Thursday, January 20, 2011

Culture Shock 01.20.11: Voice-over announcers are unsung heroes (it's harder than it sounds)

Long after he alienated almost every producer in Hollywood, Orson Welles became even more infamous for taking almost any acting job that came along.

Welles was hoping to funnel some extra cash into his growing list of unfinished movies. He never did. But he did leave behind some interesting artifacts, among them his hammy TV commercials for winemaker Paul Masson. Outtakes from one ad surviving on YouTube feature an obviously inebriated Welles fumbling his lines, when he remembers to say them at all. Had he been sampling the Paul Masson on set? Maybe not. As the story goes, the company later fired Welles, but only after he announced on television that he never drank their product.

Yet Welles could make just as much of an impression without appearing on camera. In his later years, he was an in-demand voice-over performer, lending his authoritative baritone to everything from commercials for frozen peas and documentaries about Nostradamus, to his final role as the planet-sized robot Unicron in 1986's animated "Transformers: The Movie."

Welles, who died before the film's release, described his "Transformers: The Movie" role as "a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys."

Meanwhile, outtakes from Welles' commercials for frozen peas, frozen fish sticks and frozen hamburgers are making the rounds. And if there is one thing I've learned about voice-over artists, it's that they're never happy with the writing.

"This is a very wearying one to read — unrewarding," Welles complains in one outtake after having given his director a long dissertation on the impossibility of beginning an English sentence with the word "in" and emphasizing it.

And later in the same outtake: "But you can't expect me to emphasize the word ‘beef!' That's like wanting me to emphasize ‘in' before ‘July!' Come on, fellas, you're losing your heads!"

Few voice-over announcers, however, have Welles' notoriety. They're unsung heroes whose voices surround us, but their names and faces are anonymous except to a few devoted fans, like the ones who successfully lobbied for Peter Cullen to reprise the role of Optimus Prime, which he originated in the 1980s "Transformers" TV cartoon, in Michael Bay's live-action movies.

And as easy as it may seem to sit in a sound booth and read from a script for a living, the voice-over outtakes you find on the Internet make it seem anything but. It's not all Morgan Freeman calmly discussing the habits of penguins, that's for sure.

Even before there was a YouTube, outtakes from the cartoon series "Thundercats" were causing a minor storm, if for no other reason than it was odd to hear the voices of familiar cartoon characters flubbing their lines and wondering what the bleeping bleep they were talking about.

Which brings me to the outtake that inspired this column in the first place.

The late Ernie Anderson, who died in 1997, was one of the greats. He started out on local TV in Cleveland, where he also was the influential horror-movie host Ghoulardi. But in the late 1960s, he moved to Hollywood, where he eventually became the voice of ABC, including serving as announcer for "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Funniest People."

So it came to pass that "America's Funniest People" gave birth to the greatest voice-over outtake ever.

Apparently confronted with the worst script he has ever read, Anderson struggles to slog through, argues with his director and lets loose the most blistering stream of profanity ever caught on tape.

The YouTube video is titled "Ernie Anderson Out Takes ABC." But be warned: It's not safe for children, pets, small woodland creatures or people who think "The Lawrence Welk Show" is a bit racy.

Doing voice-overs is hard work — something to remember when next an anonymous voice reminds you about that very special episode of "90210."

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