The Life of the Voice of God

Though many of you are perhaps not familiar with the name Don LaFontaine, if you’ve ever watched a movie trailer basically ever, you have almost certainly heard his voice or at the least someone trying to mimic him. A titan of the entertainment industry, LaFontaine lent his inimitable voice to a quarter of a million projects during his career before his death in 2008. So how did the so-called “Voice of God” come to get the gig and, in so doing, help change the movie trailer industry forever?

Well, in a world where movie trailers looked like something a modern 9 year old made for his youtube channel that his mom totally subscribes to, one man would change it all. Born in 1940 in the city of Duluth, Minnesota, Donald Leroy LaFontaine led an unassuming life until one fateful day in 1953. It was on that day that he states his voice broke mid-sentence while talking to his mother about helping her with the dishes. He claims this turned a squeaky voiced pre-pubescent into a man with a voice that would make him millions.

As you might expect, being of an age when a boy’s life primarily consists of playing flappy with Mr. Happy and otherwise spending the remaining 12 seconds of the day when he wasn’t doing that making fun of his friends and being made fun of in turn, LaFontaine stated he was afraid to speak the next day at school after his voice changed and thus, initially refused. When his teacher became frustrated with this now mute student and forced him to speak, LaFontaine uttered a phrase he no doubt would say countless times to execs the world over, “What do you want me to say?” This apparently prompted his already frustrated teacher, who thought he was putting the voice on, to send him to the principal’s office.

He would later recount that this caused him to feel even more self-conscious about his voice. However, it didn’t take long for his friend’s to realize his baritone vocals allowed him to be “everybody’s dad” on the phone- i.e. he could be used to call the school, represent himself as their father, and let the secretary know his kid was sick and would be missing school that day. Some of these instances apparently were his first paid voice acting gigs.

In high school, LaFontaine joined both the choir and public speaking club, both of which we’re guessing he was just amazing at, or at the least probably helped him considerably later in his career. Whatever the case there, he also apparently gained a reputation as something of a joker, being named “wittiest boy” by his peers in his senior year book.

Although virtually everyone he met commented on how amazing his voice sounded, LaFontaine’s career actually started on the other side of the microphone, working as a recording engineer for the military after enlisting in 1958 fresh out of high school.

Once discharged, he moved to New York to continue his career, working variously as a recording engineer, editor, producer and writer for radio and film. Voice acting still wasn’t on his radar.

This bring us to 1962, when LaFontaine began doing a little work with radio producer Floyd Peterson on some spots for Dr. Strangelove. Impressed with his many suggestions for how to make a great radio spot promo and other such skills (again none of which included his golden voice), Peterson suggested the two go into business together, initially working out of Peterson’s apartment. The company formed by the pair, Floyd L. Peterson, Inc, is noted as one of the first to eventually focus almost exclusively on advertising movies. You see, before this time, film trailers were made almost exclusively in house by the studios. Despite this, if you go watch pretty much every movie trailer going back to the first in the early 20th century, let’s just say, the movie trailer industry has come a long way since then, and the whole quality being akin to a “9 year old who has a youtube channel his mother subscribes to” joke at the beginning of this piece wasn’t really that far off. It was when the studios finally branched out beyond their own internal creative staffs that the modern movie trailer as we know it was born.

Naturally in such an environment where the competition was mostly churning out uncompelling crap, the pair found immediate success with their little company growing to a few dozen employees within a couple years.

That said, at this point they were still failing to recognize one of their greatest assets- Don’s voice, instead using him just for his creative talents in promotion and writing ad copy and the like.

His first foray into the world of voice-over work finally came in 1964 while recording a radio spot for the film, Gunfighters of Casa Grande. In this one, the originally booked talent for the spot didn’t turn up, having mixed up his schedule. With deadline looming, however, something needed recorded, prompting those present to suggest LaFontaine do it instead. He did, and MGM loved it, something that surprised him. In his own words, he “took the $82 and ran like a thief”. (For reference, $82 in 1964 is equivalent to about $685 today.)

After this, while he continued to work on the more administrative and creative side, his golden voice became oft’ requested and he now occasionally wore all the hats that go with creating such advertisements, from making deals, to writing ad copy, to being the voice talent.

It was during this period when he and Peterson came up with a number of now cliché movie trailer lines, the most notable of which being “In a world where…” On the iconic line, Don states they simply thought it up because, “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 … violence rules.’ ‘In a world where … men are slaves and women are the conquerors.’ You very rapidly set the scene.”

