Janet Waldo, the longtime voice of Judy Jetson among other classic cartoon characters as well as one of the first female voice actors to receive on-screen credit, passed away Sunday at her Encino, California home after a five year battle with an inoperable brain tumor. She was 96.
Waldo came from a talented family. She was related paternally to the great author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her mother Jane was a classically trained singer. Her sister Elisabeth, who recently turned 98, was instrumental in introducing authentic pre-Columbian instruments into Western music and created the New Age music genre. Waldo would also marry into talent, as her husband was the great American dramatist Robert E. Lee of Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame fame.
Waldo’s big break into show business happened in 1938, when she was a freshman at the University of Washington. She caught the eye of Bing Crosby, who was attending a musical revue she was appearing in on campus. Impressed with her raw talent, he convinced a Paramount talent scout to arrange a screen test. The test was successful and Waldo signed a contract with the studio.
Her early film career was largely uneventful, often confined to B-movies and low-grade Westerns, many times without on-screen credit. In the late 30s and early 1940’s, female talent that weren’t top stars was often treated as poorly as indentured servants. By 1943, Waldo left Paramount and the movies behind.
Waldo had decided to give radio a try in 1941 to fill a lull between movies. Edward G. Robinson gave her a shot on his popular radio show Big Town. With a high profile success under her belt, Waldo caught on as a regular on the Lux Radio Theater program and eventually became a top star with her own series Meet Corliss Archer. It ran for 8 years on the CBS Radio Network, but when the series was purchased by Hollywood for the movies, Waldo would be denied a chance to portray Corliss on film. United Artists decided to give Waldo’s role to Shirley Temple, who was nearing the end of her film career. However, audiences just didn’t want to see Corliss portrayed by anyone else and the intended franchise stalled after two entries.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time Waldo would lose a role she largely created to a has-been falling star.
Waldo made the move to animation in 1960, becoming one of the primary talents in the Hanna-Barbera stable. Amongst the characters she lent her voice to included perennial damsel-in-distress Penelope Pitstop, the eponymous character in Josie and the Pussycats, Yogi Bear’s would-be girlfriend Cindy (after original voice actor Julie Bennett retired) Fred Flintstone’s battle-ax mother-in-law Pearl (another replacement for a retired voice actor), Precious Pupp’s owner Granny, teenage genie sidekick Nancy in Shazzan, shrewish witch Hogatha in The Smurfs, Morticia Addams on the far too brief 1973 Addams Family animated series, child astronaut Jenny on the even shorter-lived Space Kidettes and just about every major and minor female character in the H-B Studios universe.
Waldo had a non-exclusive deal with Hanna-Barbera, allowing her to contribute her vocal talents elsewhere. She provided the voice of Lana Lang in Filmation’s Superboy cartoon. She was also a regular in the Ruby-Spears animation stable, contributing voices to such cartoons as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Plastic Man, Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman and some of their one-shot specials like The Trouble With Miss Switch. Waldo also participated in the English language dubs of several foreign made animated cartoons, most notably Battle of the Planets (1978) and the mind-blowing sci-fi animated film Fantastic Planet (1973).
Voice actors, especially women, were seldom credited during this era of animation. In 1959, June Foray made history as the first female voice actor to receive on-screen credit for voicing Rocket J. Squirrel and other assorted characters in what would be later re-named The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Hanna-Barbera followed suit, listing Waldo in the credits of the various projects she took part in. That made her one of the first women to receive on-screen credit for voice work. It’s a milestone seldom ever mentioned, never mind celebrated.
But it would be her vocal role as the lovable futuristic teenager Judy Jetson that would be Waldo’s prime legacy. Essentially Corliss Archer transferred to an unspecified future America, Judy was a character many kids, especially teenagers, could relate to.
The Jetsons was initially a flop, lasting only a single season on primetime ABC TV from 1962-63. Most of Hanna-Barbera’s attempts at prime time animated TV shows failed then, with Top Cat and Jonny Quest failing to last more than a single season back then. But a funny thing happened along the way. In 1984, with Hanna-Barbera animated programming becoming a hot ticket in the syndication market, the studio decided to haul The Jetsons out of mothballs. The only problem was that there were only 24 original episodes. Syndication TV contracts required at least 65 episodes at the time, so Hanna-Barbera took a genuine risk and ordered the production of 41 additional episodes, enough to satisfy the basic requirement. The original voice cast was brought back for the revival.
