Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Though he’s best known for playing a character beloved by millions of people around the world, Bill Farmer isn’t a guy who gets a lot of time on screen. He’s voiced both Goofy and Pluto for over 30 years, as well as a number of other Disney characters, including Horace Horsecollar and Practical Pig. He estimates he’s appeared in 3,000 to 4,000 different shorts, full-lengths, and various other projects as Goofy, though he’s also popped up as Warner Bros. characters like Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam for other projects, like Space Jam. Farmer’s latest project, It’s A Dog’s Life, finally finds him out in front of the camera and hosting, putting his long history with dogs to good use for a new Disney+ show about some of America’s most enterprising, loving, and amazing canines. The edited transcript of the interview can be found below, but be sure to watch the video above to experience Farmer’s amazing vocal talent.
Bill Farmer: It’s A Dog’s Life wasn’t planned. We didn’t sit down and say, we’re going to write a show. It came because a friend of mine, Steve Duvall—who’s one of the executive producers on our show—was a cameraman with The Amazing Race. He did, like, 30 seasons. His passport looked like a phone book, it’s so thick. He’s been all around the world.
Anyway, he lived in Reno and was going to put together a little show for a local station up there just to keep busy really. He was going to do a story on an equestrian center where people keep their horses, and they go on those old English fox hunts and they have about 50 hounds out there. There are no foxes, though, so they basically just ride the horses around and let the dogs stretch their legs and stuff. He asked me to be the host and I went up to record that, and the footage that we saw with me playing around with the dogs just kind of jumped out at us. I was playing with them saying, [in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice] “You get out there! The fox is going to run away from you, you flabby dogs.” I was just kind of playing around with them and we said, “Well, maybe we ought to try and do a show about dogs.” Long story short, we put together a little reel, and through my contacts at Disney we were able to get a meeting to pitch this series.
We did it with the help of Don Hahn, who was the producer of The Lion King and Beauty And The Beast, as well as the live action Beauty And The Beast. He was kind of our fairy godmother, because I said, “How do you do a pitch? I’ve never done this.” He guided us through that and when we went in last January, and they loved the idea of me being a Disney dog, finding out about real working dogs and coming out from behind the microphone, especially because most actors go from doing live action to animation. I’m going from animation to live action. So we spent the last year putting this show together, and we went to 11 states over four months shooting and just got in under the wire before for the coronavirus set in. And now we have a show that’s coming out May 15.
AVC: In the episodes we saw, you do an impression of a dog for the dogs, and I have to say it’s impressive. The dogs really don’t seem to know what to do, it’s so good.
BF: It’s always weird if I do Pluto or [makes dog sounds.] They look at me, and they don’t know. “What are you saying?” I have no idea what I’m saying, they seem to understand.
BF: That was my first audition for Disney back in ’87, or maybe actually December of ’86. I started doing the voice in ’87. You know, Goofy has been around since 1932, and he was my favorite Disney character growing up, so I guess I just played with a voice and, you know, boom. He was always my favorite, so it just kind of came naturally to me. I beat out about a thousand people that tried out for it, and I’ve been doing [the voice] ever since.
AVC: I read that it was one of your first voice-over auditions ever. Is that true?
BF: Absolutely. It was my first animated character audition for any kind of a major role. I had done some auditions for little minor things or something in a commercial, but that was by far the biggest
AVC: Do you do every Goofy voice? As in, if we’re watching something that’s come out since 1987, is that you?
BF: It is me, yes. Goofy Movie, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, all of it. I’m in three or four series right now. I’ve done about three to four thousand different jobs for Disney over the last 33 years. I’m doing two cartoons later today.
AVC: I can see your setup in the background [of the video] there.
BF: My son’s an audio engineer, so I’ve got him working with me. He comes over and he engineers the session, or we’re able to do it via Zoom, and we send them the files, and it’s good enough quality. We have good equipment, and you can do it all from home now. It’s amazing.
AVC: Has Goofy changed at all over the years?
BF: It’s different facets of the same character. He hadn’t changed that much vocally, or in personality, but depending on the audience, it changes a little bit. For Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, that’s aimed at 5 and under, the little kids, so it’s softer, it’s gentler, it’s a little bit slower. The Mickey Mouse shorts we’ve done—we’re on our fifth season—are more retro. It’s kind of 1930s. It’s more Dippy Dawg than Goofy. We’re able to do stuff on that show that we couldn’t do on others.
He changed in A Goofy Movie, where he had to be a nurturing father. We’d never had to do that before. So we’re adding little layers to him as we go along. But deep down he’s still Goofy.
AVC: I read that when you guys were doing A Goofy Movie, they asked you to do just a regular human voice and that you were unsure about it, but ultimately, after recording weeks of material, they asked you to go back and rerecord it all as the Goofy we know and love. Is that true?
