Thursday, January 13, 2011

How to break into voice overs without holding up a sign


With all this hoopla about homeless Obama impersonator, Ted Williams going from a street corner to a voice over career, let me tell you the story of how another VO artist broke into the biz.

Mark Elliott. You may not know the name but you sure as hell have heard the golden voice. He’s done thousands of trailers, God knows how many promos for CBS, and for many years was the exclusive voice of Disney. (He probably had to say “experience the magic” 7,000,000 times.)

In the mid ‘70s Mark was a disc jockey – a very successful one mind you – on top rated LA station, KHJ. But how many times can play “The Night Chicago Died” without wanting to kill yourself? Mark thought voice over work was the way out.

He started taking classes, knocking on doors. Nothing. No one was interested. And remember, this guy has pipes! If not the voice of God than the guy who fills in for Him on the weekends. At the time his girlfriend was a beautician and one of her customers was a dude who owned a company that made movie trailers. She told him about Mark and he said Mark could call him. It’s amazing how gracious people can be when someone is holding a sharp pair of scissors to their head.

Mark did phone the guy and predictably was told there was nothing for him. He already had announcers he used on a regular basis. But Mark asked if he could check back from time to time and the guy said sure.

Mark called him every single week. Finally, after a full year, the guy said he might have something for him but no promises. He had a director who had no clue what he wanted. He already went through three voice over guys who just threw up their hands and ran. If Mark wanted, he could work with this nut, but there was no guarantee his trailer would be used and if not, he wouldn’t get paid. This would all be work on spec. Hours and hours of it.  Mark said he’ll take it.

Now remember, Mark was a top disc jockey. I’m sure many other jocks in his position would be insulted. How dare they be asked to work for free? They’d be saying, “Do you know who I am, even though I don’t use my real name?” But Mark was willing to do the work.

For the next two weeks, when he got off the air, he drove to the studio and worked ten hours a day voicing a gazillion variations of this trailer. Finally, the director was happy and Mark’s trailer ran.

The movie was STAR WARS. The crazy director was George Lucas.

Almost immediately, Mark’s voice over career took off. A few weeks later he did the trailer for THE GOODBYE GIRL. More offers came pouring in. And the rest, as they say, is all profit.

I know everyone loves the Ted Williams story. I do, too. It’s that one-in-a-million fairy tale and allows us all to still believe that miracles can happen, even to us. But I prefer the story of the schmoe who worked his ass off and made it because of his passion and sacrifice. Even if it means no one will ever do a movie-of-the-week about him.

38 comments:

Brian H said...

Is it this?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gvqpFbRKtQ

... which is a horrible trailer for a great movie, IMO, VO work notwithstanding.

benson said...

You'll know Mark. Kind of hard to miss him. And RIP, Don LaFontaine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQRtuxdfQHw

Not homeless yet, but if that's what it takes... said...

So, the key to breaking into voice-over work is to already be a top DJ and have a girlfriend with contacts? Well, that's helpful, especially for those of us who have neither.

Rod said...

"In a world without hope, ONE MAN with a honeyed larynx..."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Levine:

In 1977, I was a dateless HS kid working in a mall in a small Southern suburb. The only escape I enjoyed was going to movies. I remember seeing the original "Star Wars" trailer weeks before the movie (It ran before a flick called "Eye of the Needle") and thinking: "Gotta go." So on opening day, me and about five other people went to that theater at noon and watched a truly remarkable movie. Your friend Mark played a big role in getting me to that theater. Thank him for me. And if you see George Lucas, thank him, too. Then punch him for the last 3.5 "Star Wars" movies.

RCP said...

I love reading/hearing about people who follow their passions and it eventually pays off. And "pays off" doesn't necessarily have to mean name-recognition or a fat bank account, though there's certainly nothing wrong with those things. It means the ability to do what you love every day, even if you're just able to cover your living expenses.

Gregg Hersholt said...

I used to listen to Mark on KHJ, and until this blog today I had no idea he was the guy on the Star Wars trailer! I'm also trying to get into voiceover, after a long career in radio, and this story gives me hope.

John J said...

Doesn't sound like he had a whole lot to lose. If it didn't work out he still had his cushy radio job to fall back on. I'd say it's semi-inspiring at best.
Good story though.

Anonymous said...

Wonder if Mark Elliot the Disney VO guy was ever confused with Marc Eliot, the guy who wrote that salacious and wildly inaccurate "biography" of Walt Disney. Always found that an unfortunate, though interesting, irony.

Mister Charlie said...

As I JUST told someone recently that I would -never- work for free in radio, being a long time professional, yet currently unemployed, this column is both timely and a bit of a chastisement for me. And a validation for her. I emailed it to her, and while I am not yet ready to leap up and volunteer anything your point is taken. Persistence and hard work usually pay off, waiting for a golden opportunity rarely do.

