Culture

Casey Kasem: Remembering that distinctive American voice

Kasem, who was 82, was born for broadcasting but also dabbled in acting and political life

Born Kemal Amin Kasem on April 27, 1932, the 82-year-old disc jockey, music historian, actor and announcer died Sunday in California, succumbing to Lewy body disease, a form of progressive dementia, according to Variety. Kasem’s death occurred just days after a judge permitted the withholding of food and fluids amid an ugly family dispute.

Before such an unfortunate end to his tale, Kasem’s soothing baritone had made him an icon for generations of Americans. While he got his start as a radio DJ, his first claim to fame was the co-founding of the American Top 40 franchise — which he hosted for decades. Kasem even did some acting. In this endeavor, he is perhaps best known as the original voice of Norville “Shaggy” Rogers in Scooby-Doo cartoons, a role he played for 40 years.  

The man was born for broadcasting. At the age of 20, in 1952, Kasem was drafted for service in Korea. It was with the military that he started his career, working as a disc jockey and announcer for Armed Forces Radio. After his discharge, Kasem went on to cut his teeth in a half-dozen stations from California to New York, some so old (San Francisco’s KYA and Cleveland’s WJW) that they only have three call letters.  

When American Top 40 launched on July 4, 1970 it put of Kasem’s talents to good use. Aside from the countdown to the top-rated single of the week, the show also gave Kasem the chance to showcase his interest in music history: He would tell his listeners a piece of trivia about a given artist, then name the artist after a commercial break. Another Kasem trademark was the “long distance dedication,” one of which resulted in an obscene — if perfectly understandable — rant from Kasem about having to follow an “uptempo number” with a death dedication. 

He hosted the show from 1970 until 1988, then again from 1998 until 2004, when he was succeeded by Ryan Seacrest. (Kasem also hosted the adult contemporary spinoffs American Top 20 and American Top 10 from 1998 until his retirement in 2009.)

He would also try his hand at acting, starting with a few roles in biker films — "The Glory Stompers" which starred Dennis Hopper, and "The Cycle Savages" which starred Bruce Dern — as the 1960s drew to a close.

It was in voice acting, though, that he achieved iconic status. He began with voicing Robin for the Batman cartoon series in 1968. The following year he became the voice of Shaggy in "Scooby Doo! Where Are You?" — a role he kept for decades. The scruffy but safe Shaggy was a hippy parallel to the Archie character Jughead, and Kasem’s broken-voiced “zoinks!” and yelps of terror made Shaggy more memorable.

Kasem appeared in many other cartoon series and specials, reprising his role of Robin for SuperFriends, starring as Alexander Cabot III in a several episodes of "Josie and the Pussycats" cartoons, and as Rankin/Bass’ in "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" a 1971 Easter television special.

In addition to character acting, Kasem maintained steady work doing commercial voice-overs for a variety of products, among them Dairy Queen, Raid, the insecticide and the California Raisin Advisory Board.  

A pop culture mainstay by the 1970s, Kasem had roles in television shows like "Charlie’s Angels", "Hawaii Five-O" and "Saved By The Bell". Often as not, he ended up playing himself, as he did in the 1984 movie, "Ghostbusters".

Away from the microphone and the stage, Kasem, who was proud of his Lebanese Druze heritage, was politically active. He campaigned for George McGovern in 1972, and went on to support Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich in their respective campaigns.

Kasem dedicated himself to improving Arab-Jewish relations, and wrote a brochure for the Arab-American Institute called “Arab-Americans: Making a Difference.” Because of this, there was one cartoon role he declined: that of the evil Abdul, King of Carbombya in a "Transformers" cartoon.

“I asked the director, ‘Are there any good Arabs in this script for balance?’” Kasem, the son of Lebanese immigrants, wrote in 1990. “We looked. There was one other — but he was no different than Abdul. So, I told the show’s director that, in good conscience, I couldn't be a part of that show.” Kasem left during the third season of "Transformers". 

Kasem’s last months were marked by declining health and a brewing battle between his wife, Jean Kasem, and his brother and three oldest children. As Kasem gradually lost the ability to speak, the two factions fought over conservatorship, culminating with daughter Kerri being assigned in May. Kasem’s court-ordered end-of-life measures were also put into effect over Jean Kasem’s objections.

In spite of the family dysfunction, when remembering Casey Kasem, many will likely still think of his trademark show-closing catchphrase: “And don’t forget, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”

In a way, it was a sign-off of necessity. “I could never say goodbye,” he told The New York Times. Every station I was at, I never said goodbye — when I was in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Oakland and L.A. I don't know why.''

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