Larry Kenney looks like he’s having a very good time. His booth at the recent Florida Super Con constantly has at least a half-dozen or so fans in front of it, and he’s more than willing to sign autographs, pose for pictures and talk about the days when he was the voice of the King of the ThunderCats, Lion-O.
“It’s wonderful,” he admits to me later that day, over a couple of cold drinks. “The nostalgia is just amazing. I mean these days I meet both adults and kids, and all of them are fans of ThunderCats. I get emails from people from all walks of life. Many say that ThunderCats was more than entertainment to them. It helped them develop their character.”
As one can imagine, Kenney is a bit of a character himself. He’s actually an old-school radio man who started as a DJ in 1963.
“I started out in radio when I was 15 years old in Peoria, Illinois, in 1963,” he recalls. “I had a real Midwestern accent, short “a’s,” flat vowels and all that. I worked in Cleveland for three years at KYC, from 1970 to 73, when it transitioned into WWWE for a local legend named Nick Miletti. From there I worked in Chicago and then New York. I was a disk jockey until 1972. It was at that time I decided to move over into voice over work.”
His voice work drew attention of Don Imus, who quickly hired him.
“I stayed with him for the next 35 years,” says Kenney. “He was my MAIN man. He was a giant part of my personal income. I would do voices like Nixon, General Patton, Ted Kennedy and Presley. I would write and do all these skits with him. He was everything you could imagine, good and bad. He is what you hear. He can be nasty sometimes. He was also very generous. He gave me lots of creative freedom.”
Then he would make his mark, in a field that was actually pretty new to him, animation.
“It was fun!,” says Kenney. “Being a New York actor, I wasn’t used to doing animated shows at that time. Most were being done in California, in L.A. Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, all of them, were there. So when Rankin-Bass decided to do ThunderCats in New York, a lot of people were actually going around asking why they were doing it there. Personally, I’m glad they did.“I remember when I got the call to audition. Actually, everyone involved was surprised they got the call. The cast was made up of a very unusual group of actors. We all wound up working well together and it was a lot of fun. In fact, I still can’t think of a more fun thing to do than a cartoon series.”
Even by the standards of the mid-80s, the show was exceptional. The superlative animation was from a Japanese studio called Topcraft, which evolved into Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli shortly thereafter. Besides Kenney as Lion-O, the cast included such veterans as Earl Hammond (Jaga), Peter Newman (Tygra, Wily Kat), Earle Hyman (Panthro) and Lynne Lipton (Cheetara, Wily Kit). In fact, this core cast would be heard over and over again in many of the ‘Cats allies and villains.
It was the story of a group of aliens who resembled giant cats that really caught the fans attention. Lion-O was forced to be king, even being forced to mature into his adult form way before his time. In his heart and mind, he was still a pre-teen in a man’s body. He also had his incredible weapon, the Sword of Omens, which gave him incredible side powers. What kid didn’t like that? Then there were the parental figures in the forms of Tygra, Cheetara and Panthro as well as the comic relief of Lion-O’s former nanny Snarf and the Wily Kats. Finishing it all off were the villains, lead by the ancient Mumm-Ra. Yes, there were others who gave the ‘Cats fits, but Mumm-Ra and his equally decrepit pet Ma-Mutt that were the ones who really kept things going.
But what clinched the entire series is its rich background and constructed history. The tale of Third Earth was every bit as incredible as the ThunderCats themselves. It was a universe ripe with incredibly bizarre tales in its own right and we managed to see quite a lot of it over the next five years. One that is still open to many more possibilities.
“It’s now recognized as an animation classic,” Kenney says proudly. “I mean I did some other animation work, like I did Silver Hawks and a show called Tiger Sharks, but by the time we did that the formula was getting pretty old. Also, the whole thing was really watered down. It was like doing the sequel to a sequel to a sequel.”
What amazes Kenney though is the show had a very interesting side benefit. One he never imagined.
