Michael Winslow is turning Japanese.
"Domo arigato?" he squeaks in a bizarrely convincing female voice. "Where is the bank?"
The self-described "voicestrumentalist," stand-up comedian and veteran of seven Police Academy movies is on the phone from his Florida home. As will happen many times during our interview, he's abruptly lapsed into one of his favourite accents. During our conversation, Winslow will alter his voice no less than 10 times, replicating the sounds of a dog, Stripe the Gremlin (he voiced the character in the 1984 film) a typewriter and a Boeing 747, among others. Let no one say the man does not love his work.
"I've been doing this for 31 years," he says. "It's worked out for me so far."
Winslow's penchant for noise-making began when he was a kid growing up on an air force base in Washington. (His dad was a military pilot.) Weaned on TV shows like Hee-Haw and Johnny Quest, Winslow began inventing imaginary characters to amuse himself. His parents started to get annoyed when he began imitating the roar of fighter jets and other industrial noises on the military base surrounding their home.
"I'd make the military sounds at three or four in the morning, when you're not supposed to hear those things," Winslow says. "All these odd sounds seemed to affect me in small ways. I also used to make the rats talk to each other in science class. We loved doing that with adults and teachers. Don't you just hate when rats argue with you?"
After honing his voice on radio and in local nightclubs, Winslow quit college, bought a car and drove to Venice Beach to pursue a career in entertainment. After a successful appearance on The Gong Show, he hit the streets with a portable sound system, a Radio Shack microphone and an array of sounds at his disposal. At this point, Winslow was what he calls "a mobile homeless," living out of his car and off the goodwill of the boardwalk set. It was here that he stumbled into a career-making gig opening for Count Basie and his Orchestra---one of the last before the famous bandleader died.
"I put my little sound system right on top of Count Basie's piano," Winslow says. "And (Police Academy director) Hugh Wilson and (producer) Paul Maslansky were huge jazz fanatics and came up to me after the show. Count Basie went up and told them, 'You take good care of this young man.'"
Winslow replaced another actor to play the noise-making, beat-boxing prankster Larvelle Jones, and Wilson re-wrote the script to fit his talents. Seven films later, he's the only remaining original cast member.
"I stuck around," he says. "I like that they're human, very human films. You might notice that no one ever gets killed in a Police Academy movie. And it runs onTV all over the world. It doesn't require a particular language for people to understand it."
The popularity of the first Police Academy film helped raise Winslow's profile where he really shines: stand-up. A YouTube search brings up his famed Jimi Hendrix impression. In the clip, the afro-sporting Winslow seamlessly switches between the guitarist's laconic drawl and the wails of his Stratocaster. It seems impossible that all these sounds are coming from one man's throat----and not even Winslow can explain the process.
"Someone once asked me if I ever tried to look at my throat with a microphone," he says. "I never got into the how or the why, though; I just want to take care of it. I don't want to see it."
After years of the same impressions, sounds and appearances, Winslow says he's recognized the importance of "diversifying," and while he won't give up stand-up, he has other projects in the works. In the late '90s, he released an album called Noise-i-tivity, and a follow-up album is in the works---intricate rap and pop songs constructed entirely with his voice, referencing monsters and kung-fu. And there's a children's series he's releasing in the fall with the help of Bill Cosby.
"I don't care if I'm doing movies, TV, whatever," he says. "My job is to help people forget about the rent. My job is release. And that's why I make the sounds---because people like it."
Michael Winslow at the Halifax Comedy Fest, Thursday, April 23 at The Schooner Room, Casino Nova Scotia, 8pm, $29, ticketatlantic.ca. Gala Finale, Saturday at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, $39, dal.ca/artscentre.ca.
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