David Case, 73, Dies; Actor in Audio Books

David Case's audience got to know his voice, not his face.
David Case's audience got to know his voice, not his face. (Courtesy Kathryn Galloway Englis - Courtesy Kathryn Galloway Englis)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

David Case, 73, one of the best-read actors in modern times, who performed more than 700 books on audiotape, died Oct. 1 at his home in El Sobrante, Calif., north of Berkeley.

Mr. Case, sometimes known professionally as Frederick Davidson, developed throat cancer in 2000 that largely ended his two-decade recording career. Refusing to give up cigarettes, he had a relapse early this year that led to the removal of his larynx and robbed him of a natural voice.

Recording books on tape requires more than a fine voice and a skill with impersonation. Invisibility is encouraged on the part of the actor, who should convincingly bring alive the author's characters.

Mr. Case was not always so invisible, advocating instead any approach that kept readings fun for the commuters who were a large part of his audience.

This was initially a bit of a hassle for Sigrid Hecht, co-founder of Books on Tape, who said she was skeptical of his breathy interpretation of the title character in "Don Quixote." He won the argument that Don Quixote was running away from windmills and that any straight reading would be "too boring."

The English-born, classically trained Mr. Case was among the finest in his $800 million business. With Derek Jacobi and Garrison Keillor, Mr. Case was one of the first inductees into a hall of fame started by the trade publication AudioFile. The magazine's editor and founder, Robin Whitten, said Mr. Case recorded three times as many books as most other performers.

Mr. Case excelled at British parts, recording 13 novels by Anthony Trollope, 36 by P.G. Wodehouse and the entire "Forsyte" chronicles by John Galsworthy. He also read modern works, including Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity."

The editors of AudioFile were particularly fond of his reading of Charles Dickens's "Martin Chuzzlewit." A review by the magazine wrote that Mr. Case, who read with no rehearsal, "quickly tunes into Dickens's ferocious irony, but his paramount strength is his uncanny ability to find and maintain the perfect voice for each of the vintage characters: drippy, insinuous, vicious, sly, bold American backwoods, or London Cheapside."

Admittedly, he was never terribly convincing as an American -- "sounds like the product of Novocain," The Washington Post's audio books reviewer Katherine Powers wrote. But he was adept at a range of Indian accents that avoided caricature. "You could tell the Muslims from the Hindus," said audio actor Wanda McCaddon, a fellow Briton.

David Frederick Case was born in London on April 25, 1932. His businessman father made tombstones to support the family through the Depression. At 11, David, who enjoyed mimicking film actors, won a singing scholarship to a private school in Oxford. After compulsory army service, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

He worked briefly with a repertory company in northern England and made TV appearances. With his acting career mostly stalled, he settled in the San Francisco area in the mid-1970s with his companion, Graham Watts, and ran a business importing antiques. Watts died in the late 1980s.

Mr. Case directed community theater productions, including Oscar Wilde's "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," in which McCaddon appeared.

She recruited him to the audio books world for Books on Tape. The timing was perfect: The business was booming with the Sony Walkman, and cassette decks were no longer a custom item in cars.

A freelancer, Mr. Case was mostly associated with Books on Tape and Blackstone Audio Books (as Frederick Davidson).

Off the job, Mr. Case designed and built houses and created dazzling gardens with waterfalls. He also was known for self-deprecating jokes about his travels that usually ended in some violent collision with pavement or the water.

He recorded answering machine messages for neighbors, usually in the voice of a Wodehouse butler. He once staged an elaborate British music hall performance but failed when an earthquake forced many to stay home.

He had no immediate survivors.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company