Lary Lewman, 46, is becoming the voice of the Democratic Party. This year, working 14-hour days and racing from recording studio to recording studio, he has starred as the voice-over announcer in hundreds of TV and radio political commercials for more than 40 Democratic candidates.
Although he considers himself relatively apolitical, the actor will not, for professional-conflict reasons, work for Republican candidates today. He is well-paid for his partisanship -- expecting to earn more than $100,000 this year for his political work plus his many roles in traditional product ads.
Lewman, who grew up in northern Indiana, by the age of 22 was appearing on TV at WBAL in Baltimore, where his most famous role was "Pete the Pirate" on a Saturday morning children's show. He took his first political roles in 1978, and his career took a quantum leap in 1980 when media consultant Gerald Rafshoon selected him to provide the off-camera narration in President Carter's ads.
Lewman lives in Howard County and sometimes shares the billing in commercials with his wife, Nancy. Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.
Q: You said that your first political commercials were in 1978. What were your big races in 1978?
A: Gee, I don't remember. I wouldn't have any idea in the world. It is only recently that I have been able to even remember the names of candidates. The extent to which I am not a political animal really can't be overstated. I'm not a newspaper reader.
Q: Be careful, you're talking about what I do for a living.
A: It's the gunslinger mindset. I know how to read this. I can make this believable. What the people are going to do in terms of how they vote or what they think of this candidate, I haven't the vaguest idea.
Q: And often you don't even have the remembrance who that candidate was two days later.
A: I absolutely have to write it down. It's very embarrassing, because in some situations you can spend as much as two hours or three hours on the same candidate, and I may have said the man's name 200 times. It's inconceivable, I realize. Then it would be 8 or 9 o'clock at night and I'm trying to make out a bill and send it to the consultant -- this happened to me with (political consultant Bob) Squier -- and I have to call him up on the phone and say, "What was that guy's name?" That's when he said, "You guys don't have a (AFTRA union) scale for thinking, is that right? I mean it goes directly from your eyes to your tongue, it doesn't engage your mind at any level apparently." I said, "No, you have to think of it as a Zen experience. I'm a sieve, you see, it passes through me. I do not come to you cluttered with any recollection of a previous candidate. It's all brand new."
They give me this thing on Julie Michaelson, who I thought was a woman.
Q: Who is Julie Michaelson?
A: Julie Michaelson is a senatorial candidate in Rhode Island. I'm so pleased I knew. He may even be an incumbent.
Q: No, he isn't. (John) Chafee (is the incumbent).
A: That's conceivable. I'm pretty sure that's true. That's a word I've said. Is Chafee's first name John? Okay. I'm getting better. It's sticking a little bit. It's like, "Well what does she do?" "It's not a she," someone said. "It's a he." I said, "Oh, fine." Then I start to write it down because I've learned that you have to write down the guy's name, what he's running for -- which is also embarrassing if you don't know -- and what state he's in. So it's like, "Julie Michaelson from Rhode Island. Fine. And what is this race? Is this a congressional -- ? I don't know.
Q: Just here in Rhode Island.
A: That's right. He's important and we all like him, but we don't know what he's running for.
Q: And we're very happy that we've finally figured out his sex.
A: That's right. That's important. So I'm not the only one who doesn't know. It's a blizzard of papers. You're turning out a lot of material.
Q: Actors always have a favorite part, Hamlet or whatnot. What is the one political commercial that was the highlight of your career, the one that really tested you?
A: The one that comes to mind is very recent: The first negative spot against Millicent Fenwick in New Jersey. I'm a spokesman for Frank Lautenberg, who's the Democratic candidate for the Senate in New Jersey, and his opposition is a very prestigious and loved lady -- Millicent Fenwick. To suggest that Millicent Fenwick was anything other than wonderful is really a danger because there's no question but what she's enormously popular. So the consultant introduced an element of incredulity. It is almost as if the announcer, the person who's speaking --
Q: That's you.
A: That's me -- is surprised to learn that Millicent has failed us. We in no way disapprove of her, really, it's just that it would seem she has voted against 90,000 jobs for New Jersey!
Q: Just hearing you even do that in conversation -- there is suddenly this sound of slightly shocked and troubled tremulousness in your voice.
A: Exactly. What happens in this whole business -- not just political, in the whole voice-over world -- is that what you're doing is inventing a person who believes this thing he or she is saying. I'm given different characters to play.
Adlai Stevenson in Illinois is another circumstance. A man who is inordinately concerned -- if I understand it correctly -- that this not be a drum-beating, music-playing, tawdry kind of hype. He wants it to be a straightforward and honest explanation of what he is and what he stands. So my attitude when I speak for Adlai Stevenson is tinged with that kind of earnestness.
Q: You have a special pipe-smoking voice?
A: That's right. That's right. It's like the summer-stock actor who has a bag of glasses and hats and canes and stuff. You get these out and you have a different walk for a different character and so on.
