‘Jellystone’ star Jeff Bergman talks voicing Yogi Bear and Bugs Bunny

There will never be another Mel Blanc… but that doesn’t mean there can’t be another Bugs Bunny. Although the pioneering voiceover artist known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices” passed away in 1989, the classic animated characters he gave life to continue to appear on the small and big screens today with new performers behind the mic. 

Jeff Bergman is one of the actors who has continued Blanc’s legacy, voicing signature Looney Tunes like Bugs and Daffy, as well as such vintage Hanna-Barbera characters as Mr. Spacely, for dozens of TV shows and movies including the just-released feature Space Jam: A New Legacy and HBO Max’s new streaming series, Jellystone.

And as Bergman tells Yahoo Entertainment, he’s got a personal connection to the performer who originated those roles. “I got to spend 45 minutes with Mel Blanc alone in a hotel room,” he says, chuckling. “I know that sounds strange!” (Watch our video interview above.)

It’s actually a very sweet tale. Bergman was a cartoon-loving University of Pittsburgh theater and communications student in 1981 when Blanc came to town to deliver a lecture. Doing his best Dorlock Homes impression, the 21-year-old found out which hotel his idol was staying in, and knocked on his door. 

Cast member Jeff Bergman attends the premiere for the film Space Jam: A New Legacy in Los Angeles, California, U.S. July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Jeff Bergman attends the July premiere of Space Jam: A New Legacy in Los Angeles. (Photo: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

“When I knocked, I heard a voice that sounded very much like Barney Rubble,” he remembers. “It was like, ‘Just a jiffy!'” When Blanc opened the door, Bergman found himself talking faster than the Road Runner races. “I said, ‘Mr. Blanc, I saw your performance, I’m a big fan. If I could just have about three minutes with your time, I promise I won’t hurt you or anything else.’ It was a mile a minute!” 

Instead of turning his overeager visitor away, Blanc invited Bergman in, and those three minutes turned into a nearly hour-long conversation. “It was like meeting a Jedi master,” Bergman says now. “He was just so sweet. It was important to meet somebody, anybody, that has a feeling for what you do. I might as well have been meeting Muhammad Ali, you know? He was the most famous person to me in the whole world when I met him and I keep that moment with me.”

In terms of the specifics of what they discussed, Bergman remembers Blanc hammering one lesson home: “Stay in school.” That was something he needed to hear at the time. “I did not want to stay in school,” he recalls. “I wasn’t an academic, and it wasn’t my favorite thing to go to any of the classes in my major. But Mel said, ‘Jeff, try to stay in school to get your degree.’ And I did! I also did a few voices for him like George Burns and Jack Benny, and he thought that was great. He told me, ‘Keep working on the voices, and if you ever get out to L.A., look me up.'” 

Yogi Bear is one of the many vintage Hanna-Barbera characters featured in HBO Max's new animated series, 'Jellystone' (Photo: HBO Max)

Yogi Bear is one of the many vintage Hanna-Barbera characters featured in HBO Max’s new animated series, Jellystone (Photo: HBO Max)

That’s an invitation the young man never got the chance to accept. Eight years after their meeting, Blanc passed away on July 10 — which also happened to be Bergman’s 29th birthday. Three weeks later, he auditioned to voice Bugs Bunny on the ’90s animated favorite, Tiny Toon Adventures, kicking off a three-decades-and-counting career in the cartoon business. “I never did get to meet Mel again,” Bergman says wistfully. “I didn’t realize how fortunate I was and would be much later in life.” 

Bergman voices Bugs once again in Space Jam: A New Legacy, which also features him rocking the mic as Sylvester the Cat and Yosemite Sam. Over on Jellystone, meanwhile, he can be heard as the pic-a-nic basket loving Yogi Bear, as well as Wally Gator, Mr. Jinks and Lippy the Lion. We spoke with him about why Yogi is smarter than the average cartoon bear, and the “biggest responsibility” he faces in keeping these characters fresh for new and old fans. Oh yeah… and he also delivers beloved sports movie quotes in character. 

