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His Master's Voice

When the star is dead, incapacitated, or just plain incomprehensible, it's time to send for Rich Little. Tom Soter talks to the king of the Hollywood mimics and picks out the edited highlights from 40 glorious years of looping stars ...



"ANY GREAT ACTOR WHO loses his voice, it's a great honor to do them," says master- impressionist Rich Little, the man who, on various occasions, has taken over voice-looping duties for, among others, Liberace, Tony Curtis, David Niven, and Gene Kelly. Looping, of course, is nothing new in Hollywood, traditionally available for directors who missed that mumble or lost out to the jumbo jet flying overhead first time around. Now, with the increasing demand for the director's cut version of major films – often years after the original print was released – there is the added problem of having to put words into mouths no longer with us. Enter, on all such occasions, Mr. Rich Little.

"I did Stacy Keach (TV's Mike Hammer) when he was in jail," recalls Little. "They tried his brother but he wasn't very good, so they hired me. It was tough because Keach just has a typical husky male voice. That one worried me a lot; I just listened to him before I did it and tried to get the same resonance. I really can't do him that well, but I don't think people know what he sounds like anyway, so It was kind of a hit and miss situation. I faked it."

In the case of David Niven in Curse of the Pink Panther, things were yet more delicate. Niven, suffering terribly with throat problems from cancer, had valiantly attempted to talk his way through the film, with results that were generally deemed to be far from satisfactory.

"When Niven arrived on the set," remembers Little, "they said, 'Oh my God, we can't even understand him. How do you tell him to go home? So they said, 'Well, we'll get him back in, and we'll go through each line in a little booth somewhere, where there's plenty of hot tea, and we'll get it.’ Well, they went back to the recording booth, and it was no better."

Little, who had done Niven as part of a comedy act on stage, was hired to sub, one of Hollywood's few well-kept secrets until after the actor's death. "It kind of ages you, and makes you sound like you're through in the business, you know," is Little's explanation for Niven wanting to keep the whole business so quiet. "David Niven just didn't want me to let that information out at the time, because he wanted to go on working, and if I kept dubbing for him, then maybe no one would ever know, you know? So I said to Blake [Edwards, the director], 'Well, tell David I'll come over to Spain and follow him around, and we'll go into stores and I'll order things for him. I'll just stand behind him. We'll go to a restaurant, and I'll be under the table, ordering as Niven."

In addition to his work for Hollywood, Rich Little is also called in to dub TV programs, standing in for Gene Kelly when the actor was in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously hosting a TV Christmas special and suffering with a throat infection. And then, of course, there was Liberace.

"On one Jack Benny TV program, Liberace was supposed to be talking on a radio program that Benny was listening to," laughs Little. "They actually got Liberace to do it, but they didn't like the way he sounded. So they hired me. I guess I was able to sound more like Liberace than Liberace…”





LARRY PARKS in The Jolson Story (1949) Parks performed well enough in the thespian department, but when it came to singing, in stepped Al Jolson himself to dub over Larry's off-key crooning.



JAMES DEAN in Giant (1956) When it came to the looping of the Rock Hudson-Elizabeth Taylor-James Dean triple-header, there was a slight problem with the youthful Dean - he had, sadly, gone to meet his maker, courtesy of a high-speed pile up just after finishing the movie. In stepped bit-actor Nick Adams to re-dob Jimmy's many mumbles for the release.



URSULA ANDRESS in Dr. No (1962) Although Ursula Andress may have looked stunning in her bikini, the producers sadly felt she "sounded like a Dutch comic," and had her part dubbed by an actress who, if not possessing Andress' physical charms, could at least make herself understood.



CHRISTOPHER LEE in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) This German-made addition to the Holmes legend has a curious history: Lee, in his first appearance as the detective, delivered his lines in English, was then dubbed into German and way then – for the American release – dubbed back into English by a deeply untalented voice-over "artiste." Not a success.



