Interview: Michael Winslow
10:06 22 June 2012
Copyright Â© Jass Foley, James Foley Media Ltd. 2011
From being homeless in California to touring the UK with his stand-up routine for the first time, Police Academy star Michael Winslow has plenty to tell — in numerous different voices.
The sound of machine-gun fire scatters the bad guys as Sgt ‘Motor Mouth’ Jones is victorious once again. But what’s that, there was no machine gun? Where on Earth did that noise come from, then?
Very few people of a certain age will be able to deny knowledge of a comedy franchise of films that littered the 1980s and early 90s. The Police Academy movies remain a wholly Marmite-type phenomenon — you either loved them or you hated them.
But all cheesy-cop-comedy fans will be delighted to know that ‘the one who makes all the noises’ is touring the UK this summer.
Michael Winslow, 53, takes his new stand-up show The Man Of 10,000 Voices to the Edinburgh Festival for the second time this year — but not before stops off for a date at the Norwich Playhouse tomorrow
The star, who has appeared in numerous other films including Gremlins and sci-fi spoof Spaceballs, has been warming up for UK audiences with a brief tour of the Middle East, where we finally caught up with him.
A number of redirected phone calls later, the voice of an over-keen Egyptian fellow welcomed me to the conversation. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Winslow revealed himself — much to my uncomfortable gratitude.
“I’ve been doing good,” he said. “I’m looking around and keeping my ears open — there’s a lot going on.
“For me, you would be surprised by what you learn just by listening for a second and letting everybody do their thing. I learn a lot that way.”
The decision to try his hand as a comedian was not an obvious first thought for Winslow, despite the obvious appeal of his talents.
“Every so often I wonder if I should be doing this as a job and then people come up to me in the street and make noises at me and I think ‘Why not? Maybe I’m having a good effect on people’. When little kids are saying ‘Oi mister, can you do this one?’ [British accent], I feel I am having a positive effect. “Even here. This man in Egypt comes up and says ‘Hey, you’re the machine-gun guy’.”
But it wasn’t plain sailing for Winslow as he scrabbled around to get his career started back in the 1970s. The actor even had to sleep rough for a while as he looked for work.
He said: “I was working at an automotive car-wash where I had to fix robots. That’s when I said ‘You know what, I would rather be talking to these things than fixing them. Maybe it’s time for me to stick my thumb out and give this a try.’.
“It was one of those things where you try anything to get into that business — you will sacrifice almost anything to get there. That happened to me and I was homeless in Venice Beach, California, for a while. Me and the other homeless musicians and performers would stick together and we slept on the roof of a lifeguard tower.”
While homeless, Winslow auditioned for The Gong Show, the long-running US TV talent show, bagging a spot that earned him enough cash to buy a car and some notoriety.
He said: “The big break always comes in pieces. I know of very few overnight successes because it usually takes years. For me it has been in portions. You lift yourself up by your own boot-straps, I guess. A little piece at a time.”
He soon moved to LA to perform in comedy clubs and opened for other performers, including jazz legend Count Basie. It was there that he was spotted by producers Hugh Wilson and Paul Manslanski, who immediately wrote him into the script of Police Academy. “They came to one of my shows and they literally wrote me into the script where my character didn’t exist before.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career, but Police Academy put me in the game. When good things happen, take it.
“After the first Academy, I ended up doing some wonderfully odd films, including Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. I was scheduled to be there for two days and ended up staying for three weeks just watching everybody do what they were doing.
“It was like taking college because I was learning so much. And then after that a few other things popped up and I was just glad to have it and to be working.”
It was as a youngster that Winslow developed his skill to imitate noises such as plane engines after being born on an airbase to parents Robert and Verdie.
“I don’t know how the noises work — I don’t know the scientific equation for it. When you get into the CSI of it, I don’t think I actually want to know.”
But he could not have predicted how much he would be taken to the hearts of the American people and he especially couldn’t have predicted his continued fame in the UK.
“I love it in the UK. I’m a fan of this movie I saw recently called Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Is everybody in that movie out of their minds? Even Sting is crazy — I loved it. I have a strange sense of humour.”
With news of an eighth Police Academy film in production, Winslow could be forgiven for getting back on the acting horse and leaving off the comedy circuit, but the stand-up is pretty pleased with the way things are going.
“Now number eight is coming and hopefully we will be back in people’s living rooms once again. It should be out in 2013.
“I speak to the Academy guys when possible. Mahoney is doing just fine — he is giving serious consideration to doing stand-up, too. And since he always had comedy timing, I hope he does it.”
Despite trying to conduct the interview professionally, I eventually gave in and asked to hear the machine-gun noise, for old time’s sake.
The reply? “Hmmm, I’ll load it for you, but I won’t fire it…this is Egypt, after all!”
■ Michael Winslow: The Man of 10,000 Voices, Norwich Playhouse, June 23, £16, 01603 598598, www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk