For close to a century animated characters have spoken on screen, starting with Max Fleischer’s short Come Take a Trip in my Airship in 1924. Gradually, the sound quality got better and better and voice actors started experimenting with more interesting, goofier and more nuanced voices that perfectly epitomized the personality of their characters. Sometimes the voices were based on famous actors, sometimes they were a hybrid of famous people and some guy they knew back in high school, and sometimes they were completely original and wonderfully bizarre creations.
For this list of the most iconic and memorable voices in animation history, we decided to limit our rankings to only one character per show or movie in what we’re calling “The Simpsons Rule,” meaning this list could very easily have been half-filled with Simpsons characters if we didn’t restrain ourselves.
Protect your pic-a-nic baskets and release the hounds, it’s the 18 Most Iconic Cartoon Character Voices.
18 BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD
We’ll start things off by sort of breaking our one rule, with a two-for-one deal, and what a two-for-one deal it is. We’re ranking Beavis and Butt-Head together not because they’re interchangeable, exactly, but because it’s almost impossible to separate one from the other; they're equally iconic. Let's call it a tie, to keep our rule intact. The stars of the 1990s MTV series Beavis and Butt-Head were both voiced by series creator Mike Judge and both were chuckling, cranky teenage metalhead burnouts with low IQs and a taste for potty humor.
Their voices, though, were very different. For Beavis, who actually seemed slightly dumber (if that’s possible), Judge went higher-pitched from the back of the throat, a little growly and with a bit of a lisp. Truth be told, he didn’t say much at all, mostly chuckling and uttering sentences that rarely ran longer than three words. Butt-Head, on the other hand, was much more verbose. Sure, he also chuckled all the time, but he had more to say, and he said it in a deeper, dopier voice. Both voices, though, are immensely memorable.
17 WINNIE THE POOH
You’re not going to see much more of a contrast on this list than Beavis and Butt-Head followed by Winnie the Pooh (although both do involve distinctly potty-centric names, if we’re being honest). Pooh is the epitome of a wholesome Disney cartoon character who wouldn’t hurt the butterfly that landed on his nose, while those snickering teens probably want to perform “experiments” on the butterfly.
But we digress. We’re talking voices here. Pooh’s voice was supplied by legendary voice actor Sterling Holloway, who was also known as Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat, the snake Kaa in The Jungle Book, and the voice of Purina Puppy Chow commercials.
Holloway provided the gentle, slightly sad voice of the honey-loving bear until 1977, but the two Pooh actors since then, Hal Smith and Jim Cummings, have been faithful to Holloway’s original tones. Just a year before his death in 1992, Holloway was honored as the first voice actor to be named an official “Disney Legend.”
Prior to the 1990s, voices of animated characters were mostly done by dedicated voice artists who spent years perfecting their craft. But when popular screen actors like Robin Williams (Aladdin, 1992) and The Lion King’s (1994) Matthew Broderick and Jeremy Irons gave standout performances, it paved the way to make it the norm for famous actors to voice big-screen cartoon characters. Many simply use a slight variation on their regular speaking voices (Tom Hanks in Toy Story, Owen Wilson in Cars). Then Mike Myers came along and blew them all out of the water with his Scottish take on the titular ogre in Shrek and its sequels.
In 2001, when the first film came out, Myers was still red-hot and in the middle of the Austin Powers franchise, where he played a British spy, so he was known for accents of the British isles. Late actor Chris Farley had actually recorded much of the film as Shrek before he died, using his regular, slightly Wisconsin-area accent.
When Myers came in he helped re-shape the role entirely, not just with his distinctive voice, but also by suggesting key rewrites. He actually originally recorded it using a different voice, then had the idea to make it sound more like his Scottish mother, and re-recorded the entire film in the voice we know and love as Shrek.
Jumping back to the ‘90s, Daria was a spinoff of our list leadoff series, Beavis and Butt-Head. Airing on MTV for five seasons from 1997-2002, it followed a high-school girl named Daria Morgendorffer who had one thing and one thing only in common with her chuckling classmates: misanthropy. In every other way, she was their opposite, with a fierce intelligence that produced a sharp, sarcastic wit.
Tracy Grandstaff, who was also a writer on the show, brought the character to low-key life with a droning, world-weary monotone that underscored how unimpressed she was by the world around her. It perfectly matched her face, which barely moved when she spoke, her perpetually half-lidded eyes occasionally shifting from side to side behind her round glasses.
