THE SQUIRREL SHOULD SOUND LIKE AN all-American boy. That, says June Foray, was the only advice she received 32 years ago when she asked Jay Ward, creator of the characters Rocky and Bullwinkle, what kind of voice he wanted for the aviator-helmeted rodent, who usually played straight-animal (“Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle!”) to the Antlered One. “Jay said, ‘Take the Boy Scout oath—honest, trustworthy, kind, gentle, good,’ ” recalls Foray, 72, in a warm voice that contains the soft rasp of Rocky and enough hints of other cartoon characters she has played—including Dudley Do-Right’s honey-throated girlfriend, Nell—that strangers, she says, “recognize” her as soon as she opens her mouth.
“They ask, ‘Aren’t you the lady who does all those voices?’ And I say”—here in her two-bedroom ranch house in the San Fernando Valley, Foray summons up the guttural sensuality of Rocky’s nemesis Natasha—”Of course, dahlink!”
For some 40 years Foray has been a dahlink of the cartoon world, providing voices squawky, sweet, pinched, husky and matronly. Foray has worked with Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones, who puts her “at the top of her profession,” comparing her to the late Mel Blanc, the flexi-voiced genius who played Bugs.
But it was as Rocket J. Squirrel that she became and has remained a household sound. “Bullwinkle,” she says, “was a magnificent marriage of concept, writing, performing and direction.” Magnificent, but the series was never a ratings hit during its original airing (1959—64). It took this year’s video release and an audience of nostalgic baby boomers and their children to boost the satirical cartoon to the top: With six video cassettes available, Moose and Squirrel have sold 2 million copies.
It may also be that The Simpsons (for which Foray did three voices, including a librarian and a baby-sitter, in the premiere episode) has made audiences eager for cartoons with some bite. Crudely drawn but sharply written, Bullwinkle featured deliberately awful puns (the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam), Cold War satire (courtesy of Pottsylvanian spies Boris and Natasha) and such wonderfully idiotic notions as an anti-gravitational element, upsidaisium.
Foray grew upsidaisy in Springfield, Mass. Her father was an engineer. Her mother—a semiprofessional singer and pianist—groomed her to be a star. But the traditional routes didn’t enthrall her. Dance lessons were a bust, she recalls. Piano lessons likewise. But when she would go to the movies with elder brother Bertram and younger sister Geraldine, guess who would come home mimicking the characters? “I could change my voice according to whoever I’d just seen,” she says.
After the Forays moved to Los Angeles for family reasons in the 1930s, June found work as a radio actress, eventually appearing on such programs as Sherlock Holmes and Lux Radio Theatre. On records she provided voices for both fairy tales and Stan Freberg’s skits. As a screen presence, one of her first big breaks was a meow: Lucifer, the cat in Disney’s 1950 animated feature Cinderella. (Walt’s heirs, by the way, handle the Bullwinkle videos. Foray, who doesn’t receive residuals, says she has no plans to go the Peggy Lee route and sue.) She also became the model for the curvaceous blond who turns up at the end of the Bugs Bunny classic Broomstick Bunny. “She was beautiful,” says Jones.
It was the real-life beauty, not the Toon, who married scriptwriter Hobart Donavan in 1954. “He was a marvelous Irishman with a very whimsical sense of humor,” Foray says of her husband, who died of a heart attack in 1976. “We had no children. He’d had four [by a previous marriage] including a 3-year-old who drow ned and a 20-year-old who dropped dead of a heart attack. So I respected his wishes not to have any more.”
She still keeps in touch with one of her stepchildren and stays busy with such hobbies as cooking and sewing. She continues to do cartoons, of course (Grandma Gummi Bear and Jokey Smurf), as well as the occasional oddity (including what she calls well-modulated narration for an erotic video, Playboy’s Art of Sensual Massage). And she had a cameo in Sally Kellerman’s live-action Boris and Natasha movie (since sunk because the distributor went broke).
Finally, there are always those animation festivals where, she says, men invariably greet her with the moose’s signature line, “Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” But Foray knows how to test the true Bullwinkian. “I ask. “If you’re such a fan, how old was Nell?’ It was only mentioned once… 37½.” Would you doubt an all-American squirrel?
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles