Bill Thompson had one of the funniest voices in history but his larynges are more famous than his name. The voice of the henpecked husband or meek little pushover in hundreds of cartoons and radio shows, Thompson's characters always seemed to be on the verge of being clobbered with a rolling pin. His most famous voice creation was the mush-mouthed cartoon hound, Droopy. He lent this well-known voice to several characters over the course of four decades, never ceasing to be amusing (incidentally, the picture on the left was harder to obtain than I would have figured - typing "droopy" into Google Image search serves up many undesirable, if not altogether stomach churning, results).
The voice that we now associate with Droopy was in use for years before Thompson first lent it to the MGM cartoon star. The Breakfast Club with Don McNeill, an extremely popular radio variety show during the thirties and forties, featured Thompson as a drooping character named Mister Wimple during the 1934-35 season. He was also called on to provide various animal noises when the script needed it (many of the networks would have an "animal mimic" on the payroll for just this specific service - jumping from show to show). Each day The Breakfast Club featured a popular(!) segment titled Prayer Time that was just as it stated - a minute of dead air while the cast and audience prayed. According to the book Don McNeill and His Breakfast Club by John Doolittle (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001) the show was a favorite of J. Edgar Hoover.
1936 marked Thompson making his way onto the soon-to-be-popular radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly. Jim and Marian Jordan starred in Fibber after they too left The Breakfast Club where they had played similar characters named Chickie and Toots. It was on Fibber that Bill's talent was showcased best, playing several personalities. The entertaining aspect of the often corny program was not courtesy the homespun WASPy-ness of its title stars, but from a fine stable of ridiculous voice actors who came to visit the whitebread couple each episode. Thompson played "the old timer," a character that referred to everyone as Johnny. More conventional was his Nick Depopoulous, a jolly and boisterous ethnic stereotype who ran a restaurant, along with his Horatio K. Boomer, a conman who sounded like W.C. Fields. Thompson played these and several smaller parts for five years until he finally revived his pathetic Mister Wimple in 1941. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was around the same time the program increased in popularity. Thompson was joined on the show by several other hilarious vocal talents who would all eventually find fame in cartoon land including Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) playing Fibber McGee's combative doctor and Bea Benadaret (Betty Rubble) who played various secretaries, waitresses and general wise-cracking, gum snapping women.
Mister Wimple's sad character focused, generally, on the role-reversal of spousal abuse. Perhaps it's not a subject that can naturally lend itself to comedy, but Thompson's Droopy-esque timber could probably make child molestation funny. Running lines/gags abound on Fibber McGee and Molly and Mister Wimple had no shortage of catch phrases. Every appearance opened with his meekly bellowing, "Hello, Folks!" He was always found alone, escaping the wrath of "...sweetie face." "Sweetie face?" "Yes, you see, sweetie face ... that's my big old wife." Listen to a couple of Mister Wimple appearances on The Generation Exploitation Podcast #34 featuring audio of Wimple, Droopy and Touche Turtle.
Thompson was so popular on Fibber McGee and Molly that he was granted his own program. It was not technically a spin-off as he didn't play Mister Wimple but a fictionalized version of himself, but it would not have come to air had it not been for his success as a bit player on the other show. The Bill Thompson Show is today one of the rarest and most obscure of all old time radio comedies and only one episode is known to exist. You can listen to it here.
Animation director Tex Avery found Thompson's voice work hysterical just like everyone else and enlisted him to play a patriotic pig in the classic wartime cartoon Blitz Wolf (1942). The Oscar nominated cartoon was a retelling of The Three Little Pigs with the Big Bad Wolf cast as a Nazi. Thompson played the most resourceful of the three pigs and you can watch it here. Thompson found himself following in the pig's footsteps when he enlisted in the Navy, much to the pain of the Fibber McGee and Molly crew who would now have to do without a cast member that played several roles. Scripts were written to accommodate the gaps and, mysteriously, all the characters Thompson played suddenly found themselves volunteering for the service. In 1943 Tex Avery utilized Thompson's Mister Wimple voice for the first time in Dumb-Hounded. The short was Droopy's debut, although the name was not originally used in the short, a Droopy title card was added when it was re-issued years later (watch it here). The monicker Droopy was officially sanctioned six years later for the short Senor Droopy (1949). Tex Avery made sure to use Thompson as often as possible. He appeared as a Native American with Droopy type mannerisms in the politically incorrect Big Heel-Watha (1944) and as a pilgrim in Jerky Turkey (1945).
