In 1988, director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg stunned Hollywood with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a seemingly un-makeable movie that married animated and live-action characters in the same interactive world.
For the uninitiated, “Roger Rabbit” stars Bob Hoskins as private detective Eddie Valiant, a former champion of downtrodden cartoons living in the Tinseltown-adjacent Toontown, who turns to the bottle after a ’toon kills his brother. When animated superstar Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is framed for the death of jokemaster Marvin Acme, the cotton-tailed cutup hires Valiant to sniff out the truth. Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner), Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and a host of famous cartoon characters round out the memorable cast.
Twenty-five years later, “Roger Rabbit” is still a wonder of filmmaking that continues to delight new generations of movie fans. On June 29, Fleischer will host a 25th anniversary screening of the Disney flick at Philadelphia’s The Awesome Fest. The actor and comedian, who also appeared in the Zemeckis film “Back to the Future Part II,” notoriously wore a human-sized rabbit suit off camera as he provided Roger’s wacky dialogue.
I spoke with Fleischer early this week to talk about the groundbreaking film, his inspiration for Roger’s voice, his favorite cartoons and his long-eared counterpart’s cinematic legacy.
David Onda: I appreciate that you enjoy talking about “Roger Rabbit.” I’ve found that some stars that are well known for a particular film or character aren’t as open to discussing them.
Charles Fleischer: I would say that they are lacking in certain aspects of reality. I’m truly grateful that I have the opportunity to do anything in this industry, and that people know me for something. I’ve got no problem facilitating conversations that speak to that.
Onda: I know you’re asked this all the time, but please tell me about wearing the rabbit suit on set. Why did you decide to do it?
Fleischer: It just seemed like the logical thing to do. Whenever you do a film, you go to the set, you get into your costume and you go do the work. It didn’t really make sense to do it in my street clothes. There’s perhaps more of an ego-driven manifestation whereby I didn’t want to be seen on the set in England wearing the same clothes three times a week. I didn’t have an elaborate wardrobe. “[In a British accent] He’s wearing the same corduroy pants he wore yesterday! This guy’s got no wardrobe at all.” So I asked Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, and of course Bob Zemeckis, if I could have a costume to wear. First, they looked at me like I was a bit daft, and then they came up with it and I wore it every day. It ended up helping Bob Hoskins visualize Roger, and also led to subsequent questions from the press 25 years later, so I think it was a really good move.
Onda: Do you still have the suit?
Fleischer: I had the ears for a while, but those somehow have disappeared. I still have the bowtie I wore every day, the Roger bowtie.
Onda: What was the inspiration for Roger’s voice?
Fleischer: Any time you do a character, it’s based on the essence that is contained within the words and actions of that character. In addition to that, I had to create a voice that seemed normal coming out of Roger’s body. If he’d been 15 feet tall, his voice would more likely be deeper. So it was a combination of those two things. Before I did any of those modifications, it was kind of a cross between Ruth Gordon and John Huston. I was originally called in to help them audition the Eddie Valiant character. They needed someone to do Roger’s lines for Eddie Valiant, and they asked me to do that because Zemeckis had seen me do my stand-up.
Onda: Roger was a big fan of Disney’s Goofy. Are there any ’toons that you’re particularly fond of?
Fleischer: I’m a huge fan of animation, and just the arts in general – anything that emanates from someone’s mind and soul and is capable of touching other people’s minds and souls. That’s always been a big fascination for myself. I don’t really have a specific character. Growing up watching animation on television Saturday morning, [I liked] everything from “Gerald McBoing Boing” to “Ruff & Reddy.” There’s nothing that stands out in the way that, for instance, Salvador Dali or Jimi Hendrix or Picasso or Einstein or various humans have entered my soul.
Onda: I’ve always heard there were stipulations for how Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were used in “Roger Rabbit.” Is that true?
Fleischer: Oh, certainly. Obviously, the Disney characters were not a problem because it was a Buena Vista [i.e. Disney] production, but Warner Bros.’ characters, that was facilitated because of Mr. Spielberg, to get the rights. But there was – for instance, Bugs Bunny and Mickey are on the screen for the exact same amount of time.
Onda: Do you have a favorite Roger Rabbit line?
Fleischer: That’s like saying, “Name your favorite kid.” I suppose “Only when it’s funny” is a pretty good one.
Onda: What would surprise people the most about “Roger Rabbit”?
Fleischer: Just that they could do it. Prior attempts to marry animation and live-action were successful, but the camera was always locked down. In this movie, because of the genius of Bob Zemeckis and his cohorts, the camera moved and was able to combine the animation. And, technologically, no one else was able to achieve that. And no one else has really ever matched what Zemeckis did, even 25 years later.
Join Charles Fleischer for an Awesome Fest stand-up comedy performance (7:30 p.m.), meet-and-greet (8:15 p.m.) and outdoor screening of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (9 p.m.) at Parx Casino on June 29. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and second meet-and-greet.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.