For almost four decades, the world’s love affair with “Star Wars” hasn’t been fueled by affection for one particular actor, no matter how incredible a career an icon like Harrison Ford has built on his turn in the franchise. There is passion for this universe’s lesser celestial bodies as well — the blink-and-you-missed them actors whose names we might not know, but whose seemingly throwaway lines, from “Stay on target!” to “Oonta goonta Solo?,” we can never forget. And each player has a story of their own, no matter how small their part.
Erik Bauersfeld was one of these. The 93-year-old voice actor and radio dramatist died Sunday after career in radio that began half-a-century ago. But no matter how impressive his achievements offscreen, Bakersfield will be remembered by legions of “Star Wars” fans as the voice of Admiral Ackbar, the amphibian-looking rebel commander whose simple warning during a firefight in “Return of the Jedi” — “It’s a trap!” — somehow became legendary.
“I don’t remember the first request for an autograph,” Bauersfeld said in 2011. “But I was quite pleased. I thought, ‘My God, somebody is actually writing to me about something that I almost don’t remember doing.’ Then they began to come in by the dozens and dozens and dozens.”
Though best known for his alien frog voice, Bauersfeld, working in public radio, was part of a 1960s San Francisco renaissance that linked the city’s Beat tradition to Northern California film auteurs like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
“I knew him for 25 or 30 years,” literary giant Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a friend of Bauersfeld’s who spoke to him minutes before he died, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “We were both from New York and we liked to put on the New York Yanks when we got together.”
Bauersfeld was born in Brooklyn in 1922, just in time to grow up during the golden age of radio. At age 89, he recalled the first time he heard a broadcast — at age 3, when his father showed him a crystal radio receiver.
“They turned it on and I heard this sound. And it was explosive,” Bauersfeld said. “It was a simple sound, but to me it was something coming from nothing. I sat in amazement at it.”
So, sometime around 1925, the course of the rest of Bauersfeld’s life was set — though there were a few detours along the way. He served in the Navy during World War II, and studied painting and aesthetics and Cooper Union and the University of California at Berkeley. Then, while teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, he started working with KPFA in 1961 in the station’s drama and literature department. Stage fright kept him out of the film business, but he thought KPFA “an inspiring opportunity for those of us who had given up hope for such a rebirth of radio broadcasting in this country.”
“I did a thirty minute segment from Sartre’s novel, Nausea!” Bauersfeld wrote of his first production on his website. “Months later with no forewarning, I found it listed in the KPFA Folio for an evening broadcast. Another reading, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, followed, but these tapes remained unedited for several months. No one to edit them. I offered to learn how … Everything later began in that tiny, airless, cluttered, but embryonic editing room.”
Bauersfeld stuck around at KPFA, taking charge of the drama department from 1963 to 1991, and was linked with the station for the rest of his life. He had an ear for translating the work of serious literature, from Franz Kafka to Amiri Baraka, for broadcast.
“What I remember him for are the great writers of the past — plays by Chekov, Ibsen, radio dramas based on great novels, Tolstoy,” Ferlinghetti, who worked with Bauersfeld on a program about D.H. Lawrence two years ago, said. “He was about the great authors of the world. … All those tapes are on the KPFA archive, which is a great treasure.”
Indeed, Much of Bauersfeld’s work remains available at Bay Area Radio Drama, a nonprofit he formed in 1987. On its website, his distinctive baritone can be heard reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “MS in a Bottle” — just one of many of a diverse array of productions that capture KPFA’s freewheeling, communitarian spirit.
“As long as I’ve been with the station, there has never been a time when there was not internal discord,” Bauersfeld said in 1999.
It was at KPFA where Bauersfeld connection to the world of film and “Star Wars” was formed. Oscar-winning sound designer Randy Thom, who worked on “Return of the Jedi,” told The Post he met Bauersfeld while starting out on the West Coast in 1975.
“My memory is that I just literally wandered into the station without telling anyone first,” Thom said in a phone interview. “I told the receptionist I’d worked in public radio — she pointed me in direction of this guy Erik. And he seemed intrigued with me. I told him I’d done the recording of sound effects for radio plays in Ohio. … I worked with Erik rest of the time I was there until I made the jump to the movie business.”
Thom’s leap into the movie business was dramatic — Thom’s first film was Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” This led to what Thom called “this interesting melting pot that involved public radio, the beatnik bohemian scene and filmmaking,” as well as work on “The Empire Strikes Back,” which featured a wizened green fellow that hadn’t been cast yet.
