Jim Hill: From the Archives
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The trouble was that Cyndi's youthful voice sounded too youthful. Instead of coming across as a friend who was offering Quasi wise counsel, this earlier version of Laverne sounded like some young kid urging Quasimodo to bust out of the belfry and go party. Take a walk on the wild side. Which was not how Wise and Trousdale wanted Laverne to sound, because - in the original version of the script - this was the sort of stuff Hugo was telling Quasi.
As you might have guessed, Wise and Trousdale were having script trouble with their short, fat gargoyle too. They had hired veteran sitcom performer Sam McMurray - best known for his work on The Tracey Ullman Show - to voice Hugo. And Sam was doing a great job with Hugo as the character was written then: sort of a stone version of John Belushi's Bluto character from the 1978 comedy, Animal House. A big, gross, funny guy.
But perhaps too gross. As test versions of Disney's Hunchback were assembled - using images off of the pre-production storyboards as well as audio from those early recording sessions - it became obvious that the gargoyle trio just wasn't jelling. Charles Kimbrough's work as Victor seemed right on the money. Kimbrough gave his gargoyle character the same prissy air he brought to his stuffy newscaster character, Jim Dial, on the CBS sitcom, Murphy Brown. This was exactly what Wise and Trousdale wanted. But there was something obviously wrong with Hugo and Laverne.
So the Hunchback development team reworked the script then called Lauper and McMurray back to do some additional recording sessions. When the tapes from these sessions didn't work out either, Kirk and Gary made another stab at fixing the script, then called Cyndi and Sam back in again to have another stab at the material.
When the tapes from these sessions fell flat as well Wise and Trousdale had to face facts. The problem wasn't the material. They'd just hired the wrong actors to perform their script.
It was now obvious that Lauper and McMurray needed to be replaced. While nobody likes to make phone calls like this, Gary and Kirk personally called Cyndi and Sam to let them know that they were off the project. Wise and Trousdale apologized profusely, explaining to Lauper and McMurray that they'd both done fine work. It was just that the characters of Laverne and Hugo - as originally written - weren't working. Disney wanted to see if getting a fresh start on the characters, bringing in some new actors to portray these parts, might be able to get Hunchback back on track.
McMurray took this sad bit of news stoically, like the industry veteran that he is. But Lauper was heartbroken. She had pursued a part in a Disney animated film for nearly a decade. And Cyndi had been on board Hunchback almost from the project's inception - long before Hulce, Moore or Kline had been hired. Now she was out of the movie. Her dream job gone. Needless to say, Lauper took her dismissal very badly.
Wise and Trousdale felt awful about dashing Cyndi's hopes for animation immortality. But they also had a film that was in production that was in serious trouble. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. So they put the memory of Lauper's tears behind them and tried to figure out how to fix Hugo and Laverne.
Based on the early test footage it was fairly obvious that one of Wise and Trousdale's biggest problems is that they'd just gone too far with Hugo. The fat, obnoxious gargoyle was just coming across as too gross for audiences to warm up to. When recasting Hugo, Gary and Kirk needed to find someone who was gifted at playing annoying but amusing characters that still managed to hold audience's sympathies. But who had talent enough to pull that amazing feat off?
Luckily, they didn't have to look much further than the "Must See TV" line-up Thursday nights on NBC. There was Jason Alexander - playing his heart out as the neurotic but still somewhat loveable George Costanzo on Seinfeld. Here clearly was the man who could pull off Hugo having already walked that thin line between amusing and annoying for five seasons of television.
When Alexander got the call to come out to Burbank and audition he was thrilled. Just like Cyndi, Jason had been trying for years to land a part in a Disney animated film. Previously, he had tried out for the roles of Lefou and Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast as well as Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King. But the closest that Alexander had come to making his toon dreams come true was landing the role of the comic villain Abis Mal in the 1994 direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin: The Return of Jafar.
But here, finally, was his big break. So Jason zoomed over to Disney Feature Animation and wowed Wise and Trousdale with his audition. Alexander immediately got Hugo, figuring out - almost instinctively - how far he could take the character without making him too obnoxious. With Jason voicing this grubby little gargoyle, Hugo finally worked. Funny but feisty, Alexander's gargoyle contrasted beautifully with Kimbrough's tight, prissy portrayal of Victor. These two characters could now be counted on to produce huge laughs for the movie.
So now what do Gary and Kirk do with Laverne?
It should be noted here that - at this point in the production - Wise and Trousdale were under tremendous pressure to cut the third gargoyle out of the picture. Given how well Victor and Hugo were now working Laverne suddenly seemed unnecessary. A third wheel, if you will. Dropping that character would have saved the film a lot of money, as well as freeing up a lot more screen time for the two other gargoyles to cavort.
But Gary and Kirk felt Laverne was crucial to the film. Hugo kept urging Quasi to take a chance, go for the gusto. Victor was the voice of prudence and caution. Wise and Trousdale knew that their lead character needed someone in the middle, someone with the common touch who'd tell Quasi just to listen to his heart.
So Hunchback Head of Story Will Finn took a stab at rethinking Laverne. Working with Trousdale, they re-imagined the female gargoyle not so much as a nurturing contemporary of Quasi but as a wise - if somewhat crazy - old grandmother. "The sort of woman who had a million cats and sat out on her front porch, cradling a shotgun" was how Gary liked to describe her.
This new version of Laverne looked to be just what Wise and Trousdale were looking for. Still funny, but obviously different enough from Victor and Hugo. Plus this rethink of the character - playing her as more of a favorite old aunt of Quasi - allowed Laverne to deliver that common sense advice that the lonely young hunchback so desperately needed to hear.
Having finally fixed this troubled character, Gary and Kirk were saddled with an even bigger problem: Who do they find to portray this cranky but kind-hearted old gargoyle?
It was just about this time that the sequel to Disney's 1992 hit, Sister Act - Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit - was hitting theaters. And there - in a supporting role as feisty old Sister Mary Lazarus - was veteran character actress Mary Wickes.
If ever you could call someone an old show business trouper it was Mary Wickes. Her career started way back in the 1940s when Wickes played second banana to Abbott and Costello in their 1941 Universal Studios comedy Hold that Ghost. For the next five decades Wickes never stopped working. She did TV with Lucille Ball, sketch comedy with Bob Hope, movie musicals with Bing Crosby, Broadway, commercials - you name it, Mary Wickes did it.
As soon as Disney Feature Animation's casting office pointed out Wickes to Wise and Trousdale they knew that this might finally be the person who could pull off Laverne. Wickes' reedy mid-western voice along with her crack comic timing might just be the combination Gary and Kirk were looking for to make their third gargoyle work.
Wickes came in for her audition in early 1993. While basically a novice at feature animation (having done a little voice work for TV animation in the early 1990s), Mary still nailed the part. Wickes brought to Laverne everything Wise and Trousdale had hoped she would: the humor, the heart, as well as a real sense of wisdom.
As soon as they heard Wickes' audition tape, Gary and Kirk offered her the part. Being the old show business hand that she was, Mary was happy to just to be working. In spite of being well over 80 years old at the time, Wickes never let her age slow her down. Mary was on time to every session and gave 100% every time she was behind the mike.
Victor, Quasi, Hugo and Laverne