Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In a world of trailers, unseen Stars
It's been almost eight months since the death of Don LaFontaine, and everyone who’s anyone in his business — the business of announcing movie trailers — says there will never be another Thunder Throat.
Often called “the voice of God,” Mr. LaFontaine recorded voice-overs for more than 5,000 movie trailers and, during a period in the 1990s, had an almost absolute monopoly on network television promotional spots. In the years before his death at 68, he enjoyed a kind of celebrity status, appearing on “Today” and spoofing himself in a popular commercial for Geico. He looked like a bald pirate, and his distinctive face and noise-canceling baritone made him the embodiment of a business whose stars were all previously unseen.
“We lost our alpha dog,” said Marice Tobias, a consultant who coaches many A-list talents in voice-overs. “Don was the focal point for us, and there’s a void now.”
It would be a tad too facile to say that Hal Douglas, an 84-year-old titan in the trailer world, has stepped into Mr. LaFontaine’s shoes. Mr. Douglas has no nicknames. If his voice sounds anything like God’s, it’s God on Day 7: world-weary and slightly amused. He has an agent in New York, but she’s never visited his horse ranch here in the hills of Northern Virginia, where Mr. Douglas makes recordings in a simple studio, sometimes in pajamas. He says he doesn’t want to be compared to Mr. LaFontaine, but for the people who make movie trailers and watch them closely the comparison is unavoidable.
“Hal was the only guy that in some way, shape or form could be mentioned in the same breath as Don,” said Jeff Keels, a Texas television producer who is filming a documentary about Mr. LaFontaine and others called “The Voice Gods of Hollywood.” “But there’s a difference between Don and Hal. When Don said, ‘In a world ...,’ it sounded like a spot. It grabbed you. But when Hal says it, it transports you.”
Mr. Douglas says he can’t keep track of what trailers he recorded yesterday, much less over the almost 60 years he’s been behind a mike. He did “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” “Men in Black” and “Coneheads,” “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Marley and Me.” He recorded a voice-over for the Broadway play “Equus,” narrated programs on the History Channel (in the days before “Ice Road Truckers”), and served as the voice of the WB network.
“The fact is, my voice has been out there,” he said. “And it hangs out there. You sit down in the theater and sometimes in three out of four trailers I’d be on them.”
Mr. Douglas was born in 1924 in Stamford, Conn., the son of immigrants from Latvia and Russia. He spent three years in the Navy during World War II and wrote fiction in his free time. After the war he enrolled on the G.I. Bill at the University of Miami, where, he said, “I chased pretty girls into the drama department.” Acting became a passion; but passions, he said, don’t always pay the rent, especially in New York City. And so he went into radio and trained as an announcer, which later led to voice-over work.
“I’m not outstanding in any way,” he said. “It’s a craft that you learn, like making a good pair of shoes. And I just consider myself a good shoemaker.”
For a shoemaker Mr. Douglas is paid quite handsomely. He won’t quote figures, but he stands at the apex of a group of 15 to 20 voice actors whom Hollywood has deemed trailer-worthy. According to Ron Moler, the chief executive of the movie marketing studio Ignition Creative, these top voice actors typically earn between $1,800 and $2,200 per trailer. And it only takes them from 15 minutes to an hour to record one, making this very lucrative work for the few who can get it.
And those few are shrinking in number. “When you look at the demo that typically goes to the cinema, the 18-to-24 male crowd, they’re always going to get a booming, unsubtle voice to say, ‘Go and see “Transformers” immediately, or die!’ ” said Bill Ratner, who has voiced trailers for Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell movies. “These days the classiest fall releases often don’t use an announcer at all.”
Incidentally Mr. Douglas is not the only octogenarian in coming attractions. At 82 Don Morrow has a career in voice-overs that goes back more than 60 years, to when he was a student at Syracuse University, imitating Edward R. Murrow and capturing his voice on an old wire recorder.
“There’s nobody as old as Hal and me,” said Mr. Morrow, who did the trailer for “Titanic” but must audition for new work. “I’m sure that you’ve heard more than one story about guys that retire. They die. And I don’t want to die. So I’ll work till I drop.”
Ms. Tobias, the voice-over consultant, said Mr. Morrow and Mr. Douglas are still hired to do trailers for the same reason that Tony Bennett is still singing. They don’t sound passé because they don’t think their time has passed.
“What is it that makes someone current to the culture when a lot of their peers fall by the wayside?” Ms. Tobias said. “Some older guys want to tell me what’s wrong with what’s going on now and how it was so much better in their day. ‘Wait a second — what do you mean in your day? Am I working with a ghost?’ ” - STEPHEN HEYMAN