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Fifty years ago today, on Sept. 13, 1969, the Mystery Machine’s engine roared to life, transporting the five-member Scooby gang — Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and, of course, that pup named Scooby-Doo — on a cross-country mystery-solving spree that continues to this day. And from the very beginning of the Hanna-Barbera franchise’s long history, Frank Welker was in the driver’s seat. In 1969, the then-23-year-old voiceover novice landed the role of Scooby-Doo’s ascot-wearing sleuth-in-chief, Fred Jones. While poor Fred is often dismissed as the square-jawed straight arrow in a gang full of oddballs, Welker tells Yahoo Entertainment that his alter ego had one very important function in the group: “Fred was the only one who had a license, so I drove the Mystery Machine, right?” he says, chuckling. “As long as nobody took the van away from me, that gave me four-wheel power.”
Nobody’s dared to take the van away from Welker in the 50 years since Scooby-Doo first hit the airwaves in the form of the Saturday morning cartoon show, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? That series ran until 1976, but the Scooby gang has never left us, returning to the airwaves again and again in multiple spinoff series, as well as TV and direct-to-video features. And even as the animation styles and voice casts have changed, Welker has been the one constant. “To have had one job that lasts this long is remarkable,” remarks the now 73-year-old actor, whose lengthy list of voiceover credits has grown to include beloved shows like Transformers, Tiny Toon Adventures and Futurama.
And these days Welker actually has two jobs aboard the Mystery Machine: Since 2002, Welker has provided the voices of both Fred and Scooby-Doo, the latter being a role originated by one of Welker’s earliest mentors in the business, Don Messick. It didn’t take very many Scooby snacks to convince Welker to share some behind-the-scenes stories from his five decades piloting the Mystery Machine.
Welker’s dream role was Shaggy Rogers
By Welker’s own account, his Scooby-Doo career was a happy accident. In 1969, the Colorado-born performer was making appearances at stand-up comedy clubs around L.A., and part of his 20-minute set included a three-minute gag where he simulated the sounds of cats and dogs fighting. A commercial casting agent heard that routine and instantly called him in to provide those same growls and hisses for a Friskies dog food ad. But the job offers didn’t stop there. “It just so happened that his fiancé was casting a show at CBS called Scooby-Doo,” Welker remembers. “So I went over to Hanna-Barbera, and Joe Barbera was doing the session. He told me not to worry about Scooby, but wanted me to read for Shaggy and Fred.” A quick glance at the early character sketches for both characters left Welker with a clear preference. “Shaggy looked like a funny character — Fred was just a guy in an ascot.”
Welker wasn’t the only actor reading for those two roles: Broadcasting superstar Casey Kasem was in the same audition and started off reading Fred’s lines, while Welker read Shaggy. “I really liked Shaggy, and tried to have fun with that, and I know Casey wanted to do Fred because he wasn't really comfortable doing that kind of goofy Shaggy part. But then Joe [switched us], and Casey came up with that crazy, wonderful voice for Shaggy. Joe said that Fred was the all-American hero type and that I should just do my own voice. I was like, ‘I never saw myself as the hero type, but OK!’” If Welker was at all disappointed to have to play the stalwart hero instead of the comic relief, that quickly faded. “I’m kind of a comedian goofball, so it was a little bit hard being restricted, but I was just happy to be a part of the gang. And, of course, being the leader! Joe would tell me that Fred’s the leader of the gang, and I would say, ‘I guess you’re right.’”
The cast wasn’t in on the (pot) joke
There are a number of reasons for Scooby-Doo’s longevity, but chief among them is the fact that the show was embraced by the youth-populated ‘60s and ‘70s counter-culture, who imbued the term “Scooby snacks” with a whole new marijuana-laced meaning. But Welker insists that neither the writers, nor the cast, were deliberately going to pot. “It’s one of those aspects of the show that was completely generated by the audience and where they were at the time. We certainly had no conscious awareness of it. Same with any romance or anything like that. We were pretty innocent right out of the gate.” That said, Welker doesn’t view the fan obsession with Scooby-Doo stoner humor as a drag. “The audience sees what they want with the characters, and that’s always good. You want your audience being involved! But I think the simple formula and the clean characters tends to resonate the most. I think we on the creative side tend to want to get a little rambunctious and make sure we keep their interest by doing new things and changing this or that. But as long as the group is basically the same, each generation can relate to it.”
