Jim Meskimen- Comic Star Reveals How He Got Started in Show Business
By Bruce Edwin
As a professional actor for nearly thirty years, Jim Meskimen has appeared in the films 'Apollo 13,' 'The Grinch,' 'Frost / Nixon,' 'The Punisher,' 'Not Forgotten,' and 'There Will Be Blood' among many others. Some of Jim's T.V. credits include 'Friends', 'Whose Line is it, Anyway?', 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air', 'Castle,' 'Lie to Me,' 'Rules of Engagement,' 'Mad TV,' and 'Parks and Recreation' among many more.
World's Greatest Impressionist
In the 1980's & 90's he had a thriving career as a man-on-the-street interviewer for improvised TV and radio campaigns for grocery stores, bank cards, coffee makers, and a host of other clients that won awards for several major advertising agencies. As an impressionist, his impressions of political figures in the 2004 election were showcased in animated cartoons by 'Jibjab' that were among the most popular items on the Internet. His viral video, 'Shakespeare in Celebrity' Voices topped three- quarters of a million views in 2011 and his subsequent impressions videos have cemented him as a major YouTube talent. The Australian Today Show hailed him as, "The World's Greatest Impressionist."
Jim Meskimen lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and founder of 'The Acting Center' school, Tamra Meskimen. His daughter, Taylor, is also an accomplished performer, and his mother is actress Marion Ross, who was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated for her work on 'Happy Days' (as Marion Cunningham) and 'Brooklyn Bridge'.
If being a live performer takes bravery-and it does, then to be a live standup comic takes near fearlessness. Jim Meskimen has taken that on, and he is not only a winner at it, he is one of the best in the world. He is a side splitter, a tear jerker, a hilarious, laugh a mile a minute master of the stage and of the craft of comedy.
There are only but a few impressionists in the world that really stand out as great- that have their impressions down with sheer mastery. Jim Meskimen is one of those few. And yet, it is not just his voice that becomes his subject-it often times his entire face-his body, virtually his soul-at that moment. To see Jim Meskimen live- when you do-will be one of those highlights of your life, a time that you will laugh, and you may-like a fan of the great stars he masterfully impersonates-want more and more of. 'Amazing! He sounds just like him!' You will say to yourself. And not with but a few voices, but more than you will even know-across multiple generations. I had the pleasure to talk with this master of the voice-this acting legend myself, and get a view into who is this man behind the curtain of the voices of the stars. As to be expected, I was duly impressed, and I trust that you will be too.
Inside the Mind of Jim Meskimen-Comedy's Impressions Genius- Part 2
Bruce Edwin: Jim, what are your thoughts concerning the notion that the big stars- that people as yourself, and others are taking away the jobs from the lesser known voice talents?
Don't Apologize for Success
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, you well I don't have a lot of sympathy for it to tell you the truth.
Bruce Edwin: laughs
Jim Meskimen: One of the reasons is, I hope that one day to be a celebrity myself (laughs), and take as many jobs away from my competition as I can. The other thing I realize is, it's an art, as well as a business. I mean we're talking about animated films, or commercials. Right now, everybody is trying to make the most of their advertising dollars, and if there is a certain curiosity or a cache about a certain kind of celebrity who says something in that voice, and we kind of know that voice- it's a marketing tool, it's a technique, you know, and I'm sorry, it's a business you know? I know many of the voice over actors that commented on it and they are all very talented people. If they were celebrities, they would feel just fine about doing what they're doing, and making ten times the amount of money...
Bruce Edwin: I bet!
Keeping The Client Happy
Jim Meskimen: It's a game. The voice actor is trying to get as many scripts in front of him as he can in a day. I mean face it, we're not logging, you know, this is a pretty easy job, just physically. You know, you go into a booth, and you talk, and you obviously - if you are talented, you use your talent to convey a message convincingly, persuasively, artistically, whatever, to get the message across that the client has.
Your message is the clients, you know? Can you understand that message, and can you get it across? And does it help his business? So now if Ed Asner can get the message across about solar power for example- he does commercials for solar power (the star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show among many others), and he's a cranky guy, he talks like this (impersonates his voice), it's a piece of cake, they come to your house, they put the solar up, and what are we talking about you know? You know, you can't replace that- except of course by an impersonator- but that has a certain value all its own, and it cuts through (...) and that's pretty valuable to an advertiser.
Bruce Edwin: I read that your father was also an actor...
Jim Meskimen: Yes.
TV's Famous Mom
Bruce Edwin: And of course your mom. In our industry of entertainment, we hear about child actors or children of actors that become actors, and their stories. One thing that really blew me away about you was that I didn't even know Marion Ross was your mom until I was a big fan of your work. And, anyone that doesn't know this, Jim's Mom is Marion Ross, Mrs. Cunningham from 'Happy Days...'