In what was a shock to many TV executives and even devoted animation fans, The Jetsons found an enthusiastic audience and good ratings, especially with younger viewers who weren’t around during the 1962-63 network run. Ten more episodes were produced in 1986 for an additional third season, resulting in 75 original episodes altogether.
The TV series was still garnering strong ratings in syndication. Two made for TV animated movies, 1987’s The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones and 1988’s Rockin’ With Judy Jetson, also performed strongly in syndication. So it was no surprise that Hollywood took notice of the belated popularity of The Jetsons. In 1988, Universal Studios made a deal for a theatrical feature based on The Jetsons.
The production of Jetsons: The Movie was fraught with problems. Daws Butler, who provided the voice of Elroy Jetson, passed away just as production was getting under way. George O’Hanlon, who voiced George Jetson, suffered two strokes while recording his dialogue, the second of which proved to be fatal. Mel Blanc also succumbed to heart disease before completing his work, requiring voice actor Jeff Bergman to finish the job uncredited. Production also dragged interminably, resulting in the anticipated Summer 1989 release date being bumped three times: first to Christmas 1989, then Spring 1990 and finally Summer 1990.
Waldo had completed her voice work as Judy Jetson when a horrible thing happened. MCA Records’ top teen pop act Tiffany was experiencing a career lull in the wake of an acrimonious break with her management and a changing music scene, so Universal decided to remove Waldo’s recorded voice track, destroy it and re-record it with Tiffany. They hoped that being connected to an eagerly anticipated animated feature would help resurrect their falling star and draw teenagers to the theaters.
Tiffany wound up being a poor substitute for Waldo, as her vocal performance lacked the zest and vitality Waldo brought to the role on television. Tiffany sounded bored and out of place. Universal simply didn’t realize that the teenage demographic were already big fans of The Jetsons and wouldn’t need cajoling to a big-screen feature done correctly. Not to mention that when the news eventually broke that this odious plan had the full approval and blessing of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, these fans- many of whom became hooked during the 1985 revival- became angry.
Waldo rightly took grave exception to being exiled from the voice role that was not only the most synonymous with her career but her personal favorite, in favor of a has-been pop star. She took her anger public, telling the truth to anyone who would listen. Waldo wasn’t the only one involved with the production who was angry. Casting director Andrea Romano abruptly quit the production and demanded her name be removed from the film’s on-screen credits and advertising, especially after Universal and Hanna-Barbera shamefully tried to make her the sole scapegoat for their callous decision to dump Waldo. Animator Iwao Takamoto, who actually did the majority of the film's direction, also asked for his name to be removed from the film’s credits. Hanna and Barbera wound up taking directorial credit.
The voice actor change wound up being all for naught as the film was an expensive box office failure, partly due to plot deficiencies, loyal Jetsons fans being royally ticked off over the callous treatment of Waldo and the animation coming off as second rate when compared to Disney’s resurrection with The Little Mermaid earlier in the year. Tiffany’s career remained on the downturn and a disastrous third album released in October 1990 pretty much finished her off for good.
Disenchanted with the entire situation, Waldo largely retired from voice acting. However, 1993 saw a surprise rapprochement between herself and Hanna-Barbera. Waldo once again voiced Pearl Slaghoople in a pair of Flintstones animated TV movies. She also had a brief role in H-B Studios’ theatrical feature Once Upon A Forest that same year and did additional voices for the final season of H-B Studios’ syndicated series Tom and Jerry Kids. After one final voice role on the Fox animated series King of the Hill, Waldo called it a career by portraying Penelope Pitstop one final time in the video game adaptation of Wacky Races.
Despite her health issues and advanced age, Waldo still eagerly made special appearances and always with a smile on her face. It’s almost as if she was what Judy Jetson would have been like, had she been flesh-and-blood instead of ink-and-paint. Waldo may have left this mortal coil, but her soul will forever live on through her work.