Alan Oppenheimer is one of the animation’s most celebrated voice actors, having voiced Skeletor, Mer-Man, and Man-At-Arms on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-85), Vanity Smurf on The Smurfs (1981-89), Beachcomber and Breakdown on The Transformers (1984-87), and Prime Evil on Filmation’s Ghostbusters (1986). On the big screen, he lent his voice to Falkor, the Rock Biter, and Gmork in Wolfgang Petersen’s seminal fantasy The NeverEnding Story (1984). Long before these iconic roles, however, Mr. Oppenheimer played the eccentric zoologist Dr. Contrare, who readily believes in the existence of giant monsters, in the American adaptation of the Japanese creature feature Gammera the Invincible (1966). Dr. Contrare’s televised debate with the skeptical Jules Manning (Mort Marshall) provides the film with a show-stealing moment of comic relief. In November 2021, Mr. Oppenheimer spoke about his life, career, and Gammera in the following interview with Brett Homenick.
Alan Oppenheimer: I was trying to figure out, before I went online, how I wound up in that movie. And it’s interesting — the director, Sandy Howard — I worked for him, doing Mack & Myer for Hire (1963-64). That was a five-day a week, 15-minute show, slapstick, with Mickey Deems and Joey Faye. I’d met Mickey because I was doing summer musical stock, and he was the character comedian. And then, when he stopped doing that, I became that for three years after that.
But, anyhow, Mickey was a great actor, so, between he and Sandy Howard, that’s how I guess I wound up in Gammera [the Invincible], because I couldn’t figure out how.
Now there’s another fellow in the cast, Dick O’Neill. Dick and I went all the way back to my first play at the Arena Stage, Golden Boy. He played my brother-in-law.
Brett Homenick: Tell us a little bit about your early life, where you grew up, and what your hobbies were as a youngster.
AO: I was born in 1930 in New York. The first nine years of my life, I lived in Westchester County in New Rochelle. And then my father died as a result of mustard gas in World War I — he died 20 years later of leukemia. It’s the same thing [when] the Vietnam veterans died of Agent Orange from leukemia 20 years later. So then we moved to New York. How old was I? Eleven years old, I guess — 10 or 11.
I was sick kid when I was seven or eight. I had double pneumonia, and there was no penicillin then. So I spent months in an oxygen tent at home and listened to the radio. And that’s how I guess I got fascinated by that. And I found at an early age I could imitate people, had a good ear, so I started doing people like Jack Benny, who became my hero, and Humphrey Bogart and Kenny Delmar. I once stopped him [Kenny Delmar] on the street because I thought he was so funny on the Burns and Allen show.
When I was about 15, 14, I decided I really wanted to be an actor. I’d never even been in a play, never was in a high school play or anything, but I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. (laughs) That’s really funny. Anyway, there’s little things in between there that are interesting to me but maybe not to anybody else.
BH: Please, if you’d like to share things, I’d like to hear them.
AO: It’s just so funny. I never turned down a job, and they all led to something bigger and more important and more interesting. The day I graduated from prep school, I was just 17 years old, and one of my heroes was a couple of announcers. So I had written away to NBC to audition to be an announcer. And the day I graduated, I was given an award by my school — I don’t know — for speech and delivery; I don’t know what the hell it was. Anyway, so I graduated at about 12:00, got on the train, went down to New York City to Rockefeller Center.
So they gave me an appointment, NBC Radio, the day I graduated from high school. So I walked into [the] studio at Rockefeller Center. Huge studio — made for an orchestra, the NBC Symphony. The control booth had a cloth over it so they couldn’t see who was reading. They were interested in your voice and delivery and interpretation; they didn’t give a damn what you looked like. So I walked in, and they said, “Oh, Mr. Oppenheimer, welcome.” And I said — with my voice almost changing because I was so young! — I said, “Well, thank you. It’s good to be here.”
I said, “Yeah, I just graduated today, and I won the elocution award.” Big pause from behind the glass — while I’m sure they looked at each other and laughed. They said, “Well, would you like to read the copy? It’s on the stand.” I said, “Sure.” I saw names I’d never seen before, like Tchaikovsky and Offenbach. I mispronounced every one of them! When I was finished, they said, “Well, thank you very much, Mr. Oppenheimer. We’ll let you know. Again, congratulations on your award!” (laughs)
About a week later, I get a letter, saying, “We find at this time that there is not an opening, but feel free, please, to audition and contact us again.” I should have saved that letter; it was wonderful! (laughs) I never thought that I couldn’t do something. I mean, 17 years old, audition with no experience, auditioning to be an announcer on NBC. Insane, but it worked anyway. My whole life, I said, “What’s that? What’s that? I can do that.” Then I learned on the job. That’s how I did musical comedies and all kinds of stuff. The only thing I never did in this business was the circus — done everything else — stage, movies, television, cartoons. I never did porn.