BF: That was really tough to go through because I thought they might be changing Goofy too much. What they were trying to do was to put more human emotions on him, and you try and find what fits, what’s comfortable. We went too far to the human side, though. I didn’t think it was working, and luckily the people at Disney also thought it wasn’t. And so we backed it off and found the sweet spot for that character. So he’s still nurturing and he has emotions he never had before, but it’s still Goofy, and I think we hit that pretty good.
AVC: What’s it like to be the voice of a character like Goofy that people love, but they love the character, and not necessarily you? For instance, if someone loved the movie, they might think, “Wow, Goofy was great in that,” but not really think, “Bill Farmer was great in that.”
BF: Yeah, Goofy’s famous and I’m not. That adds a lot of fun, too. I like that, because I can turn it on and off, whereas if you’re Tom Cruise or something, you can’t go to the grocery store without people making a big fuss. I don’t have any problem with that. I don’t have any paparazzi outside the window.
AVC: A Goofy Movie did okay critically, and decently well at the box office, but it’s experienced a surge of nostalgic fans over the past few years. Why do you think that is?
BF: It really blew me away that people are that interested. After all this time! Twenty-five years this year! It was a pretty well-attended movie, but Disney didn’t push it. It wasn’t a big tentpole movie. It was a small release, but it was the third-highest-grossing animated movie of ’95. So it did good, but they didn’t push it that much. So I don’t think a lot of people knew about it really. But over the years it has become this cult favorite, especially in the last four or five years. I always thought it was a hidden gem and that when people found it, they would love it because it had a lot of heart.
For early screenings that I saw of the movie, I had my son with me, and he was about 5 years old at the time. When we came out of the theater he was crying. I said, “What’s the matter? Didn’t you like the movie?” He said, “When he went over the waterfall, I thought that was you.” It probably messed him up for years.
AVC: In 2009, you were named a Disney Legend, which is an honor that only goes to a very small group of animators, actors, and Disney staffers. I’ve heard that the honor comes with a Golden Pass that gets you into the parks for free for life. What else does the pass get you? Are you skipping lines? Do you always have a table at Club 33? Preferred parking?
BF: Well, I don’t have a golden pass. I have a red pass. I can go into the park anytime I want and take some friends and things, but I don’t get to skip lines. I do get preferred parking, but that’s about it. I still have to pay for food.
AVC: You’ve been doing the voice of Horace Horsecollar for 30 years now as well. He’s an older character who has evolved over time. How did you make him your own?
BF: The first theatrical release I did Horace for was called The Prince And The Pauper, which was a short that came out before The Rescuers Down Under. There was an older character called Horace Horsecollar who really didn’t have a voice until this movie. I got to audition and provide a voice for him just on the spot. They said, “Okay, Horace needs a voice. Bill, do you have anything?” I said, “What’s he like?” And they said, “Well, he’s kind of upper crust, and he’s kind of snooty.” So I was thinking Jim Backus from Gilligan’s Island. And then they said he’s very dry, so I was thinking Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, so I combined the two and came up with this character, and they said, “That’s the guy!” It was as simple as that. It was very spur of the moment.
AVC: You also voice Practical Pig, which is another character that fans may have seen, but might not know his name.
BF: He’s the one that built his house of bricks. He was originally voiced by Pinto Colvig, who voiced Goofy and Pluto and various different cartoons and things. I guess they figured my voice-print would be pretty close to his. I haven’t done very many lines as him, but it’s kind of a pinched voice.
Kingdom Hearts (2002)—Goofy, Pluto
Kingdom Hearts II (2005)—Goofy, Pluto
Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep (2010)—Goofy, Horace Horsecollar, Sleepy
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (2012)—Goofy
Kingdom Hearts III (2019)—Goofy
AVC: You’ve been in a number of iterations of the Kingdom Hearts game. What’s a video game recording session like? Are you doing scenes? Are you doing sounds if someone’s playing as your character? Like, if Goofy falls down, do you have to record “Ow”? How does it work?
BF: It’s a little more difficult because it was originally done in Japanese. So in my sessions I’m looping the game into English using audio from a Japanese actor who listened to me to learn how to do Goofy in the first place. It’s really weird. In my headphones I’m hearing the Japanese actor, and it’s very odd.
In a video game, since the player can go in different directions and stuff, there are thousands of lines. The script was very thick and [the engineers] would go, “Okay, go to page 18, line 34,” and I’d say, “Let’s go!” And I do that a few times to picture trying to get as close as I can to the lip flaps so they have very little reanimation to do. Then they’ll say, “Go to page 24.” It’s nonlinear. It’s not like you started a story and you end it. You just do little lines here and there, and I’m hearing Japanese all the time. I would do a four-hour session of just hundreds of lines and then we’d do maybe 15 to 20 days of recording over a year or two period. I never got a sense of the story, and I’m not good at video games, so I still don’t know what it’s all about.
