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Don LaFontaine, 1940 - 2008

The booming voice behind thousands of movie trailers

September 03, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Don LaFontaine, the highly sought-after voice-over artist whose sonorous-voiced narration on several thousand movie trailers earned him the title of "The Trailer King," has died. He was 68.

LaFontaine, who also did voice-over work on countless radio and network television promotional spots and commercials, died Monday of complications after treatment for an illness at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his family said. The illness was not specified.

He was known as "Thunder Throat," "The Voice of God" and "the highest-paid movie-trailer narrator" in Hollywood.

With a rich baritone that was once likened to the sound of someone speaking from the bottom of a well, LaFontaine dramatically narrated the movie trailers for classic films such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" ("A shrieking monolith deliberately buried by an alien intelligence"), "Fatal Attraction" ("A look that led to an evening, a mistake he'd regret all his life") and "The Terminator" ("In the 21st century, a weapon would be invented like no other").

LaFontaine's distinctive voice also was heard on the trailers for "Doctor Zhivago," "MASH," "The Godfather," "Ghostbusters," "Home Alone," "L.A. Confidential," "Independence Day" and nearly 5,000 other movies. He also narrated trailers for the "Indiana Jones," "Rambo" and "Die Hard" series.

"The industry is mourning the loss of a true Hollywood legend," Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Insider," for which LaFontaine was the voice, said in a statement Tuesday.

"Don was not only the reference standard in the voice-over community for his skills, but gave back to all who reached out to him," she said. "Movie trailers and television promos will never be the same."

In a 1995 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, LaFontaine said, "People think what I do is just like radio announcing, but it's not."

He viewed himself as a voice actor.

"You want to take the audience out of their seats, out of their homes, out of their complacency and pull them into the story," he said. "You want to make that trailer so compelling that they have to go buy a ticket just to find out how the movie ends."

By the early '90s, LaFontaine was so busy -- he once said he could voice about 60 promotions a week and as many as 35 in a day -- that he was saving time by traveling from job to job in a chauffeur-driven limousine. He later began working from a studio in his home, where he received scripts via fax.

LaFontaine's famously melodramatic movie-trailer voice -- he was most often identified with the introductory phrase, "In a world . . ." -- was ripe for parody and spurred sendups from Pablo Francisco and other comedians.

Despite the public's familiarity with his voice and the occasional interview on the subject of voice-overs, LaFontaine worked in relative anonymity.

But that changed in 2006 when he appeared as "that announcer guy from the movies" in a national car insurance commercial to help a "real" customer, "not an actor," tell her story.

There he was, the casually dressed man with the sandy mustache, standing at a microphone in the woman's kitchen with headphones over his bald head.

Woman, speaking matter-of-factly: "When the storm hit, both our cars were totally underwater."

LaFontaine, with deep-voiced dramatic overtones and accompanied by stirring music: "In a world where both of our cars were totally underwater."

Woman: "We thought it would take forever to get some help."

LaFontaine: "But a new wind was about to blow."

The self-parody, in which he was not only seen but also identified by name, racked up tens of thousands of hits on YouTube, prompting one viewer to write: "Finally, I get to the see who the person is with that voice."

LaFontaine was born Aug. 26, 1940, in Duluth, Minn. After working as a recording engineer in the Army, he became a sound engineer-editor at National Recording Studios in New York City.

In the early '60s, he was assigned to work with radio producer Floyd Peterson, who was creating radio commercials for the movie "Dr. Strangelove." He and Peterson joined forces in a two-man operation and Peterson's quickly expanded company became one of the first to work exclusively in movie advertising.

LaFontaine, who wrote much of the copy, launched his voice-over career unexpectedly after the announcer for a radio-spot presentation for the 1964 movie "Gunfighters of Casa Grande" failed to show and LaFontaine stepped in.

After a number of years as a head of production for Kaleidoscope Films Ltd., a top trailer production house, he launched his own production company, Don LaFontaine Associates, in 1976.

LaFontaine joined Paramount Pictures as head of the studio's trailer department in 1978. After leaving Paramount as a vice president in 1981, he returned to being an independent producer. He then became more heavily involved in doing voice-over work.

"I don't think there will ever be another career quite like mine," he once told Swindle magazine. "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 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 a sort of template for how trailers should be read."

LaFontaine is survived by his wife, Nita; daughters, Christine, Skye and Elyse; and a grandson.

A private funeral service will be held, and a celebration of LaFontaine's life is pending.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

A familiar voice

Hear and see Don LaFontaine at

latimes.com/obituaries.

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