As the Voice of Roger Rabbit, Stand-Up Comic Charlie Fleischer Is Finally Whistling a Happy Toon
07/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
"I Brake for Toons" proclaims a bumper sticker on the station wagon in the driveway, a clue that something's a bit looney around here. Ring the doorbell of the white-shingled, four-bedroom West Los Angeles house and the security alarm goes off, screaming louder than a Toon being dropped to his death in the bubbling acid of the Dip. The front door swings open to reveal Charlie Fleischer, the voice of Disney's animated Roger Rabbit, in a panicked state. "Something is overloading around here!" he shrieks, dashing off into the kitchen. "I'll be right back!"
The house's interior looks like an ashram for smart-aleck bunnies. The living room walls are stark white and bare, except for a silver-framed picture of Roger Rabbit hanging over the piano. Roger Rabbit dolls are scattered throughout the house. You can't blame Fleischer, who shares the house with his wife, Sheryl, and two daughters, Rachel, 7, and Jessica, 5, for going overboard in his wacky admiration for a character. After all, just as Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a milestone for the movies(it mixes human and cartoon characters on a scale never before attempted), the picture is a major turning point for Fleischer. Thanks to the bonzo summer hit and his subsequent exposure on the TV promotional circuit, fans stop him on the street for autographs and children beg him to do his wisecracking, stuttering Roger Rabbit voice. More to the point: After 15 years as a struggling stand-up comic and bit-part actor in movies and TV, Fleischer, 37, has finally hit it big, making enough money to afford this spacious new dwelling.
It's easy to confuse the man with his cottontail alter ego. Fleischer, with his red curly hair, bushy eyebrows, bright blue-green eyes, elastic body and buzz-saw energy, seems to have leaped off a drawing board. Like his house, he's on circuit overload, twice knocking over his cup of coffee as he talks. "Oh, what a story!" he says in Roger rap. "It's unbelievable! It's historical! P-P-P-P-P-Please!"
This unbelievable, historical story began eight years ago, when Roger Rabbit director Bob Zemeckis saw Fleischer perform at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. "He blew me away," says Zemeckis. "His act was really out there; a surrealistic, theatrical experience with lots of different characters and dialects. I could never forget him." But while Fleischer's comedic buddies—Robin Williams, David Letterman, Richard Lewis, Bob Gold-thwait and Jay Leno—saw their stars soar, his stayed put. "Right before Robin got Mork & Mindy he had an artichoke at my house," recalls Fleischer. "After that people were lining up outside my house for artichokes."
Two years ago, when Zemeckis was ready to cast the $45 million Roger Rabbit, he remembered Fleischer and summoned him forth. "I got the call at 11 a.m.," says Charlie. "At 1 p.m. I was at the studio learning lines." Fleischer praises Zemeckis for his helpful direction with the voice. "I was told to create a speech impediment for Roger. All great cartoon characters have one. So I was filmed saying 'P-P-P-P-P-Please!' " says Fleischer, flapping his lips. Zemeckis coached the comic to keep speed and velocity in his voice. " 'Toons talk fast,' he'd say to me. But I didn't approach this as just a voice job. I looked at it as an acting job."
To that end—method actors take note—Fleischer would dress up in a bunny suit each morning and drive to the studio. Attired thusly, he would feed his lines to co-star Bob Hoskins, who plays private eye Eddie Valiant in the mystery-comedy. "At first, when Charlie turned up in a rabbit costume, I thought he was nuts," says Hoskins. "Then, it helped me so much. For me, Charlie was Roger. He gave a performance like an actor."
So far, the critically hailed Roger Rabbit has grossed an astounding $54 million. A sequel is bound to follow, as Roger has become Hollywood's most bankable cartoon star. Certainly the luckiest. In the film he's married to a curvaceous, voluptuous nightclub singer named Jessica, whose speaking voice is provided by Kathleen Turner and whose singing voice is dubbed by Amy Irving. So what does Jessica see in Roger? Does he give good patty-cake? "Are you kidding?" asks Fleischer. "Why do you think he has to wear pants! Bugs Bunny doesn't wear pants."
Fleischer says he identifies strongly with Roger, especially in his own marriage to Sheryl Strassman, 38, an interior designer. "I know I'm no Robert Redford," he says. "Roger happened to latch on to a beautiful woman because he made her laugh. I met my wife while performing at the Comedy Store." Married 11 years, they share a zany approach to living. "I'll bet you want to know if Charlie's as good in bed as Roger is?" asks Sheryl, who is hobbling about the house nursing a sprained back. Howling with laughter, she says, "He's a hoppity-hip good experience!"
But seriously, folks. "He's the essence of my heroes," says Sheryl, "Groucho, Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein. I'm so used to living on his wavelength that I don't see it as wacko. He's very positive and very happy. When he was getting rejected, his attitude was, 'They don't know any better.' He has such a strong belief in himself."
Fleischer always had a firm sense of purpose. As a kid, he'd try out his comic shtik in the shower. "I conceived that there were aliens out there watching the earth," he says. "What if they were watching me? So I did shows for them. I figured if they came to earth, and if they liked my show, they would bring me gifts." A one-man USO for UFOs, Charlie was born and reared in Washington, D.C. His father, Millard, sold wholesale electrical appliances. His mother, Sophia, was a housewife who later became personal secretary to Dorothy Goldberg (wife of former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg) and to society hostess Perle Mesta. He has one brother, Butch, 35, who's a graphic artist still living in Washington.
Although Fleischer refused to be a part of the drama scene in high school ("The kids were too nerdy"), he went on to study acting at the Southampton campus of Long Island University and at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. While in the Windy City, he received national TV coverage for a publicity stunt in which he attached a brass mouthpiece to a pipe of the Sears Tower and played the building as a musical instrument. Following a 1973 appearance on Rowan & Martin's Laughin, Fleischer moved to L.A. Although the big breakthrough never materialized, he remained hopeful. "Each time I did a job or appeared on The Tonight Show, I thought this was going to be the one," he says.
Fleischer took his parents to the world premier of Who Framed Roger Rabbit at New York's Radio City Music Hall last month in a limousine. While the audience was giving the film a thunderous ovation, his father said to him, "Son, it's amazing. You said this was going to be the big one all along. You were right." As for the future, it seems nothing can stop Fleischer now. "What I hope the movie will do is give me a chance to do more acting," he says, pacing about his living room. "I'm not like Sean Connery, but I can do comedy, leading man stuff. My dream is to win the Nobel Prize and the Academy Award in the same year—and then open in Vegas." Charlie, P-P-P-P-P-Please!
—By John Stark, with Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles