That familiar voice in the dark

From Jack Nicholson's sandpaper sighs to the Germanic inflections of Arnold Schwarzenegger's one-liners, some Hollywood voices are unmistakable.

One of them is Don "Thunder Throat" LaFontaine.

You may not recognize his name, but you've heard his voice. Whether it's for "Terminator II," "L.A. Confidential," or "Jingle All the Way," Mr. LaFontaine has been delivering that warm, gravely, and oh-so-familiar baritone as the voice narrating movie trailers for three decades.

Long before he became known in the business as "The Voice of God," LaFontaine worked as an advertising executive. In a mix of timing and talent, he filled in for an absent actor one night and floored producers with a knockout reading for the movie trailer to "Gunfighters at Casa Grande" ("In a blur of speed, their hands flashed down to their holsters and came up spitting fire").

With his copy-writing background, he combined a knack for penning tasty pitches with his signature sound to quickly dominate the burgeoning movie-trailer industry.

Once an afterthought, movie trailers - previews of coming features that run before a feature film - have become a crucial element in movie marketing, maturing into a veritable art form.

With millions of dollars on the line, studios are careful to stick to tried-and-true methods. A virtual monopoly of baritone voice-over actors has developed, squeezing out female talent, to LaFontaine's dismay.

Will women ever do what he does? "I certainly hope so," he says, exceeding the bass limits of my phone in a recent interview. "Ironically enough, the women [in focus groups] tend to prefer the male announcer."

LaFontaine often records without practice, relying on expert sight reading and a capacity to overlook some truly awful writing. Making it flavorful is why LaFontaine and his cohorts earn the seven-figure salaries they do.

"Our job is to bring as much veracity and freshness [as possible] to whatever the copy is, regardless of how cliched, trite, or stale it may be," he says.

Even as technical wizardry dominates the big screen, "The Voice of God" records au naturel, relying on a diverse repertoire of vocal effects.

"There are various pitches and timbres that I use in my voice, depending upon what I'm selling," he says. "If it's a hard-core action picture, it's what I call the 'chain-saw voice.' "

LaFontaine asserts with no immodesty that his voice can be heard as a whisper over a scene of the earth exploding.

As a movie-trailer pioneer and 35-year veteran of the industry, LaFontaine says he's seen how movies have been influenced by their trailers. The quick, tight editing of trailers "has had a trickle-down effect on everything, from the way they sell television shows to the ways they sell soap to certainly MTV," he says.

His job is hardly leisurely: He hired a limo driver recently to keep up with the 10 to 17 recording sessions he does daily. Thanks to an at-home studio with a high-speed line, he's increasingly recording from home.

Though he still gets a kick out of hearing his voice at the movies, he wouldn't mind if his profession received a little more recognition.

"I'm hoping that more people will recognize the value of the trailer." he says. "[It's] a very important, omnipresent, art form....

"I'm hoping that [this work] might even be recognized with an Oscar somewhere along the way."

Listen to Don LaFontaine at csmonitor.com/durable/2001/03/09/fp20s2-csm.shtml

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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