AO: Circus and porn, never did that! Anyhow, that’s the general story. Then I came out here to California in 1966 and got a job immediately as a guest on I Spy (1965-68). I was playing a Russian counterpart to [Robert] Culp and [Bill] Cosby. Again, I tell you because I have a good ear, and I do accents. So, the day after it airs, CBS called and said, “Write a show for him. Bring him back.” Six weeks later, I had a pretty prominent guest role on I Spy. That was 1967 or ‘68. The wonderful Sheldon Leonard, whom I loved from the days of radio, produced it. That was 1968.
[In] 1992, I was nominated for an Emmy as guest on the Candice Bergen show [Murphy Brown]. I was the semi-regular on that. I was nominated, and so was Sheldon Leonard and Tom Poston. We all were running against each other as guest Emmy [Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series].
So I went up to Sheldon, and I said, “You know, Sheldon, my first TV show lead was I Spy.” He said, “Oh, yes, I remember that very well.” He said, “You almost had your own series.” “You’re kidding. What is it?” He said, “Well, CBS wanted to spin you off, and you would be like Culp and Cosby, only Russian. But then it was the height of the Cold War, so they got chicken, and you never got the series.” (laughs) A life of coincidences; that’s what I’ve had.
BH: Yes, indeed, and that certainly would have been a huge deal for your career at the time, to have your own series.
AO: Well, I’ve always wanted to be a guest. I had many opportunities to get my own show. Early on, I decided, “That can be a dead end.” If the show’s a success, you’ll be typecast, and you may never work again. If the show’s a failure, they’ll blame you, and you’ll never work again. (laughs) So I said to my agent, “I don’t want a series.” He said, “You don’t? You’ll make a lot of money.” I said, “Yeah, but, if it’s over, then I’ll be finished.” So I worked every week, Brett, every week. I worked from the time I came out here in 1966-7 until about five years ago. I worked all the time. Finished up three years on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard where I played Cecil B. DeMille, with Glenn Close and Betty Buckley.
And I’ve had a wonderful career. Now I do these autograph conventions, and people come up and want to talk to me. They’re your age — late thirties or forties. They grew up with He-Man, Smurfs, G.I. Joe, Transformers — I did a lot of those, too. So that’s what I do now. It’s kind of nice to be retired and do one of those autograph shows maybe one a month or something like that. So that’s kind of a broad look at what I’ve done.
BH: Gammera came out in 1966, at least in the U.S. So that must have been one of your first roles, professionally, correct?
AO: No, I was in repertory theater at the Arena Stage from 1955, and then I took off that year, 1962-3, and decided I wanted to go to New York. So I left my family in Washington and went to New York for a year, and I did The Defenders, and I did small parts in soaps, and then did Gammera. I got Gammera because I was doing Mack & Myer for Hire, and Sandy Howard and Mickey Deems, both of them, recommended me for that. I’ve never seen it [Gammera]. I’ve just seen the character’s name is Professor Contrare, so I imagine I had a contrary opinion about everything. (laughs) Still don’t know! That’s how I wound up in the movie.
BH: What do you remember about Sandy Howard, whether it was on Gammera or on other projects? What could you tell us about him?
AO: Sandy Howard was the producer of Mack & Myer for Hire, and I did many, many episodes as a guest in different dialects for different characters. It was great fun; it was vaudeville, which is what it really was, because Mickey Deems and Joey Faye had been vaudeville stars.
Joey Faye told us a story that he was walking down the street with a friend of his, and he said, “Jesus, Joey, they’re casting a Broadway show, and they’re looking for the Joey Faye type.” He said, “Oh, my God, I should go.” So he went up the office. The secretary said, “Yes?” He said, “I understand you’re looking for the Joey Faye type.” She said, “That’s right.” He said, “Well, I’m Joey Faye.” She said, “You’re all wrong for the part.” (laughs) Oh, my God! Isn’t that funny?! (laughs)
Mickey Deems was just a great booster of mine. I’d never even heard the word “schtick,” but, when I went up to Beverly, Massachusetts, they hired me for one show on a prove-yourself basis. And I stayed three years and was the leading character comedian in all those musicals that we did. It was great. I worked with some wonderful people. Margaret Whiting became a mentor of mine. I worked with Gypsy Rose Lee in Auntie Mame. I worked with some wonderful people.
