Nancy Cartwright makes Bart say 'Don't have a cow' and everything else

January 23, 1994|By Bob Dyer | Bob Dyer,Knight-Ridder News Service

Bart Simpson was displaying remarkably good table manners the other day at a Glendale (Calif.) restaurant.

No slurping. No elbows on the table. Not a single "Don't have a cow, man" outburst.

Why, she was a model citizen.

She? Yep. Bart Simpson is a girl.

A girl from Ohio, no less.

Better make that a woman -- a 35-year-old woman who totes around snapshots of two kids, volunteers for an inner-city literacy program, and restricts her family's TV viewing to weekends.

She's Nancy Cartwright.

Happy being Bart

To say Ms. Cartwright enjoys being Bart is to seriously understate things.

She zips into the parking lot -- right on time -- in what could best be described as a Bartmobile: a custom-painted, hot-pink Mazda Miata convertible with wild, black-and-white seat covers and a -- vanity license plate reading: "DNTHVCW."

When she first got the plate, she would look in her rear-view mirror and see other drivers scratching their heads. So she added a customized frame around the plate that reads: "Hint: Moo."

That way, only a Homer Simpson could fail to figure out the "Don't have a cow" message.

It's no wonder Ms. Cartwright is fired up about her work. From the age of 10, voice acting was the only thing she really wanted to do. Now she has one of the best voice-acting jobs on the planet.

Almost from the moment little Bart and his cartoon family landed a full-time series on Fox in late 1989, the hedge-haired wild man has been a cultural phenomenon.

With the Wednesday debut of a promising new animated prime-time series called "The Critic," Ms. Cartwright may be on the brink of adding a second cartoon legend to the American landscape.

But it is unlikely that 16-year-old Margo, stepsister of a fictional film critic voiced by Jon Lovitz, will overshadow Bart any time soon.

Here a Bart, there a Bart

You can't walk through a mall in this country without seeing a Bart T-shirt. He has sold millions of posters, mugs and record albums.

Along the way, he also has managed to steam a few educators, who spoke out against the pride Bart was taking in his "underachiever" persona.

What a difference a couple of years make. Today, thanks to MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head," the Simpson family looks like Ozzie and Harriet.

Add Ms. Cartwright to the list of people who think B&B are the scourge of Western civilization.

"This is gonna sound weird coming from the voice of Bart Simpson, but for the most part, I'm going, 'What's the point of this?'" she says of the heh-heh-heh duo.

"Look at the condition of our society right now: increase in crime, increase in illiteracy, decrease in jobs. . . . Whatever happened to values and instilling ethics in our families?"

" 'Beavis and Butt-head,' " Ms. Cartwright says, "to me is a comment on the general attitude of our society right now."

Simpsons' redeeming value

The folks who criticized Bart a while back would no doubt find some irony in those remarks. But Ms. Cartwright says the Simpson clan, inept as it may be, consistently delivers a socially redeeming message by the end of each episode.

During a two-hour chat at Duet, a cozy restaurant not far from her house, she sounds like any other parent worried about the future of a 4-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy.

Of course, most parents don't slip in and out of different characters -- a British matron one minute, an Italian babe-hound the next, an adolescent Midwestern girl the next.

You can hear just a tinge of Bart in Ms. Cartwright's normal speaking voice. But Bart himself pops out only a couple of times, and only in the appropriate context.

In other words, Ms. Cartwright is not among the actors who seem to confuse themselves with the characters they play. Still, she and her fourth-grade buddy have been linked inexorably from the moment he first popped out of her mouth.

During a typical audition, Ms. Cartwright will offer producers several options for a character's voice. But when reading for "The Simpsons," she seemed to have had an almost mystical sense of who Bart was and what he should sound like.

The Voice

The instant she began to speak, "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening proclaimed: "Oh, my God! That's Bart!"

Ms. Cartwright says the creators of a cartoon character usually don't have a voice in mind. "But they know what's not right," she says.

That was certainly the case with "The Critic," which was assembled for ABC by many of the same folks who created the Fox series.

The producers -- hoping to establish a distinct identity for the new series -- tried to refrain from tapping all the old "Simpsons" talent.

They tried out 600 women for the voice of Margo, and finally settled on one. She didn't work out. Neither did the next four people they hired and fired.

Only then did creator Jim Brooks call in Ms. Cartwright, who had been hounding him for a chance. The instant she read, Mr. Brooks shook his head and said: "Give it to Cartwright. She's the girl."

Usually, she's the boy.

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