When Jay Leno closes out his long career as host of the top rated Tonight Show, it also brings an end to a dream job for guy whose roots run deep in South Dakota. But don’t feel too sorry for Tonight Show announcer, Wally Wingert, he’s still got as much work as his versatile voice box can handle.
I happened to catch up with Wally by phone on his way to NBC in Burbank for the second to last Tonight Show rehearsal before the studio is shut down and the entire production moves to New York City where Jimmy Fallon takes over after the Olympics. It was pretty clear that Wally had already rehearsed his answer to my first question about what he was going to do now because he’s been asked it a lot. “Well, I’m a voice actor, Doug, and while I’ve been able to continue some of the work I was doing prior to the Leno show such as commercials for “Old Navy,” “Spam,” “Nike” plus cartoon and video game characters, a lot of stuff has had to be curtailed or put on hold because of the demands the Tonight Show puts on my time.”
“Wait a minute, demands on your time? You go in and open the show, announce the guests and introduce Jay..how demanding can it be?”
“Well, it was that way in the beginning, but then they discovered all these voices I do so most every day I’m called in by the writers to record several comedy bits. I can sometimes record them in my home studio but usually I’m on call to drive to Burbank.. My voice pops up quite regularly during Jay’s monologues.
I’ve got to be honest, when I first met Wally Wingert it was after he was hired as a very young disc jockey on Kelo radio whose studio was right next to our TV newsroom, I didn’t know what to make of him. He was incredibly outgoing and friendly but slightly nuts. As he’d walk by to grab news copy from the teletype or change the Weatherball, he might slip into impersonations of Elvis or Kermit the Frog or anyone of a hundred different characters. Don’t get me wrong, he was very good at them but it was a little disconcerting at first. Not everyone was so accepting of Wally’s zaniness but, as a genetically predisposed to be shy Norwegian, I admired his willingness to face up to criticism, laugh it off and try something else. He was hired to entertain at a Kelo Christmas party one year and brought the house down with his dead-on impersonation of the Andy Kaufman character, Latka from the Taxi TV series.
When the movie about Andy Kaufman, “Man on the moon” came out, Wally went down to the Hollywood premier dressed in costume and was interviews by the ABC affiliate.
Wally also had an Elvis jump suit made and hired a band to record a series of songs by the King of Rock and Roll. It was so good; the local school channel played it on cable for years. That was followed up by Wally’s impersonation of Paul McCartney. Not only did he create the physical illusion perfectly but his talents as a singer shocked a lot of doubters.
By the late 80’s it was clear that if Wally was going to make a living acting like other people he was going to have to shake the dust off Dakota and go where those dreams are fulfilled..or crushed..Hollywood. With the help of fellow lunatic, Dr. Demento, Wally got a job with Westwood One radio in Los Angeles and wrote a parody song about his childhood hero Adam West, the original Batman. It went number one on the Dr. Demento radio show, was featured on “A Current Affair” and “Rolling Stone.” In 1993, Wally left radio to pursue acting, singing and especially voice-over work full time and it wasn’t long before he landed a shot on the hit CBS TV series “Murphy Brown.” Although Wally himself is never seen, his voice and puppet skills made for a hilarious exchange with the star that’s still talked about today.
That appearance was followed by a four year gig portraying Beetlejuice in the stage production at Universal Studios Hollywood.
He left after the demand for his voice became so great there was little time for much else. A nice problem to have.
Since then, you have heard but not seen Wally Wingert as Jon Arbuckle in the Garfield cartoons, as well as characters from “Family Guy,” “Space Chimps,” “King of the Hill,” “Bleach,” “The Simpsons,” “Invader Zim,” “The Fairly Oddparents,” “Scooby Doo 2,” “Astro Boy,” Harvey Birdman,” “Rugrats,” “Transformers; Robots in Disguise” and countless others. Not to mention voicing dozens of video games including the Riddler in the award winning “Batman: Arkham Asylum.”
Wally’s success has allowed him to indulge his passions as a lifelong fan of the same Hollywood he’s now such a big part of. His home is like a museum filled with collections of movies and TV memorabilia including several life-size mannequins of childhood heroes that rival Madam Tussauds in quality and attention to detail.
“It’s corny, but dreams really do come true.” Wally tells me. “God delivers. I’ve had the chance to meet and become friends with so many people who I idolized growing up; Adam West, Paul Michael Glasier and David Soul. I gotta tell you a story, when I was a kid, my pal Steve Hatt and I were big Starsky and Hutch fans; dressing up and wearing our hair the same as them.
When I started doing okay out here, I was able to find a Starsky and Hutch Grand Torino. It’s been perfectly restored. Then I met Paul Glasier who was recording audio for his book. I was able to give him a few pointers and we became friends. Again, God’s timing.
Paul Glaser (Starsky) poses with Wally’s clone of the car used in the TV series.
Well, that led to my emceeing a Starsky and Hutch reunion last summer in which people who donated to a charity could get a ride in the back seat with Starsky and Hutch using MY Grand Torino. I flew my pal Steve out here from South Dakota to not only meet our childhood idols..but take a ride with them.
Starsky and Hutch..Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul pose with Wally, Steve, Wally’s Grand Torino and some other friends on a day they’ll never forget.
The experience was surreal. No one can tell me hard work and a lot of faith can’t work miracles.”
As we talked, I kept checking my watch hoping I wasn’t keeping him from rehearsal but he assured me there was time.
“Okay, I said, would you go back if Jay got another gig, needed an announcer and gave you a call?” “I really don’t think that will happen, Doug. But, I probably would..yeah. Jay has taken a lot of heat from some of his competitors that I think is unfair. He’s going out still number one in the ratings. He’s been a great boss and a good role model to me and I’m really going to miss not only him but everybody involved with the show.”
A lot of people will be on permanent hiatus now. That’s Jay Leno in the middle. Wally is a few folks to Jay’s right in the bowling shirt, of course.
“You have one of the most loaded websites out there, Wally, filled with stuff including a weekly diary or blog about what’s going on in your life. Your cat, Spooky and especially your Cocker Spaniel, Roxy, are a big part of it apparently.”
“That’s for sure. I got Roxy a couple years ago after my longtime pal, Sassy died. She has a pretty interesting pedigree. Her grandfathers have all been Lassie (the REAL Lassie from TV and film) and her brother is the current Lassie. Roxy sure gets lots of attention when we go for walks in the park.”
Wally’s beautiful Collie not only looks like Lassie, she’s directly descended from her..or him. Plus if Wally ever falls down a well, Roxy can lead rescuers right to him.
“Forgive me for getting a little personal here Wally, but in your blogs you divulge just about everything that’s happening in your world but even though you post lots of pictures of you surrounded by beautiful women you never…well…ummm..I guess I just was wondering if you’re..you know.. happy.”
(Knowing laughter on the other end of the line) “I get your drift Doug and let me say I don’t write every thing down on ‘Wally’s Week’ and yes, I’m happy…very happy.”
You can check out Wally Wingert’s webside here but be prepared you can spend a lot of time there.
Continued good luck, old friend, and thanks for proving what our mutual friend, Dave Dedrick AKA Captain 11, always said, “Growing up is not always the right thing to do.”