BH: Do you remember how Sandy Howard would direct you in a scene, or working with him professionally? What was that like?
AO: Well, Sandy was the producer. Ted Devlet was the director. Mickey and Sandy, I guess, did a rewrite. They picked me up on Fifth Avenue and 50-something Street, standing in front of a building, at about six in the morning, and we’d drive down to Long Island to the studio there. We spent the morning doing a table read and rewriting. Mickey and Sandy rewrote every script. And then we’d film a 15-minute script in the afternoon. We did one a day; that’s it. I didn’t work every week. Maybe I worked every third show. I did a lot of them.
I saw here [Mack & Myer for Hire’s IMDb page] Hank Garrett’s name. I worked with him recently in a show. And I worked with Bob Carraway. Robin Craven, too — the Englishman. I worked with him over the years. Mort Marshall, I knew him from that show. Dick O’Neill was a lifelong friend of mine.
BH: Dick O’Neill, of course, has a fairly big role in Gammera. What could you tell us about him and his personality?
AO: I couldn’t tell you anything about him in terms of Gammera. Have you ever seen the movie [The Taking of] Pelham One Two Three (1974)?
BH: I’ve seen the remake, unfortunately, but not the original.
AO: No, no, the remake’s a piece of shit. The original, which Joe Sargent wrote and directed — oh, it’s just fantastic. Dick has a very prominent role as an executive in the subway system, and his frustration and anger and all — he was a hell of a good actor. Very Irish, very funny, and very irreverent. We were old, old friends, all the way from Golden Boy at Arena Stage. We were together that whole season, 1954, ‘55. A lot of wonderful people in that company. I was there for 10 years.
Before I came out here, I was touring three plays in repertory with Eva Le Gallienne, Sylvia Sidney, Leora Dana. Three classics. And wound up here; it was the last stop, and I got an agent. As I said, first show was I Spy, and I never stopped working.
BH: Any other memories of Dick O’Neill? It sounds like you spent a lot of time with him, so are there any episodes you could share?
AO: Well, I did stage work with him at Arena Stage. His wife was a music teacher at Beverly Hills High School, so my kids knew her. We [Dick O’Neill and I] had a mutual friend in New York who must have been a friend of mine since she was 16 years old. She’s now 88 or 89 — wonderful woman. She, Dick, and I were very, very close all those years. But I never worked with him again.
BH: In the movie Gammera, you’re onscreen with Mort Marshall, whom you just mentioned just a few moments ago. It’s a very funny scene. Maybe you don’t remember filming Gammera, but, on other shows or other projects, what do you remember about Mort Marshall?
AO: Nothing. That’s the only thing I remember about him. I don’t know that I ever worked with him again. I looked up his IMDb; he died very young compared to the rest of us.
BH: Going down the list, you mentioned a few others, like Robin Craven. Feel free to share anything that you remember about any of these actors on other projects.
AO: I think Robin Craven and I did something together, although I didn’t know him. I recognize the name of Steffen Zacharias, but, again, I don’t think we ever worked together. And [Bob] Carraway, I remember only that he was in Gammera. I remember John Baragrey, had respect for him from the days of live television. Albert Dekker, same thing — live television. But I never worked with these fellows. I don’t even know if I worked with them in Gammera. I think we just did that one scene, sitting around a table, didn’t we?
BH: Yes, it’s like a news interview. [explains the scene in detail]
AO: (laughs) I’ll have to get a hold of this and look at it! I’ll bet Mort and I were improvising. I’d love to see that. That’s funny! (laughs)
BH: But, as of now, you’re saying that you’ve never actually seen Gammera? Is that correct?
AO: No, I haven’t. I had no idea it was a popular movie, either. I’m not a science fiction fan, although I did three different characters on three different series of Star Trek. As I say, I’m really not a science fiction fan, but I did that. And then, when it comes to cartoons, I was three different characters on Transformers. I played these parts, not particularly crazy about the genre, but it sure works, doesn’t it? I’ve got a lot of fans. It doesn’t need my approval; I just throw myself into the role. I don’t care what part it is.
BH: Have you ever done any dubbing for live-action movies, foreign movies?
AO: Oh, yes, I have. Yes, I have. I’d have to go to my IMDb. I get residuals, and I don’t remember doing them.
BH: (laughs) There’ve been so many projects over the years.
AO: I remember I was desperate, and I did something called Trancers. [It was filmed in] Romania.
