An Interview with Robert Axelrod
Conducted by Brett Homenick
Robert Axelrod, one of television’s most prolific voice actors, has seen an impressive career both on- and off-screen. His voice can be heard in such television programs as Digimon, Cowboy Bebop, Robotech, The Hallo Spencer Show, and many others. He has appeared in such films as Murphy’s Law (1986), The Blob (1988), and The Last Shot (2004). His best-known role, however, would be the voice of the evil Lord Zedd on the wildly successful TV show of the mid-1990s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Mr. Axelrod was kind enough to reminisce about his work on Power Rangers as well as some of his other genre roles with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: How did you get your start in acting?
Robert Axelrod: When I was in kindergarten, the teacher brought in an emptied-out television. Gutted. Our assignment? Climb in and do ten minutes. “Entertain us,” she said. I volunteered first. I climbed in, not knowing what I was going to do. I peered through the glass screen out to my awaiting audience. I was home! Now I was a child of television and foreign films. No kidding about the latter. My parents used to take us to see foreign imports. I was reading subtitles by then, so I had a bit of sophistication mixed in with the TV I was so sucked into. TV was different then. There was live stuff like Playhouse 90 doing fine plays by the best writers, like Requiem for a Heavyweight by Paddy Chayefsky. The Twilight Zone was great! Serling wrote some episodes and got the best sci-fi writers to participate. Shows then had one producer calling the shots instead of ten nowadays. (My God, the opening credits move ten minutes into an hour show today!) A half-hour program had 28 minutes to tell the story, instead of 22 today. The camera stayed steady, stayed put, rather than this slick cinema verite some of the cop shows employ. Let the actor and writer tell the story. I watched and, even at five, had some kind of innate ability to imitate what I saw. The Ed Sullivan Show was a staple at our house on a Sunday night, followed by Steve Allen. Ed often had a guest named Senor Wences, who would make little hand puppets using his own hand for the body of the puppet, painting the face on the inside of his hand. His thumb, moving up, down, and sideways against base of the index finger made for a talking mouth, Wences supplying the ventriloquized voice. He was the best! So I did what any self-respecting actor would do, I stole from him, threw in a little Jerry Lewis, a lot of Kukla, Fran and Ollie and let it rip. I was “in the zone” and had my fellow students cracking up. I suppose that planted the seed. I did a few local commercials when I was a kid, and theater every summer with a neighborhood rep group, plus school plays. Keep in mind, I also wanted to be a pro hockey player, a pro golfer, and a dozen other things. I was one scattered kid. Even into my 20s, I quit acting for music (self- and friends-taught electric bass) for eight years. I didn’t get fully centered on acting until my late twenties.
BH: What led to your involvement in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? How did you get cast as Lord Zedd?
RA: I’d begun working for Saban Entertainment in 1984 when they were in small digs in Studio City. We did tons of cartoon work, mostly Japanese programs adapted into English, before Power Rangers hit. Highlights were Wowser which ran two or three years on the Family Channel, Little Women on HBO, and Hallo Spencer. Spencer was a gas. From Germany, it was way ahead of anything on the air in terms of sophistication, which may have been its downfall in terms of airtime. I think Spencer and Wowser are the two finest products we produced. Spencer ended up with a woeful 6 AM time slot on Channel 5 here in L.A. Ran about six months. I feel had Saban nurtured the series correctly in terms of distribution and targeting HBO, the show could have won a Cable ACE Award. The show did get some international distribution. So I was part of the family, having voiced, written, and at times directed all these projects, when Saban finally sold Fox TV on Power Rangers. I was handed the role of Finster because the producers knew it was right up my alley. I think I did do one audition more as a formality. Lord Zedd didn’t come as easy. When I heard the character was entering, I nagged and nagged Post-Production Producer Scott Page (my buddy for years) for an audition. I had actually developed the voice eight months prior for another character. The job went to another actor, but I swore I would use it one day. With some adjustments, I auditioned three times for Zedd, had to call the Executive Producer Eric Rollman and convince him that was actually my doing that husky, Marlboro-laden voice, which was all mine. Scott would electronically futz with it in the studio, but by the time it got through post-post-production and on the tube, the futz was gone. When Scott called me to tell me I had the part, I was flyin’. Between Finster, whom of course I continued to voice, and Zedd, I believe I did 220 episodes of the show. Plus the first movie and the live show. It was a good ride, the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.
