The Shredder, arch-nemesis of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for nearly thirty years, passed away on Dec. 31, 2013.
James Avery will probably be remembered most for his role as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and rightly so. I watched that show at daycare, sitting on blue linoleum chairs with my knees tucked under my chin, looking over my shoulder now and again for my mother at the door. As a child, of course, I paid most of my attention to Will – he wore bright colors and made loud noises.
Uncle Phil was the stern but loving father-figure packed with guidance and advice. He proved what a father really was, even in the face of one who wasn’t.
He had our backs. He was a mentor. I always liked Uncle Phil, and so did everyone else. I especially liked listening to him talk.
It was his voice. Whenever he sat Will down to lay out the truth of a matter, or was there to say everything would be okay, it was his solid, soulful voice that lulled me into buying Uncle Phil as a comfort.
But while that voice may be the sound of assurance and wisdom for most, it is for me the voice of the villain also. It is the voice of the bad guy, the voice of the Shredder.
The nineties’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon was my Saturday morning cereal show. I watched it in front of the TV, lying on my belly, with a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. When it was over, I’d run next door to my best friend Ryan’s and play with the action figures.
That show was the Ninja Turtles. I didn’t read the comics, and the movies were great (the first one, at least), but the cartoon defined my Turtle experience. Many people say the same of Batman: The Animated Series, and X-Men: Animated Series. These versions are definitive. These voice actors’ versions are definitive.
Any geek in his forties and below grew up watching cartoons. They were an introduction to geek culture, a gateway drug. We all have our favorites. They capture the essences of our favorite mythologies. Great characters in animation are defined by their voices, and our childhoods are filled with many.
In the same way that we can’t imagine another actor playing Han Solo, Gandalf or the Dude, it’s hard to hear someone else voicing Optimus Prime other than Peter Cullen. Who is Homer without Dan Castellanetta? Or the shy, imaginative Doug without the thoughtful voice-overs from Billy West? Though other actors have tried, no one nailed Batman and the Joker the way Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill did.
Those voices, and many more from various animated shows and movies we love are stuck in our skulls forever. They’re fond memories. Voice actors are as crucial to nerds and geeks as screen actors, and some stand out and shine as especially memorable. James Avery’s Shredder sure did, and The Ninja Turtles wouldn’t have been the same without him.
It’s sad to see him go.