Disney characters are memorable for many reasons; one of these reasons is their signature voice. The voice of a character brings it to life and many of these voices have become part of Disney history because to imagine a voice other than the original would be almost unfathomable. Sometimes, though, throughout the repertoire of Disney films, audiences can recognize the same voices in separate movies, portraying different characters. While there are many voice artists to be noticed, a handful of the individuals that have provided voices to some of the most remembered Disney characters are Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, Phil Harris, David Ogden Stiers, and Jim Cummings.
Sterling Holloway is most remembered for voicing the famous “silly old bear”, Winnie the Pooh. Pooh Bear first came to life in “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree”, a short film, in 1966. According to his obituary, he only voiced Pooh in four short films, but he has remained the point of comparison for the couple of voice actors that have succeeded him. Even though Holloway provided Pooh with his timeless and signature voice, he is also recognized for minor, but still memorable, characters in Disney feature films (seen chronologically on IMDb) such as Mr. Stork – his first Disney appearance - who delivers baby Dumbo to Mrs. Jumbo in “Dumbo” (1941), adult Flower the skunk in 1942’s “Bambi”, Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), Kaa the snake in “The Jungle Book” (1967), and Roquefort the mouse who delights in dunking his crackers in crème de la crème in 1970’s “The AristoCats”. Holloway had a fulfilling career in television and film before, during, and after his Disney days, lending his voice to narration for his last on-screen role in 1986 before he died in 1992. The year prior to his death, he was inducted into the Disney Legends program.
An audible comparison for the three actors who have voiced Pooh Bear since his conception on-screen, including Holloway’s, can be heard here.
Interestingly, Verna Felton also began her Disney legacy in the 1941 film “Dumbo” where she played two roles. Her lesser prominent role in the film is that of Mrs. Jumbo, as she only has one line; but Felton also voices the Elephant Matriarch who leads the group of fellow gossiping pachyderms in ostracizing little Dumbo. But perhaps Felton’s most remembered and beloved role is that of Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella” (1950). Her can-do spirit and signature song, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” lives on as one of the most timeless Disney songs. She went on to lend her talents to three more films in the ‘50s as listed on IMDb: “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) as the Queen of Hearts, “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) as the unlikable Aunt Sarah, and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) as the fairy godmother dressed in red, Flora. In 1967, her voice was heard yet again portraying another elephant, this time as Winifred in 1967’s “The Jungle Book”. This would be her final contribution to Disney films, and her final contribution to the industry, as she died in 1966, before its release the following year.
Even though his voice can only be heard in three Disney feature films, the characters he has given life to are among the most memorable in all of Disney animated history. Phil Harris’ voice is easily recognizable across each of his three films, with each character sharing the loveable quality unique to their storyline. Perhaps his most beloved role is that of Baloo the Bear in 1967’s “The Jungle Book”. With this film’s Oscar Nominated song “The Bare Necessities” sung by Phil Harris as Baloo, Harris made his indelible mark on Disney animated film history. Following this instant hit, “The AristoCats” premiered in 1970, starring Harris. This time, he portrayed an alley cat called Thomas O’Malley who shows high-class felines around the jazzy underbelly of Paris. In 1973’s “Robin Hood”, Harris provides his voice to another big bear, this time as Robin Hood’s dependable comrade, Little John. Harris’ jazzy persona in each of his character portrayals can be credited to his band-leading background in orchestra, radio, and early film. Over the years, Harris appeared in many television shows, as listed on IMDb, and even in the 1956 film version of “Anything Goes” starring Bing Crosby. He died in 1995, but not without leaving the world with three of the defining characters of a highly original era in American and film-making history.
View Phil Harris discussing his roles as Baloo the Bear and Thomas O'Malley here.
