Talking Television and Leadership With Two Industry Vets
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Bob Bergen and Patrika Darbo. Bob and Patrika are the current Co-Governors of the Performer’s Peer Group at the Television Academy, helping oversee and advocating for the interests of all television performers. The Primetime Emmys will be held on Sunday, September 22nd. Nominations will be announced on July 16th.
Bob is a three time Emmy nominee and one of the most notable voice over animation actors of our generation. Soon to celebrate thirty years as the voice of Porky Pig, he has also voiced such characters as Tweety Bird, Marvin the Martian, Luke Skywalker, Speedy Gonzales and countless more. His many film credits include animation blockbusters like Sing, A Bug’s Life, The Secret life of Pets, The Emperor’s New Groove and Minions. Patrika won a 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy or Drama Short Format for the internet series Acting Dead. A veteran of over 35 years in film and television, she is often recognized for such films as In The Line of Fire, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, Speed 2 and for such television shows as Step By Step, Desperate Housewives, Devious Maids, The Middle, Days of Our Lives and The Bold & The Beautiful.
We discussed a range wide range of topics, from leadership lessons from their years in the entertainment industry to their thoughts on the upcoming awards ceremony:
Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share to talk television and leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get to where you are? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and success?
Bob: I was a 5 year old kid growing up in the Midwest who wanted to voice Porky Pig, which was not my Jewish Mother’s dream for me. I was fortunate that my Dad took a job in Los Angeles when I was 14. After calling Mel Blanc (I found his number after researching dozens of phone books… I also recorded the conversation, which was completely illegal but I think I am past the statute of limitations) and crashing a recording session, I began studying acting and voiceover. I secured my first agent a week out of high school and after about five years of hit or miss auditioning I was able to make a living as a voice actor. I was a working actor at the time Mel Blanc passed away and after a few dozen auditions, I booked my first Porky Pig gig in 1990.
The setbacks for a voice actor are the same as an on camera or theater actor. There are ups and downs. Shows get cancelled, unions go on strike, etc. A successful actor is always looking for that next job. If you are smart you start looking for the next one with each new booking. For all intents and purposes each job is your last… until the next.
As a voice actor I’m fortunate in that my career is varied. I do animated television and features, commercials, narration, promos, games, etc. But I work just as hard to keep my career as I did to start it. I’ve been the voice of Porky Pig close to 30 years, and I’ve had to re-audition for it five times. I don’t own the character, and hey, that’s show biz. You can lead with your ego or you can check it at the door and go with the flow. I choose the latter. If you love what you do, you will do anything in your power to continue doing it. And you need to be willing to do more and work harder than everyone else. (This will be a running theme of mine here.)
Patrika: First you should know that this is my second career. I was a credit manager for twenty plus years working for a major electronics and sound company while acting part time. I had a VP of a company tell me I was a woman no more than a goat and to never disagree with him again. When I did stand-up, I joked about telling him Baaaaaaa!!!. It was here that I told the President of the company that I was giving him notice of twenty minutes or two weeks that I couldn’t work for his VP and that they were lucky I wasn’t suing them.
After the demise of my credit managing career, I started to work full time on my acting and have been successful doing it. I am a three time Emmy nominated actress with two wins: one in Daytime and one in Primetime. I am active in my Union, a Governor of the TV Academy, a mentor for Women In Film, on the Board of the Thalians and volunteer with animal, children and military charities.
Adam: With Emmy nominations set to be announced [next week], there is a lot of buzz around who is going to get selected. Can you provide readers of the blog with an inside view of how the process works?
Bob: The honoring of the Emmy is a peer to peer process. For months, members of The Television Academy are viewing content. Members of my Performers Peer Group judge both performer and program categories. Over the past few months we have viewed content at For Your Consideration events hosted by networks and studios, viewed DVDs and streaming websites, etc. It’s a huge time commitment, but it’s a huge honor. We just completed round one where members voted for those they felt were Emmy worthy. Those votes will be tallied and nominations are announced, as you said, July 16. We then vote for the nominated shows to pick Emmy winners.
Adam: Why do you believe we have been experiencing a TV renaissance? Where do you see things going in the next three to five years? Ten years?
Patrika: With the dawn of cable and digital, television creators have more room to experiment and reach beyond the traditional rules and regulations of television. This ability to be more creative and “push the envelope" has made television more interesting and multi-layered. That being said, I sometimes worry that some creators of television have no original ideas, but then I think it’s really all about the money! With so many platforms needing product and the need to fill these slots I believe the powers that be are looking for shows that they know will bring eyes to their networks and money to their pockets, I’m sure they are looking at the number of people watching re-runs and have decided if this many people are watching re-runs we should just re-create those same shows and bring those show back back with a bit of tweaking. The renaissance of television is bring original programming while at the same time, it is rehashing old shows and old ideas. It is a bit of a free for all.
