WASHINGTON — In a world where voice-over artistry can sell millions of dollars in movie tickets, only a few gravelly voiced maestros have thrived intoning the hoariest of cliches.
The late Don “Thunder Throat” LaFontaine may have been the movie trailer “Voice of God.”
Hal Douglas, who died March 7 at 89 on his Lovettsville, Va., farm, was less visible than the celebrity LaFontaine but no less prolific, well-regarded or vocally seductive.
As he growled in the trailer for the “Con Air” action-movie trailer in 1997: “This summer, check your weapons, take your seat and say your prayers.”
During nearly six decades in front of a microphone, Douglas performed thousands of voice-overs for movies, TV shows, commercials and stage plays. He became an eminence in the field – a craft in which a handful of highly compensated professionals get the vast majority of the work.
He narrated TV commercials for Broadway shows such as “Cats,” “Dreamgirls” and “Miss Saigon,” and trailers for major-release movies such as “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Meet the Parents,” “Chocolat” and “Men in Black,” parts one and two.
His voice was used to promote shows on cable networks such as A&E and the History Channel. It sold products as varied as Mercedes-Benz cars and Trojan condoms.
The control Douglas maintained over his voice – which he described as “very throaty, very chesty” – gave it tremendous range, musicality and tempo. His precision timing was critical in a job in which he might be asked to shave off half a second without sacrificing rhythm or mood.
“To say he was as good as it gets only begins to scratch the surface,” said Marice Tobias, a top Los Angeles-based voice consultant. Many voice-over performers excel in conveying one or two emotional states – whimsy or drama or terror – but Douglas shifted gears with ease.
“He was a storyteller,” Tobias said. “Whether he was doing ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or ‘Terminator 16,’ he was able to step into that emotional world and convey to the audience what we call the Promise – the promise of the experience you’re going to have.”
Douglas was born Harold Cohen in Stamford, Conn., on Sept. 1, 1924. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
After Navy service in the Pacific during World War II, he attended the University of Miami on the GI Bill and gravitated to a major in acting.
“I chased pretty girls into the drama department,” he told the New York Times.
He found work as an announcer on TV and radio before moving behind the scenes to produce commercials for major advertising companies in New York.
He spent a decade in advertising, often laying down “scratch tracks,” the placeholder narration, because of his acting background. He moved into full-time voice-over work by the mid-1960s.
“When I got back to it again,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “I was really well equipped because I had been an ad agency guy. I knew how to read copy and sell pieces.”
It was an ideal time to enter the business, Tobias said, as movie companies were in fierce competition against the expanding television audience. The trailer narration, once an after-thought of marketing, became a central component of luring ticket-buyers. Then, as now, it remained a largely male arena, a theme explored in Lake Bell’s 2013 movie comedy “In a World . . .”
By the 2000s, Douglas and others in the highest echelon of voice-over work were paid approximately $2,000 for a single trailer, which could take 15 minutes to an hour of labor.
Douglas moved in 1988 from Pawling, N.Y., to a 40-acre farm in the Loudoun County community of Lovettsville, Va., where he pursued organic gardening and his wife took up competitive horse riding. He installed a small recording studio that allowed him to do his work, sometimes in pajamas.
His first marriage, to Lois Barrett, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Ruth Francis Douglas of Lovettsville; two sons from his first marriage, Jeremy Douglas of Redondo Beach, Calif., and Jon Douglas of Nebo, N.C.; a daughter from his second marriage, Sarah Douglas of Lovettsville; and three grandchildren.
The cause of death was cancer, said Sarah Douglas, an actress.
PromaxBDA, an association for marketing, promotion and design professionals in the entertainment industry, honored Douglas in 2011 with a lifetime achievement award named after LaFontaine.
Douglas had less of a public presence than LaFontaine – who became instantly recognizable after Geico commercials that spoofed his bombastic “In a world . . .” intonation. But he shared a similar willingness to lampoon his profession.
Douglas participated in the satiric trailer for Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary “Comedian,” in which he almost helplessly rattles off a litany of movie-trailer cliches, one more melodramatic than the next, as a producer keeps cutting him off:
“In a world where laughter was king . . .”
“When your life is no longer your own . . .”
“When everything you know is wrong . . .”
“In an outpost … on the edge of space . . .”
“A girl . . .”
“Two girls . . .”
“Now . . . more than ever . . .”
“A renegade cop . . . a robot renegade cop . . .”