TEDDY BOY: an interview with Jack Angel

Last week’s UK box-office champ A.I. Artificial Intelligence has divided audiences and critics like few releases this year. The futuristic Pinocchio retread follows android David’s (Haley Joel Osment) epic quest to become a real boy, accompanied by his very own Jiminy Cricket: a walking, talking, 2ft-tall teddy-bear. But even the film’s harshest detractors admit Teddy is a remarkable creation. He’s been described “AI‘s hero,” “the most touching movie character created without a physical actor since E.T.,” and “an R2D2 for the new century.” Stan Winston’s special-effects team, one reviewer wrote, “should win Academy Awards for Teddy alone,” while another went further: “he should be up for best supporting actor in the Oscars this year. Or better yet, get his own Teddy movie.”

Osment and nominal co-star Jude Law can consider themselves well and truly upstaged, but Teddy could so easily have been the most off-puttingly Spielbergian element about the whole enterprise. The fact that he is, instead, so “wonderfully matter-of-fact” and “miraculously un-cute” is largely due to the growly vocal chords of 70-year-old Jack Angel. Speaking from his San Francisco home – under the plastic gaze of the three different-sized tie-in bears produced by Hasbro – Angel is still amazed by the response he’s received for what he describes as “far and away the best experience of my career,” even if the film didn’t live up to box-office expectations. “It opened big then it went straight down the toilet,” he says, wondering if a blockbusting success might have led to the bonanza of voice-over work that greeted 2001‘s Douglas Rain (HAL) or Star Wars‘ James Earl Jones.

Few “VO” artists achieve that kind of renown, but Angel has worked with the best, from Woody Woodpecker’s Daws Butler (“he was a great friend of mine and I admired him no end”) to the Mel Blanc, the legendary ‘man of 1,000 voices’ (“he was brilliant, but when I met him he was a crotchety, nasty old man, not likeable at all.”) Angel also picks out the ABC network’s longtime announcer Ernie Anderson – “he had this great huge rich voice” – now better known as the father of Magnolia wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson.

A former radio announcer, Angel’s credits include Scooby Doo and most of Hollywood’s animated features of the last decade. But you’d need eagle eyes to spot his name in the ‘end crawl,’ as he’s mainly contributed fleeting bit parts and general background hubbub: what’s known in Britain as ‘rhubarb-rhubarb,’ and in the States as ‘walla-walla.’ He specialised in roaring, fantastical creatures in obscure TV cartoons: “But I’ve gotten to the point in my career now where I don’t want to do those monster voices any more. I’ve been hurting my throat badly from doing that – if I go out a work for a day, I cough for four after.”

Spielberg selected Angel for audition after listening to 100 taped applicants. “Everything was shrouded in secrecy – I thought it was a cartoon series of some sort, they gave no indication of what it was. They gave me some made-up name, Prince something-or-other, and they didn’t even say it was going to be a bear. They just said it should sound like Eeyore, except not so dumb, so I dropped my voice down to its lowest register.

“Everybody else would have gone for a more high-pitched, squeaky toy-bear voice, but mine was nothing like that. When Robin Williams was recording his little part [holographic oracle Dr Know] he said, ‘Oooh, Teddy sounds so malevolent!’, and I said, ‘When you get to know him, he’s such a nice bear you love him. I asked every person on the set if they were casting the part of Teddy, would they have chosen my voice, and they all said no. Steven loved that – he marches to a different drummer.”

Teddy is, of course, an old bear, even if he is the resilient ‘super-toy’ referred to in the title of Brian Aldiss’s original short story ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.’ But he seems to have had an extra significance for the project’s original director Stanley Kubrick – who inserted a very similar bear right at the end of Eyes Wide Shut – and thus for Spielberg in turn. Kubrick-watchers have traced the ‘bear’ motif back to The Shining and beyond, and giving David’s mentor such a deep American growl was, perhaps, Spielberg’s subtle homage to his own wise, not-un-bear-like mentor.

Angel was in a unique position to observe Spielberg’s painstaking fidelity to Kubrick’s intentions (his usual instruction was a simple “less emotion, less emotion”) – Angel says he recorded the vast bulk of his lines in a single day, but was asked to remain on set for the duration of the shoot: “We were pretty much side-by-side for the whole of the four months, and we developed a lovely relationship. It was in the middle of the US election campaign, and he spent a lot of time on the phone with Al Gore. Some days when he was busy on set I’d tell him about what Gore had been up to, what they’d been showing on TV.

“I’d try different readings and when he heard what he liked he’d look right at me and turn on those highbeams of his, and he’d walk away – but you could take that heat and go melt an iceberg.” But such privileged access had its downside: “When I saw the finished movie, I was terribly disappointed. I was shocked by the number of Teddy scenes they’d eliminated – it was just wholesale slaughter. Of course, it’s a long movie as it is, and if they’d left all that stuff in we’d still be watching it.”

Angel’s frustration will be shared by A.I.‘s viewers – the film takes off whenever Teddy is on screen, and while few of the ponderous thematic and philosophical preoccupations add up to very much, Teddy is by far the most sympathetic, expressive, intelligent character on view – human or man-made – and thus easily the most intriguing. He’s the only aspect of the film, one suspects, that would have found favour with artificial intelligence’s literary master, Philip K (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) Dick. Especially if they’d left in a remarkable-sounding moment when Teddy as roused from slumber, still half-‘asleep,’ muttering ‘I am not a toy!’ to his dream-world doubters. “It was such an integral part of establishing who Teddy was, but it just hit the deck,” regrets Angel who, like Teddy’s legion of worldwide fans, can hardly wait for the DVD.

Neil Young
30th September 2001
written for The Independent newspaper