During his lengthy career, the voice of actor Paul Frees was not so much ubiquitous as inescapable, said film historian Hal Erickson. It was literally impossible during the 1960s and most of the 1970s to turn on the TV on any given night and not hear the ineluctable Mr. Frees.
Born Solomon Hersh Frees in Chicago on June 22, 1920, he began his acting career in 1942, and remained active for over forty years. During this time, he was involved in more than 250 films, cartoons, and television appearances; like many voice actors, his appearances were often uncredited.
Gifted with an amazing ear and versatile voice from an early age, Paul’s early radio career was cut short when he was drafted during World War II. He was wounded in action at Normandy on D-Day and returned to the United States for a year of recuperation. He attended the Chouinard Art Institute under the G.I. Bill, but his first wife’s failing health forced him to drop out and return to radio work.
He was the star of The Player, a syndicated anthology series in which he played all the roles. He appeared frequently on such Hollywood radio series as Escape, Suspense, Gunsmoke, Crime Classics, and The Green Lama. Paul began working in films in 1948, sometimes as an on-screen actor, but most often utilizing his chameleonic voice acting ability. In 1956, when Chill Wills was unavailable to provide the talking mule’s voice for Francis in Haunted House, Paul replaced him, recreating Wills’ drawl; when Tony Curtis’ Josephine in Some Like It Hot required a more melodious falsetto, Paul supplied it.
Paul was often called upon in the 1950s and 1960s to loop the dialogue of other actors, often to correct for foreign accents, lack of English proficiency, or poor line readings by non-professionals. These dubs extended from a few lines to entire roles.
Whenever Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune appeared in an English-language film like Grand Prix or Midway, he would insist that his heavily accented voice be looped by Frees; Mifune claimed that, “Paul sounds more like me than I do.”
He was a regular presence in Jay Ward cartoons, providing the voices of Boris Badenov and Inspector Fenwick in Dudley Do-Right, among many others. He spent major parts of his career working with at least nine of the major animation production companies of the 20th century: The Walt Disney Studios, Walter Lantz Studio, UPA, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, MGM, DePatie-Freleng, Jay Ward, and Rankin-Bass Productions. Paul began working for Disney dubbing voices for television and features, including narration for the Man in Space series, From Aesop to Hans Christian Andersen, the Boys of the Western Sea serial, The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, Tonka, Tales of Texas John Slaughter, The Absent-Minded Professor, Moochie of Pop Warner Football, The Ballad of Hector, the Stowaway Dog, and The Monkey’s Uncle. For The Ugly Dachshund , he looped the voice of Eddie entirely, since actor Richard Wessel had passed away after the completion of principal photography.
Most famously, Paul’s comedic Germanic accent and free-wheeling improvisational ability brought personality and popularity to Donald Duck’s nutty Uncle, Professor Ludwig Von Drake, who was introduced on An Adventure in Color and subsequently became a frequent host of Disney’s Sunday night television institution, as well as a star of Disneyland Records.
For the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, Paul was the sonorous narrator of the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln pre-show at the Illinois Pavilion. For Disneyland, he provided the dramatic you are there narration for Adventure Thru Inner Space. Some of his most memorable voice performances are still playing today at Disney Parks: Paul is the Ghost Host in the Haunted Mansion, and many of the various Pirates of the Caribbean.
Paul Frees passed away on November 2, 1986, in Tiburon, California. When asked if he ever had reason to resent the relative anonymity of his art form, he replied, “Sometimes, yes. But it’s nothing I can’t overcome when I look at the bank balance.”