Bill Thompson: The Man Who Was “Droopy”

A brief appreciation today for the genius of radio and cartoon voice-over actor Bill Thompson (1913-1971).

A Terra Haute native, Thompson was the son of two performing vaudevillians. He was a mere 21 years old when he was hired for the Chicago-based radio variety program Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club (1934), followed by Fibber McGee and Molly (beginning 1936) and The Sinclair Weiner Minstrels (1937). He played a number of humorous characters but the most popular one was a sort of mush-mouthed, mild-mannered voice that is instantly recognizable, and unlike any other comic voice anyone else has ever devised, sort of gross and mincing, resonating in the hollows of his jowls. (He sounds, forgive me, kind of like Truman Capote). The character’s name on Fibber McGee was Wallace Wimple, shortened to “Wimp” by McGee, for that is what he was, forever hen-pecked by his terror of a wife. He also played the character in the live action McGee picture Here We Go Again (1942), one of the few times he appeared in camera (other times were was when he played an animal impersonator in $1000 a Touchdown with Joe E. Brown in 1939, and a character in Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain with Bob Burns and his bazooka in 1940).

Tex Avery liked the Wimple voice so much that he devised a whole character around it for a series of animated MGM shorts starting in 1943. Nowadays, more people remember this canine incarnation, rather than earlier ones, due to the showings of these old cartoons on television. The voice is itself is of course naturally hilarious, but the visual aspect added a whole new comic dimension. Droopy was sort of implacable, almost immobile, because he’s such a Debbie Downer. Less a wimp than the radio character, he would often do things like hit his adversaries over the head with a mallet, while scarcely moving any muscle but those in his arm.

Thompson also did other characters of course. On Fibber McGee and Molly he was also Horatio K. Boomer (who spoke just like W.C. Fields), and a Greek diner owner named Nick Depopulis. He voiced Adolf Hitler in cartoons, as well. Fibber McGee and the Droopy cartoons both ended in the late ’50s. After this, he played Touché Turtle for Hanna-Barbera (1962-63). He also provided voices in many Walt Disney features, including Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Aristocats (1970), his last. He died of an infection the following year.

For more on vaudeville and show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.