The Den Of Geek Interview: Michael Winslow

Interview Simon Brew 8 May 2008 - 11:26
Fire!

He made funny noises in Police Academy. He scared us witless as the voice of Stripe in Gremlins. Heck, the man even turned up in Spaceballs. It's Michael Winslow...

You probably know him as Larvell Jones, the funny man with the unmatched ability for making noises in the Police Academy films. But with a career that also has taken in the voice of Stripe in Gremlins, and the small matter of Spaceballs, it was with a mixture of excitement and nerves that we dialled the number that would connect us with Mr Michael Winslow…

I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but when did you first realise that you had this extraordinary talent?

Well, at the time I wasn’t calling it a talent. It was just things that used to get me in all kind of mischief and situations. In the restaurant, talking food is not a good idea!

Was this at school that it got you into trouble?

Oh sure! But sometimes you could use it as a great tool to keep them away from you. It was the bigger kids. They always wanted to hear sounds, and then you had the other ones who didn’t want to hear it. So I ended up using it as part of the tools to stay away from the big boys.

It’s fair to say though that while there are people who can make sounds, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can quite match what you do? When did you realise that there was a bit more to this than perhaps you first thought?

Each day I learn a little bit more. Every time I get a chance to think about this. Yes, there are a lot of folks out there, and I’m glad to see them. When I was growing up there was just a handful of folks. And then there was Mel Blanc, the guy who did the Bugs Bunny voices. He was the guy that was capable of doing all kinds of things. And I’m sure that every country has folks that do noises. I notice that.

With this whole beatbox thing. You know, I’m impressed that kids can take something that they saw in a movie and turn it into a whole art form now. It’s funny. On American Idol, one of the kids did that beatbox and Simon didn’t like it very much. [laughs] And I said alright then, same thing with rock and roll!

Was there a point when it stopped getting you into trouble and it got respected as a genuine talent?

After a while, I started to enjoy the music side of it. Not just comedy, because when I was a kid, growing up, we saw all the comedies. We saw everything from Monty Python, Young Ones, and then there was the Carol Burnett show here in America. You start to understand that there’s a whole improv side to it all. A physical side to it. That’s what I decided to do in my shows, because I love that stuff so much. So now I have to do Louis Armstrong in my show!

Would you say you took influence from the British programmes around at the time?

Oh sure. Of course, I saw the video where Jimi Hendrix changed his song on that show, was it Top Of The Pops? And he got in big trouble for it. [laughs] But he was an underground hero overnight. You end up noticing great people who understand sound I guess. George Martin of course. He understood sound. That’s the thing. When I listen to a Pink Floyd, one of the early ones, you understand that people understand the sounds and where they go.

When did you actually start putting this to use as a living? Was that as a street performer?

Yes. I was a street performer for a while. Believe it or not I was out there with everybody else. After a while you get lucky enough to make enough money to buy a car. So I became mobile homeless! Which really helped! You could put speakers in your car!

How did the break with Count Basie, who you worked with, come along? That must have been extraordinary?

Yeah. It was a strange, once in a lifetime thing. You that happens every once in a while. I got a chance to do two shows with Count Basie. It was towards the end of the wonderful career that he did have. And I got the chance to actually be a part of it. And the producer and director of Police Academy, they saw the show and roped me into the picture.

Is the story true about how the electrics went off that night, and you picked up a loud hailer and started entertaining?

Sure, because I kept a portable! I took the microphone and put it inside of Count Basie’s piano. Everything had gone, the power had gone down for a while. At least you could hear him!

The guys from Police Academy saw the show, and saw you straight after. Was it all done there and then?

Yeah. We all got a chance to sit in the same area for a minute. Hugh Wilson did a show that was really big out here about radio. It was to be his first directorial film, his first feature. Paul Maslansky, producer of Academy, happened to have been a jazz musician himself. We got a chance to sit with Count Basie in the same room, one of the things he said was “you guys take real good care of this young man, make sure that they see him and they enjoy what they see him to”. Count Basie pointed to them and said you guys do this.

That must have been amazing…

[Laughs]. It’s so wonderful, man. It’s the kind of thing that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.

How long was it between that meeting and the start of Police Academy?

Well, it was early Spring, and they started Academy late summer, in Toronto. Half of the Police Academy films were made in Canada. And then it turned out very well. Toronto has a great city look, a great city everything about it. It had a great character to it. Especially the fact that the Academy grounds were a mental hospital, an old mental hospital. [laughs]

Isn’t that great?

