Behind the Mic : Don LaFontaine
Born: 26th Aug 1940, Minnesota
Died: 1st Sept 2008, LA
Memorable VOs: Trailers! For film, TV, video games, network productions etc
Don LaFontaine was an actor and primarily a voice over artist, best known for his work narrating movie trailers. That deep, epic voice you’re hearing in your head right now and the very mention of a movie trailer either is Don LaFontaine or inspired by him! He is responsible for the signature opening line “in a world…” and is believed to have racked up credits for around 5,000 trailers!
After graduating from high school in Duluth, Minnesota in 1958, LaFontaine joined the army and was assigned to the United States Army Band and Chorus as a recording engineer. Whether he had an interest before or this first dipping of his toes into the world of audio lit a passion - he continued his work as a recording engineer following his discharge from the services, at the National Recording Studios in New York. In 1962, he met Floyd L Peterson, a then young radio producer, who he was assigned to work with. Together, they worked on various radio spots, including Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. The partnership blossomed and the following year, they went into business together, creating movie advertising.
This enterprise that began in Peterson’s apartment soon boomed, with the business having more than 30 employees and being amongst the first to deal exclusively with advertising for motion pictures. Their timing could not have been better as the very concept of having trailers that acted as previews for new, soon to be released films, was at its infancy, meaning that catchphrases and staple lines that we are still familiar with today in trailers, were born. Peterson and LaFontaine created the likes of the aforementioned “In a world” as well as “A one man army” and “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no way out”.
LaFontaine explained the particular phrase, ‘In a world” to the Associated Press:
“We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting (the audience) to. That’s very easily done by saying, “In a world where...violence rules.” “In a world where...men are slaves and women are the conquerors” You very rapidly set the scene.”
LaFontaine’s break into voice over came in 1965 as a result of a scheduling mix-up. He had written the copy for the radio spot for the file, Gunfighters of Casa Grande - and another artist was due to come in to narrate for the presentation to the client, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. When the VO didn’t show up, LaFontaine jumped in, leading to MGM not only buying their concept, but also his performance! This was his break into voicing modern day trailers as we know them. In 1976, he started his own production company, Don LaFontaine Associates, where he landed ‘The Godfather Part II’. Then in 1976, he joined Paramount Pictures, heading up their trailer department and becoming the voice of Paramount.
During his time at Paramount, he voiced trailers for huge hit films such as Batman Returns, The Terminator, Ghostbusters and Rambo. As the go-to voice over guy for trailers, it is said that he could be voicing up to 35 promotions per day, bringing in millions each year. He remained at Paramount until 1981 when he moved to LA.
In LA, he would meet Steve Tisherman, a young agent who LaFontaine signed with and further bolstered and expanded his VO portfolio. LaFontaine is said to have voiced hundreds of thousands of TV and radio spots (at last count, it was around 750,000!) including commercials for Ford, Coke, McDonalds, Budweiser - as well as being the voice of NBC, CBS, Fox, Cartoon Network, to name but a few. LaFontaine received a good deal of recognition for his work and achievements - key moments include being honoured at Cannes and being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards in 2005.
Based on the signed contracts, it looks as though LaFontaine holds the distinction for being the single busiest actor in the history of the Screen Actors Guild - an outstanding accomplishment, although unsurprising given the breadth of his portfolio and the familiarity of his unique voice, even after his death. We in the VO community remember him for practically creating the modern era of film trailers, from the phrasing to the distinctive sound, and being an icon thanks to it. However, another inspiring aspect of this important figure in our industry that I found often mentioned while I was researching him, was his kindness and the respect that his peers gave him for his obvious talent but also, his personality.