Jim Meskimen: Emmy nominated, Golden Globe nominated actress...
Bruce Edwin: And your father was an actor too...did you have a supportive environment where you were encouraged to become an actor, or were they like- Jim, it's a crazy business, maybe you should do something else?
Jim Meskimen: That's a good question. Yeah, my parents were divorced, so my father had actually stopped acting before I was born, to take a job- job, you know which, really wasn't a part of his own doing, but he was a director and an actor of stage, and he was an award winning actor of theater, in fact I have his trophy right now on my desk, which is a beautiful recognition, so I grew up mainly in my Mother's house, and I would go up and visit my father on the weekend.
Mother was creatively, always encouraging my sister and I, probably me more than my sister. But definitely as a visual artist, she always indulged me and said nice things about my work, and showed me museums, and took my places, and she did take us to plays, and I remember she actually went out of her way and got me a couple of auditions, which I did very poorly at, because it took me a while to really mature in that way. I was not one of these precocious child actors who just hit the boards, and is so professional, and can handle it and control it. I hadn't made up my mind for a long time that that is what I wanted. I enjoyed it, but for me it was kind of like playing and kind of undisciplined.
Showbiz- a Hell of a Tough Business
It really looks a lot of change for me to really start to hunker down and be a pro at it. Luckily though I had my mother to observe. And even though it I wasn't seemingly paying a lot of attention all of those years, I did absorb just by osmosis (*1), what it means to be a professional. And then when I was in a position to exercise that, I had her as a great model. So I wasn't discouraged, and no one ever said don't get into it, but my mother did, she was very realistic with me, and she said, "Well you know, it's a hell of a tough business." In fact, we talk about that all the time, she and I still. And she is still a working actress, and we both kind of marvel at how it's just endlessly competitive.
And so you think when a person like Marion, who is an iconic figure as a mom, and now as a grand mom, that she still has to go and kind of audition, and she still has peculiar experiences- she's beloved everywhere, which is great, but then professionally, you know, (if) she doesn't get the part, and we're like holy crap, you know, or they pay a lot less, you know, and it's like gee whiz! You reached out you know?
Hollywood- Not All Fun and Games
But I learned so much just from being in her space, and seeing what she did every day, you know, because to be an outsider, and maybe some of your readers will appreciate this; it's not all red carpets and premieres and parties and action, you know? It's how do I get the kid home from day care, and cook dinner, and then work on my audition, because I have to go in the morning, and somebody else has to take the kid to school, and then I have to sit in the waiting room with five other very talented celebrities, or successful people, who I would cast in this role, while I maintain my own integrity, and do the best job I can.
Movie Trivia Master
You know it's some of this minutia of just being a pro, and focusing on delivering the best product you can, and then moving on. My dad was a little less encouraging because he was kind of a failed actor; he'd gotten sort of beaten up by it. He never really said don't do it, but he was so kicked in the head about it, that he was not a great advertisement for the industry! But however, because of him, for what it's worth, I now know the names of every character actor that ever had a job between 1935 and 1960...
| Michael Manoogian |
Bruce Edwin: laughs
Jim Meskimen: We would watch T.V. together, and he would go, "Aww, yeah, that's Akim Tamiroff!" (*2)
Bruce Edwin: (laughs) Cool. You have so many credits for T.V. and film. When did it really dawn on you that you really had a unique voice and had a real skill with voice work?
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, well I began to pursue this kind of work in New York when I was in my twenties, and I quickly got work doing celebrity impressions really, for like- Turner Classic Movies, and more, and you know at first I just thought, 'Oh they're just being nice to me and hiring me, and this is really an unimportant thing, and it's probably really under the radar, and I didn't credit that I was anything special.
Working With The Best in Showbiz
But you know, after I while it kind of builds up and you go, well you know, I'm working now a couple of times a month doing this stuff, and that's pretty good, and then I got an animated series - one of the few that was produced in New York called 'The Comic Strip,' and I was working with some of the top animation voices at that time in New York- Bob McFadden, Earl Hammond, Earle Hyman, Larry Kenney- guys who I knew who were at the top of their game, and those were my team mates, the young Seth Green (Family Guy) who was Ted was one of the (...) people on the show, and you know, people that had been in movies and on stage and (..) you know, just incredible people, and I go, well, this is great for myself, because I'm doing 65 episodes, so around that time, at around 1986 or so I began to go, 'Well, I guess I got in the club somehow..'
Bruce Edwin: That's great.