Q: So you go in, say, to do your Adlai Stevenson.
A: I have no idea what we're going to do. I've never seen the copy, I don't know anything about the campaign. I know nothing. I walk in. They say a couple of things to me, hand me a piece of paper, I go sit down and read it a few times, maybe get some direction from the producer, and when he likes it, it's finished.
Q: Does it strike you as odd that you are doing something that might be an important factor in a campaign, and yet you don't know whether the candidate is the greatest statesman since Franklin Roosevelt or a turkey?
A: Yeah. We're talking about lying for a living. I've been struggling with those questions for all of my working life, because the same questions apply to everything I do. I do films for the military. I do films for ICA that are distributed around countries in the world. I do commercials for endless numbers of products and services, and the question always arises: What do I know about it? And the answer is nothing.
Which is not to say that -- there have been times when I have declined a candidate because of something I knew about them.
Q: What sort of things?
A: George Wallace comes to mind. There have been circumstances, the building of the Calvert Cliffs (nuclear power) plant, for example, which I believe to impact unfavorably on the Chesapeake Bay. I declined that involvement.
Q: Have you ever done a Republican?
A: Oh, yeah. Sure. It's only since 1980 that I have stayed on the Democratic side.
Q: Is there a different Democratic voice than a Republican voice?
A: I like to think so. I really do.
Q: That's sort of a new idea.
A: Mine's a middle to upper baritone in terms of announcers. I don't have a deep voice. We, the Democratic spokesmen, tend to sound a little, you know, ordinary person, man-off-the-street kind of thing, as opposed to the more authoritative and measured Republican sound. Some of my bassier buddies are working for the Republicans more often. They have these low, stentorian tones.
Q: Sort of the banker who refuses you the loan?
A: That's right. Exactly.
Q: Do you have a range of Democratic voices? Is there the Democratic man in the street who's concerned about the issues of war and peace? The laid-off, blue-collar voice?
A: Absolutely. No question about it. If I'm talking to farmers in Nebraska about the difficulties of the legislation that's going against them or the embargoes that have hurt them, I try to do -- out of my Midwestern past -- a rhythm that is rural. But if I'm talking about Social Security -- which, of course, I'm talking about a great deal this year -- there's a gentler and more measured way that I speak to people older than me. When I'm talking about out-of-work and jobs there's a roughness that comes.
Q: How hard is it to be mean?
A: See, I'm an actor, it's no harder to be mean than it is to be happy. Or to be delighted, or to be anything else.
Q: Okay, here we have Indiana, a state with a popular Republican incumbent being challenged in an uphill battle by a Democratic congressman. Exactly what is the tone that you bring to the meaner ad. Is it shock?
A: Maybe it's even outrage. There's a lot of sadness in Indiana in my mind. The proceedings have started for foreclosure on a farm in Indiana once every eight minutes. Things are really bad. The equity that has always been in the land has eroded sharply in the last year. We talk a lot about Reaganomics, and we try to lash (Republican Sen. Richard G.) Lugar to that. What you're trying to do is say, "Look. Things are bad in Indiana. See? These farms are being sold. We have Republican economic policies and we have a man here in Lugar who supports that. Who still thinks it's a good idea.
Q: I can hear the shock. It's more than shock. It's incredulity.
A: Yeah, we use that word a lot, incredulity. Let's add more incredulity. Disgust, incredulity, outrage, sadness, hurt, all of those things are attitudes that you're trying to underlie this thing with.
Q: What about issues that you might have strong feelings about that might come out in a campaign? Like, say, abortion or something like that?
A: Polls are taken of the electorate to find out what the electorate thinks, and then we tell them what they already think. I don't get concerned about Social Security until you get concerned. In 1980 we talked a lot about drugs. We talked a lot about law and order. Those things are gone.
Q: The problem has been totally solved.
A: Because of the economy or whatever, those are not showing up in the polls as a concern of the constituents. We are saying to you what you want to hear. It's amazing -- the number of candidates and the number of consultants -- the similarity of the stuff.
Q: What are the similarities?
A: Everybody has a job spot. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And Social Security.
Q: Have there been moments when you actually heard yourself saying the exact same sentence for two different candidates produced by two different campaign consultants.
A: Absolutely. No doubt about it.
Q: What would be a sentence about that?
A: Let's think about that. Uh, "We have not had hard times like these since the Great Depression!" That sentence is in 50 percent of the stuff I do.
Q: What are some of your big (candidates) for 1982 other than Lautenberg and Stevenson?
A: (Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael) Dukakis in Massachusetts, and then I had a candidate I can't remember his name
Q: He must be flattered.
A: I've got (Robert) Graham in Florida, the governor; I've got (James) Sasser, the senator in Tennessee; I've got (Rep. Floyd) Fithian in Indiana; Bob Kerrey running for governor of Nebraska; Quentin Burdick of North Dakota; Tom Daschle, South Dakota. My smallest race is the mayor of Shreveport, La.