In 1946, with the war over, Thompson returned to Fibber McGee and Molly. His workload increased as Droopy started competing with Tom & Jerry for MGM cartoon supremacy. He voiced another twenty Droopy installments and also acted as a bulldog named Spike in several Avery shorts (Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection was released on DVD May 15th, 2007). In between Droopy, Spike and the Fibber shows, Thompson was cast as the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland (1951) starting a long association with Disney (including five roles in Lady and the Tramp). The Thompson voice regularly featured in Disney cartoons became a trademark sound in many of the studio's fifties-era works. The voice was just as distinct as that of Droopy and not altogether different. As Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore, battling the grotesque slob Humphrey the Bear, Thompson adopted a raspy voice not unlike that of Andy Devine - the character sounded like Droopy with a sore throat. The temperamental ranger appeared in five theatrical shorts all full of ass-jokes (something always prevalent in old Disney cartoons). Experience that unmistakable voice by watching In the Bag (1956) here, Hooked Bear (1956) here and Beezy Bear (1955) right over here. They are incredibly enjoyable films. Many of today's punks overlook the sheer artistry the Disney crew were once responsible for. A great collection of beatniks, commies, intellectuals and feverishly creative minds made the studio a brilliant hub in the thirties, forties and fifties long before it turned into the ugly face of corporate America we know it as today. Perhaps the pinnacle of Disney's now long-gone innovation came in 1953 with Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom along with its companion film Melody. The shorts utilized the talents of true artistes like Tom Oreb and Ward Kimball, all done in that aesthetically enthralling Cartoon Modern style. Fans of WFMU's Jim Flora worship will especially dig these works of art. In both cartoons, Bill Thompson lent that raspy voice to Professor Owl who comperes both pieces. Watch the masterpiece Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom here.
Thompson's work was steady, even as Fibber McGee and Molly met its demise, moving from a half-hour program to fifteen minutes (reportedly due to Marian "Molly" Jordan's alcohol problems). Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were associates of Thompson in the forties from the hallways of MGM's animation ward. When the two were trying to cast television's first primetime animated series, Bill Thompson was chosen to play one Fred Flintstone. Another comedy actor with a memorable voice, Hal Smith, had originally been slated for Barney. Smith recalled why the role finally went to Alan Reed in the book The Magic Behind the Voices by Tim Lawson and Alisa Persons (2004, University Press of Mississippi). "Bill Thompson was a good actor, but he had something wrong with his throat. He couldn't sustain that gravel that they wanted in Fred, so Mel [Blanc] and Alan Reed started rehearsing. We had already recorded the first five episodes, and he would stop and he'd say, 'I just can't keep that gravel.' Joe Barbera was directing, and he called us in and said, 'You know, this isn't working.' And I said, well, it really isn't." Reed and Blanc re-recorded the five episodes Thompson and Smith had already completed. I presume that audio no longer exists, but if it does I would love to link to it. I can't even imagine what Bill Thompson's Fred Flintstone would have sounded like.
Hanna-Barbera made-up for this slight a couple years later when Thompson was cast as Touche Turtle. Touche was originally one of three seven-minute shorts on the syndicated 1962 series The New Hanna-Barbera Cartoon Show. Coincidentally, his dog sidekick was played by Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed . Listen to Bill Thompson on the 1965 Hanna-Barbera Records LP The Reluctant Dragon starring Touche Turtle and Dum-Dum on the same episode of The Generation Exploitation Podcast mentioned earlier. Thompson's voice is without question the most memorable thing about the lesser HB character.
Thompson's career in voice acting became sporadic throughout the nineteen sixties as he focused on a new career as an executive at the Union Oil Company(!). Stranger still, IMDB lists one of Thompson's final gigs before his death in the AIP biker film Hell's Belles (1970). I qualify this with "IMDB lists" because they've burned me before with inaccurate info, resulting in the comments section exposing me as a real schmuck. It seems strange that Thompson would be involved in the violent drive-in flick and it's been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can not say for sure. One thing is for certain: It's either true or false.
Bill Thompson's voice was heard for the last time as Uncle Waldo in the animated feature The Aristocrats (1970). Shortly thereafter he suffered a heart attack. He died in 1971 at the age of fifty-eight.