William Dufris

American voice actor William Dufris was born in Houlton, a small town in Maine. While in high school he discovered he had a passion for mimicry and vocal characterisation. He moved to London in 1986, where he found an outlet for his career choices. Voice work afforded him many opportunities; language tapes, film/cartoon dubbing, commercials, audiobooks, and BBC radio plays. Darren Rea recently spoke to the man who has portrayed numerous characters including Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man), Bob the Builder and a flatulent Penguin...

Darren Rea: What was behind your original decision to move to the UK in the mid-'80s?

William Dufris: I got married - I've since remarried. I was doing a lot of theatre in Maine and I met a girl who had come over on an exchange to the University that I was attending at that time. She was from King Alfred's College in Winchester - where Dirk [Maggs] hails from. I had already spent a semester at King Alfred's College and so I had already developed a love of the UK, so it was no upheaval on my part to move there. I found myself doing the odd bit of theatre.

There's a North American community in the UK and a North American friend of mine contacted me and told me that there was a job going doing language tapes. I went and did that gig, and then an acquaintance from that job put me in touch with someone who was casting for cartoons.

From there I went to the Royal National Institute for the Blind to narrate audio books and then from there it was a natural progression to getting heard with the BBC for audio plays. Before I'd met Dirk, my agent had previously called me up and told me that I was being asked to play a part in the BBC audio production of Batman: Knightfall as one of the lesser roles - one of the villains. I was over the moon about being asked to do something like that, but it then transpired that someone else had been promised the parts and had to back out and then found themselves able to accept the roles after all. And, because Dirk is extremely loyal, he had to back down on his offer to me. But he then promised my agent that the next show he did he would cast me in it. He hadn't even met me, that's just the way he is. And the next play he produced was Spider-Man

DR: So you went from being offered bit part roles, to the main character? That's pretty impressive.

WD: I know. That's what I thought. From being cast as one of the anybodies in Batman, to being the lead in Spider-Man, I was like: "Okay. I can handle this". That sort of rejection - absolutely. But that's the sort of person he is though. I'm a big fan of Dirk's. He is one of the finest directors I've ever had the opportunity to work with. As an actor you really feel that you have the chance to try anything, and if it doesn't work he'll let you know, and if it does he's over the moon. They're always such fun sessions.

For all the other BBC radio plays that I've done you'll sit around and just read the script. With Dirk, he pretty much just goes for it. You'll find yourself just standing in front of the mic and you'll just go for a reading. If it works then great, but if it doesn't he'll make a few suggestions. He loves to have the actors move about.

There was one point in Judge Dredd [The Day the Law Died] where I was playing Judge Cal and a couple of his cohorts. I had to do three different voices, one of which only had one line which was great, but the other two were having a mini conversation. I had this suit on, because the play needed to convey to the audience that I was wearing this heavy chainmail suit, and every time I moved it would clink and rattle. Dirk had me bobbing and weaving from side to side in front of the microphone.

And in Spider-Man, whenever there was a fight we would be weaving in front of the microphone - I was literally throwing myself around the room, so that there was always a sense of movement in his productions.

Dirk actually divulged to me at one point that he... Sorry, this is turning out to be an interview on Dirk... but I learned so much from him. He explained to me that when he was recording Independence Day UK he'd have a pilot in a cockpit. And while he had the sound of the engines and the wind rushing outside, he'd also insert these tiny little clicks, because the pilot would be manipulating controls and pressing buttons. So he has that real aural sense of creating this complete world in which the characters reside. Even if it's not picked up consciously by the listener, it is subliminally there.

Then Judge Dredd came around and we did that with just five actors playing all the roles. And we did American Werewolf in London, and Dirk touched base with John Landis himself and we had Jenny Agutter, Brian Glover and John Woodvine from the film involved in that. And then we did Voyage which was far more serious and realistic. Dirk was just blown away by the book and was so pleased about doing it. I am one of Dirk's greatest fans because I myself have such a passion for radio theatre since being in the UK. Since I moved back to North America I've not had the opportunity to do anything for other companies.

I've since started up my own radio theatre company and we've done a number of productions. Our last one was a nod and a wink to the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds, where we had flesh eating zombies overrunning the city near where I reside - live on the air. That was a lot of good fun and I'm hoping to make something of that as well.

DR: How do radio productions differ in America compared to the UK?

WD: First of all there is very little of it. We have National Public Radio, which can find itself being a forum for radio theatre, but there is so little of it being produced at the moment. LA Theater Works is the most notable and successful company, but I think the success that they've had is really due to the stars that they've been able to get involved. They are live productions, with an audience in LA and I've heard that they do two live recordings and then one in the studio, and use the best bits from each recording to create their final broadcast.

DR: With other mediums, like TV and theatre, you have props and costumes to help get you into character. How do you get into character when all you have is a microphone in front of you?

WD: Pure imagination and finding yourself in the same mindset as the director. With Dirk's productions a lot of it is pretty much over the top - they're not particularly realistic situations. There is much more of a cartoon element. So, you can have more fun. Having done a lot of voices for cartoons, that allowed me to go full tilt - which is something Dirk encourages.

