The death of beloved comedian Gilbert Gottfried at the age of 67 after a lengthy battle with type II myotonic dystrophy came as a shock to many fans of his standup career, as well as fans of perhaps his most iconic role, the saucy sidekick Iago in Disney’s Aladdin.
And it was particularly devastating to those who had known him for years, including the actor Jonathan Freeman, who is perhaps best known for voicing the villainous Jafar in Aladdin. Like Gottfried, he has voiced the role for the past 31 years, reprising it in a sequel, TV shows, and various video games, as well as in the Broadway musical adaptation. With their co-stars Linda Larkin (who voiced Jasmine) and Scott Weinger (Aladdin), the two regularly made appearances as Jafar and Iago at various Disney promotional events and cons.
“I have 31 years of memories” of Gottfried, Freeman says when reached by phone Wednesday morning. He described Gottfried as a far cry from his chaotic stage persona, referring to it as “shtick.” “We will always remember him as being this gentle, kind, often shy, slightly retiring, lovely man,” Freeman says. “His public persona was one thing. And the private Gilbert was another.”
Freeman first met Gottfried in 1991, in a studio on Disney’s Los Angeles lots “on the corner of Dopey Drive and Goofy Lane.” The character of Iago did not exist in the initial version of the film — the original version of the role was a subservient butler type, voiced by Freeman himself, who was to be a “very proper yes man,” Freeman says. But producers recognized that Freeman “didn’t have someone to play off of,” casting Gottfried as his foil.
“As soon as they hired Gilbert, it was instantly a great pairing,” Freeman recalls. “That loud-mouthed, chaotic, irascible Gilbert that everyone loves was sort of a perfect fit to be a sidekick for the villain in the piece, who was more insidious, smooth, and mercurial.”
Unlike the voice recording process today for many animated features, Freeman and Gottfried largely recorded their roles in the studio together, allowing them to improvise and bounce off of each other. Due to Gottfried’s standup background, many of his character’s most iconic moments in the film were improvised, says Freeman, such as a scene in which Iago and Jafar, having devised an evil plot, compete in who can laugh more maniacally. “It was the kind of thing you can only do in studio and on stage with a partner,” he remembers. “And that was Gilbert’s thing.”
For the past three decades, Freeman and Gottfried kept reprising their iconic roles, appearing in Disney parades to promote the film (Gottfried rode an elephant down Main Street in Disney World) and performing in dozens of Aladdin-affiliated projects, with Gottfried performing Iago at least 25 times, according to his IMDB page.
Occasionally, Gottfried’s foul-mouthed stage persona would filter into his promotional appearances for Disney: Freeman recalls doing a press conference and Gottfried answering a question about how he’d use a Genie’s three wishes by saying, “Well, my wish involves Scarlett Johansson.” “He was a mischief-maker. He was a wild card,” Freeman says. “You never knew what he was going to do or say.”
But, for the most part, Gottfried loved his association with the family-friendly franchise and the role that he originated. Once, en route to surprising a group of Aladdin fans with autism — as documented by the 2016 film Life, Animated — Gottfried and Freeman were on a train and ruminating about their legacy. “We both agreed on the train we never in a million years could’ve imagined what would happen with those characters,” Freeman says. “[Having] another character to push against and share a scene with, when you find that groove, and they’re two such opposite personalities — it really worked. It doesn’t happen by magic, not even by Disney magic.”
Freeman knows that Gottfried will be remembered by most of his fans as the wild, Brooklyn-accented, squawking character he played onscreen, which he refers to as “a confection.” (“He didn’t sound like that [in real life]. He just sounded like Gilbert talking,” he says.) But he hopes that Gottfried’s legacy will be that of who he really was: a devoted husband and father with a passion for old Hollywood history and a “fantastic mind.”
“At a press conference, I kept saying what a lovely guy he was,” Freeman remembers. “And he said, ‘Stop telling people what a nice guy I am. You’ll ruin my career and reputation.’”