Joe Alaskey lived through his characters. “Even at 3 years old,” he once said, “I was always looking for a pair of sunglasses or people’s cigar butts to grab to do characters, and that led into me working on impressions, and that led into theater.”
As himself, Alaskey was a jovial, energetic jack-of-all-trades. But he could be just about anyone else.
The impressionist and Emmy award-winning voice actor who succeeded Mel Blanc as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck died from cancer Wednesday in New York. Alaskey was 63.
Over the course of his lifetime, he lent his voice to some of animation’s greatest hits. He became one of the principal actors on the Looney Tunes after Blanc’s death in 1989, voicing not only Bugs and Daffy, but virtually all the characters, including Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Alaskey also played Yosemite Sam in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” both his first major film and a seminal work in live-action animation.
Before he was recognized as a sonic sensation, however, he had envisioned himself in a variety of other jobs — perhaps a telling glimpse into the shape-shifter that he would become.
He was born Joseph Francis Alaskey III in upstate Troy, near Albany. At age 10, Alaskey told Splitsider, he wanted to be an archaeologist. A while after that, he wanted to be a priest, and then an English teacher.
Alaskey was in his early 20s when he moved to New York City to pursue show business as a stand-up comedian. While doing shows on the side, he worked for an insurance company and apprenticed for a diamond cutter.
It was on stage, though, that he sharpened his impressions.
A heavyset man who wore wire-rim glasses and joked about having a second head below his double chin, Alaskey could manipulate his voice to adopt both high and low pitches, tenors young and old. He switched between characters without missing a beat, an entire comedy troupe in a single man.
In 1981, he got a call from Friz Freleng, the creator of Looney Tunes.
“This guy calls me on the phone . . . and says, ‘It’s Friz Freleng. I heard your act. We’re looking for replacements. Mel Blanc is not going to live forever,’ ” Alaskey recounted to Splitsider with a laugh.
There was no more cutting diamonds after that. The rest of his career was more about sharpening the sound of Bugs Bunny talking through his big buck teeth.
When he was just starting out in impressions, Alaskey had also honed to near-perfection his Jackie Gleason. Many told him he bore a striking resemblance to the renowned and rotund comic genius, a genetic gift that paid off when Gleason himself called on Alaskey to voice him on the “lost” episodes of Gleason’s “Honeymooners” that were revived in the ’80s from Gleason’s private collection.
“That was quite an honor,” Alaskey said in a TV interview.
The project “closest to (his) heart” was “Duck Dodgers,” a cartoon starring Daffy Duck as a science fiction hero for which Alaskey won an Emmy in 2004. He was up against, among others, Henry Winkler (of “Happy Days” fame) and John Ritter (of “Three’s Company” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog”).
“John Ritter had just died, actually, so everyone thought he would win,” Alaskey told Slipsider. “Even my mother said, ‘You’re not going to get it.’ ”
Aside from Looney Tunes and Jackie Gleason, Alaskey also voiced various political personalities in the late ’80s puppet show “D.C. Follies.” Ever the prolific actor, he was moreover heard on “Rugrats” as Grandpa Lou Pickles and on “Forrest Gump” as Richard Nixon.
Alaskey was remembered fondly this week for his lively presence and dedication to his craft.
“He took it so seriously, it meant so much to him — it was a heavy responsibility,” Alaskey’s niece and former assistant, Trish Alaskey, told the Los Angeles Times. “He loved the characters — he loved Mel (Blanc) — and it was very important to him that they came off the right way.”
He would visit her school and perform voices for her classmates. “My friends were requesting autographs,” she recalled.
On social media, fans expressed appreciation for how Alaskey brought to life the beloved personalities of their youth.
Mark Evanier, a comic book and television writer, posted a tribute to his friend and colleague on his blog.
While Evanier said Alaskey could be “temperamental and fiercely insecure at times,” no one doubted his talent.
“The only problem we had was that Joe had so many different voices that is was sometimes difficult to choose which one we wanted out of him,” Evanier wrote. “The one I liked best was when he sounded like Joe Alaskey. He had a long, long list of voices but that’s the one I will miss the most.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Alaskey is survived by his brother, John Ned Alaskey, and his nieces and nephews.