Yahoo Entertainment: You grew up in such a great time for cartoon universes: Hanna-Barbera, Looney Tunes, Disney. Did you find yourself favoring one over the other or did you love everything animated?

Jeff Bergman: As a 6 and 7 year old, I think probably the folksier cartoons hit me — like Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound. They were tender, and I think that just appealed to me as a little kid. And then Foghorn Leghorn and, of course, Bugs Bunny sort of captured me [later on]. I don’t think I got all the references and sophisticated humor in those cartoons until I was in high school. And then of course, there was Speed Racer and then the late ’60s Batman and Superman. There were so many things that were a part of my childhood. I was seven years old in 1967, which was still the infancy of television. So when I saw a Bugs Bunny or Fred Flintstone commercial, I always thought, “How did my favorite characters get into a Welch’s Grape Juice commercial?”

You mentioned that Yogi Bear stood out to you — what was it about him that you liked so much?

There wasn’t anything like that character in the Looney Tunes universe. I think the fact that he was always kind of optimistic, hopeful and mischievous a little bit appealed to me. At the time, I didn’t know that he and Boo-Boo were based on the Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton characters from The Honeymooners. When you look at Yogi’s hat and his bow tie, he’s a little like Ed Norton, and that was fun to discover years later. So I think that emotionally hit me at the time. Of course, looking back at those cartoons, you realize that Yogi was not the crispiest chip in the bag and neither was Boo-Boo! [Laughs] I mean, it took an entire episode for Boo-Boo to figure out that Ranger Smith was disguised as a bear! But that’s the charm of it, you know. 

Jellystone takes these classic characters, but gives them a contemporary spin. The pace of it feels very modern and Adult Swim-oriented. How does that affect you as a performer?

When I prep for a session, whether I’m doing Yogi or Wally Gator or Jinx the Cat or Ranger Smith, I always reference back to the original cartoons that I grew up with because that’s what touched me as a child. Then I read the script and I work with the directors and [creator] C.H. Greenblatt, who gives immediate context to everything that we do. He’s obviously a huge fan of those cartoons, but the pace of this show is a lot faster. I think that’s really going to appeal to kids today. 

We really try to keep the essence of those characters, so that even if you’d never seen a Yogi Bear cartoon, you’re going to like it because the characters are broad and silly, and there’s a lot of visual gags. There’s one episode where Yogi is a doctor… and he’s still trying to get food while he’s operating. So it’s really silly!

 Boo-Boo, Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith from a classic 1960s episode of the Hanna-Barbera animated series (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Boo-Boo, Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith from a classic 1960s episode of the Hanna-Barbera animated series (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Meanwhile, the people that are die-hard fans of those late ’50s, early ’60s cartoons are going to see a Captain Caveman, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear that are very similar, just updated. They have to make it for audiences of today, and of course the animators want to put their own personal spice on it. I’ve been having a great time recording, and oftentimes we switch from character to character in a particular scene. 

People can feel very possessive of the characters they grew up with as kids. How does that factor in to your performances? Are you always afraid that some old-school Yogi fan is going to say, “This new voice is terrible!”

That’s maybe the most important thing that you just brought out: How do you honor someone’s memory of the character that they grew up with? Because, guess what — it’s our childhood! So I have to try to figure out, “What is it that Ethan remembered about that cartoon? What is the thing that gets you right there?” It’s different for everybody, so when I research the characters, I have to know who they are, what their wants are and how they would react in a particular scene. 

It’s the most fun job, but it’s the biggest responsibility, because you have to get to the sweet spot of what their memory is. It’s like if you grew up with Sean Connery or if you grew up with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, or now people are growing up with Daniel Craig. That’s your Bond. Same with Batman and Superman. We all have our reference points, so it’s really important to honor that. 

When someone says on YouTube, “That doesn’t sound [right],” I’m always like, “Darn it! I’m going to do it better.” Because I’m that same person! I’m that person that would have said that if I had YouTube or social media as a kid. As an actor, we don’t always know what take they’re going to pick, and it could be a take that maybe is not the signature sound or attitude of the character, but it was the one that they felt delivered the emotional content for that scene the best. So, you know, fingers crossed that you hope you get really close.

