“One time I took my car in to get serviced,” recalled Kevin Conroy, who was born in Long Island, New York. “I went to a mechanic I hadn’t been before but was recommended to me.
“When I met him, I told him my name was Kevin Conroy. He thought that was funny, saying that was the name of a big guy in animation. When I asked him what he meant, he said ‘That’s the guy who does Batman!’
“Then I told him that was me. At first, he said, ‘Get out of here! That’s bull!’ So I showed him my driver’s license. His reaction was ‘you’re THAT Kevin Conroy…what are you doing in New York!?’ Next thing I knew he called everyone out from the garage shouting that Batman was there.
“It always amazes me when people recognize the name. Voice acting is a very anonymous profession.”
Then again, in 1991 Conroy took on a voice job that has now branded him for the rest of his life, that of the Dark Knight, Batman. Ever since the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini/Eric Radomski version of the series first hit the air on Fox way back when, Conroy has been returning to the recording booth to recap the role he’s most identified with. He isn’t complaining, either.
“It was just the luck of the draw,” he admits. “I just happened to be the right person they were looking for when they were looking for that role. I am amazed at the longevity. Now kids have their kids watching the show. It’s second generation. I don’t take for granted at all.
“I get very impatient with actors who don’t know how lucky they are. The ones who can make a living at it sometimes just don’t know how good they have it. We are just the luckiest people alive. We get paid to do what we love to do.”
Not that voicing Batman is the easiest job for Conroy either. His actual voice is actually a bit higher and breezier than the Caped Crusader, more in line to when he’s voicing Bruce Wayne. He has to push down on his lower registers to make it work. To add to it, Conroy’s Batman is a character of really very few words.
“It’s an interesting balancing act. The actor really wants to hit a home run with every word because you have so few,” says Conroy. “You have to put that in check and trust that the script does that for you. If you put too much weight, you’ll kill the performance. You have to resist that temptation.
“It’s also sort of a tightrope walk. In doing all the various incarnations of the show that I’ve done, from ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ to ‘The Adventures of Batman’ to ‘Batman Beyond’ to ‘Justice League,’ the style is very naturalistic. They want to keep it very real, not cartoony. At the same time, you only have your voice to tell the story. Yet if it was totally real sounding, it would be very dull. It becomes so natural it sounds unnatural. It’s a delicate line you walk. Cross that line and you get very arch.
“In the first year we did ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ I had never done animation before. I didn’t know how much time would be spent in the booth. I certainly didn’t know it would turn into a job that lasted as long as it did.
“I created the sound just improvising. Luckily, having been on stage, I knew to support my performance with my diaphragm. That’s because you usually have about eight shows a week. You have to learn how to perform for the long run, so you pick up tricks to support your voice.”
This experimenting had its side effects though, and it was Timm who was the first to find the problem.
“In an intimate booth and a mic I didn’t think that would matter. So I did it by really sitting down on my vocal chords. I really pushed it down, forced the sound down. After a few months of that, I started losing my voice. I couldn’t make the sound any more.
“Bruce got really worried. He actually went to me and said ‘You can’t lose your voice now! You have a number of performances in the can and we just can’t lose you!’ He told me that I had to learn how to do it properly. So I went to my earlier training so I could do it the right way.”
And the latest payoff is the direct-to-DVD release of “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.” Conroy is in prime form as Batman. Even better, he’s been reteamed with old colleagues Tim Daly (Superman) and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor).
“I’ve know Tim and Clancy for about 15 years. It was really easy,” says Conroy. “You get to skip a few steps when you are in the booth with people you’ve already worked with. You know how each other works. You have an already established report. So it was great being with them.
“Another thing, Warner Brothers insists on doing them like radio plays. A lot of the other studios don’t do that. It gives them a lot more control in post-production if each recording is completely isolated, but they don’t get as good a performance. Warner would rather have a harder time technically, and get a better performance. I think that’s why the Batman performances are much better.”
One thing that also comes across is the generosity the actor feels for his colleagues. The truth is “Public Enemies” is really a showcase for Brown. Luthor gets not only the largest share of screen time, but also many of the best lines in this animated adaptation of Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ graphic novel. Conroy doesn’t mind at all.
“I suppose some would be jealous,” Conroy laughs, “but everyone gets to be center stage one time or another. This was definitely Clancy’s script. He’s a terrific actor! It’s also fun to watch him work. He’s also Mr. Krabs on Spongebob and getting a lot of play out of that now. This was just Clancy’s turn.”
Conroy is equally generous when it comes to his pit bosses.
“Always having Andrea [Romano] around and the rest of the creative team also make it very easy,” Conroy says. “They now even trust me to have some input if I don’t think a line sounds exactly right. They even ask what I think should be said at certain times.”
As it stands, this isn’t the only reunion Conroy has participated in. In an upcoming episode of “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” he plays The Phantom Stranger. The kicker is, besides Diedrich Bader standing next to him as the latest version of Batman, the cast includes Mark Hamill as The Spectre, Adam West as Thomas Wayne and Julie Newmar as Martha Wayne.
“I think it was a little awkward for Diedrich,” Conroy opines. “It was like the first time I met Adam West. That was awkward for me. He had been Batman for years before me. Adam was very, very gracious though, and we had fun together.
“The producers loved having all those Batmen in one show: Three whole generations of them. It was fun. It was great being with Mark again. I don’t get to work with him enough. Playing the Phantom Stranger is very similar to Batman. He’s a man of great brevity. It’s also a very dark sound. I enjoyed doing it.”
As for Conroy’s favorite time putting on the Cape and Cowl? It wouldn’t surprise many familiar with the voice acting world.
“The episode ‘Perchance to Dream,’” Conroy responds. “I really loved doing that. That’s the one where Batman is drugged by the Mad Hatter, and went into this alternate dream state where I was doing Batman, Bruce Wayne and even the young Bruce Wayne, Thomas Wayne and Bruce Wayne drugged. So I was doing five different voices. I had a lot of work in that episode.”
It goes without saying that if he had another opportunity to play Batman, Conroy will probably be there.
“You know I’ve been doing it for so long it’s like a glove. It fits very easily,” says Conroy. “I’ve been doing it for 18 years. So I was happy to do it again. I also feel very lucky that they keep on asking me to do it.”
Fans should feel lucky indeed if he does.