Everyone knows her voice, or rather her voices – hundreds of animated characters who made viewers laugh, and occasionally tremble, on the TV and in movies from Rocky and Bullwinkle to “The Simpsons.”
June Foray, who was 99 when she died in Los Angeles Wednesday, had an uncommonly long career that stretched for 87 years, most of it in Hollywood. But she had her first taste of performing as a girl in Springfield, where her mother tried sending her to dance classes.
“Fortunately, I got pneumonia. Otherwise, I’d be an over-the-hill dancer,” she told the Globe in 1989, when she had just turned 72 and was still in her prime as the one of the two most famous voice actors of all time.
The only other voice actor in her league was Mel Blanc, whose characters included Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and Tweety Bird, though many thought Ms. Foray possessed the more versatile voice.
“June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc was the male June Foray,” the late animator Chuck Jones once said. Jones, who proposed Ms. Foray’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gave her one of her most memorable roles, as Cindy Lou Who, the girl in Whoville who catches the Grinch – disguised as Santa – stealing her family’s decorations in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
“Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?” she cooed in the 1966 TV special. As the Grinch, Boris Karloff made off with the tree, but Ms. Foray stole the scene.
Known as the first lady of voice acting or simply the queen of animation, Ms. Foray was perhaps most famous for giving voice to Rocky the Flying Squirrel (officially Rocket J. Squirrel) and Natasha Fatale (the purring Pottsylvanian spy) on “Rocky and His Friends,” which began in 1959. Other roles included Lucifer the cat in Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” (1950); Nell, the girlfriend of Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right; and a coven of witches over the years, including Hazel, which she launched in a 1952 Donald Duck short. “I did so many witches I should have a wart out of my nose,” she quipped to the Globe.
Ms. Foray brought to life decades of grandmothers, too, beginning when she was in her mid-30s and stretching notably to her portrayal of Grandmother Fa in “Mulan,” released when she was 80. She also was Granny in the “Tweety and Sylvester” and “Loony Tunes” cartoons. Adding youthful vigor to older characters and worldly perspective to younger voices, she was able to portray any age – female or male – throughout her career.
At 94, Ms. Foray became the oldest Daytime Emmy recipient with a 2012 win for her appearance in “The Garfield Show” as Mrs. Caldron – “your friendly neighborhood old lady, who might be a witch.” She received a Governor’s Award during the Creative Arts Emmys in 2013 and shared a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1968 for “Grinch.”
For years, Ms. Foray was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors and had advocated for creating an Oscar category for animated feature. She also was among the original members of ASIFA-Hollywood, which honors animation with the Annie Awards.
Though better known for comedic turns as Rocky or Natasha, Ms. Foray provided dog barks for the “Little Ricky Gets a Dog” episode of “I Love Lucy” in 1957. She was the first voice for the Mattel Chatty Cathy doll, and in “Living Doll,” a 1963 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” Ms. Foray was unforgettably terrifying. “My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you,” the talking doll told Telly Savalas, who portrayed a little girl’s stepfather.
A more benign memory for baby boomers and those who binge on vintage TV is her signature line as Rocky: “Now here’s something we hope you’ll really like!”
June Lucille Forer was born in Springfield on Sept. 18, 1917, to Maurice Forer and the former Ida Robinson. She was the middle of three siblings whose father owned an auto supply company. In 2009’s “Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? The Autobiography of June Foray,” which she wrote with Mark Evanier and Earl Kress, she said her parents and siblings “were avid theatergoers,” which whetted her interest in performing.
“I was an omnivorous reader. I wanted to be an actress,” she told the Globe in 1989, reminiscing about haunting Springfield’s public library. “I would memorize the classics and walk around the neighborhood, pretending to be all those wonderful characters. But I’m only 4-feet-11. I wanted to be on stage, but what are you going to do when you’re this short? So I went into radio.”
In her autobiography, she remembered her mother as being “very supportive.” Mrs. Forer failed to encourage her daughter’s dancing talents but did invite young June to perform for a captive audience at home. “As is the case with most voice actors, some of my earliest characters were impersonations,” Ms. Foray wrote. A gift for mimicking popular actors “got me my first taste of success as my vocal versatility astounded the players in my mother’s bridge club.”
By the time she was 12, Ms. Foray had begun working on radio dramas in Springfield. She continued her radio work when her family moved to Los Angeles, after she graduated from high school. In California, she worked on “Lux Radio Theater,” “The Jimmy Durante Show,” and Steve Allen’s “Smile Time.”
Her break in animation arrived when the Disney studio hired her for “Cinderella.” She landed many roles, among them Mother Magoo in the “Mister Magoo” cartoons, though her voice often was uncredited. That changed with “Rocky and His Friends.”
“In 1958, my agent called and said, ‘Did you ever hear of a guy called Jay Ward?’ ” she said. He was pitching a show, and “the idea of a moose and a squirrel sounded terrific. I asked them what kind of voice they wanted. Jay said, ‘Just an all-American squirrel.’ Well, you do so many pilots and demos and you forget them. Most don’t sell. A year went by. Nothing. Then all of a sudden, ABC was ready with a budget.”
The show ran on ABC and then on NBC. Rocky, with Ms. Foray’s voice, resurfaced over the years in TV guest appearances, such as on “Family Guy.” She also was in the 2000 movie “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle,” which mixed animation and live action. Ms. Foray provided voices for animated characters while Rene Russo created a live version of Natasha, her voice echoing Ms. Foray’s long-ago cartoon portrayal.
“We used Continental accents, not Russian,” Ms. Foray told the Globe, speaking about the original Natasha and Boris Badenov. “She called him dahlink. He called her hon-yee-bun.”
A private service was planned for Ms. Foray, who leaves no immediate survivors. Her 1941 marriage to Bernard Barondess ended in divorce. In 1954, she married TV writer Hobart Donavan, who died in 1976.
“Rocky and His Friends” was a cartoon, but “the series was never just for children. It was satirical,” she told the Globe. The show’s endless puns made it as memorable for the performers as it was for the viewers.
“We had fun,” she said. “You know, I’ve since done ‘Gummi Bears’ and ‘The Smurfs,’ and the writers are very good. But it isn’t Bullwinkle.”