Q: How do you convey any interest whatsoever in Shreveport, La., on the radio?
A: Oh, I'm fully as interested in Shreveport, La., as I am in the state of New Jersey. I mean, I can see this sort of seedy city council chamber in this relatively small Louisiana town. You could convey the right voice intonations to really sell this candidate to totally unseen people in Shreveport, La. Reasonable people, you know, are all alike.
Q: Given that 1980 was such a terrible washout for Democrats from Jimmy Carter to Birch Bayh -- your track record is something like 2 in 15 candidates?
A: You hit it dead-on.
Q: What did it feel like on election night? Where were you on election night, 1980?
A: I was sitting in my home watching it happen.
Q: So there you are with your wife sitting by the television. Carter is dead by 10 after 8. Then we start panning the Senate race. Are you sitting there saying to yourself, "Oh, God, I did his voice and he's going down?"
A: I was personally shattered by that. I felt hurt. I said to my wife, if I feel as if what I believe in and stand for has been so emphatically repudiated by such a large percentage of the people living in this country, how must Carter feel? All these candidates that I've represented -- I feel like they'd turned on me. Finally I had to walk away from this, thinking to myself, "This is not my profession. I haven't been voted out of office. I might as well go to bed."
I'm an actor, right? I don't bear Ronald Reagan any personal malice, but I'm made nervous by the idea of an actor being a president. And I truly didn't believe at a deep level that the American people would elect an actor as president.
You have to understand -- I don't understand why these people want these jobs. I really don't. I said to (Carter campaign consultant) Jerry Rafshoon in 1980, "Why does he want to be president again?"
Q: And what did Rafshoon say?
A: He didn't understand the question. The people in this town who are plugged in to what that's about don't even know what that question means. They look at me saucer- eyed. Rafshoon said, "It's the number one job in the world." And in my mind you don't understand the question. But, see, I don't understand power. I don't have a thing for power. It must have something to do with power, because you can only ride in one limousine at a time. I mean, these people, the quality of their daily life is not enhanced by becoming a senator or becoming a president, for Christ's sake.
And I say to myself: What are they getting? What are they getting?
Q: Has this whole process made you more cynical about politics?
A: I suppose it has. It has probably never been possible for us to know these people that represented us, in any kind of meaningful way, in terms of you making a sensible judgment. Your response to them has always been superficial. I mean, okay, they had posters and they called him Honest Abe and they had these debates. But the fact is you didn't know any more about Abe Lincoln than you know about Frank Lautenberg. Maybe less.
What is it we're doing? All of this electronic media. This whole machinery -- consultants and people like me are all scrambling around here. What does that mean in terms of the electorate? I share the same concerns everyone shares. It's too bad you have to have money to be elected, apparently. Or you have to have somebody carefully sell off pieces of yourself to get the money.
Q: And a penniless person is not going to have Lary Lewman speaking for him?
A: That's right. That's right. I worry about that in the same way I think that any citizen worries about it -- what does it mean? I don't feel that it's quintessentially evil. I feel that leaders have always manipulated their electorate to the extent that they could. And I think that this is not any more particularly insidious. It enhances certain skills. Lincoln had, supposedly, a high, thin voice that might have worked against him in our time. So one can hypothesize that we might not have elected Lincoln had he been around.
Q: You have 45 candidates on Nov. 2. Assuming it's a good year for the Democrats, do you think any of them will call you on Nov. 3 to say thank you?
A: No chance. No chance. They'll thank the consultant. Which is good news and bad news. The good news is that when I lost 15 races out of 17 in 1980, no one held that record against me for a second. The conotally sultants are running in great danger. When they lose 15 out of 17 they lose a lot of work. Somehow I don't seem to be connected with winning and losing. I'm a cog in the wheel. CAPTION: Picture 1, Lary Lewman; Picture 2, Larry Lewman, 46, us becoming the voice f the Democratic Party. This year, working 14-hour days and racing from recording studio to recording studio, he as starred as the voice-over announcer in hundreds of TV and radio political commercials for more than 40 Democratic candidates.
Although he considers himself relatively apolitical, the actor will not, for professional-conflict reasons work for Republican candidates today. He is well-paid for his partisanship -- expecting to earn more than $100,000 this for his political work plus his many roles in traditional product ads.
Lewman, who grew up in northern Indiana, by the age of 22 was appearing on TV at WBAL in Baltimore, where his most famous role was "Pete the Priate" on a Saturday morning children's show. He took his first political roles in 1978, and his career took a quantum leap in 1980 when media consultant Gerald Rafshoon selected him to provide the off-camera narration in President Carter's ads.
Lewman lives in Howard County and sometimes shares the billing in commercials with his wife, Nancy.