Man of a Thousand Voices: Disney Legend Paul Frees

paul frees

July 28, 2023

Written by: Jim Smith

“Welcome, foolish mortals!”

You might not know his name, but you know his voice.

Paul Frees, considered by many to be on par with Mel Blanc as a “man of a thousand voices” lent his voice talents to several legendary Disney characters and attractions, as well as quite a few non-Disney characters. He was something of a vocal secret weapon for Disney, and for good reason!

Mister Frees will be fondly remembered in Disney’s new Haunted Mansion film, in theaters July 28, 2023.

Let’s explore the life and career of Paul Frees in this edition of Disney Legends Spotlight.

The Vaudeville Vocalist

Solomon Hersh Frees was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1920, and he spent all of his youth in the Chicago area. Gifted with an amazing ear and a voice which could span four octaves, Frees put those gifts to good use in the entertainment business. By the late 1930s, he began performing on vaudeville as an impressionist, using the stage name Buddy Green.

paul frees
Image sourced from IMDB

Frees started his acting career in 1942, beginning a four-decade career that spanned radio, television, and film. Frees fought in Normandy, France on D-Day, was wounded in action, and spent a year recuperating. Frees used his military service to attend the Chouinard Art Institute under the G.I. Bill. Unfortunately, he was forced to drop out following his wife’s health troubles, and returned to his dependable radio work.

A Golden Voice in the Golden Age of Entertainment

Aside from his radio work, Frees was involved in more than 250 films, cartoons, and television appearances (some of which were uncredited).

Animation voice work proved to be Frees’ bread and butter. He worked regularly with many large animation studios of his era, including  Disney, Warner Bros., Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Rankin/Bass, and several others.

Disney’s Secret Weapon

Frees provided voice work for several major Disney Parks attractions, mostly as a narrator. His most famous Disney Parks role is that of the Haunted Mansion Ghost Host.

haunted mansion ghost host
Image: Disney

In addition to “welcoming foolish mortals”, Frees also voiced several pirates from the Pirates of the Caribbean (including the ominous warning “dead men tell no tales”), and narration for Tomorrowland’s Adventure Thru Inner Space and the original Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

For Disney animation, Frees voiced Professor Ludwig Von Drake, and countless supporting characters, many of which went uncredited.

prof. ludwig von drake
Image: Disney

Frees occasionally dipped his toe into live acting. For Disney, Frees appeared in The Shaggy Dog and The Ugly Dachshund, among other smaller roles.

paul frees and fred macmurray the shaggy dog
Frees (left) with Fred MacMurray in The Shaggy Dog
Image: Disney

Outside Disney

In the animated world outside Disney, Frees voiced several culturally significant characters.

For Jay Ward’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Frees performed the stereotypical foreign bad guy Boris Badenov to menacing perfection.

boris badenov rocky and bullwinkle
Image: Jay Ward Productions

Frees’ thumbprint is all over the Rankin/Bass Christmas special collection.  In Frosty the Snowman, Frees provided the voices for Santa, the police officer, and even the little rabbit Hocus Pocus.

frosty the snowman santa claus and hocus pocus
Image: Rankin/Bass

He also voiced the second-biggest holiday Grinch of all time (besides the Grinch himself), Burgermeister Meisterburger, in Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.

burgermeister meisterburger
Image: Rankin/Bass

Frees was pretty good at selling groceries too. He provided the voice for the sweet and cheerful Pillsbury Doughboy, as well as Froot Loops’ pitch-bird Toucan Sam.

pillsbury dough boy
Image: Pillsbury Company

In one odd bit of animation history, Frees provided the voices of both John Lennon and George Harrison in the 1965 The Beatles cartoon series.

the beatles animated show
Image: King Features Syndicate

Farewell Forever Mister Frees

Paul Frees battled several ailments over the last couple years of his life. He died in 1986 at the age of 66, from heart failure that was sadly induced by a self-administered overdose of pain medication.

Paul Frees’ legacy lives on in the Haunted Mansion queue, where a token of cheeky appreciation is listed on one of the crypts just outside the mansion building itself.

It reads:

“Farewell Forever,

Mister Frees

Your voice will carry

on the breeze.”

In 2006, Frees was posthumously offered the ultimate Disney honor, when he was declared a Disney Legend.

Voice actor Corey Burton has carried on Frees’ legacy, particularly for Disney content, providing spot-on renditions for many of Frees’ characters, as updates and new material are needed.

Say What???

Ok, so you think you know the basics about Paul Frees? Stop right there, because there is one other thing about Paul Frees you may not know about. According to Peter Guralnik – author of two Elvis Presley biographies – Frees was also, at one time, an undercover narcotics agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in the 1960s. I assume his role may have been as an informant of some sort around Hollywood, but details on this are essentially nonexistent, as far as I’ve been able to find. Imagine my surprise when learning this tidbit about Paul Frees while reading a biography about Elvis Presley!

richard nixon and elvis
Image: Ollie Atkins / Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

How exactly are Paul Frees and Elvis even related? Well, Frees was one of the countless Hollywood talents Elvis met during his career.  Elvis met Frees at a time when he (Elvis) was feeling very patriotic and wanted to play a part in national defense. Having learned that Frees was working in the war against drugs, Elvis saw an opportunity to do his part in the fight as well. Elvis went so far as to pitch his services to President Richard Nixon. This service idea never amounted to much, but it did score Elvis a cool photo-op with the President.

If any of you have additional information about this piece of Paul Frees, or if you can confirm (or debunk) the validity of this information, please reach out and share it with me.

Friends, have you been smitten by the gravelly vocal charm of Mister Paul Frees? You’ll hear echoes of him in Disney’s newest film take on Haunted Mansion, in theaters as of July 28, 2023. The film is being received as a loving tribute to the classic Disney Parks attraction.

Check out more Disney Legends in our spotlight collection.

Are you interested in visiting one (or several) of Disney’s Haunted Mansions? Start with this link to Facts and Figment Vacation Planning, and I’ll help you get moving!

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D23 Legend Page for Paul Frees – Disney D23

Disney Wiki – Paul Frees

Welcome… Foolish Mortals – The Life & Voices of Paul Frees – Ben Ohmart, 2004

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