“I knew they hadn’t decided on voice for Yoda, and I suggested Erik audition,” Thom said. “He was finalist for Yoda’s voice.” Frank Oz was, of course, chosen, and Thom praised his work. But: “I always thought Erik would have been a great Yoda,” Thom said.
Though he didn’t get to play the ultimate Jedi master, Bauersfeld got a consolation prize of sorts in “Return of the Jedi”: the voices of Admiral “It’s a trap” Ackbar and Bib Fortuna, Jabba the Hut’s slimy, pink-skinned toady. He was working with Thom on a radio project when another “Return of the Jedi” sound designer asked Bauersfeld to read the part of Ackbar. About 12 lines took less than an hour.
“I went over, he showed me the picture of Admiral Ackbar, and I did it,” Bauersfeld said. “I saw the face, and I knew what he must sound like.”
“[Sound designer] Ben Burtt didn’t give Erik much direction — just showed him a picture of a fish character,” Thom said. “… On the spot Erik made up this kind of gravelly, animalistic voice that Ben and the rest of us fell in love with. I don’t think they bothered auditioning anyone for that. He was quite a hit at ‘Star Wars’ fan events.”
Though already in his 60s and established as one of America’s premiere radio dramatists, Bauersfeld found Ackbar offered proof he had made something of himself.
“I wanted to finally show my mother and my father that I was doing something in California,” he said. “So I said. ‘I’m in this movie, and I’ll show you what voice I was.’ … The picture went on. And the moment was coming up. And finally Ackbar was there. And I said, ‘Mom, that’s me.’ She said, ‘Shhh!’ She didn’t care at all — she was so taken by the movie.”
Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch, who worked with Thom on “Apocalypse Now” and befriended Bauersfeld in the 1980s, told The Post that the dramatist was “trying to keep radio plays alive in an interesting way.” Murch recalled being distracted from editing “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988) by Bauersfeld’s reading of the Peter Suskind novel “Perfume.”
“My assistant was tuned to the radio station KPFA – where Erik worked,” Murch said. “What was actually on the radio at that moment radio was Erik reading the book ‘Perfume’ – like books on tape, except live. It was so compelling — the book, but particularly his reading. I had to sit there and listen to what he was saying. And I made an ultimately successful attempt to find out who that was.”
— io9 (@io9) April 4, 2016
In the age of the Internet meme, “It’s a trap” became an all-purpose catchphrase — one deployed both by trolls on 4chan to slight transgendered people and by Jon Stewart in a discussion about Republicans’ unwillingness to meet with President Obama about health-care reform in 2010.
“Senator Ackbar is right!” Stewart said. “It’s an ingenious trap asking Republicans to publicly state their beliefs on health care so Republicans may respond!”
And “Senator Ackbar” also became an essential part of the bemused Bauersfeld’s resume.
“Erik Bauersfeld hides behind the mask of Ackbar performing the voice of the Admiral uttering such renowned messages as ‘May The Force be with us’ and his heroic warning: ‘It a Trap!’ and above all, his significant advice, even to this day: ‘All craft prepare to retreat!'” his online bio said. “Erik was also heard as the formidable Bib Fortuna, his words spoken in the original Huttese: ‘Nee jabba no badda. Me chaade su goodie.'”
Though Bauersfeld said his movie work was “accidental” and knew few “Star Wars” fans were familiar with his true passion for radio drama, he nonetheless considered his turn in the spotlight a net gain for all involved.
“It wasn’t an occupation I had time to pursue … unfortunately, but for me the art of sound design in film making was brought more and more into how radio drama might be enhanced,” he wrote. “This in turn brought very great association for my interest in locational radio drama, another instance of how one artistic field gains in partnership with another.”
More recently, Bauersfeld reprised his voice role as Ackbar in “The Force Awakens” and did voice work in Guillermo del Toro’s film “Crimson Peak.” Murch said Bauersfeld was “a solitary individual in the world”; information about his survivors was not immediately available. Ferlinghetti said Bauersfeld’s health failed in recent years, and that the D.H. Lawrence project they worked on remains unedited.
“I was the last person to leave a message for him,” the poet said. “The nurse said, ‘We don’t know whether he can hear now … perhaps he’ll hear you.’ I said, ‘We all love you … and I send love. Goodbye.'”
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