Features & Columns

Super Speech

Charles Martinet turned a minor Shakespearean role into one of
the most recognized voices in video game history
For well over two decades the San Jose-born actor Charles Martinet has been the voice of Mario.

Life in the Mushroom Kingdom is a grand adventure. Even though it's filled with koopas and piranha plants, it's a place where the sky is always blue and a hero is never far away. That hero, of course, is a little fellow in a red cap and blue overalls. A man whose modest profession brought him to an amazing new world. A plumber named Mario.

For 37 years now, Mario has been synonymous with fun and adventure—a character loved the world over. But while most people think of him as hailing from Brooklyn (where he is said to live) or Tokyo (where he was created by Nintendo), the lesser known fact is that Mario is actually from San Jose—or at least his voice is.

Charles Martinet, the man who has voiced Mario internationally in all of his video games since 1996, was born in here. And as Nintendo prepares to release Super Smash Bros Ultimate (the 146th title to feature Martinet since he began playing the part) it's worth taking a look back at another grand adventure: the story of how an ordinary kid from the South Bay faced his fears, took on the world and became an internationally recognized super hero.


It was a warm September day when Mario came into the world, fair, with a gentle breeze. Fitting for a hero, the San Jose Mercury announced the birth: "MARTINET—To Mr. and Mrs. Jacques R Martinet, a boy, Charles Andre."

It was 1955, and the Martinet family lived in the pastoral expanse of farmland called Cupertino. The second of two boys, Charles' childhood was idyllic, full of carefree adventure. When not in school, he and his brother John spent most of their daylight hours bounding across the farmlands, vineyards, and orchards that covered the Santa Clara Valley at the time.

"We used to go to Vasona before there was any pavement there," Martinet recalls. "It was just a marshland. We'd collect tadpoles, lizards, snakes, catch dragonflies, and bring them all home. We constantly had snakes escaping in the house, lizards everywhere."

Then, when he was 12, everything changed. Martinet was thrust into the life of a globetrotting citizen of the world—not unlike the character he voices in the latest installment of the Mario franchise, Super Mario Odyssey.

"My dad was invited to move overseas and sell a patent as the head of Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Kaiser Refractories," Martinet says. "That was the beginning of the grand adventure."

The first stop for the family was Barcelona, where they settled for a few years. There, Charles attended an American middle school. It was a time of incredible education for the young Californian.

"Back in 1966, nobody in Barcelona spoke English, so you had to learn Spanish," he remembers. "It was just the greatest gift to live abroad and be forced to learn the language."

But compared to the fields and farmlands of the Santa Clara Valley, Europe was a dangerous place. When the family arrived, Spain was still under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. As an adolescent, Martinet witnessed the horrors of fascism firsthand, often in the form of brutal beatings from Franco's military police, the Guardia Civil. Once, while he was at school, the Guardia attacked a group of students protesting the cost of education.

"They drove headlong into the crowd, literally slamming their trucks into people who were peacefully protesting," he remembers. "Then, they came jumping out of the back with billy clubs and just knocked everybody around, chasing people into the bookstores, and arresting everybody. I will tell you, fascism is a terrible, terrible thing."

In 1969, the family moved again, this time to Paris, where Charles' father had grown up. But at the end of the '60s, France, like Spain, was going through convulsions. Still recovering from the Algerian War and the student protests of '68, an army trained for guerrilla warfare prowled the metropolitan areas.

"There were guys with machine guns on," Martinet recalls, describing the heavily armed gendarmerie. "There were terrorist plots to kill [French president Charles] de Gaulle. The Vietnam War was going on then, too. The whole world was on edge."

It was a lot for such a young mind to take in. Already a shy child, Martinet grew more introspective throughout his time in Europe. By the time he graduated high school, he was timid but cultured, and ready for the next stage of his life.


Upon graduation Martinet found himself back in the Bay Area. Inspired by his adolescence abroad, he applied to UC Berkeley as a history major, intent on becoming some sort of foreign dignitary.

"I thought I'd end up being a lawyer and hopefully work in a foreign office, work my way up to ambassador, something like that," he remembers. "I craved living overseas again, and in my 20-year-old mind, I thought that could be possible—working in an embassy, doing that kind of work."

But when it came time to write a thesis, his run was cut short. The only professor he could see himself working on his thesis with was unavailable. With no clear way forward, Martinet dropped out of college.

For someone with international ambitions, dropping out hurt. Looking back, however, it's hard to see the failure as anything other than providence.

With his schedule now cleared, a friend suggested Martinet take his acting class. He initially balked at the idea, citing his own timidity. But, as it turns out, his shyness was no match for his appetite.

