Thursday, December 22, 2011

Robert Easton the Henry Higgins of Hollywood

Robert Easton has died a the age of 81. His mastery of English dialect has earned him the the title, "The Henry Higgins of Hollywood" and "The Man of a Thousand Voices", For decades Mr. Easton has been the top Hollywood dialogue or accent coach.

Easton was born Robert Easton Burke in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Mary Easton (née Kloes) and John Edward Burke.

By 18, the lanky, 6-foot-4 teenager was winning parts in Hollywood, mainly playing country bumpkins because of his thick Texas drawl. In 1945, he was heard on radio's Quiz Kids. He portrayed Magnus Proudfoot on radio's Gunsmoke and also appeared in other radio programs, including Fibber McGee and Molly, The Fred Allen Show, The Halls of Ivy, Our Miss Brooks, Suspense, William Shakespeare--A Portrait in Sound, The Zero Hour, The Burns and Allen Show, Father Knows Best, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, Wagon Train, Rawhide and Gunsmoke.

On film, one of his earliest appearances was in The Red Badge of Courage. He appeared in the feature film, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as Sparks (a variation on Stingray's "Phones"). One of his more unusual voices was that of a Klingon judge for the movie, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. He appeared in Gods and Generals (2003) as John Janney, and he recently starred in Spiritual Warriors (2007). He appeared in the 1987 baseball film Long Gone as Cletis Ramey.

On television, he made many guest appearances and also provided the voices of "Phones" and "X-2-0" in Gerry Anderson's Stingray. During the late 1940s through the 1960s, he was mostly known for his portrayal of a slow-talking, blankfaced hicks (as in The Munsters episode, "All-Star Munster" as Moose Mallory). In the Get Smart episode The Little Black Book, he displayed a crisp German accent as the Maestro. In "Runaway Robot," a 1953 episode of "The Adventures of Superman," Easton played Marvin. On The Beverly Hillbillies he played one of the hill people in the episode titled Luke's Boy.

Fearful of being typecast as the slow-witted deputy or hillbilly cousin, he decided to work on different accents to broaden his opportunities. He discovered he had a facility for mimicking regional speech patterns.

Mr. Easton taught Forest Whitaker the African inflections of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and Ben Kingsley the gruff tones of a New York mobster. He helped Arnold Schwarzenegger turn his Austrian accent into Russian English and Liam Neeson's Irish brogue into a Kentucky drawl. He once coached Heston from a bathtub in Munich, helping the actor pronounce his lines like a Scot.

In 1961, after marrying June Grimstead, he moved with her to her native England and began studying phonetics at University College in London. He had absorbed a number of European accents by the time he returned to Hollywood three years later. Fellow actors, impressed by his new ability, asked him to teach them. Before long, he had a side business as an accent tutor that quickly grew into his main occupation.

He learned over the years to adapt to his clients' different learning styles. He found some actors, such as Robin Williams, had strong auditory ability and could pick up accents by listening and repeating.

Others were more visual and needed to work with phonetic scripts. "He found a way to spell things," said Whitaker, who called Easton an artist who understood the vibration and power of words. "We established our own language."

Still others were more physically inclined, such as Patrick Swayze, who had been trained in dance. For that type of student, Easton told the Chicago Tribune in 1992, "I talk to them about the difference in mouth position, what happens with the vocal cords, how it makes the voice more or less nasal."

He expanded his repertoire during his foreign travels, absorbing the speech rhythms of local cabdrivers, shopkeepers and hotel guests. He often enlisted his wife in his studies, motioning her to continue chatting up an unsuspecting subject while he took notes.

His wife died in 2005 after 44 years of marriage. He is survived by his daughter and a granddaughter.

As a dialect coach, he also worked with non-celebrities, such as the New York lawyer who was losing cases in California because juries, hearing his nasal, rapid speech, judged him slick and impatient. After he learned to speak more slowly and improve his tonal quality, he started winning cases, according to Easton.

To Quote, Robert Easton "I'm a great believer in the principle that there's no wastage in the universe. So when I work with somebody who is foreign who's trying to lose their accent, I can always give their old dialect to somebody else."

Good Night Professor Easton

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

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