No one had a voice like Gilbert Gottfried’s. On stage, words seemed to explode out of his mouth. He was, Aladdin co-director John Musker says, a “guy who sounds like he gargled a grenade.”
By the 1980s, Gottfried’s uniquely abrasive act had made him a legend in the stand-up comedy world. He’d invented a ridiculously heightened version of himself, the kind of Catskills resort comic who told jokes so off-color they’d make your bubbie blush and storm out of the dining room in anger. When he was on—whether winning back the crowd at the Hugh Hefner roast by telling the “Aristocrats” joke or yelling at contestants on Hollywood Squares—everything he said was hysterical.
The famously filthy Gottfried, who died this week at age 67 from a form of muscular dystrophy, wasn’t exactly Disney material. But Musker and codirector Ron Clements weren’t looking for someone cute and cuddly. Their film’s bad guy was the power-hungry vizier Jafar. And like every great Disney villain, he needed a sidekick. Enter Iago the parrot, who spends his days loudly commiserating with his evil master. Iago served an important purpose in Aladdin: comic-relief. Musker and Clements saw the squawking bird as a warm-up act to Robin Williams’s Genie. “It’s almost 40 minutes into the movie when the Genie makes his first appearance,” Clements says. “It seemed like having another comedian really early on would help sort of set the tone. I think Aladdin is really more of a comedy than most Disney movies, certainly more of a comedy than little mermaid and certainly more of a comedy than Beauty and the Beast … We thought Gilbert could bring some of that kind of humor earlier in the movie.”
But before casting him as Iago, Musker and Clements needed to sell the idea to then–Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. The duo invited their boss to a screening room and played him a clip from Beverly Hills Cop II in which Gottfried, as cranky accountant Sidney Bernstein, steals the scene from his former Saturday Night Live castmate Eddie Murphy.
“We still remember Jeffrey Katzenberg’s reaction at the time. We showed it to him and he said, ‘I don’t know. Isn’t his voice kind of grating?’” Musker says while breaking into a rather whiney impression of the studio executive. “We were like, ‘Well, is the pot calling the kettle black here or what?’ But he did not say no. He just questioned us like, Really? But we knew what we were getting.”
What they got was one of the most memorable voice-acting performances of all time. “Kids see the movie now and most of them don’t know who Gilbert Gottfried is,” Musker says. “But they know Iago.”
There’s obvious irony in the fact that Gottfried is best known for a role in an animated Disney film. But in reality, the dirty comic appealed to children for the same reason that he appealed to adults: his delivery. Gottfried’s boldness is exactly what Musker and Clements wanted for Iago, who by the time of his casting had undergone a radical transformation. In Howard Ashman’s original treatment of the film, the villain had a bird named Sinbad. “He was thinking it might be funny if the parrot was the most articulate guy in the movie,” Musker says. “He had a British voice and he was very mellifluous.”
That changed when Jonathan Freeman, who was quite mellifluous himself, got cast as Jafar. He needed a feathered flunky who sounded and acted nothing like him. Clements says that Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci were also considered for the part, but Gottfried won the role. “The search was on for short, unattractive Jews and Italians,” Gottfried told People in 2018. “So I went in and I auditioned for it.”
While listening in that day, Clements recalls not recognizing the comedian’s voice. “I don’t hear Gilbert anywhere,” he says. “Where’s Gilbert? We didn’t quite realize until then that that voice is actually put on. It’s a character.”
During his initial Aladdin recording session, Gottfried quickly started to improvise. “We used stuff from that first audition,” Clements says. “There are still people who don’t realize that the voices are recorded first and the animation is done to the voice track. So improvisation works great in animation.”
One of Gottfried’s first lines in the movie was unscripted. After Jafar admits that the patsy they sent into the Cave of Wonders to fetch the lamp was “unworthy,” Iago sarcastically responds, “I think I’m gonna have a heart attack and die from that surprise!” Another Gottfried improv comes late in the film when Iago holds up a photo of himself with Jafar and says, “How about this picture? I don’t know—I think I’m making a weird face in it.”
“The makers of Aladdin were very open to have me improvise,” Gottfried said in a Reddit AMA in 2016. “They gave me a lot of freedom but often they would have to stop and go, ‘Gilbert, this is a family film.’”
“I think there were things locked away,” Clements says with a laugh. “There were things with Robin, too. In terms of recording sessions, they tend to be loose and freewheeling. I think Gilbert had a lot of fun doing it.”
Animator Will Finn was in charge of bringing Iago to life. “I remember they said to me, ‘Before we record anything new, do you want to see what we did so far?’” Gottfried said in 2018. “And just from the audition, they did a very cheap, primitive pencil animation on film of the parrot. They took my recordings from the audition and matched it up to that. I remember that was the first time I saw it. I saw the parrot walking around and my voice coming out. That was pretty amazing.”
Finn even made sure the parrot looked like Gottfried, giving him thick eyebrows and big teeth. Aladdin was a Disney film, not a David Attenborough documentary. “Of course parrots don’t have teeth,” Clements says, to which Musker adds: “To get Gilbert, you needed the smile and the toothiness. He became a parrot with teeth. He was a lot of fun and would do anything we’d throw at him.”
On November 25, 1992, Aladdin hit theaters. It went on to make $504.1 million worldwide and became the year’s highest-grossing movie. Robin Williams’s spectacular performance as Genie earned him a Golden Globe and sparked the trend of Hollywood’s biggest stars taking over animation, but Gottfried’s Iago was, line for line, just as funny. Take, for example, this little moment, when he takes revenge on the Sultan by shoving crackers into his mouth.
Without Iago setting the stage for Genie, the movie might not have worked nearly as well. “Gilbert was one of those things that fit that tone,” Musker says, “and said right up front, ‘This is a comedy,’ and there’s a wink at the audience.”
Gottfried reprized his role as the talking parrot in the Aladdin sequels and TV series and began picking up more voice-acting jobs, including, eventually, the Aflac Duck. His voice made any character he played memorable, though none were nearly as memorable as Iago.
“I’m thrilled that Gilbert’s an iconic Disney voice,” Musker says. “These things can hang around,” Clements adds. “Things you see as a kid really make a strong impression on you. Those are the things that stay with you the longest.”
When it came time for the live-action adaptation of Aladdin late last decade, Disney finally recast its iconic parrot. The studio also decided to use CGI to make Iago hyper-realistic. But without Gilbert Gottfried’s thick eyebrows, big teeth, and grenade-gargling voice, it was impossible not to feel like something had been lost.