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Rob Paulson returns to 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'

Donatello and Rob Paulson

Donatello and Rob Paulson Credit: handout

Just about anyone under the age of 30 who watched cartoons as a child knows the voice of Rob Paulsen, if not his name or face.

The venerable voice actor, who landed his first major gig as Raphael on the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon series during the 1980s, has returned to his reptilian roots to lend his vocal talents to Nickelodeon's newest incarnation of TMNT, which airs Saturday mornings at 11.

This time, he trades Raphael's red bandanna and dual sai for his purple-clad, bo staff-wielding brother Donatello in the new iteration, also called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The experience has been nostalgic for Paulsen, a Daytime Emmy Award winner as the voice of Pinky on the hit '90s cartoon series "Pinky and the Brain."

"I'm getting another crack at arguably one of the top five or 10 franchises in the history of animation," Paulsen said. "I mean, it doesn't get much bigger than 'Ninja Turtles.'

"My son is 28, so he was probably 6 or 7 when 'Turtles' really hit and to be able to go through that with having a little boy and being Raphael was a huge deal for him and me."

Paulsen admits he was initially surprised to be contacted by Nickelodeon for the role considering his history with the iconic franchise.

"I told my agent, 'Did they know who I am?'" Paulsen said. "Not out of arrogance, but because I knew there had been several versions of the Turtles that had nothing to do with me ... and I didn't want to get in there and have them say, 'Oh, that's right. He was Raphael. Well, let's throw the old guy a bone.'"

Of course, the producers were familiar with Paulsen's Raphael. They also were acquainted with Paulsen from his decade of work on Nickelodeon shows such as "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron" and "The Fairly OddParents," making his transition to Nick's "Ninja Turtles" series a smooth transition.

"They decided that it didn't matter that I was incredibly far removed from teenage years," said Paulsen, 56. "They thought I still had the chops and it worked. And so I'm so grateful to be here."

Paulsen follows in the footsteps Barry Gordon, the original Donatello, while Sean Astin now voices Raphael. Michelangelo, originally played by Townsend Coleman, and Leonardo, originally voiced by Cam Clarke, are now portrayed by Greg Cipes and Jason Biggs, respectively.

While Raphael was a smart aleck in the original series -- a trait Paulsen says he shares -- Donatello has traditionally been the smartest of the Ninja Turtles. In the new series, Donatello also has a romantic side and a special place in his heart for their human friend April O'Neill.

"[In the '80s series] April was, for all practical purposes, kind of a 'den mother.'" Paulsen said. "In this case, April is a contemporary. She's our age. And Donatello has a huge crush on her."

The new series has performed well enough to be picked up for a second season next year. It still has a long way to go to catch the original cartoon, which aired for 10 seasons and 193 episodes. That iteration still left an impact on a generation of kids who grew up watching the Turtles battle their nemesis, the Shredder.

Paulsen is often reminded of just how much that show meant to fans.

"Whether it's 'My parents were going through a divorce and my brother and I watched Ninja Turtles and it got us through it,' or 'I was very sick and going through chemotherapy' or 'I was bullied as a kid. Now I'm really strong,' it means way more than action figures or ratings or money," Paulsen said. "I'm really grateful to be part of something that has had a huge effect on the culture but more importantly a huge effect on individuals. And that can't be measured in dollars."

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