BH: Did you enjoy your role as the voice of Lord Zedd?
RA: Of course I enjoyed voicing Zedd. As I mentioned earlier, it was something of a coup to win the role, and the opportunity to display more range led to more work within Saban, on lesser-known projects like the 26-episode Journey to the Heart of the World. I voiced one of the lead crewmen aboard an 18th-century sailing vessel, carrying the heroes to a new adventure on the high seas in each episode.
BH: What did you like about the character?
RA: What I loved about Zedd was that the character had the majority of the show’s dialogue, and I like to work! Zedd had integrity, a word whose dictionary definition is “wholeness.” He was wholly evil, intent on destroying “The Power Twerps” and taking over the world … or at least Angel City. I liked the stately quality of the character, similar to Darth Vader. He wasn’t stupid and always bounced back for more. Power Rangers became the most popular show on TV in the past 20 years in its prime, surpassing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in ratings, toy demand, and whatever else is used to rate the popularity of a show. I’m proud to have been part of that.
BH: What didn’t you like?
RA: What I didn’t like was when Zedd and Rita got married. I was glad to see Rita come back, but as a couple, both characters began to be comic relief rather than threats. The show had the freedom to do anything with them, as they hired a girl from L.A. to play Rita so they could shoot totally original footage. (Barbara Goodson continued to do the voice, thank goodness.) I would have preferred to see an uneasy alliance between the two, with some good old double crossing, rather than her drugging Zedd with a love potion. Would have created more tension. Another tough thing to work with was the stuntman that actually wore the Zedd costume and was filmed. His body language was quite acceptable, but he spoke the lines way too rapidly. I wanted to keep the character stately, slow in pace and impinging in tone, but he made that difficult. He was no actor. I asked several times if I could be on the set to work with him, on my own time, but the opportunity never materialized. I let it go after a while. We spent a good deal of time rewriting lines, which turned out fine, as I was sure to get Zedd’s proper phrasing in. I have to admit that a good deal of Zedd’s dialogue was to explain the plot, so that stuff had to be done rapidly and economically. I never got paid anything extra for participating in rewrites. Scott Page, David Walsh, the engineer, and I just put our heads together and came up with the stuff on the spot. Oh, I would have liked to see Zedd actually land on Earth more often, perhaps having the power to take human form and “go undercover.” That would have been a gas. Of course, “all of me” would play the human-form part!
BH: Is it true that the role of Lord Zedd had to be rewritten well into the show because children found the character to be too scary?
RA: I heard that Saban got a considerable amount of mail from irate mothers complaining that Zedd was too evil. The show was attacked in the press for being too violent. It was mostly robots clashing, really! The evening news is more violent. I had two protesting letters published in major L.A. papers supporting the character and show, plus one in TV Guide.
BH: How else, if at all, were you involved with the production of Power Rangers? For example, did you voice any other characters? Did you ever have an on-camera role? Did you write any scripts?
RA: Yeah. Besides rewrites in the studio, I wrote some adapted dialogue (that’s dialogue for the Japanese footage used in the show) the first year. This consisted of fights between the various monsters and the Rangers, plus time-coding so the stuff could be done in the studio. I recall doing at least three “guest-star” monsters, especially when I was just voicing Finster. I remember one time I’d just finished voicing a couple of episodes as the Putty Monster-Maker when Scott showed me the guest “ogre” and said he hadn’t cast it yet. I gave it a whack for a couple of lines, and we were a go. I forgot the dude’s monster name, but he turned out to come back a couple of times, even when Zedd appeared, so I kept voicing him. Turned into some extra work, which I always appreciated. The not-so-fun part of it is when I voiced the guy, I had to accept working at a lower rate than when I voiced Zedd and Finster. The politics of money. Long after Zedd, Rita, and Company said their goodbyes, I was awarded a small on-camera role on the show. I was treated with a lot of respect, which was pretty cool.
BH: Were you surprised by the overwhelming popularity of the series?