AVC: Was working on Astro Boy similar, since you were dubbing English onto existing Japanese actors and animation?
BF: That was more of a looping job. That was a series that was done in Japan and I was just replacing dialogue. I did Detective Tawashi and various monsters. They’d say, “Okay, you’re monster number three, and you are attacking the city,” or whatever the line is, and you just give him a voice. It’s improv, really
Beauty And The Beast (1991)—“Stanley”
Hercules (1997)—“Builder #1”
A Bug’s Life (1998)—“Male Ants”
The Iron Giant (1999)—“Robert The Army Diver Sub”
Toy Story (1995)—“Monotone Announcer”
AVC: You have quite a number of credits that just say, “Builder #1,” or “Various voices.” Are those specific jobs you go in to do, or is it like, “Well, you’re already here doing Goofy, so can we throw you in this thing at the end of the session?”
BF: That’s the work of my loop group. A loop group comes to add the incidental voices. Like, “Okay. You be that guy over there with a pitchfork or that guy with a torch and say, ‘Kill the beast!’ as you run up the hill.” And so we just do those voices over and over. Rarely do I know until I see the movie if they use my voice for any particular character. In Toy Story, for example, I was the voice of Pizza Planet announcer. It’s just a countdown, a getting ready to launch kind of a thing, but then I saw the movie, and was like, “Oh, they used that. Okay!” You never know.
AVC: Do you ever forget you did a voice and surprise yourself?
BF: I forgot I did a voice in Shrek. My son was watching it with me, and I was the announcer toward the end of the movie. They were having a party at the castle and I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Princess Fiona and Prince Shrek.” My son goes, “Hey, Dad, that was you,” and I’d totally forgotten. Totally forgotten. I mean, we may have had three or four guys [from the group] read the same line and later on [animators] just picked. “Okay. Use Bill’s line.” It could have been one of the other actors. You never know until you see the movie.
Mickey’s PhilharMagic (2003)—“Goofy”
Mickey And Minnie’s Runaway Railway (2020)—“Goofy”
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (2014-present)—“Sleepy”
The Great Movie Ride (1989-2017)—“The Cowardly Lion”
AVC: What’s it like to do a voice on a theme park ride, or in a Disney parade? I know you did the Cowardly Lion for a ride that has since closed at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
BF: That was really early in my first year out in Hollywood, probably about ’87 or ’88. I watched a copy of The Wizard Of Oz to get those lines down, and then I went to a studio. They tell you a little about the ride, and you just lay these lines down and they pick the ones they want. Then, when you see the ride you get it. You’re like, “Oh, that’s what they meant. That’s what they’re using this for.” You never really know. It’s a theater of the mind thing. Most cartoons these days we record alone before any animation has been done, so a lot of times when I voice a character, I have no idea what they look like. It’s just in my own mind. When I finally see the thing on television, I go, “That’s what this guy looks like? I would have done it this way if I had known,” but it works.
AVC: You haven’t just worked with Disney. You were in Space Jam doing some characters we’ve all known and loved for a long time. I guess all three of the roles you played there do have a common bravado to them.
BF: Yeah, you’ve really just got to do it a hundred percent. And if you do that [voice] for about an hour, then you’re talking like the Godfather for the rest of the day. When we do Goofy and Pluto, I save Pluto and do those lines after I do all the Goofy lines, because if I do that for an hour, it starts to strain. I might have to take a little break, and I might get a little hoarse if I push it too much.
AVC: You were in Klasky-Csupo’s The Wacky Adventures Of Ronald McDonald, and you also voiced a soda as part of a the Happy Meal Gang for a McDonald’s commercial.
BF: I have a voice-over agent, and she’ll send me an audition sheet that’s like, “Oh, here’s a thing for an ad, and they want you to play a soft drink.” They can either tell me what they want it to sound like and provide some reference material, like a particular actor or something, or they might leave it up to me to just come up with a voice. It can be totally freeform. So what does a soda sound like? It could sound bubbly like Bing Crosby, or it could be a very high-energy kind of character because he might be hopped up on sugar. So you just try and grab onto anything you can and make a vocalization out of it. And then hopefully they’ll pick you out of all the hundreds of other people that are trying out for that same job.
AVC: Do you have a sense of how the casting process worked for Goofy? Are they just sitting listening to blind audition tapes for hours, and they end up picking yours?