BURT LANCASTER in The Leopard (1963) Lancaster plays an Italian aristocrat in Luchino Visconti's melodrama, butchered by censors in the U.S. on its first release. Lancaster's English dialogue was dubbed into Italian and then back again into English – without Lancaster's assistance –for its British release.



GERT FROBE in Goldfinger (1964) Herr Frobe made a striking American film debut as James Bond's most telling nemesis –"'the man with the golden touch," Auric Goldfinger. Although the German actor could speak fluent English, the Bond producers thought his accent too thick and had his voice re-dubbed by an anonymous voiceover actor. By the time of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Frobe had enough of a "handle" on the accent to – hurrah! – use his own voice.



JACK HAWKINS IN Shalako (1968) When Jack Hawkins was plagued by throat problems, Charles Gray, the evil Blofeld in James Bond's Diamonds Are Forever took over on the looping. The pair worked together again for Young Winston (1972), as well, and while they do have similar voices, even the cloth-eared will realize that this is not the same Hawkins who commanded troops in The Bridge on the River Kwai.



ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER in Hercules in New York (1970) The body is Arnie's, but the voice most certainly isn't in this ridiculous adventure involvinq a 1090- clod Hercules on the loose in Manhattan. It would, indeed, be several years before Arnie's mastery of English allowed him to speak for himself in 1976's breakthrough Stay Hungry.



ROBERT SHAW in Force 10 from Navarone (1978) Shaw died soon after completing his stint for this sequel, and although Shaw had done most of his lines, Rich Little was brought into dub some sequences. "I remember them sending me the movie," says Little, "and asking me if I could do Shaw. He's not an easy voice because he's not distinctive, but they just needed a couple of things. I remember having to dub him yelling, 'Get on board!' which I could do because that didn't have to match up with any other line. I remember looking at that picture a dozen times trying 10 get his voice right and thinking how bad it was."



MEL GIBSON in Mad Max (1979) One of the biggest money-makers in Australian film history, and the movie that made Mel a star has one unusual distinction: the great man doesn't actually say a word in it. Extraordinary though it may seem, his Aussie accent was considered too strong for the international market, and was redone (badly), like those of the rest of the cast, by an anonymous voice-over actor.



KLINTON  SPILSBURY in The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1980) First-time actor Spilsbury had the thankless task of replacing long-time Lone Ranger Clayton Moore in this big-budget turkey. The producers earned a hefty dose of negative publicity when they sued to keep Moore from appearing in public as the Ranger (which he'd been doing since the TV series ended in 1957), and then had to eat humble pie when they asked him to dub Spilsbury who sounded like no one's idea of a hunky righter of wrongs. Moore suggested where they might stick their idea, and an anonymous hack did the imitation. (Spilsbury later turned up as a stand-in for Warren Beatty when the actor refused to model for coffee mug pictures and other Dick Tracy merchandising last year.)



ANDIE MACDOWELL in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes (1983) Six years before sex lies and videotape, the model-turned-actress made her screen debut as Jane in Hugh Hudson's version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. On "reflection", Hudson considered her voice simply "not educated enough," and brought in the deeply cultured Glenn Close to re-dub MacDowell’s voice throughout the entire movie.



DAVID NIVEN in Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) The first is a collection of outtakes from previous Panther films, cobbled together after Peter Sellers' death, the latter an attempt to go on without him. Niven, suffering with a throat malady, reprised his role from the original Pink Panther (even though his part had been played by Christopher Plummer in The Return of the Pink Panther), with a voice supplied by Rich Little. "It was sad," recalls little, "because he couldn't pronounce anything. I had to match with his lip movements, but he really wasn't saying anything. I was doing a younger Niven than I would normally do, even though he did look kind of frail." While Little was in the dubbing studio on Trail of the Pink Panther, the producers asked him to try a few spot -lines for the deceased Sellers. He did, and so can be heard conversing with himself throughout the film.

Originally appeared in EMPRE, British film magazine, 1992