many were a gateway into developing my own tastes in culture and sense of humor. I’m sure it was also this way for a countless number of my peers.
So, to set the scene: In the bedlam that is the SDCC convention floor, I’m walking up one of the aisles and who should be standing off at a booth than the Rob Paulsen, just chatting away with another fan. And just my luck, as I walk up, that conversation ends and its just Rob at the booth. I couldn’t let this opportunity slide. So, I introduced myself and we got to talking. Though it was only a brief chat (which wasn’t on the record, so not going to detail specifically what we talked about), it was one of the most memorable moments of the Con for me: meeting a childhood hero whose work I admired dearly.
And it turns out that that old saying that never meeting your heroes doesn’t always apply. Because not only was Rob a soft-spoken guy, the reason he was at the booth was to collect donations for the widow of the recently-deceased legend Bernie Wrightson. Rob had voiced a Wrightson-created character (though it was from a show I was not aware of) and was signing prints with the character for fans. I told him that since I had no connection to the character, a print probably wouldn’t be necessary. But (!), as a counter, I thought a photo would be more appropriate. So after happily donating some shekels to the cause, Rob obliged and a pic was snapped.
I was on my way with a priceless digital memento.
I’ve thought about this brief meeting a lot during the last week or so. Earlier in August, the Hollywood Reporter dropped a story that Rob had been battling against a serious form of cancer—throat cancer no less—for the last year. When my colleague Taimur (who interviewed Rob formally for the BEAT during the con) sent me the article, I had to pause and let out an audible “Oh my God.” Seeing this news was like a punch in the gut. For whatever reason, learning of this diagnosis induced a visceral reaction that is strangely out of character for me. I tried to figure out why. It had only been less than two weeks talking to the guy in person and nothing seemed amiss.
Indeed, the reveal of the news messed with my head, which is odd. I’ve tried to internalize and rationalize my reaction. On the one hand, though our encounter was cursory, Rob was so incredibly nice and generous with his time as well as entirely game about talking about what he was up to and dreams for future projects. On the other, in a way, I’ve grown up listening to Rob’s voice nearly all my life, probably to the point where it’s lodged itself in my subconscious and never left. This indelible mark was (more than likely) one of the sparks that led to my endless fascination with the art of voice acting, which I continue to enjoy learning about from afar.
The modern entertainment complex has conditioned us to be naturally cynical. Especially for those who make a living commenting on the comings and goings of Hollywood, such stories make for a momentary read but are then discarded. I don’t want anyone to misconstrue this as some kind of celebrity puff piece or a hero worship piece. Instead, I spent a lot of time introspecting as to why this news affected me at all.
But that still doesn’t address the underlying meaning of why I was so impacted by the news. I’m not sure I still have an answer, but I’ve also thought about it in these terms: During the con, I also had the opportunity to interview cast and crew from Rocko’s Modern Life. In my piece about that conversation, I wrote something along the lines of how odd it is to see a voice actor do the voice of one of their characters in front of your face, especially a character that has meant a lot to you over the course of a lifetime. In turn, it’s not so much a transactional press interview, but rather like talking to an old friend. So, in a way, learning that Rob had battled such a virulent cancer was like learning that all those friends I grew up with had suffered as well.
And that feeling hits deep, an irrevocable sense that we all have to make time to do the things we want to do.
At this point, I feel heartened that Rob is on the mend and hope that he continues to find roles that bring joy to countless people. (Thanks for the memories!)