While at the time the character seemed influenced by the comedy and style of Janeane Garofalo, her legacy seemed to live on in many ways in the Parks & Recreation character April Ludgate, played by Aubrey Plaza, who recently filmed a spot-on live-action take on Daria.
14 FAT ALBERT
While things are much, much different these days, once upon a time it seemed Bill Cosby could do no wrong. That time was the 1970s and ‘80s, when he was a superstar stand-up comic, co-star of the NBC series I Spy, star of one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time (The Cosby Show), and the creator and voice actor of the ‘70s Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
The Fat Albert show was largely based on Cosby’s own childhood in Philadelphia and his group of friends. It was the eponymous portly, red-shirted hero whose voice is most associated with the show, thanks to his deep, bellowing, somewhat gravelly catchphrase, “Hey, hey, hey!”
There was certainly a weirder, and equally memorable voice on the show, though. That would be Mushmouth, also voiced by Cosby, with his “Ubbi dubbi” speaking style, where he inserts “ub” between many syllables.
13 OPTIMUS PRIME
Canadian voice actor Peter Cullen was the first voice of Optimus Prime in the original 1980s Transformers animated series, and for many fans he’s the only voice of Optimus Prime worth listening to. His take on the Autobot leader is not terribly emotive, but definitely authoritative and just gentle and sympathetic enough to make him adored not only by his fellow Autobots, but Transformers fans as well.
Cullen has also voiced Prime in all five movies, including the upcoming Transformers: The Last Knight (due in theatres June 23, 2018), not to mention 13 video games, four animated series, the animated movie, as well as other media.
Who gets credit for inspiring Optimus’ voice? That would be Cullen’s brother, who fought in Vietnam and taught him about quiet leadership. The distinguished voice actor can also be heard alongside another character on this list, as Winnie the Pooh’s depressed donkey friend Eeyore.
12 THE JOKER
Mark Hamill is not only beloved by geeks far and wide as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise, but also as the definitive voice of the Joker in various animated series. It all started with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. As Hamill told the tale on a recent Nerdist Podcast, heading into the audition he didn’t feel he had a chance, since he’s so associated with Skywalker, the ultimate good guy. How could he be taken seriously as a deranged evildoer? Thinking he had nothing to lose, he went all out, really pushing the envelope with the madness. As it turns out, that’s what landed him the role.
Hamill’s take is characterized, appropriately, by equal parts madness and silliness, quick transitions from high pitches to low, and different insane laughs for different occasions. He most recently voiced the Joker in this past summer’s animated film Batman: The Killing Joke, but even more recently he’s been busy reading Donald Trump tweets in the Joker’s voice.
Unless you live in the National Lampoon’s Vacation universe and obsess over Marty Moose, everyone’s favorite cartoon moose is most definitely Bullwinkle J. Moose, from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Bill Scott was one of the creators of the show and a writer, who also happened to produce one of the all-time great cartoon voices in Bullwinkle. In fact, he made a career of it, voicing the moose from his first appearance in 1959 until his death in 1985.
Bullwinkle’s voice is a voice made for comedy. The very sound of it is funny: just plain, wonderfully dopey. It’s one of those voices where if you try to mimic it yourself, you can’t help but contort your face into all kinds of dopey weirdness.
Interestingly, over the past few years, another famous cartoon voice-over artist has taken over the voice of Bullwinkle: SpongeBob SquarePants voicer Tom Kenny (and will SpongeBob make the list? Maybe…).
10 BENDER FROM FUTURAMA
You can’t go wrong with a hilariously cranky robot. That theory was most recently proven in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO. Arguably the best example, though, is Bender Bending Rodríguez from the Fox TV series Futurama. There’s just about nobody he genuinely likes in the world, aside from the two people on his “Do Not Kill” list, maybe. Though he was built to bend metal, Bender's real joys come from human vices like alcoholism and chain smoking.
His voice perfectly fits his disgruntled, raunchy personality. Provided by prolific voice actor John DiMaggio, he sounds nothing like a robot. Rather, Bender's voice resembles a surly, drunken New Yorker (despite the fact that he was built in Mexico) with a wheezy laugh. DiMaggio describes Bender as “the drunk at the end of every bar in the Northeast. Just a sloppy drunk,” combined with a little Slim Pickens and a voice his college buddy made up called "Charlie the sausage-lover."