“In the last several years I started getting emails from a lot of people,” says Kenney. “They told me how they didn’t have, for lack of better words, very good childhoods. You can tell from the letters they either suffered from abuse or were neglected. I wasn’t just one or two letters. It was a lot. ThunderCats was one of the few good things of their childhoods. It gave them escape. It helped them get over whatever they were going through. It helped them grow up to be doctors and lawyers. I know how it sounds hokey, but I got them.
“To me it was nothing more than a job. Yes, I liked it. It was fun. It was not excessively violent like a lot of other shows. The episodes usually presented the characters with problems and they’d try to solve them. We didn’t think too much about it back then. We also were lucky that it was a good, quality show.”
These days, Kenney is keeping himself busy. He is the voice of Count Chocula and The CoCo Puffs bird. While he wouldn’t answer this one, one gets the feeling that if Imus ever gets back on the air, he’ll be doing his skits again. Imus is loyal like that.
“[I’m doing] Pretty much the same, except for Imus,” he acknowledges. “I’m doing a lot of voice over work. That’s mostly what I do. I’m also working on a pilot for a new animated series, something called Redneck Space Track. We’ve done about 14 episodes.”
There’s even talk of Redneck Space Track eventually going to one channel or another. We’ll have to wait for further announcements on that.
In the meantime, Lion-O has reappeared in the oddest of places. Kenney himself voiced the lion king in a recent cameo appearance of Family Guy. Lion-O has also been neutered, living in a trailer park with Cheetara and leaving a host of villains stranded on an L.A. highway in Robot Chicken.
“I don’t try to keep up with animation these days,” he admits. “I only do it when I can. I usually rely on my son Tanner to keep me up to speed. When Seth McFarlane wanted me to do a guest appearance as Lion-O on Family Guy, if Tanner didn't tell me what the show was about, I probably would have passed on it. In fact, previously I had only seen about two minutes of it and thought it was too loud, vulgar and violent. I didn’t want to be associated with it. Then Tanner straightened me out about it. Who knows? Maybe next I’ll do The Simpsons.”
From the looks of the fans who were surrounding his table that weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised.
MORE SHOW CHANGES ON CW4KIDS
Well, it turns out the Turtles aren’t the only ones springing out of the sewers to replace programming on what is now CW4Kids. The full schedule for the second half of June has been released, and here is what’s in store for you.(NOTE: an asterisk denotes a replacement):
June 21, 2008
7:00 AM WILL & DEWITT
8:00 TOM AND JERRY TALES
9:00 CHAOTIC *
9:30 THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN
10:30 TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES FAST FORWARD *
11:00 YU-GI-OH! GX *
11:30 THE BATMAN *
Pulled from the schedule are Skunk Fu!, Eon Kid, World of Quest and Johnny Test.
You may start breaking out the ashes and sackcloth.
NEW ANIME COMING TO SCI-FI NETWORK
Aniplex and Bandai Entertainment announced they have licensed the television and digital distribution rights to the series Gurren Lagann to Starz Media, which has set the series for its US premier on Sci-Fi Channel July 28 at 11:00 p.m. eastern.
Two episodes will air each week on Sci-Fi during a 14-week run in the Ani-Monday block, which features leading programming from Manga Entertainment, a division of Starz Media. The series will run through late October. Sci-Fi will air a newly prepared English-language version. The production studio for the English version will be Bang Zoom Entertainment.
The 27-episode science fiction, mecha action series centers on Simon, Kamina, and Yoko, youths
who live in an underground village in the future. They become embroiled in a conflict with surface Beastmen who pilot mech known as Gunmen, one of which they take for themselves and name GURREN, and lead the battle against the Beastmen. Recently the series won “best television series” and “best character design’ at the 2008 Tokyo Animation Fair (TAF).
NEXT COLUMN: Hot off the convention trail, we talk to Richard Epcar and his wife Ellyn Stern. Also coming, the directors of Kung Fu Panda.