Rodger Bumpass was a college student at Arkansas State University majoring in television and radio with a minor in theater. One night after a live theater performance in a play, he came off stage and one of his professors said something that changed his life.
“I look forward to seeing you in professional theater,” the professor said.
Those words fueled a desire in Bumpass and when he graduated from college he moved to New York and became a professional actor, he told Talk Business & Politics. He eventually landed in Hollywood where he was cast in several movies.
Bumpass’s unique ability to manipulate his voice opened doors in the realm of voice acting. It culminated when he was selected as the voice actor for Squidward Tentacles on the hit animated television show, “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The 70-year-old actor spoke at an event recently in St. Louis. He said he’s not surprised the cartoon is about to enter its 23rd season.
“Funny is funny and silliness is timeless,” he said.
Bumpass was born in Little Rock, and after high school he attended ASU. While living in Jonesboro he worked at local television station, KAIT, as a cameraman, announcer, and other various jobs. He performed in his own late-night television show, “Mid-Century Nonsense Festival Featuring Kumquat Theater,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
After graduating in 1976, the aspiring actor moved to New York. Living in Manhattan wasn’t as glamorous as you might suspect, he said. Among his odd jobs, Bumpass sold carpet cleaner to make ends meet while auditioning for roles. He caught his first break when he was cast in National Lampoon’s road show, “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick.” His performances were well-received and he toured across the country and even got to make an appearance in his native Arkansas.
Bumpass nearly got his first major break when he was tentatively cast in a proposed comedy movie, “Jaws III, People 0.” It was supposed to be a spoof of the first two Jaws movies and it included a love scene between Bumpass and sultry actress Bo Derek. Jaws director Steven Spielberg objected to the premise of the comedy film and it was shelved along with Bumpass’s love scene with Derek.
“That’s my Hollywood tragedy story,” he said with a laugh.
The actor made appearances in movies such as “Escape from New York,” and in television shows such as “Hart to Hart” and “Silk Stockings.” Demand began to grow, however, for his voice acting. He became a voice actor on hit television shows such as “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?,” “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Batman: The Animated Series,” “Gravity Falls,” “Monsters University” among others.
In 1999, he auditioned for the role of Squidward. When he was given a description of the character one of the first things that jumped out to him was his large nose. Bumpass decided to give the character a decidedly “nasally” sounding voice and he won the part. He wasn’t initially sure if the show would be a success. The premise of the cartoon is that SpongeBob is an adult sea sponge working at a fast-food restaurant on the seafloor with a collection of friends and co-workers. They embark on many misguided adventures.
Squidward loathes his job as a cashier at the restaurant, the Krusty Crab. He has a temper and has an adversarial relationship with the other characters in the show, but they don’t realize he doesn’t like them. He’s an aspiring, egotistical artist.
The show premiered on Nickelodeon July 17, 1999. Within two years the show became one of the most popular cartoons in the United States, and the most popular ever on the cable network. Merchandise featuring the show’s characters began to pop up everywhere, he said.
Bumpass became an avid collector of all things SpongeBob SquarePants. He thinks he has the largest such collection in the world and he plans to submit his claim to the Guinness Book of World Records. Once, when he was in a Target store, he found several Squidward figurines and he grabbed them all. At the checkout, the clerk asked him if he was a fan of the character.
Bumpass explained that he was the voice for the character and the clerk asked him to perform the voice. The clerk was less than impressed.
“He said ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good. Don’t quit your day job,’” he said.
His parents never embraced his desire to become a professional actor, he said. Images of a starving artist came to mind. Each year when he files his taxes there is one thing that makes him smile.
“When I see the box for profession and it says actor — I really like that,” he said. “They [his parents] didn’t think it would be a great way to make a living.”
Playing a character like Squidward can encompass many parts of your life. In the show, he plays a clarinet and there are paintings all over his house he paints of himself. Bumpass said he has pictures of Squidward all over his own house, meaning his home mimics his character’s home, to a degree, in Bikini Bottom, the fictional town in which he lives.
A common question he’s asked is whether Squidward is a squid or an octopus. The character is an octopus, but “Octoward doesn’t roll off the tongue as well,” he said with a laugh.
What would be the best show ending from a Squidward perspective?
“To win an invaluable award for his paintings,” Bumpass said.
In addition to his voice work on the hit cartoon, Bumpass has been a voice actor in numerous movies, including “Hercules,” “A Bug’s Life,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Monster’s Inc.,” “Shrek” and “Ice Age” among others.
What does Bumpass make of his career?
“This is the job of a lifetime,” he said.