Wanted: Ned Flanders Imitators. Harry Shearer Leaving “The Simpsons”

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(WTNH)  Mr. Burns, we hardly knew ye.  Actually, we knew the skinflint nuclear power plant owner quite well, after 26 years on “The Simpsons,” voiced that entire time by comedian and actor Harry Shearer.  Shearer announced yesterday that he’s leaving the animated favorite, departing America’s longest-running scripted series with what are sure to be some slightly different sounding characters: not just Mr. Burns, but annoying neighbor Ned Flanders, Waylon Smithers, and Principal Skinner.

That’s a lot of recasting to do, but the show’s producers say they’ll keep the characters and find new voiceover actors.  They say Shearer had been pushing for new deals for The Simpsons voice cast, and that they offered him pretty much what he wanted.  He decided to walk anyway, saying it’s been a long run, and at the age of 71, he wants to work on other projects.

It must be nice.  The voice actors on “The Simpsons,” which runs in perpetual syndication around much of the world in addition to the new episodes still produced, have become some of the highest-paid actors you would barely recognize.  Who among us wouldn’t like to go to work in jeans and T-Shirts, do some funny voices, and walk away with big checks, decade after decade?

Actually, Harry Shearer is probably the most recognizable of the cast.  He served a stint on Saturday Night Live many years ago, but is probably best known for his role as Derek Smalls, the cucumber-smuggling bass player from the classic “rockumentary” (if you will) “This Is Spinal Tap.”  He was the one whose pod didn’t open during a particularly spacey opening number for the band, and it was Derek who decided that modern jazz was the only way to turn when the dinosaur rock band hit hard times (the jazz transition didn’t go well).

I interviewed Harry Shearer in the 90’s, at his Santa Monica beach bungalow.  I don’t quite remember what the topic was, but I remember perfectly how he let me hold and play the very same bass played by Derek Smalls in the movie.  Thrills like that don’t come along everyday.  It was like an 11 on the happy scale for me, which is one happier than 10.

So good luck Harry/Derek/Ned/Mr. Burns.  “The Simpsons” will go on without you, but it won’t be — or it won’t sound — quite the same.

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