The Force is with Tom Kane, voice of Yoda in the upcoming animated movie “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”
Fans flocked to hear the Overland Park man speak and get his autograph at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con International, the world’s largest celebration of comic books and pop culture.
“I’m a kid from Kansas,” Kane said in the comfort of his home recording studio in Overland Park, having just returned from the fantasy-fueled hullabaloo of Comic-Con. “I still can’t believe people stand in line to have me sign my name on a photo.
“I saw ‘Star Wars’ at the Glenwood Theater the day I got out of ninth grade from Nallwood Junior High. And now to be part of that universe just kind of leaves me breathless.”
Kane, a 46-year-old father of six, has been part of the “Star Wars” universe since the mid-1990s, doing voices for “Star Wars” video games, toys and TV cartoons.
He didn’t start with Yoda. He was in a recording session for a “Star Wars” video game, and he couldn’t resist mimicking the familiar voice of the diminutive Jedi master made famous by Frank Oz in the “Star Wars” films.
“I was just looking through the dialogue, and there were some lines for Yoda,” Kane recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, when does Frank Oz come in and do this?’ ” Kane was told that Oz was too busy as a film director to supply Yoda’s voice for the video game.
So Kane gave it a shot.
“I just jokingly went, ‘Hmm, a Jedi master you’re looking for?’ ” Kane said. “And the director kind of looked up and went, ‘Can you do that again?’ And they recorded it. I guess they must have played it for (“Star Wars” creator) George (Lucas), and a week later they called my agent and said, ‘We’d like him to be Yoda.’
“It started off with games, and it just went from there. And that was over a decade ago. So it just keeps going. I guess they’ll use me until I don’t sound like him anymore or they find someone who sounds better than me.”
Don’t count on it. To the “Star Wars” faithful, Kane
the animated version of Yoda. How does he manage to sound so Yoda-like?
“I saw the ‘Star Wars’ movies about 12 times each when I was a kid,” Kane said. “And like any other person that was a fan, I was trying to imitate the voices from day one.”
But unlike most others, Kane developed into a successful professional voice talent. His gift included expertly mimicking countless voices from television.
“And because I was mimicking what I heard on television, I was mimicking the best,” he said. “Like the voices on ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ mainly the dialects and the accents. I’ve always been a good parrot.”
The precocious Kane didn’t think much of the voiceovers he heard in local commercials, so he called a local ad agency and announced that he could do better. The result was his first local commercial at age 15. By the time he graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School in 1980, his malleable pipes had been featured in more than 100 regional TV and radio spots.
“Once I realized there was a world out there where people did this for a living, I knew I wanted to do cartoons,” he said. But that would take time.
After earning his degree in television and film production at the University of Kansas, Kane moved to Chicago, where he wrote and produced commercials for an ad agency. On the side he began doing voice work for national TV commercials for Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars, Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayonnaise,
magazine and Time-Life Books.
“Very quickly I realized I was making more money on my lunch hour recording a commercial than I was as a writer-producer,” he said.
Kane moved to Los Angeles, where he did “fabulously well” in almost every area of voice work, he said, except the animation field.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I moved there to do cartoons and completely failed. I was the new kid in town, and I was very young, and cartoons are very cliquish. It’s
hardest area of voice work to break into. All the cartoons done in the entire United States are done by a grand total of maybe 75 people.
“I auditioned and auditioned and auditioned for five or six years and got nothing,” he said. “I actually was going to give up. But I thought, ‘Well, I can’t complain. I’m making a great living in Hollywood. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.’ I was past the point where I would go in there thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’ve got this (cartoon).’ I was almost going just to satisfy my agent.”
Kane’s cartoon breakthrough finally came in the late 1990s, when he was hired to provide the voice of Darwin the monkey on Nickelodeon’s “The Wild Thornberrys.” After that he became a dependable choice among cartoon-voice casting directors.
“They hire people they know who can deliver what they want,” Kane said. “It’s like any other business. You’re not going to go to a mechanic that you’ve never met or heard of if you’ve got one that you know and trust.”
That trust has led to Kane’s growing catalog of TV cartoon roles, such as Professor Utonium in “The Powerpuff Girls,” Lord Monkey Fist in “Kim Possible” and Mr. Herriman in “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” as well as Magneto in the upcoming “Wolverine and the X-Men” on TV and Iron Man in “Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow” on DVD.
And, of course, there’s Yoda in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which debuted as an animated TV series in 2002 and will unfold its next chapter on the big screen Aug. 15.
What is it about the little green guy that guarantees so much interest?
“Well, you know, I’ve been told that he’s George’s favorite character,” Kane said. “And he’s the sage, he’s the spiritual adviser. He’s the rabbi, the priest, the guy that people turn to for help and for guidance. So he fulfills that part of the mythology for people.”
Beyond the “galaxy far, far way,” Kane narrates an abundance of high-profile movie trailers, including recent big-voiced teases for “Hellboy II,” “Wanted” and “Wall-E.” Yet he has managed to keep a relatively low profile since moving back with his family to Overland Park three years ago after almost 20 years in L.A.
“We were very quiet about it when we moved back here,” Kane said. “I’m very proud of the fact that my kids don’t ever brag about what I do. I think it’s a sign that I raised them right. We were actually here for quite a while before anybody had any idea.”
Word got out when
The Kansas City Star
published Kane’s photo with a story about him being the live announcer of the 78th annual Academy Awards in 2006. (He also announced this year’s 80th Oscar ceremony.)
“That immediately was the end of my anonymity in Kansas City,” Kane said.
But daily life has not markedly changed.
“No, and you know why?” he said. “Because the people around here are just so normal — and I say that in a good way. I grew up here. They’re me. They’re you. They’re just regular people. And they’re polite. You know, it’s Midwestern values. We go to the dinner parties in the neighborhood, and people are interested, but nobody obsesses over it.”
Kids sometimes ask him to do voices, including Yoda, “and I’m fine with that,” Kane said. “The parents are more into the Academy Awards, especially the moms. They want to hear dirt from backstage.”
Does he have any?
“Nothing I can tell.”