When it came to the point where you got onto the set, did you find you had much free reign? There seems to be a real spontaneity about your talent?

Yeah, it was. The best part was Hugh Wilson putting me in scenes that were strategic. Not just walking through by accident. These were at strategic points, which really helped. As you know, Hugh Wilson went on to direct The First Wives Club, and Guarding Tess with Shirley Maclaine. Hey, he understood movies, he knew where to place me and I was very, very happy to be there. And we would talk about and say “okay, what do you think”? We have this area here, what shall we do about this? What would Jones do? He’s a sick puppy, what would he do? What would he do if he could get away with something? What would he get away with? And how far.

That was the question. How far can you get away with this to a point where … one of the things he said was the script is funny. The story is funny. So let the story be funny.

When the film came out, the reaction to it was huge, outside of America too. Did you have any sense of that when you were working on it?

No. I’m still finding out about that every day. I’m over there, everywhere, sometimes for sci-fi conventions where Police Academy is pop culture.

You were over in the UK recently?

Yeah, Manchester.

What kind of reaction do you get? What to people come up to you and say?

It’s been fantastic, because I just wrapped up a tour of the UK. We did just about every University. The shows were like 12 and 1am, and we averaged about 1100, 1200 people at a time.

Going to a University audience, were you finding they were aware of you beforehand?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Because of Academy and Spaceballs.

We were coming to Spaceballs shortly! That must have been a hoot as well.

It was. But the strange thing was it was 1am, they didn’t want to hear stand up comedy. They wanted to hear music. I had to do beatbox techno, I had to switch systems and styles up. It turned out fine.

Do you enjoy that, the spontaneity? Suddenly you switch from one to the other?

Yeah, it’s suddenly a whole different genre. Especially that. You talk to the music. Since I can do my own subsonic tones, I can pretty much give a soundsystem a big workout. These engineers were sweating! Because they know that if I can put an octave below what the bass drums are doing, this could be a problem.

Do you enjoy that?

Yeah! At least you know it works if it’s still running when I’m finished. They’re quite afraid of that. It turned out fine!

When we were at school when the first Police Academy came out, Jones was the character that everyone in the playground was trying to emulate. Was that something you were conscious that people were doing, or is that something else that’s caught up with you over time?

It’s caught up with me over time. I know that it was fun and popular. I ended up thinking to myself wait a minute [laughs]. This is interesting! I had no idea, no clue that it was going to end up having a reaction like this!

How quickly after the first film did you get the word that a sequel was being made?

They pretty much tried to put that together very, very quickly. We ended up being in Los Angeles with a great director called Jerry Paris.

Was the mechanic with him much different from Hugh Wilson? It’s been hinted that the second film left you even more free to improvise?

Again, a director picks moments. He would pick the right way for people to add a little something extra in there. He knew just when. He had directed a lot of the older Dick Van Dyke episodes, from the old days. He was Jerry The Dennis, next door to the Petrie. He played himself. He also directed a lot of the Happy Days episodes. That’s where his think on your feet style came from.

Does that give you a comfort blanket, if someone understands the mechanic of it, leaving you free to do what you do?

Sure, but then you’ve got those folks that are going to do what they want, and it could drive a director nuts! We all have our bits of geniusI

It was fun to watch him work. Because as a director, you know, “we’re going to get two or three cameras to cover the whole scene” because it changes every time. We’re going to cover all of it, and the reactions. That way it’s a three-camera shoot, but it works!

There were a lot of big personalities in the Police Academy movies. Was there a friendly competition to it?

Oh, absolutely! Course there was! It had to be because it gets everybody’s blood going. So by the time the camera does roll, you’re well into it.

Is there a long reel of outtakes then that we’ll never see, then?

You can count on those! Some of those you will never see! Sorry!

Any examples?

Mauser coming out of the shower, naked, with his hands glued to his hair. “You guys missed a couple of things!”. “I’m glad you did!”. That one!

It sounded like you had terrific fun making the films?

We did. Everybody had their own special style with it. Even the folks who were character actors, they had their comedy timing. They knew what was up.

Was there any danger when Steve Guttenberg left after the fourth film that they wouldn’t carry on?

