Published August 23, 2004
LOS ANGELES – Ask Dan Castellaneta (search) to describe how he sounds off-screen and this is what he offers: sort of deadpan, shy of nasal, with a standard Midwestern tilt.
But like a plain brown bag filled with surprises, here's what he's pulled out of that voice in his years with "The Simpsons": Homer Simpson (search), Krusty the clown, Grampa Simpson, Barney Gumble (search), groundskeeper Willy and more.
Castellaneta's delivery of the grand Homeric syllable of exasperation -- "D'oh!" -- was enough to land it in the dictionary. He's also gotten more traditional honors, including an Emmy last week.
It's his third trophy for the animated series but still welcome, especially since it's been 10 years since the last one. His award for outstanding voiceover performance was in a category announced before the Sept. 19 Emmy ceremony.
Given that Castellaneta routinely creates vocal magic, bringing alive lovable lug Homer, befuddled Grampa and hellish clown Krusty, what did it take for TV academy voters to listen up again and take notice?
He speculates it was particularly sparkling writing on the episode for which he won -- which repeats 8 p.m. EDT Sunday -- and maybe the fact that two of the characters he voices, Homer and Krusty, were featured.
In one story line, Herschel Krustofsky, aka Krusty, is stunned to learn he's ineligible for the Springfield Jewish community's walk of fame because he's never had a bar mitzvah.
Castellaneta happily re-creates Krusty's raspy lament: "All this time I thought I was a self-hating Jew, and now I'm just an anti-Semite!"
That's the wicked wit routinely found on "The Simpsons," even deep into the life of the series. Cast member Harry Shearer (search), another multivoiced wonder (including imperial Mr. Burns), may be a bit less enthralled: He recently said he was unhappy with the show's quality compared to years past.
"In a nutshell, I don't agree," Castellaneta said. But he acknowledges the series based on executive producer Matt Groening's (search) characters has changed over the years. It begins its 16th season Nov. 14.
There's slightly less running time (standard for TV shows as commercials and promotions have increased) and more characters to accommodate, Castellaneta said.
"Instead of just being in the Simpson's world, it's expanded out to Springfield," he said, and the reality envelope, such as it is with a family that's bright yellow, has been pushed a bit more.
"I think Harry's issue is that the show isn't as grounded as it was in the first three or four seasons, that it's gotten crazy or a little more madcap. I think it organically changes to stay fresh," the 45-year-old Castellaneta said.
"The Simpsons" (search) remains funny and surprising, he said, adding: "I believe the show still breaks the mold in terms of storytelling."
No one could have predicted the ride would be so long or so spectacular.
Debuting in December 1989, the series helped fledgling Fox establish itself as a bold alternative to the big three networks and has become the longest-running sitcom ever (eclipsing the 14 years of "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet"). It's seen in Europe, Africa and beyond.
Castellaneta was there before the start. He was part of Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show" (1987-90) when Groening whipped up brief animation fillers that introduced the Simpson family to television.
Since Castellaneta and Julie Kavner (search), another cast member, were on hand, they were asked to provide the voices of Homer and wife Marge.
"Matt Groening was there with a drawing of this family and said, 'Can you give me a voice for this guy?"' Castellaneta recalled.
He employed a growly "kind of Walter Matthau" approach, he said. But he found it couldn't encompass the tone changes of Homer's runaway emotions and was fatiguing for extended recording sessions.
"I was trying to find something I was more comfortable with that had more power to it," he said. "So I had to" -- he lowers his tone into now familiar Homer-speak -- "drop the voice down."
The change in Homer's diction created a minor media myth.
"People will say to me, 'Boy, I'm glad they replaced the guy that was there that first season.' That was me!" Castellaneta said.
The Chicago native, who grew up with a knack for mimicry and was part of the famed Second City (search) comedy troupe, has been heard in a variety of other TV shows and in movies and has made on-camera appearances in "That '70s Show" and elsewhere.
He'd enjoy more screen time but is aware that few projects are as remarkable as "The Simpsons."
"I came to realize it's very rare for an actor to be part of anything that's incredibly successful. There are actors who have very big careers but have never been associated with a hit of this magnitude."