BF: They do listen to all the demos and all the auditions. I didn’t know that at the time, and I didn’t even put much stock in it when I got the first job because they don’t say, “You’re the official voice now and you will be for the rest of your life.” It was for one job, and I didn’t know if there would be a second job or not. Then they called me in for a second one and a third one. I’m an independent contractor and not a Disney employee, so every cartoon has a new contract. It’s not unlike a plumber. They hire me for a job, I do it, and I go home.
AVC: It’s funny that Disney doesn’t have you on some sort of retainer, just because you’ve done—and continue to do—so many Goofy cartoons.
BF: Right. So I’ve just got to do my best work and hope they call me next time.
RoboCop (1987)—“Justin Ballard-Watkins”
AVC: One of the few live action roles you’ve done is as a reporter in RoboCop. How did that gig come along?
BF: I lived in Dallas at the time, and a lot of the scenes were shot in Dallas. I was an on-the-street reporter. It was just a random audition that I got. I went in front of the director, Paul Verhoeven, and I was supposed to be a serious on-the-street reporter with my little microphone asking questions.
I remember it terrified the heck out of me because I had this paragraph that I had to say, and I knew it was going to be a big-, big-budget movie, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I can remember my speech to this day. “Terrorism has never been a factor in this city’s politics before, but all that changed today when former city councilman Ron Miller entered city hall with a gun. He’s in a second-floor office holding Mayor Clifford Gibson and members of his personal staff hostage. Lieutenant Hitchcock, what’s next?”
We got on the set, and I did all of that, and I’d already hit my mark, but then Paul Verhoeven said, “That’s too long. Cut this, this, and this line, and let’s do it.” I had just spent a month learning this thing. And so what’s in the movie is me kind of paraphrasing it. I’m saying, “Uh, there’s a terrorist in a second-floor office holding the mayor and some of his people hostage. Lieutenant, what’s next?”
The terror and the excitement on my face is real. I was just hoping to get through that darn thing, which was at two o’clock in the morning, and it was about 90 degrees in Dallas. After that I decided I wanted to be inside in a studio with a microphone.
AVC: I read that part of the reason you think certain voice actors are so successful is because they’re great actors, not just great voices. Can you speak to that?
BF: When I first came out here, I took classes from a gentleman named Daws Butler, who was a great Hanna-Barbera voice-over artist. Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss—all of those were his characters. Elroy Jetson, Captain Crunch, 40-some major characters for Hanna-Barbera. He was adamant about stressing that the voice comes after the acting. The acting leads the voice through emotion. You can do volume and be a loud character, but it has no emotional weight. If you’re playing mad, it has to be more pointed. The words have to be pushed out by emotion. And that’s where acting comes in.
Acting and being in front of a live audience is so important for anyone that wants to get into voice acting, because you learn from the audience. You learn how to say a line. You learn how to say a joke. You learn how to say it to an audience. Whereas in animation, it’s you behind a piece of glass with a microphone, and you don’t know what they’re thinking. There’s no reference for you. But with that training on stage, you just know instinctively how to get the funny out of a line or an emotion. Students I’ve taught have said, “Oh, I don’t want to be an actor. I want to do voices,” and I say, “Wrong. We’re all actors. That’s the important part.”
Having a good voice is one thing, or being able to do characters. It’s like having a guitar. You don’t say, “I should be a guitarist because I’ve got a really good guitar.” Can you play that guitar? Can you use your instrument, which is your voice? Can you play it? Can you do stuff with it? Can you emote with it? Can you say lines and make them count, and make it jump off the page. All of those things are more important than the voice itself.
AVC: The second season of Amphibia comes out later this summer. Tell us about your character, Hop Pop.
BF: That has been a great joy to do because, you know, Goofy is a well known commodity. I have to match what has been done before, so I’m fitting my voice into a mold that already exists. Hop Pop is a totally unique character. I got to come up with a voice for him, and it’s much more my vision. Luckily it matched what the people that are putting the show together thought it should be. He’s kind of based on George Bush a little bit. He’s kind of an East Texas/West Texas frog, and he’s a great fun to do. He’s a grandfather, and he’s one of those stereotypical crotchety old people with a heart of gold that you’ve run into through the years. His bark is worse than his bite.
I love the show. I love the way it looks, its color scheme and the characters. But, also, I really didn’t have much of a visual of what this guy was like until the show came out. When we were recording the first season, we recorded first and then they animate, so until it came on TV, I had no idea what a lot of the other characters looked like. It was only in my mind.
AVC: Well, now that you’re on season two, that can change. You can at least picture everyone.
BF: I can think of them, and it just cements it a little bit. In the first few episodes, I would always have to have them play back something I did from the last episode. “Okay. What did I do? How did I do the voice last episode? Can you play something back?” And they would, and then it came back to me and then I could do it. Now I know the character after a couple of seasons.