An Interview with Neil Ross
You've probably heard Neil Ross' voice before, even though you weren't aware of it at the time. With a voice-over career spanning almost twenty-five years, he's narrated episodes of A&E's Biography, announced the Academy Awards and the Emmy Awards, and has voiced characters on dozens of cartoons and video games. In terms of the Marvel Comics animated television shows, Neil provided voice-overs for Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man, providing the voices of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, the Puppet Master, Dr. Doom, Fing Fang Foom, and many others. Read on to see what he has to say about his Marvel animated work. Interview conducted November 2004.
FANTASTIC FOUR/IRON MAN questions
QUESTION: On "Fantastic Four" and "Iron Man," it seems like you were the voice of practically all of the villains. You were the Puppet Master, General Krang, Super Skrull, Fing Fang Foom, and Dr. Doom (for the FF's first season). Was there a particular reason for this, or did you just audition for each character? And I have to say, you did a really great job of making each character unique, as I had no idea you were doing all of these voices until many years later.
NEIL ROSS: Thanks for the kind words. I auditioned for the main roles in both shows and although I didn't get any, I guess those auditions must have impressed Director Tony Pastor and others connected with the show because they began calling me in to do guest villains. I don't honestly recall reading for any of those parts. As I remeber it, they just called me in and assigned me the roles.
Q: Was there a significant reason why you were replaced as Dr. Doom for the second season of "Fantastic Four," or was it just a routine casting change?
NR: Although the show was doing extremely well in the ratings, at the end of the first season the powers that be decided to replace the entire production team. The new people decided to change the tone of the show and replaced a number of the actors. I was one of the casualties.
Q: Any interesting stories from these recording sessions?
NR: Well, I recall them being a lot of fun with a good deal of ad-libbed ribald humor during rehearsals. The main writer whose name as I recall was Ron Friedman, and I, seemed to have similar senses of humor. We would trade one liners back and forth but I can't recall any of them and they would all fit into the 'ya hadda be there' category anyway. I just recall having lots of fun.
Q: Out of the three Marvel Comics shows you did, "Spider-Man" was arguably the biggest success with the highest ratings and number of episodes produced. Did you think this incarnation was going to be the monster hit that it became?
NR: One never knows. At least I don't. I've never been able to predict the winners or the losers. So much depends on variables over which you have no control such as time slot and promotional budget. I recall doing a wonderful show that all the actors loved called Zazoo U. It was a wonderful witty, hip little show that would have appealed to older teens and adults. The network stuck it on at 7AM which is strictly toddler land. All that works in that time period is Care Bears kind of stuff. The show died a horrible death. They never even ran all the episodes. I'm convinced that in the right time slot it would have killed. But you don't know any of that stuff going in. You just give it your best shot and hope.
Q: You previously played Norman Osborn (but not the Green Goblin) on "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends," so did you even have to audition for Norman this time around?
NR: Yes. It was a whole new production and a different production team so I had to read for it.
Q: Did you have to audition for the Green Goblin role when the Goblin finally showed up in the third season, or did it automatically come with Norman Osborn?
NR: It came with the part. But the director was Tony Pastor who, as you'll recall, directed me in Fantastic Four. We never discussed it but I assume based on what I'd done for him before, he figured I'd come up with something. My memory is the first Goblin line came up and Tony said: "O.K. What have you got?" I did something, we made a few adjustments and that was that.
Q: How did you come up with your Green Goblin voice, particularly the laugh? Did you base it on anything or anyone? I remember that you did a similar voice as a dream imp on an episode of "Darkwing Duck."
NR: It's so weird when someone else knows more about my career than I do. I have absolutely no memory of doing a dream imp. But I'll take your word for it. I approached the Goblin voice the way I approach everything else in animation or gaming voiceover. I looked at the drawing of the character and read the description and tried to come up with something that fit. In the back of my mind the whole time was the voice Sir Laurence Olivier did as Richard III. Not that I attempted to copy that voice, but it helped to have it in mind. Another character of total menace and evil but not without a certain charm
Q: Is the Goblin voice/laugh a strain on your vocal chords or are you able to switch into it seamlessly?
NR: That particular voice involves a placement that I'm able to do without any appreciable pain or strain, fortunately.
Q: Any interesting stories from the recording sessions? I'm told that they were all group sessions, and I've heard many accounts of Mark Hamill and John Semper entertaining the voice actors.
NR: Well, again. It's a long time ago and most of the stuff you just hadda be there. I can only say that there have been some casts along the way with the right mix of people so that it was almost like being at the greatest party you could imagine minus the booze. One liners flying thick and fast, great war stories etc. You can't believe they're actually paying you to be there. The Spiderman cast varied from episode to episode but most of the time it was like that - a lot of fun.
Q: Do you find it easier recording with a group or by yourself?
NR: Much prefer a group.
Q: Did you ever adlib anything that got into the show?
NR: Once in a while. But I'm nowhere near as good as people like Rob Paulsen or Jim Cummings or Jeff Bennett. Those guys come up with brilliant stuff that quite frequently makes it in.
Q: Were there any last-minute dubbing issues that you had to deal with before any of the shows got on the air? I've heard from John Semper that there were frequent, serious vocal editing mistakes that had to be corrected only days before airtime.
NR: Hmmm. Interesting. Unless I'm spacing it I don't recall having to do much last minute dubbing throughout my entire career. It's expensive so the producers try to avoid it at all costs. (Pun intended.)
Q: Were you familiar with the "Spider-Man" comics before you began playing Norman Osborn? If so, did it bother you that The Hobgoblin winded up appearing before The Green Goblin? If not, did you research your characters?