I’m not sure what the changes will be, but there have to be changes. We no longer have 3 networks and we are no longer watching TV or even film in the traditional 1950’s way. Now we have a plethora of platforms. You can watch programs on your phone, wristwatch, glasses etc. Everything is and will be digital. It can be scary and foreign for those who are not as technical as others, but it is thrilling to think about. I hope I am around to see what’s going to be happening in 10 years and beyond…Archie Bunker in space!
Adam: What does the Television Academy Performer’s Peer Group do? What do you do as leaders of the group?
Bob: The Performer Governors represent all performer members. That could mean everything from examining current performer Emmy categories and rules to providing networking career events. As Board members we are a part of the leadership creating and implementing ideas and programs for our entire membership. Television is expanding in leaps and bounds. Our goal and responsibility on the board is to celebrate the past and legacy of television, as well as embrace the ever growing future. It is an exciting time to be involved in television, and we have an amazing Board, as well as staff at The Television Academy. Our mission is to promote creativity, diversity, innovation and excellence through recognition, education and leadership in the advancement of telecommunications arts and sciences.
Members of our peer group have the responsibility to vote for performer and program Emmys. That is the most important aspect of membership, and takes up a good portion of each year. The honoring of The Emmy is a peer to peer process. Those who have what they feel might be an outstanding performance rely on their fellow members to view and vote. In the huge scheme of the entertainment industry, we are a small, but prestigious group. You have to earn membership based your work in television.
Adam: What are some of the challenges that come with leading your peers? What are some of the challenges that come with leading actors? How have you been able to work through these challenges? What lessons have you learned that are applicable to other leaders?
Patrika: The challenges come with realizing that what happened yesterday, last year or “that’s the way we’ve always done it” has to be thrown out. The times, they are a changing. We need to listen and most import we need to realize that we are here for our peers, not ourselves. I was elected to represent my peers, not to promote myself and I have two terms of two years in which to do that, so I am trying to listen to everyone and promote what’s in the best interest of our group. As performers, it’s our faces that are out there and who the fans are tuning in to see and love and keep in the limelight. You don’t have a show with out the performer and the “star” needs supporting performers. You can light a set, dress a set, write a story and on and on, but with out the performer there is no show, so I want to keep our presence out front and receiving the attention that is due to us. I’ve learned that politics has no place in the arts. We are here to entertain. I also believe that new blood is needed. If we want our business to grow then we have to grow too and that comes with moving forward not staying with the "that’s the way it’s always been” mentality. We at the TV Academy are a membership driven organization and we need to remember that and take care of our members and peers.
Adam: Who are some of your favorite colleagues personally and professionally and why?
Bob: Oh, my, where do I start??! First of all, I have amazing agents in Atlas Talent. They don’t just send me out on auditions and cross their fingers. They are think-outside-the-box creative partners, laser focused on overall career rather than job to job. They are voiceover visionaries and beyond available to taking and running with my own career ideas and goals. Which is great, because I have tons! I am blessed to have worked with the tops in my field: Disney-Pixar, Warner Bros., The Star Wars Universe, all of the major television networks. From casting and voice directors like Kristi Reed and Collette Sunderman, to show runners and producers like Seth Green and Steven Spielberg, just to name a few, I get to work with the best of the best, and I take non of it for granted. As large as this business is, it’s actually very small. Show business, like all businesses is about relationships. We rely on relationships for today and tomorrow. I will bend over backwards and work my ass off to be the best actor I can be. My goal always is to bring the writer’s words to life. Gratitude goes a long way in success. And I am beyond grateful for all who have had a hand in my career.
Patrika: I have been blessed to have had many colleagues that have been amazing and have had impacts on my life. Right now, I am thinking about a group of colleagues that I worked with this past year. I recently did the Easter Seal Disability Film Challenge with my friend, John Lawson. I highly recommend that all members of the entertainment field participate in this challenge at least once in their career. Working with these disabled and yet incredibly talented performers and filmmakers both in front and behind the camera is an unforgettable experience. To see and work with someone who is in a wheelchair or has downs syndrome or other disabilities, you learn that we are really all the same yet we come in different packaging. My dear friend, John Lawson has no arms or hands below the elbow. My other friend, Danny Woodburn is a little person. They are both successful actors and work tirelessly for their fellow disabled performers. My stepfather, Don Davidson was known as the “Biggest little man in baseball”. He was a little person but to me, he was just my dad. He was in baseball in the front office for the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. His height of 4’2” didn’t stop him and I learned from him if you want it, go get it! Don’t let outside forces dictate your dreams. I learned a lot from him that has carried me through my life.