Prequel Hater said...

@Anonymous#1 said: And if you see George Lucas, thank him, too. Then punch him for the last 3.5 "Star Wars" movies.

Perfect!

Never heard it referred to as "the last 3.5" movies, but that's how I'm going to refer to it from now on.

PeterM said...

Saw this article on 80s sitcoms at the "AV Club." Thought you might find it interesting. http://www.avclub.com/articles/1980s-sitcoms%2C50003/

Chip said...

I love these stories ... Mark's, Ted's. As someone else said, it is great to see a person pursuing their passions and have it pay off for them. I hope you all have the same good fortune!

Anonymous said...

All this talk about people "pursuing their passion..."

A deep-seated irrepressible need to be heard for 30 seconds pimping some item we probably don't need and might be better off without? This is what flows through their dreams at night? A novel, a screenplay, a film, a Superbowl ring, yes, but extolling the virtues of Charmin?

Let's be real here. It's the lure of making nice money without working real hard.Nothing wrong with that, but let's snip out the nonsense about years of honing their craft.

Parade Rainer said...

But I bet the Union guys were really pissed off that he did the work for free.

KEN LEVINE said...

I have to say, these voice over posts have brought out some real bitter anonymous commenters. Especially the jerk who felt doing voice overs wasn't a noble enough dream.

A few thoughts. Mark got these voice over jobs in spite of his "cushy" radio job, not because of it. Voice over directors actually have a bias against radio people because they sound like "announcers".

As for him getting a break because his girlfriend knew somebody -- sorry pal but that's just Hollywood. Contacts and networking and dumb luck are part of the equation. You wanna talk luck? If these voice over artists don't happen to possess these golden voices they have no chance. If you're 5' 1" and weigh 136 pounds I hope your dream is not to be be a linebacker in the NFL.

As for Mark doing the work for free, he was told going in there were no guarantees. When his trailer was used he was paid union money. Is the practice to ask someone to do work for free wrong? Yes. But producers make composers submit main title theme songs for free. And writers today are being asked to do all kinds of free work in preparing movie pitches. It's up to the unions to put a stop to it. But don't blame Mark. He wasn't a scab.

Lighten up, people. I mean, SERIOUSLY.

A Helpful Citizen said...

To the cat who recalls seeing the "Star Wars" trailer before "Eye Of The Needle": Your memory is playing tricks on you, I'm afraid.

"Eye Of The Needle" was released in 1981, a full year after the release of the *second* "Star Wars" picture, "The Empire Strikes Back". Good story, though.

Ian said...

Yes, this is the way one HOPES the world will work, and when it actually does from time to time it's gratifying to see. Here's a guy who had a clear vision of what he wanted to do, the willingness to make the necesary effort, AND a dose of humility, as evidenced by his willingness to spend hours working for that "crazy" director with no assurance that he'd ever be paid.

And yes, I'd agree that the thing with the girlfriend is just the way things go sometimes. "Dumb luck" is indeed part of the equation in this town (even though it sometimes feel like I'm getting all the "dumb" and some other guy's getting the "luck").

One niggling criticism, Ken. When you first referred to Ted Williams the other day, you used the word "toothless." Anyone who has seen images of the guy - and right now they're pretty hard to avoid - will attest to the fact that he's anything but toothless. In fact, his teeth are rather prominent - you can see them right there in the photo you used to accompany the piece. I remember reading that and thinking it seemed both odd (because it's plainly not true) and oddly mean-spirited of you - but at the time it wasn't a big deal. Now you've referred to him as an "Obama impersonator." I suppose that was intended as a joke, but it seems just as strange and off-point as the "toothless" comment. I'm no Ted Williams fan, but for you to make two such remarks about the guy in the same week seems really un-Levine-ish. You're usually such a mensch.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

You hit the nail on the head about Mark Elliot. He is not only one of those guys with a god given golden voice, he is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet. I will never forget when Robert W. Morgan and I were organizing the "25th Anniversary of Boss Radio" celebration in 1990, Mark went out of his way to thank me for remembering him enough to invite him. Now that's a mench.

Not homeless yet, but if that's what it takes... said...

Golly, Mr. Levine, didn't mean to squeeze your shoes with my all it takes is a DJ job and a girlfriend with contacts comment. You gotta admit though Mark didn't have a whole to loose (he did have that poorly paying radio gig to fall back on, so he was taking a big career risk), did he pal?

Tom Quigley said...

I think the whole secret to getting VO jobs these days is to make sure your name is either Tim Allen or George Clooney. Those two seem to have no trouble getting more than their share lately.

Tony said...

Thanks so much for sharing Ken. (And thanks for posting that video, benson.)