DR: You played Peter Parker in Spider-Man and then the crazed Judge Cal in Judge Dredd - you couldn't get any more contrast between roles. It sounded like you had a lot of fun playing Judge Cal. Did you have more freedom in that role? And where did you get the inspiration for the character?

WD: There was an actor, whose name escapes me for the moment, who played a Roman Emperor in one of those movies from the '50s/'60s and I just remember this crazed ending to the film where this Emperor is screaming at our departing hero. I just remember how crazed he was and that, pretty much, was the character of Cal for me - this cunning narcissistic character who had bouts of insanity. That character was so much fun.

The scene with Cal in the bathtub with his little rubber duckie, I actually had that in hand. Dirk would allow us to ad lib and if he liked it, he'd keep it in the finished recording. In that scene I just threw in a few lines, talking to the duckie and Dirk allowed that - he gives his actors a lot of freedom to explore their characters. But, yes. From Peter Parker to Judge Cal, that's a complete contrast.

DR: That seems to be one of the benefits of audio productions - you don't get typecast like movie actors.

WD: No. Which is great. I'm this grey haired, bespectacled guy who is a good 20lbs overweight. I would never be cast in a lot of these roles that I can portray for the radio if they were made for TV. Also you get the chance to play more than one character on most productions - and that's also a thing that I do on the audio productions that I do as well. Because you are the single voice, you have to do all the voices of all the characters.

DR: Which of the mediums you've worked in do you prefer?

WD: Radio plays, by far - closely followed by cartoons. It's just the overall sense of fun. With audio books there is a lot of concentration and focus that has to be contained - having to read every single word as written and ensuring that one's annunciation is clear. With radio, you have music and sound effects that can mask a number of ills.

With cartoons you will either be reading from a script that you are developing the character for, or you are revoicing - and it is the creating of a character that is more appealing to me. I do Bob the Builder, but I am revoicing Neil Morrissey for the North American market and so I have to stay with his cadence that he's already set and as the animation has already been created around his voice - so I'm restricted in that sense. Whereas sitting in front of a microphone with the script and just creating a character from scratch is definitely the far more appealing. But radio plays are definitely my passion.

DR: Will you be working with Dirk again on the Hitchhiker's Guide series?

WD: I won't be unfortunately. He wrote to me to tell me that he was doing that, and it is just so exciting. He's working with a number of the original cast members. I'm sure that with his touch on it it will be fantastic. I have to confess that I was never particularly enamoured with the original series. I loved the books, but I was rather disappointed by the BBC productions. I felt that they were a little flat. With Dirk at the helm, I'm sure he'll have so much fun with them.

DR: You didn't appear in Dirk's Gemini Apes series, but he managed to slip you in as "Dufris" the incompetent security guard who gets fired...

WD: [Laughs] He did that as a tribute to me because I was over here in the States visiting my sister when he did that series. I wanted to be a part of it, but I had to turn it down because there was no way I could fly over to the UK just to do that series. And so as a result he had a "little surprise" for me - as he put it. I absolutely adored that when I heard it.

I've done a similar thing with the productions I've done here. I'm at a hotel lobby desk and in the background, very low we'll have: "Yes Mr Dufris, we do have a room for you." But, for Dirk to have done that... I was very pleased and touched.

DR: What was the reason behind starting your own audio production company?

WD: Simply because there is nothing here. I did help to establish a company in England with a couple of very good friends of mine - Garrick Hagon and Liza Ross - called The Story Circle. With that we got in touch with Scholastic regarding their Point Horror series and we would take the books and adapt them into radio plays. Based on that experience, when I came here and found there was nothing remotely like this I just started it up myself.

I got in contact with old acquaintances and old friends and put together a live performance, which we then had broadcast on our local public radio station. This is the closest thing to the BBC in that it is funded, to a large extent by the listeners and those funds are then matched by the Federal Government.

DR: Which work in your career to date are you most proud of?

WD: There are a couple. I did a cartoon series called Rocky and the Dodos in which I played a rather flatulent penguin called Elvis. Playing in that series was a lot of fun. And anything with Dirk is always great. I'd say doing Spider-Man and An American Werewolf in London was a lot of fun. Judge Dredd was a lot of work - I never sweated so much. It was constant movement.

William and Dirk Maggs take a break during the recording of Voyage

DR: Are there any animated characters that you wish you'd been instrumental in creating.

WD: I love Bugs Bunny [laughs.] Daffy Duck is one of my favourite all time characters. Anything that Jonathan Winters would do. He was a masterful voice artist. He and Mel Blanc and Paul Frees - who did all the Rocky and Bullwinkle stuff - were responsible for all of those wonderful American cartoons which are still loved by children and adults today. Daffy Duck is probably my favourite character though.

DR: If an audio production was to be made of your life who would play you and who would direct it?

WD: [laughs] Robert Downey Jr. and Dirk would have to direct it.

DR: Thank you for your time.

A selection of William's work is available to buy by clicking here

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