By Matt Murray
For those who believe that Frank Oz has uttered all of Yoda’s wizened gibberish across the vast empire of Star Wars products from talking Christmas ornaments to video games, commercials to cartoon series, meeting voice-over artist Tom Kane is an ear-opening trip behind the curtain of that little green wizard.
In fact, with the exception of the live-action feature films (and “maybe a few toys”), Kane has been THE voice of Yoda for roughly half of the character’s thirty-two year history. “I’ve been doing Yoda for about fifteen years,” the actor recalls. “Actually, [LucasArts] started using me for games, and I was doing miscellaneous characters like Tie Fighter Pilot Number Three… but they found out that I was a good mimic and I could imitate some of the voices, so I started doing Boba Fett and Akbar… Then I started doing C-3PO for games, and that all lead to Yoda.
“I started filling in anytime Frank Oz was unavailable or just didn’t want to do it. They started using me to do games, toys, and TV spots,” Kane states. “I knew even as a teenager that it was a voice I could do. It just never occurred to me that I would ever end up doing it, because I assumed – naively - that Frank Oz would do it forever, which is obviously not what happened.”
However, performing Yoda isn’t as simple as jumping behind a microphone and doing a Frank Oz imitation. “Obviously, the reason they hired me is because I sounded like Yoda,” Kane explains. “If you listen to me and Frank side-by-side, you’re going to be able to tell the difference, but [Clone Wars director] Dave [Filoni] never pushes me to try and do an exact match for Frank… After doing over 100 plus episodes of Clone Wars, I’ve spoken far more dialogue as Yoda than Frank has, so there’s no template for a lot of what I’m saying… So, it’s not something I can have in my head and review and go: ‘Well, that’s how Frank would say that.’ I just sort of try and channel him the best I can, and lot of [Yoda], because of that, is more my take on it than it would be his."
Interestingly enough, it was around the time that Oz’s Yoda was taking his first steps across movie screens in Empire Strikes Back that Kane started down his own path of speaking split infinitives as the ultimate Jedi Master. About thirty years ago in Overland Park, Kansas, the actor was a “bored teenager” with a gift for dialects, who thought "it would be fun” to hear himself on television. After making some phone calls to local advertisers and having his father drive him to auditions and recording sessions, Kane landed some work. By the time he graduated high school, he had “about a hundred or so” local commercials under his belt, a number that tripled by the time he left college. A move to Chicago brought him some national spots and a realization that he could make a living out of doing dialects and impressions, but his ultimate goal was to make the leap to animation, which happened when he headed out west and started auditioning in Los Angeles.
“The very first series I got was The Wild Thornberrys,” on which he voiced the part of Darwin, Eliza Thornberry’s chimp sidekick, “and not too long after that I got The Powerpuff Girls as well, and it just kind of kept rolling.”
Of the latter show’s success, Kane states: “The Powerpuff Girls, I would say, in terms of the reaction I get from people, is probably a close second to Star Wars. That series, for whatever reason, was something that affected people tremendously. It’s still, after all these years, something that makes people freak out. They’re like ‘Oh my God! You were in Powerpuff!’ It’s kind of funny.”
His sixty episode stint as Professor Utonium and the villainous Him, wouldn’t be the only instance in which he would provide voices for PPG animators Craig McCraken and Genndy Tartakovsky, who would work with the actor again on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (Kane was the persnickety hare, Mr. Herriman) and the traditionally animated Star Wars: Clone Wars micro-series (Yoda, of course) respectively. However, Kane has found that despite already having working relationships with top talent behind the pencils and pixels, he still has to audition to land the right parts. Although the animated Yoda was essentially “given” to him by LucasFilm, his part on Foster’s was something he had to try out for. Of that process, Kane remembers: “I came in, did thirty seconds of Mr. Herriman and they were like ‘Okay. You’ve got the job.’”
An audition is also what led to Kane landing another recurring and somewhat iconic role, that of Magneto, which he has voiced on Wolverine and the X-Men, as well as in the videogames Marvel Super Hero Squad, Marvel vs. Capcom: Fate of Two Worlds, and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom.
“I was one of probably thirty guys they auditioned and they decided that I sounded more like Ian McKellen than anyone else,” he supposes. “They never told me to do an impersonation of him, but obviously that was why they hired me, because the audition I gave was pretty Sir Ian-ish.”
His ability to vocally ape another member of Britain’s acting royalty similarly led to Kane being cast as another Marvel character, Odin, for the Thor: God of Thunder videogame. As the game was based on and tied directly into the theatrically released Thor film, it was decided that the character would need to sound like Sir Anthony Hopkins – a voice that Kane has some experience in reproducing.
“I’ve occasionally done ADR work for Anthony Hopkins,” he reveals. “Actually, the most common reason that they’ll hire someone like me to imitate a celebrity is because they want something for a movie trailer… They’ll have me re-create the same line, or sometimes a line that doesn’t exist in the movie, because Anthony Hopkins is not going to come in and do that. So, they hire someone like me. There’s a few of us in town that do various celebrities.“
Another celebrity that Kane routinely “doubles” may come as a surprise to some people: “I’m Morgan Freeman… I did some of the behind the scenes stuff on March of the Penguins… dialogue for Wanted trailer stuff. Again, the celebrity is not going to come in and do part of a line for a trailer.”
Or in some cases, like for 2009’s release of Star Trek, he’ll be asked to imitate a celebrity for a talking toy sold in fast food restaurants. Having occasionally voiced Scotty after James Doohan passed away in 2005, Kane had some experience with the property, “but,” he recalls “I was kind of baffled as to why they wanted me to do all of [the 1960s era characters]. Well, when the session started, and what no one had bothered to tell me was that these were voices going into Star Trek toys… but not in this country! They wanted me to do the lines as the characters in four or five different languages… We ran into a couple of problems because the French [director] was correcting my pronunciation… it had to be perfect, and I finally got to the point where I was like: ‘No. Sorry… You’ve got to choose – do you want it to sound like Bill Shatner, or do you want it perfectly pronounced in French and no one will have a clue that it’s supposed to be Captain Kirk? ‘Cause you can’t have both!’
“Well, that was weird… and trying to do Chekov with a Russian accent in Castilian Spanish is impossible. I was finally like: ‘You’re out of your mind!’ Try doing a passably bad Russian accent… in French. It’s like: ‘No…’”
However, it would seem if you want a consistent depiction of Yoda, a fatherly Professor, a stuffy bunny, or a spot on Morgan Freeman, Kane confidently states: “I’m your guy.”