I struggle with the same kinds of feelings you're expressing, Ken. Which is that I hope everything works out for Ted, and that he takes advantage of this opportunity. Obviously it takes more than talent to be successful.

The stakes are very high for him now, which is a lot of pressure to put on an addict. I mean, fame turns people into addicts everyday.

Tim W. said...

Well, I liked the story. Thanks, Ken.

Jonathan said...

I'm really surprised that Ted Williams is being portrayed (not necessarily by KL, but by a lot of other people) as not really having paid his dues. Yes, he's getting a lot of job offers that don't come to other folks who grind it out on a daily basis. But that's the fault of organizations like the Cleveland Cavaliers who want to cash in on a feel-good story (Lord knows, they need SOMETHING). The fact is that Williams HAS paid his dues. He worked in radio for several years and then, through his own doing he admits, it all came crashing down. The he was standing on a corner outside in Columbus, Ohio in the winter. If that's not paying your dues, I don't know what is.

Mac said...

Yup, I enjoyed the story too.

Anonymous said...

Helpful Citizen:

I would have sworn it was "Eye of the Needle," but you're right. I must have seen another movie where all the Germans were English guys. I'm now going to have to do a search of 1977 on imdb and find that movie. That's really going to bother me. I was a high school senior. And I remember that trailer. Because I remember thinking: "This looks OK."

chuckcd said...

Forget the "Movie of the week".
This story should be a feature film.
Especially the reveal that the director is in fact George Lucas.
I would go see it.

Gary said...

Terrific video, Benson. It's nice to finally put names and faces to those voices after all these thousands of years. LaFontaine really had THE VOICE, didn't he! If only on their way to the event, they'd encountered Ted Williams on the off-ramp...well, they weren't driving a DeLorean, so Ted will have to wait.

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...
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Mister Charlie said...

ANYONE who knows the V.O business knows it has ALWAYS been extremely competitive, always. People who are insanely talented and who have trained with the best, like June Foray, still can't get a shake. Why? Because there has always been a top tier of just a few voices who got all the work. That is the industry and it does no one any good to be bitter about it, you should know it going in.

Ted Williams is a novelty and as such he will get his 15 minutes and then, if he is lucky and can complete rehab successfully, he may end up with a decent radio job somewhere, and get his life back.

He won't be taking much bread from the mouths of other V.O actors, the same 3 or 4 people will continue to. Because that is how it works.

Oh, and V.O. work is not exactly cushy, you do have to satisfy the client and that can be a load of crap to deal with more often than not...many retakes and ill defined characteristics (like Lucas) ... they know what they want to hear but they don't know how to explain it.

William Shatner said...

YOU say "sabotage." I say "sabotaj."

David said...

This story with Ted Williams has certainly stirred up a lot of upset from people in the broadcasting/VO business who seem to believe that what has happened as unfair to the thousands (tens of thousands?) of people working hard just to earn a living as voice-over people. I see this as merely a "lottery winner" story, where someone just out of circumstance happened to grab the hearts of the American public. This happens every once in a while where someone (Susan Boyle comes to mind) is plucked from obscurity by an event (here a news story) and people all around him or her try and capitalize on his "heat." It seems to me that the problem with Dan Ingram expressing upset about this, is he's talking about the unfairness of someone getting this kind of break when all sorts of people living on the straight and narrow are struggling. Yes, it may be unfair, but that's the way the society works. Occassionally someone grabs the hearts and minds of America and is rewarded (at least for a little while) with a disproportionate amount of attention and riches.

Slice of Lemon said...

@ Not homeless yet but if that what it takes - way to miss the point. Twice!

Thanks Ken, a great story and a nice reminder that it pays to never think you're too good for anything

Anonymous said...

Helpful Citizen:

That film in 1977 was "The Eagle Has Landed" also with Donald Sutherland.

Mike McCann said...

I never realized that was Mark Elliot on the STAR WARS trailer. It's a dramatically different delivery than the one we're familiar with from his work for KHJ and Disney.

You've got to ask him if he was trying (and quite successfully) to channel the vibe and timbre of the late character actor and Pontiac automobile v/o man Paul Richards.

Ted said...

I directed voice sessions with Mark a hundred times. He is the nicest guy in the world (and probably one of the wealthiest.)

Ken is right. We don't like to admit the luck and connections part, but give Mark his due for the skill and professionalism part.

Anonymous said...

If memory and name serve me correctly, Mark Elliott/Sandy Shore/?? was PD at KCRG-Radio in Cedar Rapids, IA. in the early "60's", and filled in one day at American Bandstand for Dick Clark. He hired me for my first job (PT) in Radio and was kind enough to say when I first started he thought they had made a mistake, but had changed his mind as my days there continued.
Sky Pilot in SD