Paul Soles, BA’53, had no idea you still cared about all that “old stuff.”
At 87, the iconic Canadian stage, screen and voice actor of the last seven decades recently teamed up with Ethan Cole, BA’06 (History), to star in My 90-Year-Old Roommate, a CBC Comedy show about intergenerational roommates. Think Pardon the Interruption meets The Odd Couple.
But while his new work gains critical and popular attention, his old work is finding unexpected new life in the world of comic conventions. It is a resurgence in popularity Soles never saw coming.
“Up until three or four years ago, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a comic convention,” he laughed.
“It is unbelievable – it’s a whole new world. When we were doing these shows back in the 60s, nobody knew these things would have the legs that they did. Nobody. We hoped – sure. But we never expected to be talking about them years later.”
Most famously, Soles provided the voice of both Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, in the 1964 stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as the original voice of Spider-Man in the 1967 cartoon series of the same name. As those shows pass landmark anniversaries, Soles has become a popular convention guest in the United States and Canada, as well as earned him his own signature collector card.
It has also stirred in him a nostalgia for projects, he thought, long forgotten.
To generations of super hero fans, the animated television series Spider-Man was their introduction to the web-crawler. The show aired 52 episodes over three seasons and debuted only five years after the character made its first comic book appearance. A classic piece of television animation, the show is perhaps most famous for its Paul Francis Webster-composed theme song.
Like Soles himself, the Spider-Man cartoon – and its rather, shall we say, classic animation style – has experienced a resurgence, only now as an Internet meme, most famously in the Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man.
Years later, Soles continued his Marvel Universe connections and played a pizza shop owner named Stanley – think ‘Stan Lee’ – in The Incredible Hulk staring Edward Norton in 2008.
Debuting in 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has seemingly aired every Christmas season since, sweeping up with it generation and generations of young fans who still treasure the Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass classic of stop-motion animation.
Outside of the glowing-nosed lead, one of the most beloved characters was Hermey, an elf who does not enjoy making toys like other elves, and instead prefers to pursue a career in dentistry. (Why nobody at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry has not given Soles an honorary degree just for that fact is beyond this author.)
Both gigs Soles humbly credits to “more good luck than good management.”
In the 1960s, Canada was a frequent stop of talent scout looking for voice actors.
“Because of the CBC, people all over knew what a good pool of actors there were in Toronto,” Soles explained, crediting Canadian actor versatility to their American and British influences. “Orson Welles himself said that the world’s best English-speaking acting voices were in Canada.”
He continued, “They also came here because we worked cheap – we had no union protection.”
Outside of Burl Ives, the snowman narrator, the other Rudolph voices were recorded in Toronto. (Stop-motion visuals were filmed in Japan.)
While his work on Spider-Man hold great memories for Soles, Rudolph is still a bit of a bitter memory for Soles and his fellow voice actors on the project.
Rudolph was produced prior to actors receiving residuals for their work, meaning Soles and Co. got paid a one-time fee for performing the voices. While the show’s continued success over the past half century has generated millions for its creators, the actors never saw another penny for their contributions.
“None of us earned a nickel after the first pass, which upset a lot of people for a long time,” Soles said.
He credits the feisty Billie Mae Richards, who played Rudolph and stood “well over four-foot-eight,” for a small payment the actors received when the rights changed hands in the 1970s.
“We were hired because we were good and cheap – mostly cheap. Billie Mae wrote the rights holder at the time and asked, ‘What about a few dollars for the voice actors?’ We all got a couple of hundred bucks or something,” Soles laughed, remembering Richards, who also starred with him in Spider-Man. “Rankin and Bass made all the money. But they didn’t pass much around.”
Admittedly, he says, no one working the show thought anyone would get rich off of it.
“No, we don’t recall at all anyone saying, ‘You have got to do this. It is going to last for 50 years.’”
Today, the world of comic conventions has introduced Soles to a new generation of fans, and reinvigorated the veteran actor in a profession he loves. He has stories about funny moments, even awkward interactions like when Soles was clumsily interviewed by a guy calling himself ‘Dr. Stevil’ dressed as Dr. Evil from the Austin powers films series.
Nevertheless, Soles marvels at the number of people who attend, the depth of their passions and the attention – and dollars – showered stars of the past.
And don’t get him started on William Shatner.
“They go crazy for him. He’s a very big deal.”
It is all so unexpected for a man who appeared on Broadway in Macbeth with Christopher Plummer, LLD’04, and Glenda Jackson; on film with Edward Norton in The Score (2001); and on radio with hundreds of performance over hundreds of programs. Who knew his work as a cartoon hero and a stop-motion elf would still be talked about today, he repeated.
“There are times when I wish I was 100 years younger so I would have the stamina to keep up with these people.
For an actor closer to the end of his career than the beginning, these conventions have allowed him to pause and enjoy a past he never knew he would revisit.
“These are such thoughtful and kind people. For me, as someone who doesn’t have grandchildren, the idea of interfacing with these kids is a great delight. People who tell me they remember watching Rudolph as a kid and now they watch it with their children and grandchildren, wow, the idea of the continuity of this thing over 50 years is a phenomenon – and quite gratifying.”