I had an inkling my conversation with Michael Winslow, the actor and stand-up comedian famous for his performance as a sound effects conjuring cop in the Police Academy movies, was not going to be a run of the mill interview. But nor was I prepared for what awaited me when I picked up the phone and dialed his number.
Before the call connected an electronic female voice informed me I had “5009 minutes remaining” on my account. When the ‘Man of 10,000 Sound Effects’ answered, I joked that our chat would probably conclude with time to spare.
Then something strange happened. The exact same computer voice interrupted our call with a similarly robotic-sounding announcement: “you have 5009 minutes. Please press the hash key now.”
Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey
Choose what you pay, from $99.
A weird technical glitch, I thought. But when Winslow’s voice returned — “did she sound something like that?” — I realised I’d been fooled. He’d tricked me like his character, Sgt. Larvelle Jones, tricked people in the movies. Most impressively, Winslow was imitating a voice he hadn’t even heard. I told him I was close to pressing hash and possibly disconnecting the call.
“I know, I know, it’s scary,” he says. “But you know what, it’s sound, man. It’s amazing what a human being can do when you want to play with noises.”
He certainly knows how to do that. [pullquote position=”right”]Winslow strikes me as a kind of magician whose tricks are rarer than those of a saw you in half illusionist[/pullquote] or a Svengali maneuvering seer. There is nowhere for his act to “hide” — no rigged deck, no forced hand, no trick box. All he has is his voice.
When I ask him when he started doing sound effects, Winslow responds “always, always. I always did. I don’t have any memories of not doing it. That might seem a little strange, but I don’t remember not doing it.”
He says an early moment that demonstrated his ability — a kind of quasi with great power comes great responsibility moment — came when “the neighbourhood dog bit me on the behind because he could not understand my accent when I barked at him. That made him pretty angry. I learnt from that.”
Relying on your voice means, of course, looking after it.
“I really have a problem with cigarette smoke, it’s just brutal,” he says. “People may think I’m being anal or unsociable but I can’t even be near cigarettes. Tobacco lights my throat on fire.
“The vocalist’s creed has to kick in. You’ve got to protect it. You’ve got to use the hot water and lemon and camomile tea. There are so many different kinds of remedies and things you can take. And thank goodness for Australian tea tree oil. It’s a great aromatic for your throat.”
Winslow was discovered at a bar where he was providing (with no instruments, of course) a one man fusion jazz concert. Before he launched his film career he was poor and living in his car. Does he look back on the Police Academy years with a heightened sense of nostalgia?
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he says. “It was a great opportunity. I wasn’t even supposed to be in the first picture, they wrote me in. I wasn’t in the original script written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft. The director Hugh Wilson wrote me into the picture and put me in key scenes. He said ‘this guy would be a great palette cleanser. Especially if you want to end a scene or start a scene or have any kind of mayhem. We could use this guy. Think of him as Animal House with a bullhorn.’ So I felt good about that.”
Winslow says he doesn’t have a favourite moment from the Police Academy movies. “To me it was all one big long summer. I thought this will be a nice little summer job. Because the studio didn’t like the movie. They thought it was a throwaway picture…it was the last movie in a package they were releasing. But this movie made so much money it paid for the other ones. It made a quarter of a billion dollars, and I was the nobody actor who got lucky enough to be in it.”
Production of a new Police Academy movie has been rumoured for years. Winslow, one of its key proponents, suggested last March it would hit screens in 2013 with Shaquille O’Neil. That obviously won’t happen, but Winslow gives me an update.
“As it currently sits I’m gonna have a talk with the exec tomorrow. He says the script is coming along. They went ahead and they funded it. New Line Cinema has funded it. The biggest hold up right now is the script itself because if all parties don’t agree, it’s dead. It’s kind of like going through the upper and lower house of parliament. Once you get through that, if it survives, then production will start.”
We don’t talk for 5009 minutes, but we do chew the fat for just over half an hour. Our conversation is littered with crazy sound effects and wacky foreign accents. You can probably guess which one of us supplied them.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how accurate Winslow’s impersonation of the female robot phone operator was — remember, the one that spoke to me before our call even connected — hit play on the file below.