One glance tells you that the animated Batman nailed the characters and the settings. You'd be hard-pressed to say that the music could have been better. And the stories rocked. But the execution simply would not have worked if it weren't for the many subtle voice performances in all three series.
"Cartoon action" does not call for "cartoonish voices"; quite the opposite, especially in a show intended to be grounded in believable characters. A funny voice coming out of a serious character would have ruined things.
It's not enough to say that the performers on Batman are simply good at their craftthough many of them have enough live-action credits to their name to suggest that many are excellent actors. Just as a film role often demands that its actor have a particular "look," so too a voice role often requires that an actor have a particular "sound," a timbre or quality that communcates, almost subliminally, personality and character. It can also require an almost-minute control: meaning can sometimes be conveyed in the sound of a syllable.
So in casting the series, director Andrea Romano said that she went looking for "voices with character," not "character voices." And dang if she didn't find them 99% of the time.
For most Batman fans, Kevin Conroy simply is Batmanno one, not Michael Keaton, not Adam West, and certainly not George Clooneyhas ever come so close to embodying the character. Conroy's warm but grave baritone perfectly captured the integrity and determination of the Bat. In The New Adventures especially you can hear an iron, unbending tone that doesn't need to shout, rant or bully in order to daunt an opponent. But from the first episodes you could also hear the heat of anger and the ash of loss in Conroy's voice. And his skill is such that, with only a slight shift in tone, he could also give us the silly but friendly tones of the young Bruce Wayne or the guttering, snarling disappointment of the oldand each voice, always, obviously belonged to the same character.
Conroy was surrounded with performers equally adept. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was a particular standout, turning Alfred into a dry, understated and slightly amused (but always devoted) onlooker; he made Alfred into a father figure without ever becoming paternalistic. Loren Lester had the obstreperous youth and energy of a hero on the cusp of independence; Mathew Valencia had the callow, studied indifference of a teenager trying not to admit that being Robin was the coolest thing ever.
And then there were the villains. Some had such distinctive presences that you might almost think they were playing themselves: David Warner (Ra's al-Ghul), Roddy McDowell (Jervis Tetch), John Glover (Edward Nygma), John Vernon (Rupert Thorne), Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn), Paul Williams (the Penguin). But their voices were like musical instruments upon which the actors performed to virtuosic effect. And there were also the astonishing tour-de-force performances of Mark Hamill as the Joker and Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. Ansara put emotion into Freeze while taking the heat out, and the effect was like feeling liquid oxygen boil off your skin. About Hamill what can be said? He was like James Cagney doing the Charleston on a flagpole atop the Empire State Building.
There were also ample guest stars, but all were "right" for their rolesthere was no Simpsons-style mugging by performers coming in to do a cameo on a "cool" show. Some, like Linda Hamilton, William H. Macy and Nichelle Nichols, were names with high-profile careers. But there were plenty of character actors whose faces you might recognize even if you couldn't place their names and voices: Jeffrey Jones, Joseph Maher, William Windom, William Sanderson, Dick Miller, Paul Dooley, Charles Kimbrough. Even when it went for stunt casting, it turned out beautifully.
Finally, there was Will Friedle, who had the unenviable task of taking over as Batman in Batman Beyond. Not that he had to take over the role of the young Bruce Wayne: that would likely have been a burden beyond anyone. Instead, he had to convince us that a punk from the future could, plausibly, become the new Batman. Friedle is best known as one of those floppy-haired teen actors on bad sitcoms, and he usually plays dimbulbs at that. But he can overcome the script in even the most dire made-for-Disney moviea clue that he has real acting chops. And he gave Terry insolence, sarcasm and hunger, qualities not associated with Batman but which, when married to Terry's idealism, made him an original and unexpected version of the character. Terry was not the best-written character in Batman Beyond (it missed many opportunities to explore and expand upon him), but Friedle, without seeming effort, took what was there and made it feel real.
There are a lot of
actors on television (on the WB especially) who get by on their looks
and attitude. The Batman series had looks and attitude to spare,
and I suppose they could have gotten by on those as well. But they had
soul too. And if you turn up the volume on your television, you can
hear it still, in the voices of the acting professionals who poured themselves
into the characters.