Adam: In your experience, what are the common qualities among those who have been able to enjoy success in the industry? What advice do you have for those either trying to break in or advance?
Bob: Get there early and stay late. Study and prepare. Be willing to work harder and want this more than everyone else. Check your ego at the door. You will get nowhere in this business without risk. Risk for an actor comes in one of three ways, if not all three: Creative, Financial, and Geographic. You need to take creative risks with the script. You need to invest and reinvest throughout your career. And based on what you want to do, you might need to relocate. (If you want to do Broadway, this ain’t gonna happen if you live in Dayton, Ohio! Sure, you can do theater. And Broadway is a long street, but it ain’t that long.)
For voiceover actors know exactly what it is that you want out of your career. Actors today have a machine that I myself did not have when I was starting out, which is a computer. There are websites like vobuzzweekly.com where actors can watch over 300 interviews with top voiceover agents, casting directors, and performers. Anyone can go to the top voiceover agent’s websites and listen to their actor’s demos just to learn what they have to live up to if they stand a chance for representation. (When I was a teenager I would call a talent agent and pretend to be a producer requesting their actor’s demos, JUST to hear what a demo sounded like! This kind of devious BS isn’t necessary today with the computer.) But it’s called voice acting! Study acting, study improv, then study voiceover. If you want to voice animation, know the animation industry. Know the styles of today’s animation content. From PBS Kids, to Adult Swim, FOX Primetime Animation to the noon-6pm block of Cartoon Network, know what the networks, studios, and producers are looking for from today’s animation actors. Understand how to deliver a script intended for pre-schoolers vs the more adult programs such as Archer. You are creating characters, not just doing funny voices. All characters have a voice, but not all voices have character.
Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned through your career in entertainment that are applicable to those who will never earn a living in front of or behind the camera?
Patrika: No one should ever have to tell you to be nice. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Know that what goes around comes around. A secretary you are nice to today is the producer you more than likely have to deal with tomorrow and he or she remembers the way you treated them. This is applicable in whatever business you are in.
Adam: Who are some of the best leaders you have been around and what have you learned from them? What do you believe makes an effective leader?
Bob: An effective leader has to have forward thinking ideas. But they also have to listen and be willing to be swayed. Often they have to make hard decisions that won’t make everyone happy. An effective leader has to make all feel safe to voice their ideas and opinions. But an effective leader often has to be willing to not be popular. To quote Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (how nerdy was that??!!) An effective leader has to understand that just because something failed doesn’t mean the idea is a failure. Timing is crucial. Try again when the timing is better and adjust the strategy. An effective leader has to be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” And an effective leader has to surround themselves with people whom they feel are smarter than they are.
Bruce Rosenblum, former Chair and CEO of The Television Academy was a tremendous leader. His vision of rebuilding our new/current campus was ambitious and impressive. Our current Chair, Frank Scherma, is outstanding, bringing to the Board and our members innovative ideas for the future of our Academy as well as television as a whole. I just recently joined The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and have tremendous respect for Actors Branch Governors Laura Dern, Whoopi Goldberg, and Alfred Molina, who have done stellar work in regard to diversity and leadership for film actors.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Patrika: Be kind to everyone. Lead with honesty and integrity because people are watching and listening. Do what makes you happy because our time here is limited and not to be wasted.
Adam: What is something you have witnessed up-close or experienced that would shock fans?
Bob: God created take two…and take 9! Even the best of the best, Emmy and Oscar winners make mistakes and need a great director. OH-and I love eating bacon! Don’t judge!!
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Bob: When you are on your deathbed, regret will be far harder to face than failure.
Adam: So, what are your predictions?
Patrika: If I could predict what might be coming in our industry, I would be a genius and become quite wealthy. I think entertainment in the future will be immediate and short. People don’t sit and watch their entertainment like their grandparents or event their parents anymore. Look, when a 2 year old can operate a computer right now, one can only imagine a George Jetson future. We are almost there right now.
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Bob: Really appreciate this opportunity!
Patrika: If you can dream it, you can have it if you work for it. Even in this day and age of skepticism and negativity, no one can tell you not to live your dreams or that you can’t have what you want. I believe you just have to put in the blood, sweat and tears and be nice to everyone along the way. Nice goes a long way.