Find Out and Decide for Yourself
Jim Meskimen: I'll say this too, because this is useful to people, people always would come up to me and say, well you know isn't it true that voice over is like this closed deal, and there's like five guys that do everything? And I heard it so often, that I realized well, that must not be true, because everyone is saying it. You know, it's kind of this agreement that doesn't produce any activity in a group. It produces inactivity- you know, well I guess I won't try (laughs ...) and I still hear that today (...) but does that mean that nobody else can get in? You know, not really. We have kind of a row of people that come and go. People change professions, or tastes change, or styles, or people unfortunately die and they're not available, you know.
So I already made this a point, and I recommend this to young people starting out, or anyone starting out in the voice over area particularly, but any art form, whenever you hear somebody say, "You know, it's kind of a closed deal, and there really isn't room for you," or any of that sort of flavor of message, that kind of - "Not for you buddy," in your mind, just go, "I disagree with that." (..) You know I mean if you feel really ballsy, say, "You know, that's baloney," if you want, but at least in your mind, go "O.K., I've heard what he said, and I disagree."
Bruce Edwin: Yeah, that makes complete sense. I wouldn't be living here in L.A. and talking with you if I had listened to many people that told me similar stuff, just about working in the entertainment industry.
Jim Meskimen: And wouldn't that be a shame? (laughs)
Bruce Edwin: It would!
Jim Meskimen: You're talkin' to me right now.
Bruce Edwin: (laughs) Seriously, I love what I do and I consider myself very blessed..
Do What You Love
Jim Meskimen: Well you pursued something you're interested in right?
Bruce Edwin: Exactly, I did. Did you have specific courses or training for voice?
Jim Meskimen: I'm one of these guys that had a tape recorder and did shows, you know, in my room, when I was a little boy.
Bruce Edwin: Cool.
Jim Meskimen: I was always interested in recording or performing sonically, or however you want to say it, but I did take a course with a very great voice over guy named Harlan Rector when I was in New York in the early eighties. He has sons I knew and still know (...) He had been an advertising executive himself, so he had a whole philosophy about it. And you know basically he just got us copy, and we went to a recording studio, and we tried things and you know, he would just draw our attention to stuff, and then everybody had to go through this stage of the horror of hearing one's voice recorded, played over a CD. So he got us through that just fine, repetition. And then I just started working, so I don't think it takes endless amounts of construction.
What The Stars Think of Their Impressions
Bruce Edwin: I see, that's good to know, I've heard you've done many impressions, and I am sure you do many I have never heard of. Has there been any particular celebrity that has heard you do their voice with a response one way or another?
Jim Meskimen: Yes, actually, I just recently did an interview with NPR's Scott Simon, and because it was NPR, and I listen to NPR all the time in my car, I did an imitation which I am doing now, of the great broadcaster- Robert Siegel, and so I began my NPR interview with my impression of Robert Siegel, which Scott Simon thought very funny, and then I was lucky enough to get an e-mail from Robert Siegel about a week later. And it was a thrill, it was a real kick. He was very flattered, and it was fun.
Bruce Edwin: That's great.
Jim Meskimen: Ron Howard who I like a lot, who I've worked with on 5 films, also has heard my impression of Ron Howard (talking in Ron's voice), which I did in my Shakespeare Celebrity Voices video, and he also said he was very flattered by it.
Bruce Edwin: (laughs) That's great. You sound just like him. What about any negative reaction? A celebrity that got a little ticked off?
Jim Meskimen: No never.
Bruce Edwin: Good.
Jim Meskimen: Because I'm not mocking them either, you know I'm trying not to anyway. I'm not saying (talking in a drunken stoner type voice) "Oh, what a dumb guy this guy is!" I'm just using their voice as kind of a funnier way to carry a message of some kind.
Bruce Edwin: Exactly, that makes sense. You have been pretty vocal, or public at least about your religion, and I want to touch on that if you don't mind...
(To be continued in the next issue of The Hollywood Sentinel).
Visit the Official Jim Meskimen Website at:
Catch Jim Meskimen live in Hollywood:
(*1) Osmosis: The occurrence of a gradual or unconscious assimilation of knowledge or ideas.
(*2) Akim Tamiroff: 1899-1972, A two time Oscar nominated American actor from Armenia, who studied under the legendary acting instructor and stage director Konstantin Stanislavski. He appeared in over 150 motion pictures. Works consulted: Jim Meskimen official site, Wikipedia, IMDB, Dictionary dot com.
This story, images and contents are © 2013, The Hollywood Sentinel and Bruce Edwin, all world rights reserved. No part of this story or images may be reproduced in whole or in part without express prior written permission from the publisher at The Hollywood Sentinel.
For live bookings of Jim Meskimen, and press interview requests, contact Starpower Management LLC in Santa Monica, California at Tel/Fax: 310-226-7176.
Bruce Edwin is editor of The Hollywood Sentinel and President of Starpower Management, the celebrity model and talent firm. Contact Bruce at TheHollywoodSentinel.com. Read more stories by Bruce Edwin.
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