Thursday, September 04, 2008

That announcer guy from the movies dies at 68

In a world where a movie’s opening weekend could mean the difference between a blockbuster or a flop, one man held the key to box office gold.

You probably don’t know his name, and you probably never saw his face, but you know his voice.
Don LaFontaine was the voice of Hollywood. Not just any voice, but  “a deep voice that sounds like a 7-foot-tall man who has been smoking cigarettes since childhood,” as he put it when parodying himself in a movie trailer for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

But that voice fell silent Monday, when LaFontaine died of complications from a lung-related illness. He was 68.

Still don’t know who I’m talking about? If that’s the case, I have three words for you: “In a world.”
With those three simple words, LaFontaine became more than a man, more than a voiceover artist, more than the Picasso of movie marketing hyperbole. He became a legend.

In a gravelly baritone that made even romantic comedies seem ominous, LaFontaine narrated more than 5,000 movie trailers and more than 350,000 television commercials, according to his Web site. Some of his best known trailer voiceovers include “The Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Batman Returns.”

LaFontaine’s voice was everywhere, as was his “In a world …” catchphrase, which became such a running gag that he parodied it himself, playing “that announcer guy from the movies” in a TV commercial for GEICO insurance: “In a world where both our cars were totally underwater …”

In a 2007 interview, he explained why he came up with his “In a world…” gimmick.

“We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting (the audience) to,” he said. “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.”

In a world where you have only 60 seconds to grab people’s attention, LaFontaine was king. He redefined what it meant to be a voiceover announcer. So, if he wasn’t narrating a particular trailer for some upcoming movie, nine times out of 10, it was someone who sounded a lot like him.

Probably his closest competitor in the voiceover business was the somewhat mellower East Coast announcer Hal Douglas, who for years was the voice of Miramax, A&E, The History Channel and The WB. Before The WB merged with UPN to become The CW network, you could always count on Douglas to alert you to that “very special episode of ‘The Gilmore Girls’ ” airing later that night.

In one of those showbiz twists, Douglas probably has gotten just as much mileage out of “In a world…” as LaFontaine did, which is why they’re both known, depending on whom you ask, as the “In a world” guy. And when Jerry Seinfeld wanted to parody over-the-top movie trailers in the trailer for his 2002 documentary “Comedian,” he turned to Douglas, who dutifully rattled off such movie clichés as “In a world,” “In a land,” “In a time” and “In a land before time.”

In 1997, LaFontaine and Douglas teamed with four other voiceover artists for the short film “5 Men and a Limo,” which was shown before the 26th Annual Hollywood Reporter Key Art Awards and satirized each artist’s various catchphrases.

“5 Men” is now a popular video on YouTube, as is a short film about LaFontaine himself, “Don LaFontaine: The Voice,” which opens with LaFontaine solemnly intoning these words:

“Throughout history, man has marveled at the vast complexity of the universe. Without a single unified voice, humanity has been left searching for answers to the unknown. Now one man has the power to change that and to spread his voice across the Earth for all of mankind to hear. One man — me!”

In a world without Don LaFontaine, the movies are going to seem a lot less exciting.

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