Swindle mag: Don La Fontaine (RIP)

Don LaFontaine

By Caroline Ryder
Photo By Aaron Farley

Don LaFontaine

You may not know his name, and you probably don’t recognize his face, but you’ve undoubtedly heard the voice of Don LaFontaine. His is the deep, ominous baritone behind countless movie trailer clichés, from “in a world beyond time” to “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.” Somehow, these clichés take on a new poignancy when whispered by LaFontaine in the darkness of a movie theater. “My philosophy is that you have to really believe what you’re reading, even if you think the film’s a piece of junk,” says LaFontaine. “Even the worst picture is someone’s favorite film, and that someone is the fan I am always talking to.”

Nicknamed “Thunder Throat” and “The Voice of God,” Don LaFontaine sounds like a nine-foot-tall, cigar-smoking commando. In real life, the man behind The Voice is a very human 5’8”, blessed with Sean Connery eyebrows and a perfectly bald head. His regular speaking voice is clear and steady, with a strong dash of Olivier—but when he turns on The Voice, it’s as though Jehovah himself is commanding you from the clouds. “I think there’s a part of my voice that lives in its own frequency range,” says LaFontaine. “I can be whispering, and my voice will still cut through the sound of a car explosion. There’s only a few of us who can do that.”

And that’s why LaFontaine is the highest paid trailer narrator in Hollywood, and, until recently, has held a virtual monopoly on his niche for nearly four decades. Some of his classic trailers include Fatal Attraction (“A look that led to an evening, a mistake he’d regret all his life”), 2001: A Space Odyssey (“A shrieking monolith deliberately buried by an alien intelligence”), The Terminator (“In the 21st century, a weapon would be invented like no other”), and Rambo (“They knew he was innocent, and they didn’t give a damn”), as well as The Godfather, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Doctor Zhivago, M.A.S.H., The Untouchables, Ghostbusters, Batman, and many, many more, totaling around 3,500. It’s easy to understand why they call him the “busiest actor in Hollywood.” Until 20 years ago, LaFontaine also often wrote the trailers he narrated, studying movie rushes and distilling the plotline into a two-minute narrative.

LaFontaine started his showbiz career as a recording engineer. He became a trailer narrator when, in 1964, he filled in for a voice actor who was unavailable to finish the trailer for a Western called Gunfighters of Casa Grande. The filmmakers loved his melodramatic approach, and by 1970 LaFontaine was the most imitated trailer narrator in Hollywood.

LaFontaine sees himself as a storyteller, and possesses a genuine reverence for the power of words. It stems back to the first time he read Cyrano de Bergerac as a young man. “Since then, I have been enchanted by words,” he says. “But we don’t have great orators anymore, people who can stand up and inspire.” He takes issue with fellow storytellers, most notably those in the rap world. “What’s wrong with that Ludacris fellow?” he asks. “I think some rap music is very poignant, but I also see it contributing to the complete breakdown of communication. Words are mispronounced, beaten up, and misspelled just for the sake of misspelling them. Rap is reducing thoughts to the simplest Neanderthal grunts.”

LaFontaine predicts that trailer narrating will evolve toward a soothing, more everyman style in the future. One of the biggest thrills, he says, would be for the next big trailer narrator to be a woman. “I think women are vastly under-represented in this area,” he asserts. “You’d think that for films directly aimed at women, chick flicks, the logical choice would be for a woman to narrate the trailer. But the studios hold focus groups and the people in them—women included—seem to prefer the male voice.” LaFontaine was recording up to 10 trailers a day during his busiest period, being ferried around the studios in his own chauffeurdriven limo. These days, he takes things a little easier, working from home at about “two-thirds the speed” he worked at 10 years ago. There are also more narrators on the scene, people like Ashton Smith and George Del Hoyo, but there’s no denying that LaFontaine forged the path being trodden by the new generation. “I don’t think that there will ever be another career quite like mine,” he says. “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 narrative 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 sort of a template for how trailers should be read.”