A moment at one of those Hollywood awards shows recently seemed finally to cement Don LaFontaine’s place in television and film history.
He walked over to introduce himself to Ian McShane, star of the HBO drama “Deadwood.” But before LaFontaine could open his mouth, McShane smiled, dropped his voice to a timbre between Darth Vader and Dirty Harry, and intoned: “In a world ...”
That's LaFontaine’s trademark movie-trailer catchphrase, as in “In a world where ... violence rules” or “In a world where ... men are slaves and women are the conquerors.” “That Announcer Guy From the Movies” didn't have to say a word, because his face is becoming increasingly known.
Voice behind 5,000 movie trailers
Think Geico commercial. The bald guy with sandy mustache and headphones standing in the kitchen of a “real Geico customer,” orating, “In a world where both of our cars were totally underwater ...”
LaFontaine has worked in Hollywood for decades, reached the top of his craft, earned plenty and won accolades. And yet, as he might say himself: In a world where exposure is everything, putting a face to the voice behind 5,000 movie trailers can give a guy a whole new perspective.
Suddenly this fixture of show business became a kind of celebrity. Visibility brought newfound admiration to a behind-the-scenes star and his rather invisible industry.
“Expect anonymity,” LaFontaine once wrote in a book about the business of voice-over work. Never mind recognizing him, he went on, “Strangers never recognize my voice when I’m out in public.”
Geico tracked down the ‘voice-over guy’Even the Geico advertising folks didn’t have a clue who he was when they were brainstorming “The Testimonial Campaign,” a series of spots featuring real customers and B-listers such as Little Richard and Charo. Googling “voice-over guy,” they eventually found LaFontaine.
Recognition, in all forms, just isn’t a part of the voice-over world, where an artist’s “stage” is an isolated sound booth and performers are known more for their voice-over pseudonyms than their given names. There’s “The Voice of Porky Pig” (Bob Bergen), “The Voice of Zatarain’s” Cajun foods (Rodney Saulsberry), “The Voice of Food Network” (Joe Cipriano) and so on.
LaFontaine is often referred to as “The Voice of God.” But you won’t find his moniker on a film credit alongside “best boy” and “production caterer.”
There are no Oscars for voice-over work. An annual fest dubbed the “Golden Trailer Awards” does honor the movie preview medium, including a category for “Best Voice Over.” Still, film actors who lend their voices to trailers tend to take home the prize (a hefty trophy topped with a miniature trailer, as in Winnebago) rather than voice-over professionals like LaFontaine.
“You sort of take it for granted, those voices,” says LaFontaine’s wife, Nita, whose own response after learning years ago what her husband-to-be did for a living went something like: I never thought of people doing that.
LaFontaine insists he never cared that no one knew him, though everyone knew his voice. Voice-over artists “get credit in our bank accounts,” he quips.
Now, post-Geico, it’s different.
There are autograph requests. Comments on the streets of Las Vegas. On YouTube, LaFontaine’s on-camera turn has notched more than 86,000 hits.
“He’s been, for 40 years, the best in this business — in the shadows,” says longtime friend and fellow voice-over artist Paul Pape. “This is a great little benefit for him at this point in his life.”
For the voice-over business, as well. LaFontaine’s visibility, Pape says, “is shedding some light that there are people behind the microphones and behind the cameras that are contributing in ways that they don’t always get recognized for.”
At 66, LaFontaine still averages seven to 10 voice-over sessions a day, with the potential for up to 40 different reads. He does all of this from a home studio his wife nicknamed “The Hole,” where an incessantly chirping fax machine delivers scripts hour after hour.
From ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘24’One recent afternoon, LaFontaine cranked out three takes for this summer’s “The Simpsons Movie,” four promo reads for the Fox comedy “The Winner,” followed by promos for “Trading Spouses” (“Will the conclusion of the same-sex swamp turn violent?”), “Nanny 911” (“The amazing triplet tamer”), “24” (“The race to stop a nuclear nightmare blows wide open!”) and more.
In the heydays of the 1980s and ’90s, when LaFontaine might do 200 reads a day, he got his own limousine and hired a driver to shuttle him between studios.
In the early 1960s, LaFontaine landed a gig at National Recording Studios in New York alongside radio producer Floyd Peterson. The two eventually went into business together, helping develop the format for the modern-day trailer and scripting some of those punchy phrases that pervade theatrical trailers to this day.
That includes his trademark, which LaFontaine explains this way: “We are taking people ... and we are literally about to transport them into a different dimension, a different world entirely. So we have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to, and that’s very easily done by saying, ‘In a world where ...’ ”
‘The ultimate kind of silly celebrity’
He did his first movie-trailer voice-over in 1964, but his career took off when he moved to Los Angeles in 1981. He’d planned on working as an independent producer, but he started doing promos for the major television networks, and the work — TV work, then movie work — just never stopped coming.
“The voice that launched a thousand movies ... thousands of movies, actually,” began a video tribute at The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards, where LaFontaine was presented a lifetime achievement award in 2005.
Based on Screen Actors Guild contracts signed, he estimates he may well be the busiest actor in the organization’s history.
LaFontaine notes that the bulk of trailer work these days is spread among other voice-over talent or done by actors actually featured in the films. That hardly seems to matter now, because since last year’s premiere of his on-camera commercial, his face — not just his voice — is everywhere.
He’s appeared on the Carson Daly show, “The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch,” TODAY and CBS’ “The Early Show.” And LaFontaine suspects his budding celebrity had something to do with being asked to serve as an announcer at this year’s Academy Awards. He was the “Coming up next” guy, and the show included a brief on-screen glimpse.
“Flattering,” LaFontaine demurs about the new visibility. But he adds: “Being famous for being famous is probably the ultimate kind of silly celebrity.”