David Ogden Stiers
With the revival of Disney Animation in what is affectionately called the Disney Renaissance, David Ogden Stiers emerged as a voice actor that would have a consistent career with Disney and continues to do regular voice-over work. Stiers made his ‘big break’ on the hit television show “M*A*S*H” as Major Charles Winchester from 1977 to 1983. After his time on “M*A*S*H”, Stiers landed a few feature films and roles on television movies, but his Disney career began in 1991, during the earliest days of the Disney Renaissance with “Beauty and the Beast”. He was cast as the voice of Cogsworth, attendant to the prince of the castle, both of whom have been cast under a spell, turning the prince into a Beast, and Cogsworth into a clock. Following “Beauty and the Beast”, Stiers continued his relationship with Disney in contributing to the history of Disney villains by playing Governor Ratcliffe in 1995’s “Pocahontas.” Also in “Pocahontas”, Stiers portrays Wiggins, Ratcliffe’s own servant of sorts. Stiers has remained part of the Disney family following this ‘90s animation boom and in 2001, he voiced Fenton Q. Harcourt in “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” The following year, in 2002, Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch” premiered, featuring Stiers as the voice of Dr. Jumba, an alien who created Stitch, also known as Experiment 626. This movie inspired multiple sequels and a television series, all of which Stiers voiced Dr. Jumba. He continues to do voice-over work and has definitely become a modern Disney voice artist legend.
One of the most versatile contemporary voice-artists, of whom has a noteworthy Disney résumé, is Jim Cummings. His talents boast inclusion in over 350 titles on IMDb. His Disney career, and incidentally, his voice-acting career, began in 1985 with a live-action television series called “Dumbo’s Circus” where he voiced Lionel the Lion. His body of work is extensively comprehensive, but to highlight a few of the more prominent Disney productions, would surely include his work as the most current voices of both Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. The first time Cummings’ voice can be heard bringing Pooh back to life is in 1988’s “Winnie the Pooh Friendship: Tigger-ific Tales”. He partially took over for the original voice of Tigger, Paul Winchell, beginning in 1990, but completely took over the role after 1999; Paul Winchell died in 2005. Since then, Cummings has wholly provided the voice to both Pooh and Tigger including 2000’s theatrical release of “The Tigger Movie” and 2011’s theatrical release of “Winnie the Pooh.” While Pooh and Tigger are his most conspicuous roles as of late, and throughout his career, Cumings has had considerable success in other Disney projects. In “Aladdin” (1991), he voiced Razoul the guard and continued to voice this character in “The Return of Jafar” (1994) and the television series spin-off of “Aladdin” that ran from 1994 to 1995. From 1991 to 1992, in the popular Disney cartoon series “Darkwing Duck”, he provided his voice for the title character Darkwing Duck, also known as Drake Mallard. In “The Lion King” (1994), the goofy hyena, Ed, is played by Cummings, while he also sings the last one-third of the song “Be Prepared”, after original singer, Jeremy Irons, developed vocal problems. Audiences can recognize Cummings’ voice in “Pocahontas” (1995) as Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan. Recently, in 2009, Cummings lit up the screen as Ray, the Cajun firefly in “The Princess and the Frog”. Cummings also plays Pete, the often-depicted ‘bad guy’ in Mickey Mouse cartoons, in various television shows like “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “House of Mouse.” Cummings’ voice-acting career continues to thrive as he provides voices for cartoons in television and film for multiple companies. But his contribution to the Disney repertoire is outstanding, and will surely continue to grow.
The voice-actors mentioned in this article – Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, Phil Harris, David Ogden Stiers, and Jim Cummings – are truly extraordinary, and some of their voices can be heard in the same films, such as Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton who both perform in “Dumbo.” Their talents are the reason that so many of the Disney characters have become memorable, like Baloo the Bear, or can remain timeless even after the original voice-actors have passed away, such as with Winnie the Pooh. Of course, many more voices in Disney history are legendary and the list of all of the amazing talent would surely be extensive. The few mentioned here, however, have created their share of remarkable work which shall endure as their own piece of admirable Disney history.