Wednesday 28 September 2016

Obituary: Janet Waldo

A screen star discovered by Bing Crosby, she found her niche in cartoons and fame as the voice of Penelope Pitstop

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Janet Waldo
Janet Waldo
Her ‘Wacky Races’ character Penelope Pitstop

Janet Waldo, who has died aged 96, was an American actress who was much in demand as a voice artist for numerous television cartoon series from the 1960s to the 1980s, notably for British audiences as Penelope Pitstop in Wacky Races, and as Judy Jetson in The Jetsons, both produced by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

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Penelope Pitstop, "the glamour gal of the gas pedal", was typically clad in lurid cyclamen-coloured driving gear, incorporating miniskirt, belt with heart-shaped buckle, white go-go boots and jauntily peaked goggles. She was designed by the great animator Iwao Takamoto, and loosely based on Maggie DuBois, the Natalie Wood character in Blake Edwards' 1965 comedy caper film The Great Race.

The animators gave Penelope an unusual straight-legged running style, and her pink convertible sports car, the Compact Pussycat, was equipped with useful gadgets such as a parasol and an extending lipstick holder.

Wacky Races, first shown in Britain on BBC1 in 1969-70, became an instant hit, and soon the girl-racer was given her own spin-off show, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, a cliffhanger series along the lines of the silent era weekly melodrama The Perils of Pauline, in which she would cry "Hey-yelp, Hey-yelp" in a Southern-belle drawl as she fought off the advances of the Hooded Claw (voiced memorably by Paul Lynde).

Janet Waldo's first role in a cartoon, however, was as Judy, the teeny-bopper daughter of the family, in The Jetsons (ITV 1963-4), a futuristic companion to The Flintstones whose characters enjoyed high-tech aids to living - such as a robot maid and a nuclear-powered space car - of which their viewers could only dream.

She was "terrified" of the camera, as she explained later, so relished the chance to work with only a microphone: "No false eyelashes! Not having to look so glamorous!"

Janet Marie Waldo was born in Yakima, Washington, on February 4 1920. She began acting in church plays as a child; her father, who was related to Ralph Waldo Emerson, died when she was an infant and her mother, a trained singer, gently pushed her towards a career in the theatre.

Janet studied at the University of Washington and joined a local repertory company, before entering a talent contest in Seattle, where she was spotted by Bing Crosby, touring with some Paramount Studios talent scouts. The young actress and her mother headed to Hollywood with a "feature player" contract from Paramount, Crosby having convinced the studio's power brokers that Janet Waldo was a natural talent.

She was quickly put to work in a series of small roles, playing the ingénue - telephone operator, hat-check girl - in a quick succession of musicals and comedies, such as opposite Fred MacMurray and Harriet Hillard in Coconut Grove, then (also in 1938) in Tom Sawyer, Detective, with a young Donald O'Connor, and in Paris Honeymoon with Bing Crosby in 1939.

She appeared as the sage-brush sweetheart in a run of forgettable westerns featuring Tim Holt, and by the early 1940s had become a dependable minor player, appearing with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, for example, in the wartime love story Waterloo Bridge.

She was never entirely comfortable as a film actress, however, and during the war turned increasingly to the simplicity of radio. She started on Cecil B DeMille's Lux Radio Theater in 1941 and proved to be a highly adaptable radio star with a flair for accents and dialects.

She lent her voice to most of the popular shows of the decade, among them Big Town with Edward G Robinson, The Eddie Bracken Show and, later, Stars over Hollywood. She co-starred with Jimmy Lydon in the CBS situation comedy Young Love (1949-50), and she had a recurring role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

But it was her eight-year run as teenager Corliss Archer on Meet Corliss Archer for CBS (on-screen the role was played by Shirley Temple) that left a lasting impression; it was published as a popular comic book.

There were television appearances, notably in I Love Lucy, and she reprised the role of Emmy Lou when The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet transferred from radio to television in the mid-1950s. She was also for a time a regular on The Andy Griffith Show.

Nevertheless, voicing cartoons would be where she was happiest, as she discovered in 1962, when she was hired by Joe Barbera for The Jetsons. She went on to appear in dozens of animated series: she had a two-year run in The Flintstones, and was in episodes of The Fantastic Four, The Addams Family, Yogi Bear, The Scooby-Doo Show, Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs.

In the mid-1980s she returned to playing teenage Judy when The Jetsons was revived, and in 1990 she had a small part in Jetsons: The Movie, having been replaced at the last minute for the role of Judy.

In 1998 she was a guest star (as Mrs Tobbis) in the cartoon series King of the Hill. It was her first stab at playing in a "post-watershed" cartoon.

In 2000, Waldo gave voice to Penelope Pitstop one last time for a Wacky Races video game, and in 2008 she appeared on the Christian radio show Adventures in Odyssey. She was still making guest appearances at comic book and film conventions until recently.

Janet Waldo's husband, the writer and producer Robert E Lee, whom she married in 1948, died in 1994. She is survived by a son and daughter.

© Telegraph

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