Though often a little less appreciated than Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, we can always count on Futurama insightful yet satirical sci-fi to have us in stitches, and the cryogenically time-traveling Phillip J. Fry certainly takes center stage often in the TV show. Fry’s (mis)adventures and journey through the 31st century let us see the wonders of the future through his eyes. The performance of voice actor Billy West, who voices Fry, allows the character to have us in stitches in one scene while holding back tears in the next. Though West’s work can be heard on many shows now, him getting to Futurama was an interesting journey.
Who is Billy West?
Billy West has been a big name in voice acting for a long time. After a start in radio work, he would really start to get noticed as a regular cast member on The Howard Stern Show in the early ’90s. There he provided dozens of regular impressions used for the show. His first notable television roles were in the Nickelodeon shows Ren & Stimpy and Doug, in which he voiced all the title characters, and he broke into Hollywood as the voices of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in the 1996 movie Space Jam. With most of his projects winding down around the time Futurama was casting for its 1999 release, West auditioned for just about every part available.
More Than He Bargained For?
As a voice actor, West was so excited for an opportunity to work with Matt Groening that he auditioned for just about every part. West did not audition for the role of Phillip J. Fry, however. Fry had already been cast with another actor for early pilots, and producers originally had chosen West for Professor Farnsworth, Zoidberg, and some auxiliary characters. A late production decision changed the casting of the lead role of Fry though, and West was assigned the part. The untimely death of Phil Hartman left the character of Zap Brannigan to him. In an interview with People, West said “I would’ve been perfectly happy to just voice Fry,” but as the list of extras and small role characters he was voicing grew, he found himself with dozens of roles on the show.
As the show went on and the world got more expansive, West found himself acquiring more and more roles. Oftentimes, cast members have remarked, there would be whole scenes where West would have three or four of his characters and no other actors went on for several minutes. West has repeatedly said that he originally made Fry’s voice incredibly similar to a younger version of his own voice to make himself more valuable, as voice actors stepping into someone else’s role have more difficulty impersonating a real person’s voice than a fictional one. The way everything was going, that move was likely pointless, how do you replace half the cast in one man?
Phillip J. Fry
The character of Phillip J. Fry is one of West’s favorites over the years. He told The Washington Post, “He was easy to identify with because I was this rudderless boat.” For most of his career, West had been largely known for impressions, and except for Stimpy and Doug, had been the first feature character that he was able to invent and develop overtime on his own. Fry certainly does develop. From humble delivery boy to intergalactic hero several times over, West has crafted a masterpiece.
Futurama was loved by millions, so much so that it was brought back from cancelation– twice! Though we all still hope that it can happen again, for now, we’ll just enjoy all these great episodes and seeing Billy West’s influence in every little corner of this great show.
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