The voice behind Count Chocula and Sonny
A conversation with veteran voice actor Larry Kenney – the man behind the voices of General Mills cereal mascots Sonny the Cuckoo Bird and Count Chocula – can turn into a laugh-a-thon.
Since the late 1970s, Kenney has been the voices behind our zany bird and chocolatey vampire, and he’s not afraid to let you know it.
On the phone, he occasionally slips into the voices of the manic Sonny and the excitable Count, as well as other characters he’s originated or imitated in his more than 50-year career in radio and voice work.
There’s Lion-O from the 1980s cartoon “Thundercats,” and even President Richard Nixon, whom he often imitated during his 35-year stint on the “Imus in the Morning” radio show.
“My mom told me when I first talked, I ran around the house mimicking cartoon characters – mostly the Mel Blanc-voiced Looney Tunes ones such as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig,” Kenney says. (He talks about his influences, in this audio clip from our interview).
One could say that this master of mimicry was destined for such a lucrative career.
‘One-Take Larry,’ a natural
Kenney inherited the roles of Sonny and the Count in 1978 and 1979.
When he did, he understood that since the two cereal mascots already had established voices, there was no need to reinvent their sound. He simply imitated the voices created by their original actors – Chuck McCann for Sonny, and Jim Dukas for Count Chocula.
Known in the industry as “One-Take Larry” because he needs few studio takes to nail the perfect voice, Kenney does minimal preparation for a character.
Unlike some voice actors, he does not study voice patterns or even practices. He doesn’t do vocal exercises, and only occasionally drinks hot tea with lemon and honey or takes a lozenge to soothe his throat during a recording session.
“I’m lazy for one thing,” says Kenney. “If I can do a voice, it seems to come out naturally, and I can just do it. It’s a natural gift to me. I don’t have a regimen I go through to accomplish it. Either I can do it, or I can’t.”
Count Chocula was easy for him, since the character is a take-off of actor Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula portrayal in 1930s movies.
“Count Chocula is always overly excited about everything, and the laughter is very important, too,” said Kenney as he spoke like the Count. “I was told at auditions that he needed to be funny and not scary, so I added more highs and lows. Lugosi was always low and very scary.”
Listen to what he told us about how he got his start with General Mills, in this audio clip.
Besides getting the voice right, for speaking, Kenney also was asked to sing as the Count.
For Sonny, Kenney describes how he has to raise his voice to a higher pitch to establish the zaniness when the cuckoo bird sees a bowl of Cocoa Puffs – as you hear in this commercial. (Hear him talk about his Sonny voice in this audio clip).
Of course, Kenney has eaten both cereals. But as a child growing up in Illinois in the 1950s, he ate Wheaties and Cheerios, and still does today. And, setting the record straight, he’s never been paid for his work, with cases of Count Chocula or Cocoa Puffs.
Kenney can still be heard on the airwaves as Sonny for Cocoa Puffs, pitching Skittles candy, or as the announcer for PBS’ “The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize” programs.
And although Count Chocula hasn’t appeared in a commercial in 15 years, Kenney occasionally provides the vampire’s voice for interactive games on General Mills websites. “I may say as the Count, “Congratulations! You have won the game!”
The ‘Lucky’ one that got away
While he’s had plenty of thrills working with General Mills, Kenney actually could have had more – an even luckier one. It’s the one that got away.
In 1992, he auditioned for the role of Lucky the leprechaun – the mascot for Lucky Charms cereal. After a few days without hearing anything, he assumed he didn’t get the job.
But Kenney found out otherwise from a Saatchi & Saatchi producer at a Cocoa Puffs recording session.
“When I walked in the studio, the producer said, ‘Larry, dear boy, you won the Lucky the leprechaun audition,’” recalls Kenney. “‘However, I pooh-poohed it,’ the producer told Larry, ‘I told them you already were doing Count Chocula and Sonny. And if something happened to you, they’d be out three voices.’”
Kenney can only wonder at what could have happened. “To this day, I don’t understand the rationale behind that.”
Hear Kenney talk about some of his favorite moments in his career.
We hope you enjoyed our look at Larry Kenney, his career and his contributions to Sonny and Count Chocula. You can learn more about him on his Facebook page.
We also featured him in this episode of our podcast, when we focused on our Monster Cereals.