The voice of Michelangelo on the highly-popular animated series takes a look back on the 25th anniversary of this creation.
Townsend Coleman was a DJ and radio personality in Cleveland, Ohio for many years, when he decided it was time to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor, and moved his family to Hollywood in 1984. Due to his radio experience, he found more work as a voice actor and in 1987 he took on the voice of a character that would be part of a cultural phenomena in the 80s and 90s: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. Coleman performed the voice of my personal favorite turtle, Michelangelo, and I recently had the chance to speak with him over the phone about the 25th anniversary of these wonderful characters' creation and the four-part Season 7 DVD set that was broken off into four "slices" - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 1 - The Leonardo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 2 - The Michelangelo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 3 - The Donatello Slice and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 4 - The Raphael Slice - which hit the DVD shelves on May 12. Here's what Coleman had to say about this classic character.
Before you came on, you had been doing voice work for a few years, so how did you first get connected with Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman for the animated series?
Townsend Coleman: Well, I really didn't get connected with them, I just auditioned for the show, along with a billion other people here in Hollywood. I was actually doing a show at the time, it was probably about 1986. I had moved out here in 1984 and was doing animation for a couple of years and was working on a show called Fraggle Rock, which was the animated version of the (Jim) Henson show. It was for NBC and we were doing that animated version and I was playing Gobo on that and the voice director on that show came in one day and he pulled out a copy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, one of the original black and white ones. He said, 'You guys aren't going to believe this, but check this out. I'm going to be directing a new series and look what it's called.' He showed us the comic book and we rolled our eyes and said, 'What? No way.' He said he'd bring us in on it and we'll see where it goes. So, cut to the auditions and I went and auditioned for a couple of characters. I auditioned for Raphael and Leonardo and Michelangelo. I come to find out, shortly after that, that I was cast in the show, so that's how I got started. Interestingly enough, when I was cast, they had not decided whether or not I was going to play Michelangelo or Leonardo, and likewise with Cam Clarke, who ended up playing Leonardo, they weren't sure if he was going to play Leonardo or Michelangelo. They decided what they were going to do was make their decision at our first session. We would just do a read-through and I would do a read-through once as Michelangelo and Cam as Leonardo, and then we would switch, do another read-through, and they would make their decision, and that would be that. As it turned out, when we got to the end of that first read-through, there was something going on in the control room, they were having creative conversations about which way to go and whatever they were concentrating on in there, that made it so they didn't even bother switching us for the read-through, we just did another read-through with me as Michelangelo again, and that was our first session and that's the way it stayed. That was that first five-part mini-series and then the show got picked up and we all got booked to do a bunch more episodes, not knowing it was going to go ten years.
I know that when the comics came out, they were just an incredible success. They were produced for such a little amount of money and they kept doing other runs, so you weren't really aware of the comic book at all?
Townsend Coleman: No, I was not aware of it at all. I know that it was sort of a big hit in the Northeast, as a lot of comics seem to come out of the Boston area. I'm not really a big comic book fan, I'm not a big sci-fi geek or anything like that, so not being that into it, I certainly wasn't aware of it. The first time I had heard of it was when Stu pulled that copy of one of the original comics out of his briefcase.
When I was a kid, Michelangelo was actually my favorite character.
Townsend Coleman: On the TV show? How old are you then?
Townsend Coleman: OK. You didn't let Michelangelo distort your mind and twist your little tiny brain into something that caused you to pick up a kitchen knife and run at your mom shouting "Cowabunga," did you?
Nothing like that, no. Perhaps with my little brothers, but not my mom.
Townsend Coleman: Right. No, that's something that my youngest son did. My wife was not crazy about me doing it. She thought it was warping their minids.
That's what's kind of funny now, is these original cartoons seem pretty tame to stuff that's out now.
Townsend Coleman: Yeah, no fooling. Well, I guess they were pretty racy for the time, back in 1987. Mostly what you're watching is My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake or something. Yeah, I think it was maybe considered a little violent or a little over-the-top back then, but compared to nowadays? Forget about it. So, you liked Michelangelo, huh?
Yeah, absolutely. I don't know why, really. I interviewed Kevin (Eastman) not too long ago and I was asking him what his favorite turtle was and stuff like that, because everyone seems to have their favorite.
Townsend Coleman: It always cracks me up, yeah.
Yeah, I don't really know why. I think it had a lot to do with the nunchucks, because I loved Bruce Lee when I was a kid.
Townsend Coleman: It's funny because I would do interviews or appearances and it always seemed like Michelangelo - not to toot my own horn - but Michelangelo seemed to be one of the more popular characters and the only thing I could attribute it to was he was always sort of goofy and he was the party dude and the goofy loose one. But you're right, everyone seemed to pick a favorite turtle. I think Kevin said his was Raphael. So, yours was Michelangelo. Do you know why?
No, I really don't. That's the thing. It could be just his attitude or just the nunchucks. I always thought nunchucks were cool when I was a kid.
Townsend Coleman: Did you have nunchucks?
I made some, yeah.
Townsend Coleman: (Laughs)
Some very very crude ones. I think it was a couple of table legs with duct tape, eye-hooks and some very thin link chain.
Townsend Coleman: And you probably still have them.
I wish I could say I did, but I don't.
Townsend Coleman: You could've taken them to Comic-Con and had them signed by Peter Laird or something.
That's very true. Maybe I should've kept them. Oh well.
