In a World Without Don LaFontaine, Film Won't Be as Much Fun
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
In a world where movie trailers would not be movie trailers without melodramatic voiceovers, no man could touch the "king of the voiceovers," Don LaFontaine.
Seducing moviegoers into theaters for more than four decades, Mr. LaFontaine's sonorous baritone could make the dullest dog of a movie sound like a surefire Oscar contender. Until he died of undetermined causes Sept. 1 in Los Angeles at 68, Mr. LaFontaine was one of the busiest performers in Screen Actors Guild history.
In addition to movie trailers -- more than 5,000 in all -- he provided the voiceover for about 350,000 TV commercials, as well as network promotions and video game trailers. His voice was so ubiquitous and so recognizable, he occasionally parodied himself -- most recently in a Geico insurance commercial that first aired in 2006, where a fellow voiceover announcer introduces him as "that announcer guy from the movies."
He played himself telling a customer, "In a world where both of our cars were totally under water . . . "
In an interview last year, Mr. LaFontaine explained the strategy behind the trademark phrase. "We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to," he said of his viewers. "That's very easily done by saying, 'In a world where . . . violence rules.' 'In a world where . . . men are slaves and women are the conquerors.' You very rapidly set the scene."
For most moviegoers, the Geico commercial marked the first time that a face accompanied the familiar voice. Mr. LaFontaine professed not to mind his anonymity. Voiceover artists "get credit in our bank accounts," he told The Washington Post in 2007.
The Post story chronicled a typical workday in the Hollywood Hills home studio that his wife nicknamed "The Hole": three takes for "The Simpsons Movie," four promo reads for the Fox comedy "The Winner," followed by promos for "Trading Spouses," "Nanny 911," "24" and more.
Donald L. LaFontaine was born in Duluth, Minn., on Aug. 26, 1940. His voice changed at 13 and headed ever deeper for several years afterward. He learned to be a recording engineer in the Army, assigned to the U.S. Army Band and Chorus at Fort Myer.
In the early 1960s, he landed a job in New York with National Recording Studios, where he worked alongside radio producer Floyd L. Peterson, who was perfecting radio spots for movies. Until then, movie studios primarily relied on print advertising or studio-made theatrical trailers. The two men became business partners and, together, perfected the familiar format.
Mr. LaFontaine, who was editing, writing and producing in the early days of the partnership, became a voice himself by accident. In 1964, when an announcer failed to show up for a job, he 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 was pleased with Mr. LaFontaine, and "Gunfighters of Casa Grande" became his first trailer. Among the thousands of movie voiceovers he recorded, including "Terminator," "Fatal Attraction" and "Batman Returns," he often said his personal favorite was David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" (1980).
He moved to Los Angeles in 1981 and later said he considered himself not an announcer but a voice actor, with the ability to match tone and timbre to the film genre he was hired to hype.
Before he began working out of his home, he traveled from job to job -- often 60 in a day -- in a chauffeured limousine to avoid taking the time to look for a parking place. The driver kept the motor running.
Mr. LaFontaine's marriage to Joan Studva ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, singer and actress Nita Whitaker of Los Angeles; a daughter from his first marriage; two daughters from his second marriage; and a grandchild.