Did you ever get a chance to meet Daws Butler, who originated the role of Yogi Bear?

I did not meet him, but he influenced me tremendously as a child. When I first heard those cartoons, it affected my spirit. [Butler died in 1988.] I did get to meet Don Messick, who was his partner in crime in so many episodes as Boo-Boo. When I was cast as Bugs Bunny on Tiny Toon Adventures he was playing Hamton Pig. He was so shy, so he never said a word to me other than, “Hi, how are you?” [Laughs] But we would sit across from each other waiting to go in to record. It was an honor to meet him.

What do you remember about doing your first Bugs Bunny performance on Tiny Toons?

Well, I was very nervous, but I’d had a previous session working with [Looney Tunes icon] Chuck Jones when he directed me as Bugs and Daffy in the title sequence for Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It was three minutes long, and he had storyboards that were this thick! He knew exactly what he wanted and directed me amazingly. I was 29 at the time, so fo course it was mind-blowing to have that experience. When I had my first Tiny Toons session, Mel Blanc’s son, Noah, was there. He was so nice and approached me. To have that moment with him made the experience even more special for me.

LeBron James and Bugs Bunny (voiced by Bergman) in 'Space Jam: A New Level' (Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection)

LeBron James and Bugs Bunny (voiced by Bergman) in Space Jam: A New Level. (Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection)

You’re in Space Jam 2 right now, so you’ve been voicing Bugs for 30 years. How has your approach changed over time?

My approach really doesn’t change, because I always reference back to Mel and what I grew up with as a child. However, if you look at my performances from all the shows, whether it’s Tiny Toons or The Looney Tunes Show or Space Jam, they’re all different because the material is different and the direction is different. 

People will often say, “Jeff, you don’t sound anything like you did in this other thing,” and I’m like, “Well, I was directed by a different director!” With The Looney Tunes Show, Bugs and Daffy were this odd couple living in a suburban neighborhood. And sometimes they’ll speed up your voice, which changes your reads dramatically! So there are many reasons why I’m different in all the different shows. That’s the fun of it, but I always bring my same reference points to the recording booth. 

Are there any characters you haven’t voiced yet that you’d like to?

I’ve done Pepé Le Pew and Marvin the Martian, but I typically gravitate to the more complex characters that Mel did. Those are more challenging, and people are more critical with those characters so I go right for the flame! [Laughs] I haven’t done Huckleberry Hound or Quick Draw McGraw professionally. — those would be fun to do. It takes a lot of time, because I really. want to research the roles to recreate each character. 

Speaking of Pepé Le Pew, there was a kerfuffle earlier this year when he was dropped from Space Jam 2 due to controversy surrounding the character. How do you think we can approach some of these classic characters in a modern cultural context?

That was kind of like the situation with Elmer Fudd and guns. It also reminds me of the ’70s when they would show The Three Stooges shorts, and people would say, “It’s a bad influence for kids.” So I noticed that when they would run them, it seemed like they were not as violent. I think the same thing happened with Looney Tunes: They started to cut some of the violence. Now we have some of the newer Blu-ray and DVDs where the cartoons been restored. I fully understand that there are sensitivities, but it’s nice to see them restored. We grew up with them, you know?  

We should mention that you also perform both Fred Flintstone and George Jetson. What’s it like to inherit the legacy of those characters?

Fred Flintstone was maybe the most difficult voice of all to do because in my 20s and 30s I just didn’t sound anything like him! But by the time I got to be around 40-ish when they were auditioning for The Flintstones: On the Rocks my voice started to get more mature, I guess and I was able to do it! To this day, I’ve probably said “Yabba Dabba Doo!” 6,000 times and I still feel like I still don’t quite have it. So I keep searching. It’s like searching for the perfect slice of pizza. [Laughs]

Jellystone and Space Jam: A New Level are currently streaming on HBO Max

Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Valerie Volpacchio

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