"The way he got me to go was to say, 'We're going to go to lunch every day before class.' And so I said, OK!'"

Lured by the promise of free food, Martinet took his first acting class. For weeks, he sat quietly in the safety of the back row, watching his classmates read their monologues and hoping to go unnoticed. That could only last so long, and eventually, his name was called.

Up on stage, fear passed through him in waves, moving from one leg to the other as he tried to stop himself from trembling. "My right foot was shaking so much that I put all my weight on it. Then my left foot was shaking so much that I tried to put the weight evenly between the two, and then the two were shaking like crazy!"

Martinet doesn't remember what the monologue was anymore, but he does remember what happened when it finished: the class broke into applause. No one had noticed his fear. At that point he realized something incredible: He had enjoyed himself.

With each lesson (and its accompanying free meal), he found his fear abating, replaced by a new sense of freedom. He went on his first audition, trying out for the role of Oberon in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

This audition would mark Martinet's second serendipitous failure—the event that put him squarely on his life's course.

"I think that failure told me, 'This is what I want,'" he says now. "Not to be a lawyer, not to be an embassy person: I wanted to be an actor. Because it was fun. When I was on that stage, it was really fun."

With newfound conviction, Martinet dove headlong into acting. Using the same monologue from his Midsummer audition, he auditioned for Berkeley Repertory Theater's summer apprenticeship program, competing for space against many of the people who had actually been cast in the play. And this time he got in. When the apprenticeship ended, he moved to England, where he studied everything from dialect to dance at the prestigious Drama Studio of London.

A year later, the man who could once "disappear in a room with three people" returned to Berkeley a trained actor, ready to begin a career. Shortly after he returned, Martinet was hit by tragedy. "My dear friend committed suicide, and I found his body," he says.

The discovery was shocking, the pain difficult to put into words. In an instant, the place he had come to call home turned into something completely different.

"I just couldn't work at Berkeley at that time. I had to get going somewhere else."


James Reber met Martinet in college. A navy vet, Reber attended UC Berkeley on the GI Bill. Initially, he'd planned on studying sociology, but his plans were soon derailed by William Shakespeare. Shifting his focus to drama, Reber joined the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival in the role of business manager.

By all accounts, his tenure with the organization was rocky. Articles from the time describe Reber as a stormy Irishman combative with press and prone to infighting. After three seasons, he left the company, and Berkeley altogether, for San Jose.

At the time San Jose did not have a repertory theater, but Reber quickly put together plans to form one. He sent brochures to politicians, pastors and journalists, attended parties and got to know the power players in the city. After working San Jose's socialite circles for a year, he managed to nab two grants totaling $90,000. On Dec. 8, 1979, he drove up to Sacramento and incorporated the San Jose Repertory Theater.

By now Reber had begun to move in San Jose's theater world. Then one day he bumped into an old friend from Berkeley.

"I ran into Martinet somewhere, and he had been acting," Reber recalls, still sounding surprised after all these years. The last time he had seen his friend from college he had been a shy history major. Now he was an actor?

It was a happy coincidence. Reber needed actors, and Martinet needed a reason to get out of Berkeley. After coming down to San Jose for an audition, Martinet landed the first major acting gig of his career, becoming one of the founding members of San Jose Repertory Theater in the process.

In early 1981, The Rep opened its first season with a production of Noel Coward's manners comedy Private Lives. The cheerful Martinet was cast in the humorless role of Victor Prynne, a character many actors found stifling.

"Coward himself once said that the roles of Victor and Sibyl were hopeless," wrote the Peninsula Times Tribune in a review of the production. "But Charles Martinet works wonders in his performance."

"He was clearly an audience favorite," says Reber.

Martinet would go on to play a number of major roles at the Rep, including the lead role in Molliere's Tartuffe, and the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. But it was a smaller part in the theater's second season which would change his life entirely.

The San Jose Rep opened its second season with a modernized take on The Taming of the Shrew. Set in post-war Italy, it was a lively production with the air of a party. It called for big performances. To highlight its setting, everyone in the production spoke in some kind of dialect. "Bronx, Moroccan, lots and lots of Italian," one reviewer noted.

Martinet, in his second performance for the Rep, was cast in the role of Gremio, an elderly Italian man, whose hopeless pining for a younger woman is the play's subplot. Having studied in London—and lived for many in Europe—he was uniquely ready for the part.

Over the phone, Martinet does his Gremio voice:

"Ah, signore Petruchio! Mamma mia!"

Sounding a little older, and a little less cartoonish, it is still unmistakably the voice of Mario.

