Think Geico commercial. The bald guy with sandy mustache and headphones standing in the kitchen of a "real Geico customer," orating, "In a world where both of our cars were totally underwater ... "
LOS ANGELES — There was a moment at a Hollywood awards show recently that seemed to cement Don LaFontaine’s place in television and film history.
He walked over to introduce himself to Ian McShane, star of the HBO drama “Deadwood.” But before LaFontaine could speak, McShane smiled, dropped his voice and intoned: “IN A WORLD … “
This is big, and not because it showed that LaFontaine’s trademark movie-trailer catchphrase, as in “In a world where … violence rules,” is so well-known.
It’s because LaFontaine — “That Announcer Guy From the Movies” — hadn’t uttered a word.
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This is especially telling, considering the cliché often used to describe LaFontaine: “You may not know his face, but you certainly know his voice.”
But McShane did know the face. Chances are you do, too. Think Geico commercial. The bald guy with sandy mustache and headphones standing in the kitchen of a “real Geico customer,” orating, “In a world where both of our cars were totally underwater … “
LaFontaine has worked in Hollywood for decades, reached the top of his craft, earned plenty and won accolades. And yet, as he might say himself: In a world where exposure is everything, putting a face to the voice behind 5,000 movie trailers can give a guy a whole new perspective.
Suddenly this fixture of show business — one of its hardest-working, albeit obscure, artists — became something else: a kind of celebrity. Visibility brought newfound admiration to a behind-the-scenes star.
“Expect anonymity,” LaFontaine once wrote in a book about the business of voice-over work. “Strangers never recognize my voice when I’m out in public.”
Truth be told, there was one guy, behind the counter at a bookstore in Chapel Hill, N.C., who discerned LaFontaine’s locution as that from the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” television promos.
But even the Geico advertising folks didn’t have a clue who he was when they were brainstorming “The Testimonial Campaign,” a series of spots featuring real customers and B-listers such as Little Richard, Peter Graves and Charo.
“Somebody blurts out, ‘Hey, what about that movie-announcer guy?’ The other one goes, ‘Well, what’s his name? What does he look like? Who is that guy?’ That’s how it all started,” says Dean Jarrett of The Martin Agency.
Googling “voice-over guy,” they found LaFontaine.
Recognition isn’t a part of the voice-over world, where an artist’s “stage” is an isolated sound booth and performers are known more for their voice-over pseudonyms than their given names.
There’s “The Voice of Porky Pig” (Bob Bergen), “The Voice of Zatarain’s” Cajun foods (Rodney Saulsberry), “The Voice of Food Network” (Joe Cipriano) and so on.
LaFontaine is often referred to as “The Voice of God.” But you won’t find his moniker on a film credit alongside “best boy” and “production caterer.”
There are no Oscars for voice-over work. An annual fest dubbed the “Golden Trailer Awards” honors the movie-preview medium, including a category for “Best Voice Over.” Still, film actors who lend their voices to trailers tend to take home the prize rather than voice-over professionals such as LaFontaine.
LaFontaine insists he never cared that no one knew him. Voice-over artists “get credit in our bank accounts,” he quips.
Post-Geico, it’s different.
There are autograph requests. Comments on the streets of Las Vegas. On YouTube, where LaFontaine’s on-camera turn has notched more than 86,000 hits, this kind of stuff:
“Finally I get to see who the person is with that voice.”
“Don is awesome! I just read his birthday [is] one day before mine … cool!”
LaFontaine, 66, averages seven to 10 voice-over sessions a day, with the potential for up to 40 different reads. He does all of this from a home studio his wife nicknamed “The Hole,” where an incessantly chirping fax machine delivers scripts hour after hour.
One recent afternoon, LaFontaine cranked out three takes for this summer’s “The Simpsons Movie,” four promo reads for the Fox comedy “The Winner,” followed by promos for “Trading Spouses” (“Will the conclusion of the same-sex swap turn violent?”), “Nanny 911″ (“The amazing triplet tamer”), “24” (“The race to stop a nuclear nightmare blows wide open!”) and more.
In the heydays of the 1980s and ’90s, when LaFontaine might do 200 reads a day, he got his own limousine and hired a driver to shuttle him between studios.
The voice America has come to know in movie houses and on television developed at age 13, when LaFontaine’s prepubescent squeak went to bass and continued to grow deeper with time.
After working as an Army recording engineer, LaFontaine landed a job at National Recording Studios in New York alongside radio producer Floyd Peterson. It was the early ’60s, and Peterson was working on a new project: producing radio spots for movies, which until then had been advertised in print or with studio-made theatrical trailers.
LaFontaine pitched in, writing copy, recording and mixing sound, and the two eventually went into business together, helping develop the format for the modern trailer and scripting some of those punchy phrases that pervade theatrical trailers to this day.
That includes his trademark, which he explains this way: “We are taking people … and we are literally about to transport them into a different dimension, a different world entirely. So we have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to, and that’s very easily done by saying, ‘In a world where … .’ “
Lending his own voice to the words he wrote happened by accident. In 1964, when an announcer failed to show for a job, LaFontaine recorded himself reading copy and sent it to the studio with a message: “This is what it’ll sound like when we get a ‘real’ announcer.” The studio thought he was “real” enough, and thus “Gunfighters of Casa Grande” became LaFontaine’s first trailer.
His career took off when he moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1981. He’d planned to work as an independent producer, but he started doing promos for the major television networks and films, and the work never stopped.
Comedies. Dramas. Action flicks. Animated films. Horror pictures.
“The voice that launched a thousand movies … thousands of movies, actually,” began a video tribute at The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards, where LaFontaine was presented a lifetime-achievement award in 2005.
Based on Screen Actors Guild contracts signed, he estimates he may be the busiest actor in the organization’s history.
“Within the industry, he’s known as The Man, the Michael Jordan of his game,” longtime friend and fellow voice-over artist Paul Pape says.
But even the greatest get sidelined, and LaFontaine notes that the bulk of trailer work these days is spread among other voice-over talent or done by actors featured in the films.
Producers “want to discover the next hot voice,” LaFontaine says.
Both seen and heard
That doesn’t seem to matter now, because since last year’s premiere of his on-camera commercial, his face — not just his voice — is everywhere.
He’s appeared on Carson Daly’s show, “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch,” “Today,” and “The Early Show.”
The Screen Actors Guild, at its January awards show, saluted LaFontaine and other voice-over artists in a tribute called “Heard But Not Seen,” where they were seen.
LaFontaine suspects his budding celebrity had something to do with being asked, for the first time, to serve as an announcer at this year’s Academy Awards. He was the “Coming up next” guy, and the show included a brief on-screen glimpse.
“Flattering,” LaFontaine says of the new visibility. But he adds: “Being famous for being famous is probably the ultimate kind of silly celebrity.”
As he told his friend Pape during a break from rehearsals for the Oscars: “You wanna talk about surreal? Have Al Gore come up to you and say he saw you in an insurance commercial.”
His belated fame isn’t about fame at all, LaFontaine says. It’s about finally knowing that folks like your work and appreciate you, because they finally know who “you” are.