BH: How was that experience?
AO: Terrible. They had just overthrown the dictator. It was a terrible experience. I hated the script; I hated what I was doing. But I had a good agent. I was doing three of these Trancers [movies]. My agent said, “That’s fine, but get Oppenheimer out in three weeks.” In other words, when I was on the set, I was doing my lines for all three movies. So I did get out of there in three weeks instead of three months.
I’ve dubbed actors who were unavailable to come in and do a pick-up. All I had to do in the audition was listen to what the original actor had recorded, and, as I say, I had a very good ear, and I was able to copy them. I remember John Forsythe from [Charlie’s Angels]. He was living in Santa Barbara, and he was very ill. He could not come in to loop his work. I auditioned, copied him, and got the job. I still get residuals for all of that. On the movie Foxcatcher (2014), [for] the Du Pont Dynasty, I was the narrator voice on that.
BH: When it comes to these franchises, whether it’s He-Man, or whether it’s Transformers, or even Gammera in this case, what do you think about these franchises that just seem to live forever, and people of all kinds of generations gravitate toward them and embrace them? What’s your feeling about that?
AO: Well, I guess I have to quote to you when I do a Q&A at these conventions, and I’m always amazed. I would say: Thirty years ago, folks, we did this show, and I got paid and went home. And, 30 years later, the show still lives. One of the reasons that you saw it, too, and I didn’t even realize this, was that, at that the end of the show, there was a moral. Do you remember this?
BH: Yes, of course.
AO: Three people — adults, men — at different shows came to me and told me how that moral had saved them from suicide at the age of seven or eight. They came from such dysfunctional families, and they were so unhappy, they saw no point in living. Then they watched their daily He-Man show, and the moral gave them the strength and courage to survive and then make something of their lives.
Well, I gotta tell you, Brett, that’s pretty damn humbling when you’re doing just a job, and you find out you changed a person’s life — saved and changed a person’s life. That, to me, is the key reason I go to these conventions and meet these people. I love to hear their stories, and they love to see me because I played an important part in their life, their real life. That’s what the whole thing means to me.
[on the impact Mr. Oppenheimer had on young fans as the voice of Skeletor on He-Man] That’s the way I felt about the radio shows that I listened to. I even stopped Kenny Delmar on the street! God, he was wonderful. He was the announcer and came up with his voice and played Senator Claghorn. And then, lo and behold, years later — I don’t know if it was Disney or Hanna-Barbera — had a character [named Foghorn Leghorn that] was based on that, and he did the same thing. [Mr. Oppenheimer imitates the voice] Stuttering Southern senator. Kenny Delmar created that character.
Another voice actor that I loved [was] Ralph Bell. He had a unique voice; he played a lot of different characters. These are the guys who had a great influence on my life, so I decided I wanted to be an actor.
[about the impact Mr. Oppenheimer was having on young people at the time he was voice-acting] I had no idea. It was a job, and I went home, and then another job the next week. That went on and on from 1967 to 2015, and I said, “That’s enough.”
I’m just going to wrap it up by telling you about The NeverEnding Story (1984). I auditioned for Wolfgang Petersen. He came to Beverly Hills, and they arranged an audition for me. I was a huge fan of Wolfgang Petersen’s because he did the movie Das Boot (1981), which I thought was the most fantastic film about a German U-boat. So I felt honored to come in and read for him. He showed me a picture of Falkor, and I immediately came up with the voice. He said, “That’s fine. You’ll do.” So they sent me to Munich. They already filmed the whole thing, and they had somebody doing the scratch track. So I looked at it and came up with the voice for Falkor. Wolfgang said, “Well, that’s fine.” I said, “No, I need to do it again. That’s not what it should be.” He said, “All right. You come back tomorrow.”
So I did it a second time, and that’s the version that they used. The difference being that the first one was technically perfect but no heart, and that’s what you see now, that Falkor has great heart. Then Wolfgang asked me, “I have another character. Could you do the Rock Biter?” I said, “Well, let me look at it.” I looked at it; I said, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I know exactly what I want to do.” And then I came up with the voice of the Rock Biter.
He said, “Oh, that’s good. All right, thank — oh, one more! [Do] you think you could do the voice of Gmork?” I looked at it, and I said, “Yup.” So I did Gmork. Now I’m almost out the door, and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Alan. One more thing. Would you do the narration at the end?” So I did the narration at the end, which finally ends with, “But that’s another story.” So that’s it. He got four voices for the price of one. To me, that’s a legacy and a half, that movie and what I did. I loved it. So there you are, sir!