THE MAN OF 1000 VOICES?
No, that’s the sobriquet of the revered voice actor Mel Blanc. A Master. But Will Ryan has Mel’s piano (one of three in his Santa Monica home of 15 years), bought at auction, and while Blanc is now recording in the studio in the sky, Will is still with us and could yet zoom past “1000 voices.” Um — what day is it? But Ryan seems to also have 1000 other talents.
He claims no mastery of piano but does compose songs there. But he can play almost anything with strings, favors the ukulele for its portability and modest profile, and can create a new song on the spot, music and words.
HE’S THE VOICE OF PETRIE IN “LAND BEFORE TIME”
“There’s a whole generation who grew up loving that film,” said a friend, “and I’ve seen people go nuts when they find out he’s Petrie.”
Ryan grew up in Cleveland enraptured with comic books, and still is. He has quite a collection. “Will is so old school in everything,” a friend related. “He’s always loved writing letters and people love getting them. I heard that when he was a kid he wrote to Marvel Comics about how much he loved this new character Spiderman, signed Billy Ryan, and they printed it, I think in issue #2.”
He formed a duo there with Phil Baron, Willio and Phillio. They wrote and recorded whacky songs that came to the attention of KMET’s Dr. Demento, who at his peak was carried by every major radio station in the country, plus overseas. He liked “Goin’ Quackers,” and seasonally played “I Wish It Could be Christmas All Year Long.” W& P have two albums and three EPs/singles.
A friend told me Ryan was aching to go to Disneyland as a kid, but it was explained to him that it was too far away, a plane trip, too expensive. Not long after he landed in LA he got friendly with some Disney animators (he’s an accomplished artist) and soon was composing songs for ”Disney’s,” some really good ones, he says (which they own the rights to, he adds), and soon also became one of their top voice actors. And — his voice was put on the Pinocchio ride at Disneyland. Made it!
I did a memorable interview with the good Dr. in the mid- ‘80s, at his large Woodland Hills house that served as a receiving and storage depot for his unbelievable record collection. There was no kitchen accoutrement in the kitchen; the cabinets and drawers were all filled with records. Several young acolytes were constantly scurrying around opening packages and filing the mass of vinyl that he received every day from around the world, onto rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves. My vinyl collection (7,000) would have fit into a bathroom. It never occurred to me that I would one day become friends with one of the guys whose records were among Demento’s 250,000. (I’m sure that number is much, much higher now.)
Decades later Ryan indulged his love of Western music by forming the Cactus County Cowboys combo, and enlisted mother-daughter singers he dubbed the Saguaro Sisters. Mid-’60s British hitmaker and authority on American music Ian Whitcomb (“You Really Turn Me On”) was a longtime friend and recorded on those CCC albums (on accordion). Will, of course, wrote all the songs. I think if you can find a dictionary somewhere, with the word “prolific,” his smiling face will be there.
MEMBER OF THE ACADEMY
— you know, the Oscars, for many years now. No mean feat. You have to not only have substantial credits, but continue to produce. He also was voted president of ASIFA, the international animation organization. His “Elmo Aardvark: Outer Space Detective” received the prestigious Annie Award for best web animation series. But Will never sees any project as finished; he then wrote and recorded two albums of music for it, sung by VaVa LaVoom (Diane Michelle), Captain of the Starship Salubrious. Ryan created an entire backstory for Elmo, as though he were a longtime animation star, rivaling Mickey Mouse (but the Mick had better PR).
VOICES OF POOH, TIGGER, EEYORE
He’s Hero in “Thumbelina.” Peg Leg Pete (one of my favorites). Digit in “American Tail.” Willie the Giant in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” Seahorse, in “Little Mermaid.” Footloose in “G.I. Joe.” And more than 30 years as Eugene in “Adventures in Odyssey.”
Can you know a person by the company they keep? Will’s worked directly with so many big names, including the inimitable Hal Smith (you’d recognize his face), Christopher Plummer, Joan Cusack, Linda Ronstadt, Brendan Fraser, Mr. T, George Gobel, Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise, Steve Martin, Stan Freberg, Madeleine Kahn, Phyllis Diller, Casey Kasem, Buddy Hackett, Charo, Mark Hamill, Carol Channing, Charles Nelson Reilly, Clarence Nash (Donald Duck), Bill Farmer (Goofy), Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson), Ron Perlman, Mary Woronov, and the mad comic genius Jonathan Winters.
It’s a good bet that every single person in Santa Monica has heard the voice, acting or singing, of Will Ryan.
Legend June Foray was his longtime close friend, working well into her 90s. Rocky the Flying Squirrel, plus Natasha plus Nelle. ‘Nuff said. However… we might just have to throw in Talking Tina/Twilight Zone “Living Doll” – a terror classic!
HE WAS ALSO FRIENDS WITH HUGH HEFNER
And was often a guest at the Playboy Mansion, where they had lively discussions about movies and music. And friends with Milt Larsen and could often be found at the Magic Castle. Can Will Ryan perform magic?
I think his whole creative life has been magic. He pieced together a unique, top notch, long lasting and most unusual career. But he shines many times more brightly for the beloved human being he is.
There’s the trick. In cutthroat showbiz, no less. They don’t award statues for that, but all who have had the good fortune to kick tumbleweeds with this Cowboy or shoot into space with VaVa LaVoom or slap their overalls guffawing with Klum and Rooby, know they have been privileged, and probably inspired by a very different, remarkable, rare Hollywood dude. When you’ve done all that, and hung with all them, but your friends all remark first on your kindness and generosity, your humility and elfin smile, and how your most important mission seems to be helping others make their mark in show business — you’ve done it right.
One friend thought long to find the right words. “He’s a real gentleman,” she finally declared, simply. Will Ryan is a vegetarian who doesn’t smoke or drink or do drugs or even curse (“heck” is the only **ck word you’ll hear out of him), even though he is passionate about politics and many other things, like the environment and health care for all. And he has always insisted on paying everyone who works on any project of his.
Another close friend said, “Will has been the biggest name dropper I ever knew, but he doesn’t do it for ego, he has a great personal story about every name.”
When he made a series of vaudevillian movies starring Biffle and Shooster (Ryan), it played at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and Leonard Maltin came. How many films and videos? How many books? Original songs? Sorry, I just can’t count high enough. You really should look him up on IMDB and several other places. But keep in mind they have his age really wrong and he has been stymied in changing it. Help, anyone?
Santa Monica’s own Will Ryan may not have a name like Jackson Browne or Tom Hayden or Sean Penn. But he is a bright comet still shooting across the creative universe, and we are all lucky to have him here. Sorry, Cleveland.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org