Given his wide ranging talents and experience, Paramount pictures ultimately convinced LaFontaine to come work for them exclusively in 1978, heading up their trailer production department.  Beyond lending his creative talents, this move also for a time made him “The voice of Paramount Pictures”. This changed somewhat when he was promoted to a vice president position. While others might be quite happy about moving up the ladder at one of the world’s biggest studios, he instead missed the more creative side of the work and, thus, within a year after receiving the promotion, left the company and New York in 1981, bound for LA.

Directly after, he got a call from an agent who convinced him he should focus almost exclusively on the voice-acting side of things, at which point his career exploded and he rapidly became the most requested voice talent in the world, both for his golden voice and skill at writing/tweaking ad copy in compelling ways. Towards the end of his career, he claimed he had worked on promo spots for over 5,000 films. On top of that, when counting all voice acting work, including freebies, he estimates he took about a quarter of a million voice acting jobs- everything from quick one liners to frequent guest narrator of clues on Jeopardy!

On that note, exactly how many sound bytes LaFontaine did during his career is impossible to tally, because along with his better known trailer and TV work, he lent his voice to tens of thousands of smaller projects, sometimes providing just a single, uncredited line for something. On top of that, up until the early 2000s when he became more recognizably famous after a few spots where he appeared directly as himself and everybody suddenly realized- holy crap the same guy was behind countless things we are all familiar with- he would even happily record answering machine messages for literally anyone who would ask him, free of charge. However, after he became more explicitly famous, he found these sorts of freebie spots impossible to keep up with, and so stopped doing them outside of if someone would donate to one of his favorite charities first, or as part of an charity auction where people could bid on him doing that for them or the like.

This means the only real source we have for estimating how many recordings LaFontaine did over his career is LaFontaine himself. And while you, like us, might be initially skeptical, as that figure kind of seems impossible, it is noted that at his peak LaFontaine would record upwards of 35 paid spots per day, and averaged about 60 spots a week on his slow periods, let alone all the quick freebies. And even if you go with the low end of 60 paid spots per week for the around 4-5 decades he was doing it, that’s still an astounding 125,000-150,000 spots. So it’s not improbable when adding in all the freebies, and that in the latter half of his career he was recording pretty well non-stop during his work hours.

On that note, in the early days of recording, he was also limited somewhat by the fact that he’d have to physically go from studio to studio to record. But with money and as technology progressed, he was able to spend his later years working from home, dramatically increasing his output and allowing him to expand his portfolio by recording small spots for individuals that he would have otherwise never been able to do for a price they could pay.

That said, his previous commute wasn’t so bad, as he apparently purchased a custom-made, pearl white stretch limo sporting such features as a fax machine (to receive scripts), an international phone, and the letters DLF (his initials) emblazoned on the side. Combined with a driver to take him from spot to spot while he prepped, it wasn’t such a bad gig.

In regards to the art of voice acting itself, LaFontaine was remarkably humble given his success and was always keen to praise the work of his peers and those who inspired him. Likewise, he rarely turned down interview requests and often doled out advice to those who asked. For example a once popular thing to do to try to get a more deep tone for your voice was to drink a lot and smoke… LaFontaine was quite against this, frankly stating, “Do not think that smoking and drinking is going to help you develop a deep, rich tone. Smoking and drinking will help you develop cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.”

As for what you should do, beyond recommending certain books, he states, “Singing lessons always help. You may never perform in Carnegie Hall, but you will improve your breath control, and expand the range of your vocal delivery. Also, simply using (not abusing) your voice by reading out loud will, over time, improve the quality and strength of your instrument… Remember, it’s not the quality of the voice that counts, it’s the quality of the delivery…. And [also] remember, practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

He also advises even when lending one’s talents to something that is crap, it’s important to take it seriously, stating, “My philosophy is that you have to really believe what you’re reading, even if you think the film’s a piece of junk. Even the worst picture is someone’s favorite film, and that someone is the fan I am always talking to.”

In the end, LaFontaine remained prolific until his death in September of 2008, just a few days after his 68th birthday. Quite fittingly, the last line he ever recorded for public consumption was his own, often-parodied but never matched, catchphrase “In a world…”, followed by “There, I said it. Happy?” This was for the cartoon Phineas and Ferb.

Summing up his unusual career, he states, “I don’t think there will ever be another career quite like mine. It can’t be duplicated. I came into the field of movie promos just as it was being born. I had the opportunity to work in virtually every style, mostly reading copy that I had written or co-written. Many of the younger narrators of today grew up hearing me. And right or wrong, it became a sort of template for how trailers should be read.”

And if you’re wondering, he stated, “The voice I use in my work isn’t my normal speaking voice. It’s bigger, more exaggerated. If I tried to use my working voice outside of work, someone would call security.”

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