The child actors of the '80s who voiced young Tod and young Copper in Disney's The Fox and the Hound have continued their separate careers and moved in varying directions, much as their animated counterparts. I spoke with Keith Coogan--who has had a long and successful career as an adult as well as a child--about the film, his legendary grandfather and his co-star.
GREG: Have you watched The Fox and the Hound over the years since its first release in the '80s?
KEITH: I have probably watched it once every five years or so. This one [on Blu-ray] is just unbelievably beautiful. Sounds great, looks terrific. Thank you Disney for my copy. So yeah, I have watched it over the years and always from a different kind of point of view. Just like when you watch E.T. First you will identify with Elliot, then you will identify with the older brother, then you identify with the mom, then you wind up identifying with Peter Coyote. Well the same with The Fox and the Hound. I appreciated the Sandy Duncan role as I grew older, I appreciated more of the story as I matured. And when I watch, I can forget I was even a part of it because they put it together so great and it is such a strong story. Anytime I need a good cry I would pop in The Fox and the Hound!
G: But that is a "good" kind of sad. It is important for kids to learn compassion.
K: Yeah. That is such a message of the movie. When you‚€™re a kid, you are class blind, you are color blind. That innocence is what they are layering over, and that optimismÔ¿½‚€œwe will always be friends forever, won‚€™t we?‚€Ě ‚€œYeah, forever.‚€Ě Then it turns out not to be the case and why and that always brings a tear to my eye.
G: The production was a bit bumpy according to the history books, but The Fox and the Hound is especially noted because it blended the work of veteran and new animators.
K: I‚€™m very proud to be part of a Disney classic and I love that animators and fans alike see it as a crossover picture from the old to the new. It took a while to make and they stretched the voice recording over several years. I remember seeing the ‚€œpencil‚€Ě version of the bear attack and the waterfall. Terrifying. Unbelievable. They had all the sound, everything in it but they hadn‚€™t animated that sequence yet and it was still very intense, very frightening.
G: Were you and Corey Feldman (who voiced Copper) already friends?
K: They recorded us separate but I had known Corey Feldman and we had worked together. We were definitely cohorts and friends. I would be done with my session and I would see him come in with his mom, maybe we had some on-set school together a little bit.
G: Was doing the voice a challenge as a child actor?
Not being able to act with my eyes and my body was a loss. I had never done voice over before. So the process was just they were explaining, ‚€œOkay, these are the two birds and you are really grossed out by the worm and you say ‚€ėYeecch.‚€™‚€Ě Some times I would just give a one-line reading, other times they would try a bunch of different options. It was basically easy, probably three sessions total for a period of two years or so. Then when the film came out, I was just blown away. You wouldn‚€™t have known that Corey and I weren‚€™t working together or in the same room.
G: In the film, you‚€™re credited as Keith Mitchell. Did you change it to honor your grandfather, Jackie Coogan?
K: My stage name is Keith Coogan. Before my grandfather passed away in 1984, my work was under Keith Mitchell, which was my birth name. When my grandfather died in 1984, I changed it to my mother‚€™s maiden name, Coogan. I totally wanted his name to continue. You should know who Jackie Coogan was, what he did for child earnings, what he went through, his history. I wanted to honor my grandfather and also do an absolute split between my younger television work and the future film career that I was planning on at the time.
G: Of course, Jackie Coogan is legendary as the first big child star, the developer of the Coogan Law to protect young performers‚€™ earnings and Uncle Fester on TV‚€™s The Addams Family. Did he talk a lot about the early days?
K: We were very aware of that history of my grandfather. Hewould say things like ‚€œI didn‚€™t meet the Pope, the Pope met me.‚€Ě Great quotes from Charlie Chaplin like ‚€œI only had one costar and that was Jackie Coogan.‚€Ě He definitely lived in that past, he had great successes from age four. There‚€™s a great biography of him called Jackie Coogan: The World‚€™s First Boy King. Chaplin was absolutely responsible for establishing my grandfather‚€™s image, costume and then Jackie and my great-grandfather ran with it. My great-grandfather turned into a producer, created Jackie Coogan Productions and did My Boy, Long Live the King and Oliver Twist. His first talkie was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. So, I knew about the legend really as I had grown up and I have read more and learned more. He went through so many things in his life. He married Betty Grable, fought in World War II, of course had a second career with The Addams Family. l loved him dearly. He was the cranky, rascally old grandpa that a lot of people seem to have.
G: Do you have advice for young performers today?
Spend very thriftily, be wise with your money. It doesn‚€™t last very long. The fame comes and goes, it is very cyclical, enjoy it while it is happening, really, really, enjoy it, it is over before you know it. You can come back, America loves a great come back story. You might find yourself just continuing on and just working if it is something you really love to do. If you really, really enjoy being on a set, if you really enjoy acting it is a great craft, something that calls to you, you have know choice but to do it. But, if you are going to do it, certainly get an education to fall back because you may not ever work again and you‚€™ve got to make a living. It doesn‚€™t last forever and enjoy it while it is happening. I am very lucky to have broken into features at 16. I turned 17 on the set of Adventures in Babysitting, also for Disney. Chris Columbus was such a great director to us as kids. He would see the story from the kids‚€™ point of view and that helps the audience see the story from the kids‚€™ point of view. Another Disney film I was very happy to do was Cheetah, which took me to Kenya and was one of the greatest times of my life. I turned 18 on that set so just a year later. What an unbelievable experience!
G: And now you‚€™re creating your own digital film productions.
K: Yes, and it‚€™s something almost anyone can do in their own way. You can write, you can produce and help other people out with their projects and friends and it is a different animal. It is a different pace, you are shooting a lot more, you have a lot more room to improvise, still rolling, still rolling. I really like the way the industry is kind of changing. It is miraculous and I took right to it. A little combo of improvisation, a little combo of that classic structure of how to shoot a scene and how to do coverage but moving fast and light with digital and even 3D. I did a 3D short. It is really challenging but also a boon to the creative instinct. I love it.
G; Do you still keep in touch with ‚€œthe hound,‚€Ě Corey Feldman?
K: Yes, I love him, but you do grow apart as adults. We are not part of our daily lives. For 36 years we have worked side by side in the industry and share some of the same beginnings. If you look at our IMDBs from the seventies they knock up against each other. So he is definitely respected by me also the only other person I could talk to who has been through such a similar situation as myself. He is a great one to lean on when I need to because he is the only one who understands. You look around and think there are not a lot of us left, so I don‚€™t want to lose touch with Corey ever. I have so much respect for him and I want to see more of him of course. But you grow up. That is the theme of Fox and the Hound. Adult situations can kind of drive some distance between you, not in the heart.
Corey and I will always be friends forever.