'Space Jam' at 25: Billy West looks back at taking over from Mel Blanc and rapping as Bugs Bunny
Pairing the greatest basketball player of all time with a wise-cracking cartoon bunny from the 1930s might not sound like a sure-fire studio hit but 1996's Space Jam — celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2021 — actually had its roots in a tried and tested formula.
Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan first shared the court in a couple of hybrid cartoon-live-action Nike ads directed by Joe Pytka in the early 90s. They were instant hits, and with Warner Bros eager to introduce their Golden Age animated mascot to modern audiences, a fully-fledged feature inspired by this mismatched odd couple was soon greenlit.
Guided by producer and Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and helmed by Pytka, Space Jam saw Bugs, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes confronted by a gang of minuscule alien goons who threaten to enslave Acme’s finest and cart them off to a run-down theme-park world.
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To win their freedom, they challenge their tiny aggressors to a game of basketball. But when they steal the talent of the NBA’s top players, Bugs and the Tune Squad are forced to enlist the help of His Airness to secure their freedom.
The film was a runaway hit; grossing over $250 million worldwide, becoming the tenth most profitable film of 1996 and taking the title of the highest grossing basketball movie ever made.
By combining two vastly different worlds, Warner Bros had stumbled onto some unusual flavour that seemed to please everybody. With a long-awaited sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy due out on 16 July it’s clear that appetite hasn’t been quelled just yet.
Watch a trailer for Space Jam: A New Legacy
For the animated half of the original Space Jam double-act, this long-lasting afterlife is a welcome — but not unexpected — legacy: “It had all the right elements,” suggests Billy West, the voice-actor icon who played Bugs Bunny in Pytka’s 1996 original before Jeff Bergman took over for 2021’s sequel.
“It had Michael Jordan and basketball, and that stuff has a mega audience and popularity. When you have the animation world clashing with the sports world, it was a no-brainer,” he tells Yahoo Movies. “They did it really well.”
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West is no stranger to creating enduring voices. In fact, he’s likely behind some of your favourite animated characters of all time. Throughout his 30 year career, he’s voiced everyone from Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy and Doug Funnie, to Futurama’s spaced-out heroes Phillip J. Fry, Zapp Brannigan and the scuttling Dr Zoidberg.
However with Space Jam, West was invited to complete a different type of job, one that didn’t rely on him dreaming up his own unique voices but instead inheriting an iconic character from a pillar of the voiceover world.
“It was quite an honour to be asked,” admits West, taking us back to the moment Reitman invited him to audition for two roles originally created by the legendary Mel Blanc. “I flew out to California and did a bunch of auditions and eventually found out I would be playing Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. I wasn’t that relaxed when I went to do it because I felt like I had so much to prove and I overdid it - but I just went in and did what was instinctive.”
Despite being a well-established voice-actor, the prospect of inheriting two of Blanc’s most beloved characters was daunting, especially as they’d played a role in his youth. “We had really s***ty prints of the [Looney Tunes] shows that we watched on black and white TVs,” he laughs, casting his mind back to his first encounter with Bugs.
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“It was always a film of a film; there was almost nothing left, but the audio was always clear enough for me to be able to latch on to it. I was affected profoundly when I heard Mel. Who wouldn’t be? Even if you couldn’t give a darn about voices, you had to be impressed because he was such a damn good actor. He wasn’t just a collection of silly little voices.
“He was an originator. He had to figure out what a wise-ass rabbit would sound like and what a pig would sound like,” continues West, referencing Blanc’s creation of Porky Pig. “He’d pull little bits from some characters of the day but he wasn’t really mimicking anybody.”
Now, West found himself in an audition room trying to authentically mimic someone who was infamous for his originality. “I knew there were other people competing for the role — there always is — but we all know each other. If it’s an impression, there’s got to be some key that unlocks it for you,” he reasons, “there were little phrases like ‘ain’t I a little stinker?’ and ‘what a rube…’ that helped.”
Having bagged the job, the recording process for Space Jam could begin with Pytka directing the film’s live-action segments and Reitman overseeing all of the movie’s vocal performances. However as West began the mammoth task of making a universally loved character his own, he had to be wary of outside expectations. “Everybody’s got their own perception of the character,” he attests.
"“I remember when I was recording, everybody that came by the studio and would peek in the door was like: ‘he sounds too Jewish’ or ‘he sounds too cute, he’s supposed to sound Brooklyn-tough.’ Then somebody else would say: ‘he sounds too threatening.’
Everybody had their own perception of what Bugs should be.”
As West’s performance progressed, he was forced to walk a tricky tightrope of staying true to the groundwork laid down by Blanc while shepherding Bugs into a new era. “You can imitate the character’s cadences and voice but all of a sudden you’re reading words that Bugs never said so it’s up to you to figure out what Mel Blanc would’ve done, which was a tough one.
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"There were some things that you didn’t feel the character would ever have said,” he admits, before revealing that off-the-cuff improv was largely off-limits: “it’s an actor’s job to try and throw something in but since the character was so developed and we’d seen him for decades, you couldn’t go too much off the page.”
Then there was a new challenge that Blanc had never had to face: “I think it was the first time I rapped in character,” smiles West, remembering the process of creating 'Buggin’' - the tie-in song written by Jay-Z and rapped by Bugs Bunny that appeared on the Space Jam soundtrack.
“The record producers sampled a little piece of the original score and then put a beat to it. By the time I got there it was a groove and I just had to get with it,” he recalls.
“When you’re rapping, you’ve got to lag behind the beat a little — that’s what makes it cool— so I had to work at that. I wanted it to sound as good as it could. It came off pretty great,” adds West. “It was a nightclub hit - I had no idea.”
Following the worldwide success of Space Jam, West continued to voice Bugs for about a decade before handing the character off to another of his voice-actor colleagues. Such is the world of voiceover; an arena where each day is different: “To me, a job is a job. I’m a journeyman; I show up with the tools you need and the job was mine for the days I got paid to do it.”
Instead, West prefers the challenge of creating his own characters: “Whoever’s doing the voice for any period of time, they instantly start calling you ‘The new Mel Blanc’ and I always pushed back on that,” he reveals.
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“I appreciated it and was honoured people would even think that but I always wanted to be the best me I could be. I never wanted to be the next anybody. You can’t be the next Mel Blanc by doing Mel Blanc voices.”
25 years later, and with LeBron James’ sequel just around the corner, West remains grateful for his Space Jam journey and as excited as fans to see what the next chapter will bring. “I recall it very fondly. I remember how much fun I had with the other voice actors. We had a great camaraderie and it was a family atmosphere,” he says warmly.
“The other thing is that I happen to think it’s a milestone. It hit all the right notes and it met all of the expectations. I’m hoping the same thing for Space Jam 2.”
Space Jam: A New Legacy arrives in UK cinemas on 16 July.
Watch: Porky Pig gets to rap in the Space Jam sequel