9 YOGI BEAR
The inimitable animation production team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera brought a seemingly endless stream of legendary characters into the world, from Fred Flintstone to George Jetson to Tom and Jerry and Scooby-Doo. It was Yogi Bear, though, that was the first to really become a household name, after debuting in 1958. He was obsessed with stealing the “pic-a-nic baskets” of visitors to his home, Jellystone Park, and fooling the park’s ranger.
Much like the later Hanna-Barbera character Barney Rubble from The Flintstones, Yogi was based on actor Art Carney’s The Honeymooners character, Ed Norton. For the first 30 years of the character’s existence, Daws Butler brought his take on Norton’s over-the-top enthusiasm to Yogi’s voice. Since Butler’s death in 1988, a series of other actors have voiced Yogi, including Dan Aykroyd in the 2010 live-action/computer animated feature film, but all mimicked that same Norton-inspired voice made famous by Butler.
8 STEWIE GRIFFIN FROM FAMILY GUY
There are many memorable voices on the Fox series Family Guy, which debuted in 1999 and is now in its 15th season, but none more than the matricidal, evil genius baby, Stewie Griffin. Like Stewie’s dad, Peter, and best friend/dog, Brian, the nefarious infant is voiced by series creator Seth MacFarlane, who made the brilliantly odd choice to give him an eloquent, arrogant, upper-class British accent. The tragedy is that nobody on the show can hear his hilarious voice, other than Brian.
Where did that crazy accent come from, you ask? MacFarlane was inspired by British actor Rex Harrison’s performance as Henry Higgins in the 1964 musical My Fair Lady, with his comedic transitions from dramatically high tones to dramatically low ones. The series creator claims to have been fascinated by the character and even used the voice to pick up girls in college (which is especially amusing considering Stewie’s ambiguous sexuality).
7 ERIC CARTMAN FROM SOUTH PARK
Speaking of evil kids. If Stewie Griffin is evil, then Eric Cartman, the most sociopathic and narcissistic kid on South Park, is Satan himself. And that’s saying something on a show where Satan is actually a character (and one who actually might be a decent hang, at that). It’s a perpetual puzzle as to why the show’s good kids, Stan, Kyle and Kenny, want to hang out with Cartman. The kid is pure evil. Just google “worst things Cartman has done” and you’ll be appalled, yet somehow amused, by his anti-semitism, anti-ginger-ism, attempting to give his friends AIDS... and then there’s what he did to poor Scott Tenorman.
His voice, performed by series co-creator Trey Parker, oozes all of this despicableness. It’s high-pitched and whiny, with a razor-sharp edge, especially when he’s upset. Unlike most voices, though, Cartman’s is not an affectation of Parker’s natural voice. Well, it is in part. Parker speaks in his normal voice, with a bit of a child-like touch, and then they use the audio editing software Pro Tools to crank the pitch up.
Surely if you’ve watched South Park you’ve tried at least once to say, in Cartman’s signature whine, “Screw you guys, I’m going home,” or, “You must respect my authoritah!”
6 BETTY BOOP
Dating way back to 1930, Betty Boop was a caricature of flappers-- young women in the 1920s who wore short skirts, bobbed hair, and loved dancing to jazz. She was baby-faced with a huge head and gigantic eyes, way out of proportion to the rest of her body, yet the rest of her body was decidedly womanly. In fact, she’s viewed as one of the first animated characters to be deemed “sexy,” which became highly controversial as American society became more conservative in the mid-’30s, leading to her change to a more clothed appearance.
Created by Max Fleischer, who also birthed Popeye, Betty’s babyish face was matched by her childlike, high-pitched voice. Though originally provided by Margie Hines, it was Mae Questel who made a name for herself voicing the cartoon coquette. Questel brought the higher-pitched voice and occasional squeals that make Betty's voice so iconic and are echoed in the tones brought by today’s Betty Boop voice actors.
5 MR. BURNS FROM THE SIMPSONS
Somehow Charles Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons is lovable despite being completely despicable. The unspeakably old (his stated age varies from 81 to 104), unapologetically evil billionaire owns the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, loves to sic his hounds on trespassers, is profoundly frail, and is completely out of touch with modern times.
