The original Bugs Bunny voice was his idol. Now he plays the character in the Space Jam sequel.

SUNDAY, JULY 18, 2021

When opportunity knocks, sometimes it pays to answer with a funny voice. Just look at where it got Jeff Bergman.

The actor lends his elastic larynx to a trove of animated characters in the new sequel "Space Jam: A New Legacy," most notably Bugs Bunny in his stream of street-wise riffing opposite LeBron James - who follows in the Nike footsteps of Michael Jordan from the original 1996 hit.

For the veteran voice artist, it all began 40 years ago when Mel Blanc was passing through Pittsburgh on a lecture tour. The legendary actor had originated and cultivated the sounds of Bugs and other Looney Tunes characters, and worked on such Hanna-Barbera shows as "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons." Bergman, then a 20-year-old theater student at the University of Pittsburgh, discovered where Blanc was staying on campus and worked up the nerve to meet the man.

"Something compelled me to do it without hesitation," Bergman says of his 10 p.m. cold call. "I knocked on that door and when I heard a voice that sounded kind of like Barney Rubble saying, 'Just a jiffy,' I just shuddered."

The dapper Blanc, then in his 70s, opened the door clad in a vibrant Cordovan-colored robe, and the conversation soon flowed. "We sat on those two little, single uncomfortable beds and faced each other like father and son," Bergman recounts, "and he could not have been more warmhearted and sweet."

Bergman did some of his impressions for Blanc, including George Burns and Jack Benny. The elder actor advised Bergman to stay in school and keep developing his talents. The visit lasted about 45 minutes.

"That was the watershed moment for me," Bergman says. Maybe he could actually build a career doing "silly voices." For the next several months, "I was just like a madman in my room, working on television and film characters. I was able to get 100 to 150 voices over that summer."

Also in 1981, Bergman says, he tried a stunt worthy of a Bugs cartoon: He dressed up as a delivery person to get an audition tape into the hands of decision-makers at the William Morris Agency. Within a few months, he had an agent and his first booking.

The actor worked steadily until a big break came at the end of the decade. Executive producer Steven Spielberg and his team hired Bergman for the show "Tiny Toon Adventures," to voice such disparate-sounding characters as Bugs, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Tweety and Sylvester.

Blanc, known as "the man of a thousand voices," had reprised some of those roles in 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but he died on July 10, 1989 - Bergman's 29th birthday.

Bergman was not involved with the first "Space Jam" film - he left Hollywood and stayed on the East Coast while raising his family - but in his late 40s, he moved West and returned to the Looney fold.

"Never did I think they would do 'Space Jam' again," Bergman says of the family comedy that combines animation and live action. "They talked about it for years."

Then in 2019 came what he calls the "never-ending" casting process. Finally in March of 2020, just before the lockdown in California, Bergman learned he would voice Bugs, in addition to Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear, whom he also voices on the show "Jellystone." (His castmate from the series, Eric Bauza, also voices several "Space Jam 2" characters, including Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig.)

Given the coronavirus pandemic, Bergman would now have to record these characters from his home studio. He brought aboard recording engineer Matt Kulewicz from Showtime's "Our Cartoon President," on which Bergman has voiced Donald Trump.

The recording conditions ensured that Bergman and LeBron James would never meet during production. But the voice actor says the Zoom meetings with the filmmakers, including director Malcolm D. Lee, fostered an attentive intimacy that supported his leading performance as Bugs.

Bergman's secret to voicing Bugs Bunny, by the way? The Philadelphia-born actor says he conveys "an inherent ethnicity" to the character, noting that Blanc himself was partly inspired by East Coast accents and Yiddish.

On Monday, Bergman attended the film's red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles. The 5-foot-10 actor still had not met his 6-foot-9 co-star. But once again, Bergman employed a funny voice when opportunity knocked.

After the premiere, LeBron James was surrounded by layers of fans. What could Bergman do to get the NBA star's attention despite the distance and din? "I yelled out from about 20 feet away and said in Bugs Bunny's voice, 'Hey, Doc, we really are family,' " Bergman says. "He heard and saw me." Bergman was ushered through the throng to greet him.

"He was holding his daughter and we embraced and thanked each other," Bergman says. Even amid the crowd, it felt like "a very private congratulatory moment."