Sam Chwat, dialect coach to the stars, dies at 57

By Elaine Woo
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 6:06 PM

Sam Chwat was a master of accents who taught Robert De Niro to talk like an Appalachian ex-convict, Olympia Dukakis to talk like a Holocaust survivor and Peter Boyle to talk like a bigot from the Deep South. A modern-day Henry Higgins, he also trained some actors to lose accents, helping Julia Roberts drop her native Georgia drawl and Tony Danza his distinctive Brooklynese.

Mr. Chwat even turned his training on himself, muting his own "Noo Yawk" accent to prevent clients from miming the wrong cues.

Mr. Chwat, 57, who died March 3 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on Long Island, N.Y., ran the Sam Chwat Speech Center in New York City, which has helped thousands of people with speech challenges. His clients included corporate executives trying to eliminate distracting accents and politicians seeking to switch more nimbly between the voice they use in the halls of power and the one they use courting voters at home.

In the highly specialized world of Hollywood dialect coaches, Mr. Chwat's background made him unique. He was a licensed speech pathologist who used the knowledge he gained working with stroke victims, stutterers and people with developmental disabilities to help actors fit their roles.

"He was very highly regarded," said Robert Easton, the dean of Hollywood dialect coaches, and "went across the board" in the range of accents he taught.

Born in New York City on March 29, 1953, Mr. Chwat was a 1974 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and received a master's degree in speech pathology from Columbia University in 1977.

He started his professional life as a speech therapist working with hospital patients. He pronounced his last name without the "t'' so it sounded like "schwa," the linguistic term for a short, neutral vowel sound.

About 1980, Mr. Chwat received a phone call from a supermarket chain about an employee whose advancement opportunities were hindered by a thick Puerto Rican accent. His success with that client - who subsequently won a promotion - led Mr. Chwat to start a private practice.

His first Hollywood client was Andie MacDowell. She sought his help to avoid a repeat of her experience in the 1984 movie "Greystoke," in which producers hired Glenn Close to dub over her lines because her South Carolina accent was deemed too intrusive.

Soon, an unknown Roberts showed up in Mr. Chwat's office. "Her manager said she would be eligible for a wider variety of roles if she lost her Southern accent," Mr. Chwat told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002.

After working with Mr. Chwat several times a week for months, Roberts landed her breakthrough role in 1998 with "Mystic Pizza." He was so effective in eliminating traces of Roberts's linguistic roots that she needed to be coached in a Southern accent for "Steel Magnolias," the 1989 movie set in small-town Louisiana.

Mr. Chwat's most grueling assignment might have been coaching De Niro for the 1991 film "Cape Fear." To prepare for his role as a convicted Appalachian rapist, De Niro had a researcher tape conversations with violent felons in Appalachian prisons. Mr. Chwat reviewed each tape with De Niro until they settled on one voice that would serve as the actor's model. De Niro was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his work.

Over the years, Mr. Chwat was criticized for helping immigrants who wanted to sound more mainstream. Those critics accused him of contributing to cultural homogenization, but he saw his services as an aid to assimilation for those who desired it.

His work took him all over the globe, said his wife, Susan Lazarus Chwat, who survives him, along with three daughters and a sister.

"He spent a month in Pakistan right before 9/11 working with call centers there," she said. "They didn't want people who called to know where they were. He helped them sound more American."

- Los Angeles Times

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