NR: I knew a little bit about Spiderman and I guess I'd seen the comic strip in the paper but I didn't know enough to know that the Hobgoblin was out of order. The only time I do research is if a specific accent or sound is called for. Otherwise I rely on instinct, experience and (hopefully) talent.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode? A least favorite?
NR: Like any actor who is telling the truth, my favorite episodes are the ones in which I'm featured prominently. My least favorite are the ones in which I don't appear.
Q: The "Turning Point" episode, where the Green Goblin and Mary Jane fall into limbo, features really intense and emotional acting from you and Christopher Daniel Barnes. Do you remember recording that episode and playing off of each other, and were you pleased with how that episode turned out? Many people call it the high point of the series.
NR: I recall enjoying the whole Green Goblin run. He was one of my favorite characters over the years. If people regard that episode as the high point of the series, it's gratifying. You mentioned Christopher Barnes. Very nice chap. Excellent, hard working actor. Enjoyed working with him.
Q: This is more of a technical question. In one episode ("The Black Cat"), you were credited with supplying "Additional Voices" (instead of playing Norman Osborn/Green Goblin). You only had one line that I've ever noticed (as a SHIELD agent where you say something like "Spider-Man sighted in Sector 8-14"). Is there a common process for how this works? You're just in the studio recording lines for another episode or a different show and they just grab you to fill in an unassigned minor role or two?
NR: That can happen, but it's rare. Here's a more likely scenario. Under the SAG Animation contract they can ask you to do three different parts in each episode. Some of us are known for being able to come up with different sounding voices on the spot. If a director has a lot of incidental roles in a show, he or she will call one of us in. They'll say, "In this one you're the Cop, the Bartender, and Security Guard 2." Each character may only have one or two lines but what the heck - it's a payday. That's probably what happened in the episode to which you refer. I may have done one or two other minor characters in that episode which you didn't spot.
Q: Were you disappointed when FOX chose not to order additional episodes of the show? It just seemed like there was so much more that could have been explored, particularly more with Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin and maybe even getting your Goblin out of limbo.
NR: Yes, it was a great show to work on. I wish we'd done more. But that's showbiz as they say.
Q: The short-lived "Spider-Man Unlimited" show that FOX attempted afterwards was radically different, as it had a completely different concept and it replaced all of the voice actors (with the exception of Jennifer Hale, who switched to Mary Jane) with ones based in Canada. Strangely enough, you and Christopher Daniel Barnes were both replaced by the same actor (Rino Romano, who took over Peter Parker/Spider-Man and their version of the Green Goblin). Did they ever approach you to reprise your role? Regardless of the quality of the show, I figured that it would have at least helped with the transition.
NR: I was never approached to participate. Once they take 'em to Canada, that's it.
Q: Would you be eager to reprise your Norman Osborn/Green Goblin role if the show was ever brought back in some capacity? (Such as a direct-to-video movie, a video game in the show's continuity, etc.)
NR: Love to do it again, should the opportunity arise.
Q: Which do you prefer: narrating a "Biography" on the life of Elvis Presley or cutting loose as the Green Goblin?
NR: They're both equally gratifying but in different ways. You might like to dine on prime rib but that doesn't mean you're not up for pizza once in a while. That's what I like about voiceover. There's such a wide variety of things to do that it keeps it interesting. Animation/Game acting and narration are my two favorites though. Narration is story telling. It goes all the way back to the elder at the campfire sharing wisdom tales with the tribe.
Q: You were the announcer for the Oscars the year that the first Spider-Man movie was nominated for a few technical awards. Were you rooting for it to win?
NR: I learned real quick that you can either watch the Oscars or work the Oscars -but not both. I was too busy concentrating on not screwing up to pay much attention to who won what that night I'm afraid - unless I had to announce it!
Q: Some voice actors complain about the quality of the scripts or how mediocre animation ruins their performances. Did you think any of these in terms of the Marvel cartoons that you worked on? (particularly the constant use of recycled scenes on "Spider-Man")
NR: The joy for me is the work. I don't usually watch much of the finished product. That's somebody else's department. I usually watch the first episode of something I'm in when it finally gets on (there's usually a huge lag time) just to get a fix on it and then never watch again. Truthfully, I always wanted to be a radio actor but that business ended while I was still a child. To me, when I'm working on cartoons, they're radio shows. If someone wants to draw a picture later, that's their business. The fun for me is the performance itself and I don't get hung up on things I can't control like time slot, picture quality, recycled scenes etc. Not my department. My department is that voice performance. As far as scripts are concerned, I've never really had a problem with overall quality. The animation business seems to attract some damn fine writers. I've asked to change a line or two here and there but mostly I'm fine with the writing.
Q: Have any upcoming projects that you want to plug?
NR: Just narrated my fifth NOVA for PBS. It's titled "Welcome to Mars." It's about what the Martian Rovers have discovered about the possibility of life on Mars. You may recall I narrated the NOVA episode titled "Mars-Dead or Alive" which chronicled the Rovers' construction and launch. "Welcome to Mars" airs January 4 on PBS. I'm also the voice of 'Sarge' in "Doom 3" which just hit the shelves for all you gamers out there. And I have a small role as the Deep Sea Diver in the new 'SpongBob SquarePants' movie. I don't have actual lines. I just make noises.
Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
NR: Thanks for watching. Thanks for listening. Thanks for caring.
This page is a part of DRG4's Marvel Cartoon Pages:
Featuring Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, and the Silver Surfer.