RA: No, I wasn’t surprised. After many years of show biz, I knew what comprised a hit show: Strong charismatic characters, simple formulaic plots, lots of action (destroy property, threaten the world, good guys win in the end but the bad guys always regrouping for yet another strike next episode), and a united production team with a benevolent dictator at the helm; in this case the two bosses, Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, calling the shots. “My way or the highway.” Nowadays, you read the opening credits on many shows, and there are, like, ten producers! It’s amazing anything gets up on the screen with all those chiefs putting in their two cents, rationalizing their seven-figure salaries. Casting for the actors has become a nightmare because you’ve got to get those ten nodding wooden dolls to nod “yes.”
BH: What are some of your favorite anecdotes from the cast and crew that you remember from your work on the show?
RA: My favorite story comes not from any work situation (that was all fun), but from the premiere of the first Power Rangers movie. After the screening, which took up two theaters in Westwood (near UCLA) to hold all the invitees, Saban threw a big party. Food, games, small rides, tons of toy giveaways, the works. Now the on-camera cast got seats in the A-theater. We lowly voice people were relegated to the B-theater along with the second cousins, once removed, of the TV crew. No news coverage. As I said earlier, Saban, and most other companies in the genre, keep the voice people on low profile to maintain the illusion that the characters we voice are real. We dragged over to the party, schmoozed, ate, generally just hung out. We saw the kids who played the Rangers, and the rest of the regulars just sort of hanging there, feeling a little lost. There was a D.J. on a big stage, spinning some kind of lousy music. He was also yakking about something or other, and every time he got on the microphone, he flopped. No one was listening. So Barbara Goodson (Rita), Kerry Casey (Goldar), Dave Mallow (Baboo), Mike Sorich (Squatt), and I (Zedd and Finster), wandered over to the stage. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but one of us got on the mike and began emceeing Power Rangers trivia. At first, the parents and kids didn’t know who the hell we were … until we began speaking in character voice. Within three minutes, we were swamped with kids and adults! We must have signed autographs for an hour and a half while playing trivia and improving on the mike. I’d like to think we made that bash happen. Never got a thank-you from the suits, but seeking praise was not on our agenda anyway. The point is, we were there for the kids.
BH: How would you rate Power Rangers as a TV program?
RA: How would I rate Power Rangers as a TV program? I’d rate it wildly successful beyond anyone’s expectations! The story behind the show coming over from Japan is right out of a film script. Haim Saban made regular trips to Japan to search for product to bring over and dub it into English. He shopped Power Rangers around for eight years before the president of Fox Kids finally took a chance on the show. I don’t remember her name, but it’s said she stated something like, “Either I’m going to get fired for this, or it’s going to be a runaway success.” Saban cast the kids, who all had their individual appeal, then the voices right out of the pool of nutcases including me, who’d been working for him for years, and everyone went to work. Well, the formula caught on. The toy craze was a natural, with Saban going into partnership with Bandai toys, and the rest is history. Look, I’m prejudiced, of course. I did 220 episodes, so how could I help being a fan? It was not a show that appealed to the intellect like Spencer. It was a wall of sight and sound, with touches of comic relief. So I give it a solid nine out of ten.
BH: You also provided the voice of Lord Zedd in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995). How did the movie version of the series come about?
RA: The first Power Rangers movie in 1995 was arranged and produced by 20th Century Fox, the company that owns Fox TV, which is the station that aired the show on TV.
BH: What was it like being involved with the movie? How was it different from working on the TV series?
RA: I don’t remember who wrote the script. Fox hired some dingy broad named Susan to produce the thing, and let me tell you, she was a grade-A bastard. Her whole scene was to save Fox a nickel here, a dime there. American kids were supporting the show, yet she brought the production to Australia to shoot. When it came to doing the voices, the work was to be done here in L.A. She wanted to replace us with cheaper talent. Friends of mine actually auditioned for Lord Zedd. It was only via the intervention of Haim Saban that we were finally hired. We had to work non-union. It was not pleasant. Even the work was unpleasant as I recall. Though we made decent money, I felt we were still dreadfully underpaid because there were no residuals involved.
BH: I understand you didn’t work on the sequel, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie (1997). Why was that?
RA: I imagine that Zedd was cut form early drafts of the sequel simply to save money.
BH: You were also involved in the American version of Zeiram (1991) as a voice actor. How did you get involved with that project?
