“I will go to my grave in probably, hopefully, 30 years or so, believing that laughter is a huge component in a cure for whatever ails you,” says Rob Paulsen.
As one of the busiest and most recognizable voice actors working today, Paulsen has made a name for himself by utilizing his greatest gift—his voice—to make children of all ages laugh. He’s best known for his work as Pinky on the popular children’s animated show “Pinky and the Brain,” but Paulsen has racked up more than 500 acting credits on shows like “The Fairly OddParents” to “VeggieTales” to “Robot Chicken” and “Mickey Mouse ClubHouse.” If there’s an animated show you once loved from the ‘80s, ‘90s, or 2000s, Paulsen likely played a part in its success.
But in 2016, Paulsen’s livelihood almost came to an abrupt end after a cancer diagnosis took away parts of the functionality of his mouth. Now, he will recount his experiences with (and eventual triumph over) cancer in his book, “Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life,” out Oct. 8, 2019.
Because it was not painful and did not keep him from doing his job, Paulsen didn’t think much of a swollen lymph node he had for more than a year on the left side of his neck. “I’m a typical guy in that unless something is hanging off me or I can’t feel an extremity, I don’t go to the doctor,” Paulsen says about his prior lifestyle. During his annual physical with his internist, he finally brought up his concerns. Within 24 hours, Paulsen met with an ENT physician at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “I pushed him.I said, ‘Well, I’m a grown up. I can take a punch. What do you think?’” recalls Paulsen. A few weeks later, Paulsen received the news: He had stage III metastatic squamous cell carcinoma with an occult primary tumor.
Treatment would be brutal, but Paulsen was prepared to face the worst. “All the doctors said, ‘Here’s the deal. We’re pretty sure we can cure you, but […] we almost have to kill you,’” says Paulsen. And according to Paulsen, that wasn’t too far from the truth.
Saving Paulsen’s life was of the most concern, but what would happen to his career? As a voice actor, Paulsen’s livelihood depended on his ability to use his mouth. All of that could be taken away in an instant if things didn’t go according to plan. Still, none of that seemed to phase Paulsen. Laughter is what kept him sane through it all. He recalls going to some chemotherapy treatments with Maurice LaMarche, a voice actor who portrayed the Brain on “Pinky and the Brain.” Doctors, caregivers, nurses, and other patients stopped by after learning Pinky was undergoing treatment, and it was a positive experience both for Paulsen and for the people in the hospital. “It is so much bigger than the cancer. It’s so much bigger than the pain,” Paulsen recalls. “The joy of being able to share a laugh with anybody, it is such a powerful medicine.”
It will be three years this June since he underwent treatment, but Paulsen continues to live with the side effects. Radiation severely affected his salivary glands. Paulsen has a constant dry mouth, so he carries water with him everywhere. He also has trouble tasting food. That lack of taste makes it difficult for Paulsen to gain weight. He lost 50 pounds during treatment, and he’s only been able to gain back 15 pounds. But in the end, Paulsen accepts what he has lost, for it could have been a lot worse.
“Struggle is with a small ‘S.’ It’s a hassle. It’s not the sort of thing where I can go, I can’t live like this, because I can,” says Paulsen. “The tradeoffs are much greater and much more positive than the negatives.” And despite it all, the doctors were able to save Paulsen’s voice. Paulsen details more of his journey in his book. Writing it, he says, was like getting paid to go to therapy. “The experience was, I think, cathartic, was nostalgic. It allowed me to try to make sense of some stuff in my life that I probably wouldn’t have dug really deeply into unless I had this opportunity,” he says.
In addition to making festival appearances, voicing characters on shows like “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Rick and Morty,” and writing his book, Paulsen is now the voice director for Nickelodeon’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and pitching new projects to networks. Busy, it seems, is part of his new language, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten who he is or what he’s gone through. “We had to kill part of the good stuff of Rob, and hopefully the other good stuff of Rob will still be there: his personality, his sunny outlook on life, the fact that he does what he does for a living and makes himself and other people happy,” he says. “Things worked out for a reason. In my case, it could not have been more vivid.”