You may not recognize her walking down the street, but Russi Taylor plays one of the most famous characters in the world.
Taylor has been the voice of Minnie Mouse for more than 30 years, and that’s just a fraction of voice work she’s done in her long career. She’s played Huey, Dewey, and Louie in various Disney projects, Pebbles Flintstone in “The Flintstone Comedy Show,” Pac-Baby in the “Pac-Man” TV series, “Penny Tompkins” in “The Critic,” Baby Gonzo in “Muppet Babies,” and various characters over 17 years on “The Simpsons,” among too many others to count.
She’s currently working on Disney Television Animation’s new series “Mickey and the Roadster Racers,” which brings together all of Disney’s classic characters: Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, and Pluto. In “Racers,” Minnie and Daisy exemplify female empowerment as they run a business called Happy Helpers. It airs Fridays on the Disney Channel.
Taylor, her own soft voice like a lilting tinkling of bells, dislikes being in the spotlight. “I never wanted to be famous,” she says. “The characters I do are famous, and that’s fine for me. I like being able to go to the grocery store and know that nobody knows what I do or who I am.”
Taylor first got the role of Minnie in 1986. The character, originally voiced by Walt Disney himself, hadn’t been voiced by anyone since Janet Waldo played the role in a 1974 Disneyland album, “An Adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Performed by the Walt Disney Players.” She researched the various voices that had been used for Minnie through 1952.
“I tried to find a blend,” she says. “They asked me if I could improvise, so I did the balcony scene from ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and they liked it. Next thing I knew, I was doing ‘Totally Minnie.'”
And that led to more than just a long-running gig as Minnie Mouse. It turned into a real-life love story when she met Wayne Allwine, the longtime voice of Mickey Mouse. Some things are just meant to be.
It was around the time the Disney Studio decided to lock in specific people to be the voices of their classic characters: Allwine as Mickey, Taylor as Minnie, Bill Farmer as Goofy and Pluto, Tony Anselmo as Donald Duck, and Tress MacNeille as Daisy Duck. Allwine had been doing the voice of Mickey Mouse since 1977’s “Mickey Mouse Club” up until his death in 2009.
“We met in the hallway when I was going in to do ‘Totally Minnie.’ He was married and I was married at the time. He said, ‘I’m so glad I’m going to have a Minnie now.’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s pretty exciting,’ and off he went. I didn’t know that he was unhappy and he didn’t know that I was unhappy.” A couple of years later, when they were free from other relationships, they were working on a project together, “and, hello!”
“We just started hanging out as pals, and the next thing you know, we were an item,” Taylor recalls. “We just had fun. He was the best. He was a wonderful man, he was a good man, and he was a kind man. He was very, very strong and very, very male. And that voice came out of him. It’s like, ‘Huh?'”
Taylor and Allwine, who married in 1991, were always together, often sitting in the booth while one of them was recording. “Someone once said to us, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? Are you attached at the hip?’ I said, ‘No, we’re attached at the heart.'”
It was difficult for Taylor to go back to work on “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” after Allwine died. “I took off a few weeks because I just couldn’t breathe, and when I came back (voice director) Kelly (Ward) and the entire crew were waiting for me, and every single one of them gave me hugs and kisses and welcomed me home again. I don’t know how I could have done that without them.” Doing the fifth season of the show was hard on Taylor. Bret Iwan had taken over as Mickey Mouse. “As much as I love Bret, he’s such a dear guy, I just couldn’t work with him as much. I wanted to hear Wayne every time I walked into the booth.”
Taylor recalls the generosity of the crew who pieced together Allwine’s voice work from the library so that his voice would complete that season. “It was one of the kindest things I’ve ever known in my life.”
With her voice, Taylor was destined to be a voice actress. “My brother told me that I used to clown around with voices as a kid. I had done some stuff on camera, then I did some film dubbing when I lived in Europe. When I came back, I’d considered doing on-camera work again, but I didn’t really like it. Then I had an epiphany. I wanted to do what Mel Blanc did, and that was cartoons.”
She had three people she always wanted to work with: Blanc, veteran voice actress and Annie Awards founder June Foray and Jim Henson. “And I got to work with them all! Isn’t that amazing?”
In the 1970s, Taylor got her start doing the voices of Baby G and Gigi, the family of Toys R Us mascot Geoffrey Giraffe, alongside voice legend Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as Tony the Tiger in classic commercials for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” TV special. She followed that up with a role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as Ted and Georgette’s baby.
Taylor explains that the show’s producers wanted demo tapes when they were auditioning for the voice part, but she was new in town and didn’t have one. Her agent convinced them to let her come in to audition.
“I go in and one of the producers said, ‘OK, let me hear it.’ And I asked, ‘Why is the baby crying?’ He said, ‘What?’ and I explained that babies have different cries for different things. So he said, ‘Well, it’s scared.’ I said, ‘OK, and how old is the baby?’ ‘What do you mean, how old is the baby? It’s a baby!’ I said, ‘A newborn sounds different from older babies.’ I finally got all my information, and he looked at me like I was nuts.
“I started doing this cry, and from the other room, I heard these women: ‘Oh, the baby’s here! Let’s go look at the baby!” They come running into the room and said, ‘Where’s the baby?’ I said, ‘I’m over here.’ The producer leaned into his desk and said, ‘Can you be here tomorro at 9?'”
Baby voices are a particular speciality for Taylor. She recalls a chance meeting with John Lasseter while walking with Allwine in the hallway at Burbank Airport in the early days of Pixar. “We were talking, and John turned to me and said, ‘You do baby voices, don’t you? Cries and stuff?’ I said, yeah, and he said, ‘All right, I’ll call you.’ I thought, ‘Great!’ Well, two years later, I got a phone call from John saying, ‘OK, we’re ready now.’ It was for “A Bug’s Life,” and I got to be baby maggots.” She follows this with boisterous laugh before launching into an example of just what crying baby maggots sound like.
Taylor is well aware she has a charmed life, working with the likes of Greer Garson (“If there’s every been a woman’s voice that was THE voice, it was hers”) and Jay Leno, who has a recurring role on “Mickey and the Roadster Racers as racetrack announcer Billy Beagle” (“He’s adorable and knocks it out of the park every time he comes in.”). And she’s exceedingly grateful. “I can’t believe my life,” she says. “I’ve been so lucky. I sit back and go, ‘Don’t let anybody know!’ It’s really fun.”
Taylor also performed some famous voices during Variety‘s interview. Listen to the notable clips below.