Lary Lewman, voice-over artist for Democrats, dies at 76

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - Lary Lewman is in his home studio in this undated photograph. He died on July 11.

Lary Lewman, who entertained Baltimore children as Pete the Pirate on an afternoon television program and who later became the preferred voice-over artist for thousands of Democratic political commercials, died July 11 at his home in the Howard County community of Clarksville. He was 76.

He had Parkinson’s disease, said his son, Lance Lewman.

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Early in his career, Mr. Lewman had ambitions of being a stage actor before turning to television. He donned a false beard and a black hat with a skull-and-crossbones emblem to create the role of Pete the Pirate for a kids’ show on Baltimore’s WBAL-TV (Channel 11) in the early 1960s.

He was the host of “Consumer Survival Kit,” a syndicated TV program produced by Maryland Public Television in the 1970s, but by 1976 Mr. Lewman began to focus almost exclusively on his career as a voice-over actor.

He was the announcer for hundreds of commercials and industrial films and narrated documentaries for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. But he found his steadiest work as the anonymous, if ubiquitous, voice speaking on TV commercials for every Democratic presidential candidate from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton.

“He’s about the best voice in town,” Democratic political strategist Mandy Grunwald told The Washington Post in 2000. “He can make sense of complicated thoughts. He always has a way of making complicated things about policy or people sound logical, or natural, and that’s not easy.”

In quiet, earnest tones, Mr. Lewman praised Carter as “a solid man in a sensitive job.” While pitching Clinton’s reelection in 1996, Mr. Lewman said, “This is the America not of our dreams, but of our making.”

He was the spokesman for hundreds of candidates, running for offices from president to small-town mayor. In 1982 alone, Mr. Lewman announced ads for Michael S. Dukakis, then a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, and Democratic senatorial candidates Frank R. Lautenberg in New Jersey, Bob Graham in Florida, James Sasser in Tennessee, Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, Quentin Burdick in North Dakota and Thomas A. Daschle in South Dakota.

At the height of the campaign season, Mr. Lewman spent 12 hours a day recording commercials at his home studio in Clarksville. Even in years without a presidential election, Mr. Lewman had as much work as he could handle. In 1986, he made 1,019 commercials for 85 candidates in all 50 states. He often earned more than $500,000 in a year.

It never seemed to matter if his candidate won or lost; political consultants kept returning to Mr. Lewman for the reassurance, confidence and hope that he could convey in his voice.

“Traditionally, Republicans tend to like the voice of God,” Mr. Lewman told The Post. “Democrats tend to like the voice next door. Republicans like the basses — they tend to go more powerful. Democrats like the medium-voice baritone. So I’m the guy next door, Joe Sixpack.”

Mr. Lewman rejected a few offers for ideological reasons — he turned down voice-overs for the stealth bomber, nuclear power plants and the National Rifle Association — but in most cases, he approached a political ad as little more than a 30-second script.

“See, I’m an actor,” he said in 1982. “It’s no harder to be mean than it is to be happy.”

He worked exclusively for Democrats largely because he didn’t want to make commercials for opposing candidates. One of his closest friends, Mike Pengra, was once the leading voice-over artist for Republican candidates.

For someone identified with political campaigns — and Democrats, in particular — Mr. Lewman was never an activist and knew surprisingly little about political life. “I tend to be apolitical,” he told The Post. “I always amuse the consultants with how little I know. Since I read so convincingly, they’re always startled by my ignorance.”

Lary Cook Lewman was born Oct. 15, 1936, in Clinton, Ind. He began working as a disc jockey at Indiana State University, from which he graduated in 1958 with a major in English and a minor in drama.

“I thought I was Olivier, so I wouldn’t have anything to do with television,” he once recalled. “I thought it was beneath me.”

Everything changed in 1959, when he moved to Baltimore. For a year, he and his wife, Nancy, had a daily TV show, “What’s New With the Lewmans,” loosely based on the genial comedy of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Mr. Lewman was the host and writer of “Pete the Pirate” from 1960 to 1965 and sometimes appeared in dinner-theater productions.

Always fascinated by language and poetry, he learned to change the timbre, tone, rhythm and accent of his voice, depending on the occasion. He would announce a commercial for Acura cars, say, differently than he would voice an ad for hot dogs.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he became known in Baltimore as “Poetryman.” Each week, he dressed in Elizabethan costume, complete with a plumed hat, and recited poetry in a downtown plaza.

In his guise as Poetryman, he memorized 52 poems, each listed on a playing card, then invited the public to pick a card from the deck.

Perhaps in atonement for his work as a political hired hand, he had a card printed with this slogan: “Having found no market for the truth, I decided to sell sincerity and give the truth away.”

He was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia and received a lifetime achievement award from the Mid-Atlantic chapter of SAG-AFTRA, which represents professional actors.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Nancy Posey Lewman of Clarksville; two children, Lance Lewman of Ellicott City and Lori Lewman of Clarksville; a brother; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Lewman retired in 2000, before the tremors from Parkinson’s disease, which he had for 19 years, began to affect his speaking voice.

In 2000, he summed up his contributions to the nation’s political life. “I’m just an anonymous guy,” he said. “I’m just the voice.”