Did you know that many an iconic cartoon character was originally given a different voice than the one you know and love? For example, before Mike Meyers brought his Scottish burr into the recording booth, the flatulent ogre Shrek sounded a lot like Chris Farley (the original voice of the character, who died after recording a good majority of his lines). And William H. Macy initially provided the nervous-nelly voice of Nemo’s worrywart father, Marlin, prior to being replaced by Albert Brooks.
And there's also the lead character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A newly unearthed video clip reveals that Charles Fleischer wasn’t the first actor lucky enough to have Jessica Rabbit for an onscreen wife; that honor, it turns out, was bestowed upon Paul Reubens — a relatively unknown comedian who had found some success in L.A. with a one-man show featuring a character named Pee-wee Herman. Reubens provided the voice of the hyperactive animated bunny in test footage for an early, unfinished version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit — which looks like it might have been a so-called “proof of concept” that demonstrates the feasibility of such a project.
Reubens’ take on Roger’s familiar stutter can be briefly heard in an eight-minute clip from the long-lost behind-the-scenes special Backstage at Disney, which aired on the Disney Channel in 1983, two years after the studio acquired the rights to Gary K. Wolf’s cult novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? At that time, Disney had tasked animation director Darrell Van Citters with the Herculean task of turning the book into a hybrid live-action/animated motion picture in the tradition of Mary Poppins and The Three Caballeros. With a few notable exceptions — mainly the fact that this Jessica is actually bad instead of merely being drawn that way — the broad story outline of this version sounds pretty similar to the movie Robert Zemeckis eventually made six years later.
Of course, it’s immediately apparent that none of the characters sound all that similar. In addition to Reubens’ Roger, the clip features Russi Taylor as Jessica rather than Kathleen Turner (considering that Taylor is the current voice of Minnie Mouse, it’s probably less traumatizing for all concerned that she was replaced), while Peter Renaday (best known to an entire generation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans as the voice of Splinter from the ‘80s animated series) wears Eddie Valiant’s fedora and trench coat instead of Bob Hoskins. Also missing from the test footage are some of the overt and subtle references to Roman Polanski’s classic gumshoe tale Chinatown that many have seen in Zemeckis’ movie over the years. (Check out this recent in-depth compare-and-contrast study to see how the two films match-up against each other.)
Considering that the release version of Who Framed Roger Rabbitis deservedly considered a modern masterpiece — thanks in large part to Zemeckis’ direction and Fleischer’s voice (which has a frantic, antic energy absent from Reubens’s reading) — it’s just as well that this early attempt was abandoned. Additionally, being let go from his cartoon rabbit duties freed Reubens up to focus full-time on his man-child alter ego. Two years later, the actor teamed up with former Disney animator Tim Burton to make another ‘80s classic, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It’s a happy ending all around…one that would make even notorious grump Eddie Valiant smile.
Photo credits: YouTube/TheThiefArchive