While actor Harry Shearer has become almost as rich as Burns himself thanks to voicing the character for the past 27 years, he actually wasn’t the original voice of Burns. In his first four appearances, Burns was voiced by Christopher Collins, who probably made the biggest mistake of his life when he was deemed difficult to work with and subsequently fired. Through Shearer’s weak, raspy, throaty characterization, Burns delights in his evil and occasional absurdity. Interestingly, Burns has a presidential influence, as he's based in part on Ronald Reagan, with a dose of actor Lionel Barrymore thrown in. Shearer won an Emmy for voicing Burns in 2014.
4 SHAGGY FROM SCOOBY-DOO
Scaredy-dog Scooby-Doo may be the star of the show in the many TV series and movies bearing his name, but it’s the voice of his human sidekick Shaggy that stands out from the rest. Ultimately, the rail-thin slacker has two settings: scared and excited about food, and both emotions are echoed by his canine buddy.
The late, renowned radio DJ Casey Kasem gets credit for perfectly embodying those two emotions in the voice of Norville “Shaggy” Rogers. His high-pitched voice always seems to be in some heightened state of emotion, whether from fright or enthusiasm. There’s always a slight quiver to his speech, which is constantly peppered with the words “like,” “g-g-g-g-g-ghost”, and “Scoob.”
In 2002, in the live-action Scooby-Doo movie, we learned that actor Matthew Lillard can do a spot-on impersonation of Kasem as Shaggy, so when Kasem retired in 2009, Lillard took over the animated voice acting as well.
3 SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
Think about SpongeBob SquarePants laughing. Are you smiling? Good, then you know you have a heart. The thing about SpongeBob is that he’s pure mania. Most of the time he’s manically happy and laughs that laugh, that is until he gets manically sad and his whole face droops, or manically scared and he screams as his eyes bulge out.
He’s a perfect blend of animation and vocal talents, the latter provided hilariously by Tom Kenny, a man of many voices (he’s all over the cartoon world, from Adventure Time to The Clone Wars to various superhero shows). It’s no wonder SpongeBob is so manic, since his personality and voice were modeled after the often hyper on-screen personas of Jerry Lewis, Stan Laurel, and Pee-wee Herman. It’s said that Kenny burst out with the iconic voice within seconds of hearing the details of SpongeBob’s personality. Interestingly, Kenny had used the voice before, as a one-off character on Rocko’s Modern Life.
2 MICKEY MOUSE
M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-you have one heck of a memorable voice, Mickey Mouse. Arguably the most recognizable animated character in the world, Mickey was, of course, the creation of Walt Disney himself, dating all the way back to 1928, which slips him past Betty Boop as the oldest character on this list. When we first saw him in the black and white short Steamboat Willie (the first cartoon to synchronize sound and picture), he was non-verbal, aside from some whistling and high-pitched squeaks that hinted at the voice to come in later appearances
In those first talkie appearances, he was voiced by his creator, Disney. All told, 15 different people have provided Mickey’s voice over the past nearly 90 years, all using the distinct, somewhat shy falsetto that began with Disney. One of the actors, Wayne Allwine, who was the voice through the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, said former voice Jimmy MacDonald told him, “You’re only filling in for the boss,” meaning Disney. That seems to be the guiding principle for all the actors, including current voice Bret Iwan, who took over in 2009.
1 BUGS BUNNY
Bugs Bunny is cooler than you. Bugs Bunny will outsmart you. Bugs Bunny has more fun than you. Bugs Bunny will disinterestedly ask you “what’s up?” and call you “Doc.” All these things are true about the world's most famous rabbit and he knows it – every bit of those character traits is rolled into his smarmy, Bronx/Brooklyn-accented voice. Somehow, despite the fact that he thinks he’s better than you, Bugs is immensely lovable, and that’s the miracle of Bugs Bunny and the voice created by the immortal Mel Blanc, who voiced him from Bugs’ official debut in 1940 until Blanc’s death in 1989.
Amazingly, Blanc originally second-guessed the incredible voice, giving him a Jimmy Stewart flare for his second short, but immediately returned to the voice we now know and love. Though five actors have voiced Bugs since Blanc’s death, it was Jeff Bergman who took over for Blanc in 1990 and has voiced him exclusively since 2011, in a tone, of course, as close as he can get to Blanc’s original. But, frankly, nobody can touch that Blanc snark.