Actor Rob Paulsen, aka Pinky, Donatello, beats health crisis

This Aug. 24, 2015 photo released by Lesley Bohm Photography shows voice actor Rob Paulsen, best known for his work on animated TV series including “Animaniacs,” “Pinky and the Brain” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Paulsen helps lift the spirits of seriously ill children by entertaining them with their favorite characters’ voices. He says that helped put his own health crisis, a diagnosis of throat cancer last year, in perspective. (Lesley Bohm via AP)

LOS ANGELES — A conversation with veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen includes happy interruptions by Pinky, Ninja Turtles and even a touch of David Tennant.

Paulsen's creativity and fluid ability to shift pitch, cadence and accents have earned him steady work since he decided to put animated roles ahead of on-screen performance.

"What one finds pretty quickly is there are a million average-looking white kids with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) cards," Paulsen said, recalling his early years as a Hollywood industry job-seeker.

In the decades since, he's enlivened more than 2,500 episodes of animated TV series, including "Animaniacs" (voicing Pinky, Yakko Warner and Dr. Otto Scratchansniff), spinoff "Pinky and the Brain" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (Raphael in the 1980s, Donatello in Nickelodeon's recent series).

When he acted with "Doctor Who" star Tennant on "Ninja Turtles" last year, the Scottish actor revealed himself as a long-time fan.

"Oh my God, if I had a nickel for every time I said, 'Cowabunga!'" Tennant said, invoking Raphael's catchphrase.

Paulsen has won an Emmy and multiple Annie Awards, which recognize achievement in animation. He faced and overcame his biggest hurdle in 2016: A diagnosis of throat cancer that required radiation and chemotherapy and left the lanky actor 50 pounds lighter.

Doctors spared his vocal cords and he's back in full voice — squeals, shouts and singing included — and, in a shift, is voice director of another TV incarnation of "Ninja Turtles" coming in 2018.

The Detroit native spoke with The Associated Press about his career, its rewards and sound advice he received from admired fellow voice and screen actor Alan Oppenheimer.

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Associated Press: Was it difficult to focus on voice over on-screen roles when you were getting both?

"I was doing a lot of on-camera work and Alan Oppenheimer said, 'Young man, you're going to have to make a decision about what you want to do. If I were you, I would really look at this voice acting thing.'... I'm so grateful I chose to jump with both feet into the voice talent pool. Here I am at 60, I just finished five solid years of the latest iteration of 'Ninja Turtles' on Nickelodeon ... and not one person gave a damn about how old I am.

AP: Do you ever resent yielding turf to actors who get TV and film voice acting jobs, such as Alec Baldwin in 'The Boss Baby'?

Paulsen: If you're a producer and you feel that having Brad Pitt be the talking chicken in your next movie (is right), hey man, it's your dime. I totally get it. There are other rank-and-file actors who get pissed off. ... I don't get bent out of shape over celebrity talent doing it.

AP: What skills does voice acting require?

Paulsen: For me, it's about not being self-conscious, in the literal sense. I found the best voice actors are like that. One of my heroes, Jonathan Winters, seemed to be like that from birth. Part of his genius, also Robin Williams to be sure, was their madness. But it was their utter disregard for whether or not people thought they were weird or nutty or odd. That is precisely what is necessary to be a good voice actor. ... Voice actors relish a producer saying, 'We have a clean sheet of paper. Surprise me.'

AP: How did you face the cancer crisis that so directly threatened your work?

Paulsen: I never once had a moment where I said, 'Oh, no, I'm a voice actor. Why me?' It's not because I'm super brave. It's because I've had the incredible good fortune, as a result of my career, to speak to hundreds of children and their parents as the character that a little boy or girl is a fan of while they're going through treatment for illness. ... Parents have kept in touch with me, sometimes 20 years after the fact, and all they do is tell me what remarkable memories they have because Leonardo or another character spoke to their child. I'm so grateful to have the opportunity.

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Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.

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