Dan Castellaneta

By Mark Harden

"'Simpsons' voice Dan Castellaneta has some surprises for Aspen fest"
© Denver Post, February 9, 2000.

The first thing you notice when you're talking to Dan Castellaneta is what you don't notice:

There's not one shred of Homer Simpson in his voice.

The man who puts words in the mouth of TV's Duke of Doughnuts, vocal star of the longest-running primetime cartoon in history, sounds nothing like his creation.

Maybe that's a good thing. After all, Homer is a seriously goofy-sounding individual. It's difficult to imagine Castellaneta landing the guest-star parts he's played in, for example, "NYPD Blue" if he really spoke like Homer.

When the sixth annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival opens today in Aspen, Castellaneta will be there, with his Homer voice in his suitcase.

For the first time, he and other cast members of "The Simpsons" will perform episodes of the Fox series on stage, before a live audience. The results should be sidesplitting, based on reports from the few outsiders lucky enough to have attended "Simpsons" cast readthroughs. "It'll be fun to see how a large audience reacts," Castellaneta says.

But Homer isn't the only character riding along in Castellaneta's luggage. He'll unleash several of them tonight and Thursday at the Aspen fest when he presents his first one-person show.

"Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?" is a comic assemblage of monologues and sketches featuring more than a dozen characters.

"It starts out supposedly as a one-man show about Vincent van Gogh for the first couple of minutes," he explains, "and then an alien takes over the show, because he doesn't like it." Doh!

Castellaneta, who started writing "Van Gogh" in 1995, previously presented it at workshops and performed it officially for the first time last year at the Acme Comedy Theatre in Los Angeles.

If he gets a good reception at Aspen this week, Castellaneta would like to tour with the show to other cities. But he admits to a few worries about staging the piece for the heavyweight industry crowd at the comedy festival.

"I do have a certain apprehension. ... I guess I'm going with the attitude of, "I'll throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.'- " Stage work is old stuff to Castellaneta. The fouryear veteran of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe performs regularly in Los Angeles and will soon make his New York stage debut in Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist." He's also been to the Aspen fest before, having performed in Alan Zweibel's "Funny Bunny" several years ago.

Doing a one-man show is tougher than his previous stagework, he says, "in that you're on your own. You're by yourself. Also, I've written it myself, so I'll take the credit or the blame for success or failure.

"But my training in Second City helped in that whenever we did a show, we would do improvisation after the show and test out material long before we opened the next show. That's why (for "Van Gogh') I gave myself as much time as I could to rehearse it, to really hone it."

On the other hand, Castellaneta will take comfort in being surrounded by a familiar cast in his other Aspen show, the live reading of two "Simpsons" episodes on Thursday and Friday nights at the Wheeler Opera House. The two episodes are "Lisa's Date With Density" and "Homer's Enemy," both from a few seasons back.

Mike Scully, executive producer of "The Simpsons," says the readings will be staged to resemble typical vocal recording sessions for the series, "which kind of look like an old radio show, with an actor at each microphone and the script in front of him." The actors - also including Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria - won't be in costume.

"We're going to keep it simple," Scully says. "We had thought about putting in music cues and sound effects, but we're not going to have a lot of rehearsal time, and that would have been more chances for things to get screwed up." Castellaneta has played Homer since 1987, when "The Simpsons" began as a short feature of "The Tracey Ullman Show." The halfhour series was launched Jan. 14, 1990.

The show's success and longevity amaze Castellaneta.

"I had been part of so many different shows ... that I thought were going to be successful (and weren't). And then by the time "The Simpsons' came, I had taken enough hits in terms of my expectations not being met, I just thought it would have maybe a cult following, and if it could just go five seasons, that would be great. "It took me by complete surprise how immediate the success of it was. And the second surprise is that the scripts have continued to be as good in quality over a period of 10 years." Voice-over work has its special challenges, he says.

"You have to picture in your mind what the character is going to do. And things have to be slightly more precise (than on stage), although we tend more than in other animation shows to be a little looser. For instance, you're not supposed to overlap with other actors while you talk. It makes it easier for the animators. But sometimes the best takes are people talking over (each other). It makes it more real, more interesting."

Castellaneta is a frequent guest star on various network series and TV movies, and has appeared in such films as "My Giant," "Forget Paris," "The Client," "Say Anything" and "War of the Roses."

One of his lesser-known roles is as the voice of the Genie in a direct-to-video sequel to Disney's animated feature "Aladdin," as well as in the subsequent TV series. The character, of course, was created by Robin Williams in the original theatrical film.

"It was sort of like stepping into "Hamlet' after Laurence Olivier did it," he says. "How can you win?" By coincidence, the festival's finale Saturday night is a tribute to Williams. So who's the better Genie?

"I give," Castellaneta says with a laugh. "I cry uncle."

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