RA: I got Zeiram simply by knowing the producer-director of the English version, Carl Macek. He knew the role was right up my alley and hired me without audition. I forget the name of the character, but he was one of the two male leads, the “comic relief,” so to speak. The role was done by one of the leading Japanese comedians, the Japanese Jim Carrey at the time.
BH: What kind of work do you perform on the movie? Did you only work as a voice actor?
RA: Voicing that role was my sole involvement in the picture.
BH: The Zeiram series has a cult following in America. What are your thoughts on that film?
RA: Remember, it’s a Japanese film and already had a following there. I’m very pleased that the English version got a cult following here in the U.S. I think it’s an excellent, quite stylized sci-fi picture. Made before the days of computerized special effects, it depended more on the audience’s imagination than in-your-face crash-bang-boom like, say, Terminator 2, which got awfully boring after the first 20 minutes for me. I lean toward sci-fi that still lays much of the movie’s “oomph” in the actors’ hands, like Alien.
BH: I understand you recently finished production on a movie titled The Last Shot with Matthew Broderick. Mr. Broderick is best-known to Godzilla fans for his role in TriStar’s Godzilla (1998). What was Mr. Broderick like to work with?
RA: Regarding The Last Shot, I didn’t work with Broderick at all, so I can’t answer what he was like. I worked with Alec Baldwin. He was busy on his cell phone between takes. We were shooting very simple stuff, right out on Hollywood Boulevard, so there was a lot of hustle and bustle, no real chance to sit and chat. He was sitting in his “star” chair, and I was relaxing in a little courtyard a few doors down with an actress who was shooting a clip with Baldwin just before me. In fact, I was done by 10:30 AM. Matthew did send me a gift, a beautiful beach towel, with a tie-dyed beach scene and “THAT’S A WRAP” printed on it. Funny story: The package was delivered regular post office, so the postman just dropped it off. The return address read “MB” with a New York City address number. Now this was the time when we had that anthrax scare, so I was afraid to open the package. “Who the hell is MB from New York?” I wondered. I wasn’t expecting anything, and I didn’t make the connection. For all I knew, I’d open it, and a terrorist bomb would blow me to smithereens. Well, I live life in the fast lane, so I went ahead and opened the darn thing anyway. I had an open umbrella just in case a puff of some vile substance wafted out of the open box. I also had my next-door neighbor, who’s a good friend and my landlady, on the porch with me to call 911 immediately if so much as a fly emerged. When I saw “Providence,” which was the working title for The Last Shot, on the towel when I pulled it out, I made half a connection. It was my landlady who reminded me that I had mentioned I was doing a film that starred Matthew Broderick. Then the whole thing dawned on me. Guess he sent the whole cast a gift, even the actors and actresses he didn’t directly work with. Wasn’t that nice of him? My big question is, “Where’s my gift from Alec Baldwin?!”
BH: Have you worked on any other sci-fi or fantasy films of Asian origin?
RA: Well, you know I’ve worked on tons of Asian sci-fi and fantasy. One particular one comes to mind: a full-length live-action sci-fi rock musical! I wrote the English script, cast, and directed the dubbing, and voiced one of the supporting characters. It’s called Metropole 1999. Ring a bell? It’s some of the best work I’ve done in the dubbing field as I wrote, directed, and acted in it. We even had a big screening in Santa Monica. Don’t ask me the plot because I don’t recall, but the original was meant to showcase a rising Japanese rock star. We got the lead singer from rock group Quiet Riot to do his singing. The guy was great. I was able to hire lots of dubbing friends, all of whom were and still are tops in the field. What became of the film I know not. I regret never getting a cassette copy of the thing. That’s definitely a highlight. If you can track this one down, my hat’s off to you. I’ve lost contact with the producer. We did it in the late ’80s, and it led to a lot of work for me.
BH: What’s your favorite genre to work on?
RA: Believe it or not, my favorite genre is stage comedy. But in reality, my fave is the one that’s paying me. I really sink my teeth into anything I’m doing, be it voice-over work, on-camera or onstage work, or directing and writing.
BH: How have you enjoyed voice-acting as a profession?
RA: I love doing voice-overs because there’s no make-up, lights, or camera angles. It’s just the genre and the voices.