Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Percy Rodrigues: The Voice of Horror

Being that we are in the midst of Black History Month, attention must be paid to a talented, ground-breaking artist whose contributions paved the way for a new generation of black actors to assume roles of quality and authority. But for the purposes of the Jar, and for Horror fans everywhere, those achievements may well be eclipsed by his voice-over contributions to a succession of fright film trailers over a 17-year period. He used his talent to sell dozens of movies, but when he turned that golden throat over to scaring the bejeezus out of audiences, the results were incomparable.

He was Percy Rodrigues, a Montreal-born actor who worked for decades in his native Canada before coming to New York City at the age of 42 and landing a role in the 1960 Broadway staging of Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic. While stage opportunities proved limited, he quickly gravitated over to television, landing an important role in the one-time-only broadcast of Rod Serling's A Carol for Another Christmas, a dour, apocalyptic 1964 updating of the Dickens classic that featured a stellar cast, including Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw, Ben Gazzara and Eva Marie Saint. Soon he was in demand for supporting roles on dozens of TV series, including a continuing stint as Dr. Harry Miles on the ABC prime-time soap Peyton Place. Because of his imposing demeanor and commanding, resonant voice, he was frequently cast as figures of authority and respect, one of the first black actors accorded roles of such power and weight. In the first season Star Trek episode "Court Martial," he is Commodore Stone, who oversees the trial of Captain James T. Kirk. Such roles did not escape the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, who once famously wrote to Trek cast member Nichelle Nichols about the importance of seeing people of color as doers and achievers in Gene Roddenberry's Starfleet.

During the 70s, Rodrigues (it was once misspelled with a "z" at the end in the playbill for Blues for Mister Charlie, and he kept it as a stage name) began to explore voice-over work, discovering the joy to be found in not having to report to the studio at an early hour to apply make-up. It was the trailer for a 1975 thriller that established him as The Voice of Horror...

That sepulchral voice soon popped up in trailer after trailer, and for Horror fans, hearing it was simple shorthand for getting your keister to the cinema for
opening weekend. Granted, it wasn't always employed for the finest of productions, but Rodrigues imbued every narration with what I've long considered the dual subtext behind every great Horror trailer: "If you see this movie, you might die. And if you don't see this movie, you might die!" And if you were writing the copy for Rodrigues, you were foolish if you didn't at some point require him to use the word "Now" - there are three vowel sounds in that word, and no one could coax more ominous portent out of every last one.

His output slowed considerably during the 1990s (hell, so did Horror), and he passed away in 2007 due to kidney failure at the age of 89. There have been other great Horror trailer voice artists, but for my money, no one held audiences in thrall quite the way that Percy Rodrigues did. Watch this selection of trailers, and try to imagine any other voice having this same compelling authority and pervasive sense of dread. He was one of a kind, and Horror advertising hasn't been the same since.


davidfullam said...

Awesome, always wanted to know the name and face behind that great voice!

Timmy Crabcakes said...

I knew the face... and the voice... but I'd never put them together.

Odd name though.