Well, actually I was quite surprised when we heard it was going to be Matt McCoy. But it was fine. Matt turned out to be a great guy on his own. He went on to do The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Hey, he knew what he was doing too.

Just how dangerous was the shoot of the Moscow film?

Er, dangerous enough that I’m not going to repeat it. [laughs] Dangerous enough! Revolutions are fine – you guys have all the fun you want!

Looking back now, what are your feelings on the sequels. Obviously as time went on the reactions became more mixed. But do you look at them with fondness?

I do, because you have to understand that you have to be grateful for a great gift like that. When somebody sends you something that you can take and make a body a work, absolutely. I’m very grateful.

Do you have any regrets where Police Academy is concerned? Because I read somewhere that you had some dissatisfaction with the TV series?

Me? No. When you look at everything on balance, it’s a great product and it was a great piece of people’s enjoyment of history.

How do you feel about being personally immortalised in The Simpsons?

Well, you know, I really need to thank them for picking for me. I really have to thank them for that. Because I loved it! It was great. But then again, that’s Homer for you. I’d love to go on that show, and show up to return the favour!

Will there ever be another Police Academy film do you think?

You know what? Anything’s possible. You’ve got to hope for Paul Maslansky and those folks over there to put it together. It’s up to them. It would be great to see everyone again.

Also in the 80s, you managed to scare the life out of people as the voice of Stripe in Gremlins. You had a really creepy, sinister voice in that. How much did you know of that film going in? Was that the brief you were given?

We saw a lot less than that. Because at the time Mr Spielberg was just starting to hit that stride. They were finally paying attention to him, but a lot of folks were also doing knock-offs. And that was a big, big problem. So I only saw the portions I was in. And never really met any of the on-screen folks, it was a security issue. I understood, I understood that you couldn’t talk about it. But do you know what? It was a great thing to be part of something that secret.

Are you proud of Stripe?

Oh sure. I don’t call people on the phone and do that to them any more…

Yikes!

You see what I mean? Call people up and [starts talking as Stripe…] You don’t do that to them!

I think you’d be arrested!

Usually when I get sales calls, I always answer [adopts different voice] Housekeeping!

Does it stop them?

They hang up!

Can we touch on Spaceballs? That must have been quite an experience.

Absolutely it was. One of the things about working on Gremlins, you learn the value of a great story. And just to be a part of it, even a little bit of it. And I know a lot of folks who told me that when they were kids, and when they saw Gremlins, they had to look under their beds. I didn’t mean for it to be like that. But you know what was scary for me? Spaceballs. Mel Brooks is Mel Brooks. You better be ready.

Were you in awe of him?

Er, yeah! Because it’s like going back to grad school courses. You’re really there to learn this time. And it’s heady stuff. Everybody on their stuff has brought their game with them.

Once you’re over the initial stage though, it must have been a heck of a challenge?

Yeah it was. And I enjoyed it. I was only supposed to be there two days, but was there a couple of weeks. Again, there’s stuff on the cutting room floor that I’m sorry, you’re not going to see that!

It looks like now that you’re ramping your career back up, doing live shows and motivational speaker events. By the sounds of it, the reaction you’re getting is extremely affectionate.

Yeah, and I really do appreciate that. I’m glad to be able to do it.

How do people react when you turn up to be their motivational speaker? That must be quite a day out of the office!

Er, it can be! I notice even on that TV show The Office they’re picking on me, so I’m going after them! I’m going to have to go pay them a visit!

Are you tempted to do it?

Oh I’m tempted!

Are there are any sounds that you tried to do but haven’t been able to get?

There probably is, there probably is.

Do you just move on and carry on with the ones you do?

Yeah, I do that, and if I have to really come up with something I’ll find a way to get around it, because technology has finally caught up to me!

Are there any unfulfilled ambitions left for you, and what are you up to next?

Well, we’re gonna make movies. And I’m gonna have some fun with what I can do. I’ve got one feature out right now, that’s doing fairly well. It’s called Lenny The Wonder Dog, with Craig Ferguson. It’s been playing on the cable systems over here, and I’ve been trying to figure out how best I can get this to everyone. But I’m gonna keep making movies. And there’s some animation things coming up, the beatboxes have convinced me to go ahead and put one out, a new edition thing. That’ll probably end up showing up first.

Just stay tuned! Stay in touch with michaelwinslow.net, and there will be things soon.

Michael Winslow, thank you very much…

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