Not cool, Scooby-Doo
As an example of a case where things on the creative side got a little too rambunctious, Welker points to the 2015 iteration, Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, which aired on Cartoon Network for two seasons. That series took place after the Scooby gang graduated high school, and hit the highways for a summertime road trip occasionally interrupted by marauding monsters. While the stories were classically Scooby, the animation style was anything but. “For me, they moved too far away,” Welker says. “Fred had kind of a big shovel face and little skinny legs. I think they were trying to match what was going on with Family Guy and SpongeBob and all that. It just didn’t feel right to me, but the stories were still good. And, to their credit, the studio is quick to see how the audience responds, and it wasn’t long after that that they went back to the classic look.”
On the other hand, Welker was totally cool with some of the creative changes that were made for the Cartoon Network series that directly preceded Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, 2010’s Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. That iteration retained the characters’ classic looks, but added fresh elements like modern-day technology and serialized narratives that incorporated new backstories for Fred and his friends. “Fred had this whole range of emotions and characterization. He’s got a father; he’s got a love interest with Daphne; he’s bumbling, but also driven and funny, and he made all these incredible contraptions to catch ghosts and things. It really pulled me out of my Fred comfort zone and into a ‘Whoa’ zone. That’s all because of [producer] Mitch Watson: I appreciated where he was taking me as an actor with Fred.”
Do the Doo
As a novice voice actor in 1969, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? was both a job and an education for Welker, and he cites Casey Kasem and Don Messick as two of his greatest teachers. “They helped me with little technical things, and also with line readings. They’d say, ‘Hey, go all out on this one’ or ‘Try it in an accent.’ When I started, I was very timid, so having these pros providing enthusiasm and courage was so great.” Kasem stayed with the franchise until 2009 (barring an extended break between 1997 and 2002), and these days Shaggy is voiced by Matthew Lillard, who played the character in a pair of live-action movies.
Messick, meanwhile, retired in 1996 after suffering a stroke, at which point Welker was first approached to take over the title role. “I was very reluctant at the time,” he says. “Don was very ill, and I wanted him to have that role to look forward to and keep working at getting better.” After Messick passed away in 1997, Scott Innes inherited the role for several years, until the studio approached Welker again in 2002. “I thought, ‘Maybe this could be a tribute to Don and his legacy,’” the actor says. “When I saw it from the perspective of being respectful of Don and the audience, I went after it enthusiastically.”
Having attended Scooby school opposite Messick for so many decades, Welker was in a unique position to replicate his predecessor’s performance, while also gradually putting his own spin on the character. “What Don did is that he allowed for this wonderful goofiness between Shaggy and Scooby: It was almost like he had a mouth full of marbles and a heart full of gold. My idea was to maintain that relationship, and also keep him honest, lovable and funny. It’s been almost two decades now that I’ve been doing it, and fans have continued to be very positive, so hopefully we’ve got it right.” And Welker says that he still sees his teacher in his mind’s eye when he’s reading Scooby’s “dialogue” in the recoding booth. “I always visualize his face when he was doing Scooby — he really was that dog. Any part of that I can keep is important.”
After 50 years, Welker is still going strong
This past summer marked the premiere of the 13th Scooby-Doo TV series: Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? which currently airs on Cartoon Network and Boomerang. Taking a page from the second Scooby-Doo series, The New Scooby-Doo Movies — which aired from 1972 to 1973 — Guess Who? incorporates celebrity cameos into the usual mystery mix. Back in the ‘70s, those celebrities included era-appropriate stars like Don Knotts, Sandy Duncan and Sonny & Cher.
So far, the modern-day guest star lineup has included Mark Hamill, Kenan Thompson, Sia and Whoopi Goldberg ... not that Welker has had the opportunity to share the studio with very many them, of course. “In the old days, we did a lot more ensemble recordings. Nowadays, everybody is so busy so we very rarely see our guest stars. We did get to work with Bill Nye, and he was crazy and fun. They enjoy doing the show; to say they did an episode of Scooby-Doo is like a feather in their cap.” Or, put another way, like a Scooby snack in their pocket.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: The Complete Series Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Mystery Mansion is now available on Blu-ray. Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? is currently airing on Cartoon Network.
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