Michael Winslow: The sounds of success
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"
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
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
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
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.
Tamar Alexia Fleishman is an attorney practicing
-- Posted: Oct. 8, 2002