Michael Winslow: The sounds of success [classic article]

Michael Winslow is best known for his scene-stealing performances in all seven “Police Academy” movies, as well as the television series, as officer Larvell Jones. He also appeared in “Spaceballs,” “Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie,” “Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams,” “Gremlins” and “Back to the Future 3.” A master of vocal gymnastics, Michael can imitate over 10,000 sound effects using his voice alone. He is also the voice behind the new Universal Studios (Florida) rides “Men In Black” and “T2-3D.”

Performing over 200 comedy club shows a year, Michael is gearing up for a nationwide tour of rock clubs for his new show.

From the time Michael was a toddler, he had an ear fine-tuned for sound. He would avoid nap time by mimicking the jet engine and truck noises he heard on the Washington Air Force base where he grew up. As a “military brat,” Michael was always moving, always the new kid in class. He used his special talents as a defense from the rough kids and discovered that barks of a large, ferocious dog could scatter a group of bullies intending to harass him. After a few such incidents, Michael was labeled “crazy,” which was fine with him. “Being the kid who was crazy was much better than being the kid who got beaten up everyday,” says Michael.

Against his parent’s wishes, he dropped out of a Denver college and struck out for Boulder to try his hand at stand-up comedy. At a comedy club, Michael donned an Afro wig that he’d stolen from his mother’s closet and mixed comedy and sound effects in his own version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” The urge to perform took root, and he soon moved to Los Angeles.

For a time, he was homeless on Venice Beach, but after a lengthy comedy club apprenticeship, his luck improved, and he began to appear in the “Police Academy” movies beginning in 1984.

He married and had two children. When his wife developed a drug habit in 1993, Michael made a drastic decision to ditch Hollywood and move his children to Florida “to raise them in a better environment.” A few months later, his wife died of a drug overdose. Devastated, he retreated from work to focus on his family.

With his children now older, Michael is stepping back into comedy ring. He recently made a guest appearance on “The Drew Carey Show” and guest-starred on the German hit show “RTL Samstag Nacht” (Saturday Night). He’s in the midst of a nationwide comedy club tour.

Bankrate: You’ve done voices for amusement park rides. What guidelines do they give you? What’s your inspiration?

Michael Winslow: They want a sense of humor. Also, flexibility — the stranger the better. With the new computer technology and sound effects, they’re going to feel it more.

Bankrate: You’ve spent time homeless. What kept you going? Did you ever consider just moving away? Do you have any advice for people in desperate financial straits?

Michael Winslow: Don’t do it! That really hurts. Hunger is a powerful motivator, also fear. I could have had help from my parents, but the dream was so strong. I had to sleep in the lifeguard towers. I figured, it would be harder for gangs to get me and if they did, I would have time to get away. I banded together with a group of homeless people at the beach. We banded to be protected from the gangs. The great part about America is that you can go after your dream, you have that choice. Some people are not cut out for that risk. But, the great thing is, if you are, you have that choice. I took some big risks.

Bankrate: Did your parents know about your situation?

Michael Winslow: No. They were quite upset with me when they found out. I was 19, 20. I wouldn’t recommend it. I went through a lot of emotions, despair. I was cold and damp.

Bankrate: Your ex-wife had a severe drug problem. What financial effect did that have on your family?

Michael Winslow: Absolutely devastating. With the drug programs, if you don’t complete them, you have to pay the full balance anyway. She went through many programs, starting and quitting. I went through tens of thousands of dollars. My brain was on overload. The person has to want help. You don’t just walk in and expect to be cured. Some people don’t appreciate when you help them.

Bankrate: You’ve had additional success in the European market. What is the difference between the two markets?

Michael Winslow: In Europe, the focus on the art. In America, it’s the market. Overseas, they take you at face value, while in America, they look for the gimmick, try to package you. But, it’s your ability, not just the packaging (that’s important).

Bankrate: Many people with an ear for different sounds also can conduct music or speak multiple languages. Have you tried any of those things?

Michael Winslow: Oh yeah! I have! That’s the interesting thing about talent. I have no language barriers. I speak German, Italian, Japanese. I wish I could have afforded Berlitz. I’ve conducted for the Lincoln Center. I would work with each instrument individually, show them how I wanted it to sound. I can pick out each instrument in a group of players, too.

Bankrate: You sell lots of merchandise at www.michaelwinslow.com. How do you decide what products to sell?

Michael Winslow: People usually tell you. People come up with great ideas. It’s trial and error. I keep my mind open. People want fantasy games, computers. I’m in the process of doing a sound-effect clock.

Bankrate: Do you manage your own money?

Michael Winslow: In certain forms, yes. I have a licensed CPA and manager. But I scrutinize every check that goes out. It’s in your best interest to! Look what happens if you don’t.

Bankrate: Do you have any investments?

Michael Winslow: I would say, invest in real estate and yourself. If you don’t invest in yourself, where are you going to go? There’s also manufacturing. People are buying again. People want computer CDs. You have to manufacture.

Bankrate: What is something you think is important to spend money on?

Michael Winslow: Tools for what you’re doing. Stuff wears out. Whatever upgrades your industry does, the manufacturer, the marketplace forces you to buy it. You should get fairly recent stuff, maybe not hot off the shelf. I study what computer programs are buggy — c’mon, that’s no joke! As long as it works. Customer service has really gone by the wayside in a recession. A lot of people find that maddening. I agree! I don’t like buggy customer service. They don’t like to hear that, I know.

Bankrate: But do they treat you differently when they find out you’re Michael Winslow?

Michael Winslow: A little. It’s like, [Michael switches to a redneck accent] “You’re that guy who does the voices?” It is helpful.

Bankrate: Do you think your background makes you different from your Hollywood colleagues?

Michael Winslow: Well, I know that you’re better off making your own products, not just waiting for someone to hand you something. If you are handed something, it’s a blessing and a curse. Look at hip hop artists, they produced everything themselves. Even people like Robert De Niro are getting into production. Again, it’s art vs. marketing. Not everyone can take the risk. You have to break a few eggs to make a good omelet.

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