Townsend Coleman: Yeah.
So you said that the voice just happened impromptu, so when you found out that you actually were going to be Michelangelo, what kind of informed the voice?
Townsend Coleman: Well, when you audition for a cartoon or an animated character, they'll generally give you a picture of what the character looks like and then there'll be a description of what this character is about and some sample lines. When we auditioned for Turtles, it was the same deal and I think I recall that Michelangelo was the party dude, kind of a surfer, kind of a valley dude. I had just moved here from Ohio in '84, so back in Cleveland, I had no idea what a surfer or a party dude or a valley guy would sound like. So when I moved out here, in those couple of years, I kind of got a sense of what they were talking about. I just remembered Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, you know, being sort of that burned-out dude, so that was probably where I got a start from, and then sort of added my own personality and twist to it. At first, I think I was holding back and if you listen to those first five episodes, they were sort of flat, the character, the voice, the inflections and tones. It just sort of lacked personality, even though the catch-phrases were there. You listen from later on in the first and second seasons, you really hear all the characters really develop as we settled in to the comfort of what the characters felt like to us.
So, lets just say, hypothetically, that all the turtles got in a fight over some pizza or something like that. What do you think the chances are that Michelangelo would come out on top of that fight?
Townsend Coleman: (in character as Michelangelo) Oh dude, are you kidding? Pizza courses through my veins, dude. Definitely I'd come out on top. I don't care what it takes. All it takes is a little Cowabunga!
I read that you initially moved out to L.A. to be an actor, so what kind of turned you around to voice acting?
Townsend Coleman: Well, back in Cleveland, Ohio, I had been a DJ, a rock-jock for close to 10 years. Finally, when I turned 30, I just decided I had enough of radio, I always wanted to be an actor, I was doing acting in Ohio and so I came out here after the Olympics, found a place to rent, went back home and said, 'Honey, we're up and moving the kids to Hollywood.' She was a little nervous about it because we didn't really know anyone here. I was just out looking for work, trying to get an agent, and I got really lucky and got a great commercial and voiceover agent within my first week here. Back home, I had been production director at a number of the radio stations I was at, so I was voicing a lot of the commercials and I had a really good demo reel when I came out here. So, virtually, the first guy I gave it to, signed me and I'm still with him today, 25 years later. I knew that I could do voiceovers to kind of pay the bills while I was trying to get a theatrical agent and get my acting career going, because that's what I really really wanted to do. The voiceover stuff I knew I could do if I had to, but as it turned out, the voice stuff just kind of took off. Six months after moving here, I got my first cartoon series and my first on-camera national commercial and my first little movie role, all within 10 days of each other. So I thought I was off and running, I was doing Inspector Gadget and I got this Kraft barbeque sauce commercial running and this movie with Tommy Lee Jones, so I was on top of the world. As it turned out, the voiceover stuff took off, but the movies and TV stuff, I was beating my head against a wall for, gosh, a good two or three years, with no success. To be honest, Brian, I just hated the whole process of the auditions and even the people in it, I hate to say, but the competition and the attitudes and the cut-throat nature of the theatrical stuff, just was so unappealing to me. In the voiceover world, you will never meet a greater, kinder, nicer bunch of actors in your life. That was much more my style, my speed and towards my liking. After about two or three years, I just gave up the whole theatrical dream and just turned my energy towards commercials and voiceovers. It was amazing how much more work I ended up getting, because my attitude was so much better. It was really tough to let that go, but I'll tell you, it's the best decision I've ever made.
So you're currently voicing Sentinel Prime in the Transformers: Animated series, so is there any chance we might hear a voice from you in the theatrical sequels?
Townsend Coleman: You know what, I don't think so. I don't even think that, in the new Transformers coming out, that they even have a Sentinel Prime character. I'd like to think that they would use me, if possible. I know they brought back Peter Cullen for Prime, which was the smartest thing they could've done. Not only is he brilliant, but he IS Prime. Some things you just don't mess with.
So, finally, it's been 25 years since the original characters were created, so how do you think this series has evolved throughout the years and where do you see the turtles going in the future?
Townsend Coleman: I thought it was interesting, because our series lasted ten years, and for probably the first half of that, the characters didn't evolve a whole lot. We got comfortable in that first season, but then for the next five or six years, they didn't really evolve too much. They stayed very consistent, but then about Season Six or, here with this new Season 7 DVD series that's out, I remember they were injecting more characters and we were going overseas and the characters were getting a little tougher, a little rougher around the edges. They wanted to give them a little more edge. I got the sense that they wanted to turn these characters a little more in the direction of the original comic books and by the time the series ended, they were going much more in that direction. Where do I see them going from here? I couldn't even tell you. It's been quite a franchise, hasn't it, for 25 years? Between the action figures and the movies and the cartoon series, it's amazing. It seems that now that there's a real resurgence and interest in the Turtles. I don't know if it's because of the anniversary or what, but people are still interested in these characters. It's fascinating. I just can't tell you how thrilled and proud and appreciative of being a part of something that was so fun to do, and lasted so long and really became so iconic.
Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Townsend. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck on your new projects.
Townsend Coleman: Absolutely, my friend. See you, Brian.
You can pick up all four slices - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 1 - The Leonardo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 2 - The Michelangelo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 3 - The Donatello Slice and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 4 - The Raphael Slice - of this Seventh Season on DVD shelves now.