The Taming of the Shrew debuted at the Montgomery Theater on on Sep. 18, 1981, and ran for a week and a half, giving Martinet plenty of time to become comfortable in the voice that would come to define his career. Just three months before it premiered, a Japanese card game company called Nintendo released its first video game: an arcade cabinet challenging players to jump over barrels and avoid flames while trying to defeat a rampaging ape. The hero of that game was a little plumber in a red jumpsuit and hat.

Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario, with a couple of super fans.


To supplement his modest actor's income, Martinet waited tables at Original Joe's for his first few years with the Rep. But by the time he left the company in 1984, he had found a much more lucrative gig: corporate videos.

"I made more money in a day than I made for a week in the theater," he remembers. "I was very lucky that I got to play the broadest, craziest characters in the theater, and I followed that right into my work in acting for corporate videos."

By his estimate, Martinet did around 600 corporate videos over the next few years, working with every company he could in booming Silicon Valley. Once, after spending nine hours filming a 15-second ad spot, the director asked him if he did voiceover work.

"I said, 'Yes, of course,' not knowing exactly what he meant, and he handed me a script."

It was 12-word ad for the former Orchard Supply Hardware store off of Bird Avenue. Martinet read the dozen words into a microphone and instantly doubled the money he had made that day. It was his first job as a voice actor.

"Then one day I was doing what actors do, sitting on the beach waiting for the phone to ring, and I got a page from a friend."

It was another actor. He had gotten wind of an audition nearby, something about a trade show in Las Vegas. It wasn't necessarily open to the public, but...

"I have no idea why, but I went to this audition," Martinet says, "and I was literally walking in the door as the casting director was walking out the door. I said, 'Can I read for this?'"

Caught in the doorway, the director agreed to set the camera up again and film one more audition.

"He said I was an Italian plumber from Brooklyn named Mario, for this company called Nintendo, and we were going to do a real-time animation system that had never been done before. They had no idea if it was going to work or not, but I still had to keep talking all day long if I wanted to get paid."

The company, he was told, made video games, and its audience was primarily younger.

"So I resisted the temptation to make a gruff, angry plumber sorta thing, and I thought I could do something really fun instead."

That's when he remembered a role he had loved, one of the highlights from his days at the Rep:

"One of my favorite people of all time, the sweet, kind, lovely, wonderful Gremio. And so I thought, well, make that voice younger and start talking."

He didn't know anything about video games ("Just Asteroids and Tank," he says), so he had to think of something else to talk about.

"I thought, well, I'll just make up things about food, following the theme of why I ended up taking an acting class to begin with. So I just started making up things about spaghetti, and pasta, and different types of food. And I just kept talking until I heard the director say, 'Stop talking! Cut! You've run through the whole tape!'"

The only actor to take the direction to "keep talking all day long" seriously, Martinet landed the part of a lifetime.


In 1991, Martinet began performing as Mario at Nintendo trade shows. Sitting behind a screen with motion capture balls glued to his face, he would speak in character to the crowd while a computer rendered his facial expressions in real time. At event after event, he was a hit.

Then, five years later, he got a call from Nintendo.

"They said, 'Mr. Miyamoto would like you to play Mario in a video game."

Widely considered one of the greatest games ever made, Super Mario 64 came out in 1996 and has sold over 11 million copies worldwide. The first fully 3D game of its kind, it was also the first to give its hero a voice. Anyone who has played the game will remember its title screen—which opens with Martinet's jubilant proclamation:

"It's-a me! Mario!"

In the adventures that ensue, Martinet's voice helps players truly feel what their digital avatar is experiencing. There are wordless exclamations of pain, exertion and surprise. Martinet's performance—and all the performances to come in titles such as Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey—are now regularly heard spilling from television speakers in homes all over the world.

These days, Martinet spends much of his time on the road. Ever the traveler, he is a regular guest at Comic Cons and video game events. Often, people tell him he is the voice of their childhood. At every opportunity, he repeats his message:

"Follow your heart. Do what you love to do. Expand your dreams. Seek your happiness. Because when you're happy, you bring happiness into the world. And I think we need that more than anything now."

Martinet's role as the plumber from Brooklyn has now spanned 27 years. It's a role he's played with audible and infectious joy. And after nearly three decades in the blue overalls, he's just happy that, of all places, the grand adventure brought him here.

"I know the guys that do all the other voices, the Master Chief, and the villains and things, but I'm just lucky that I got to play this guy that I love more than any other character I've ever met: Mario. A common man who falls in love with a princess and devotes his life to rescuing her. It's such a beautiful story. It really is almost Shakespearean, you know?"