17 July 2021

Voices from the Past


Years ago, back when you could watch network TV without endangering your brain cells, there was a series of United Airlines commercials I especially remember. One of the two reasons they made an impression was their background music, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which I love, and the other was the voice of the always-unseen narrator. The first time I saw one of them and heard it I knew that voice was familiar--but after repeated viewings I still couldn't figure out whose it was. (No Google or Alexa around in those days.) Finally it came to me. See if you recognize the voice--it starts at about the halfway point in this one-minute commercial from the late '80s.

For some reason I thought about that the other day, and it triggered other memories of overhearing movie or TV dialogue from another room and thinking, I know that voice. Part of that's probably due to the fact that I watch so many movies, but part of it's also because certain voices are just unique--so recognizable that hearing them for only a few seconds can tell you who's speaking.

That got personal a few months ago, when I'd plugged in a Netflix DVD of the James Franco film As I Lay Dying and walked into the kitchen in the middle of the movie to get a snack. As I was heaping ice cream into a bowl I heard a voice so surprising it made me stop in mid-scoop. I hurried back to the TV to see that one of the actors was an old friend from my IBM days named Jim Ritchie--we worked together for years--and who has a voice unlike any other in the world. (Jim also played Matthew McConaughey's father-in-law in A Time to Kill many years ago, but I hadn't realized he had a part in this movie as well.) I later played that scene for my wife after telling her not to look at the screen, and when she heard it she too gasped and said, "Is that Jim Ritchie?" If you want to hear Jim's voice for yourself, here's one of his recent videos.

We as writers understand that physical voices aren't as important to our work as they are in some of the performing arts, unless maybe we're doing a reading or an interview or a podcast. What we produce (thank goodness) is usually intended to be read, not heard. But in the TV or movie business, a distinctive voice is an asset. I can think of several actors like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Tommy Lee Jones, Rosie O'Donnell, Gary Cooper, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Kathleen Turner, Alan Rickman, and others, whose voices also tend to fit in with the characters they play. And some--Bernadette Peters, L.Q. Jones, Fran Drescher, Strother Martin, Steve Landesberg, Jennifer Tilly, Lorraine Bracco, R. Lee Ermey, Holly Hunter, G.D. Spradlin, etc.--whose voices are certainly unique but maybe not immediately familiar to the general public.  

You know, of course, where all this is leading. It's leading to a question.

In your opinion, who are the actors and actresses with the most recognizable voices?


My picks:

Katherine Hepburn

Lee Marvin

James Earl Jones

Lauren Bacall

Jack Nicholson

Henry Fonda

Steve Buscemi

Cary Grant

John Wayne

Kirk Douglas

Suzanne Pleshette

Humphrey Bogart

Morgan Freeman

Michael Caine

Samuel L. Jackson

Christopher Walken

Audrey Hepburn

Jimmy Stewart

Jeff Goldblum

Al Pacino

Burt Lancaster

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sam Elliott

Rosanne Barr

Sean Connery

I think I could identify any of those people after ten seconds of listening to them speak.

As you can see from my honest but unscientific list, a voice doesn't necessarily have to be pleasant to be distinctive or easy to recognize. So my second question is, Which actors'/actresses' voices do you LIKE the most?

 My top-twenty choices of voices:

Morgan Freeman

Billy Bob Thornton

Judi Dench

Katherine Ross

J. K. Simmons

James Earl Jones

Patrick Stewart

Jane Seymour

Dennis Haysbert

Emma Thompson

Gerald McRaney

Sam Elliott

Melanie Griffith

Diana Rigg

Ben Johnson

Lee Marvin

Kim Dickens

Barbara Bel Geddes

Powers Boothe

Gregory Peck

Why do I enjoy hearing these folks' voices? I'm not sure. If I had to give reasons, I guess some of them--Freeman, Thornton, McRaney, Dickens--bring back good memories of my southern childhood, and some are soothing and relaxing, and some have a foreign accent that I like . . . and some are just interesting. I think my all-time favorite voice is that of Lee Marvin.


A closing note: I always found it fascinating that the voices of brothers James Arness (Gunsmoke) and Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) sounded exactly alike. If you're not old enough to remember those guys, take my word for it.


Here's another video I saw on YouTube the other night, on this familiar-voice subject. It's part of an episode of the updated game show To Tell The Truth (one of those many remakes that are sometimes fun and sometimes irritating).


And FYI: If you didn't recognize his voice, the narrator in the aforementioned United Airlines commercial was Gene Hackman.

See you in two weeks.


  1. My favorite: Boris Karloff!

    1. Hey Jeff -- Yep, Boris should be included. He would probably make my "most recognizable list" but not my "liked" list. And that reminds me, Vincent Price should be mentioned also.

      Thanks, old friend.

  2. If I could add another distinctive voice, it would be Peter Lorre. He would also be on my list of most annoying voices.

    1. Anne, I remember putting Peter Lorre on the list, but he somehow fell off before airtime. I probably added him around the same time I included Bogart.

      Yes, I bet he would top the "most annoying voice" list for almost everyone. But hey, annoying is still distinctive!

      Thank you for stopping in, here!

  3. In the commercial ... Alec Baldwin

    1. O'Neil, I showed my daughter this post a couple days ago, before finalizing it, and she too thought the narrator was Alec Baldwin! It was actually Gene Hackman, who did at least half a dozen of those United Airlines commercials, back in the day. Listen to it again and you'll recognize him for sure.

  4. Favorite voices, the people who could read a telephone book and I'd probably listen? Alan Rickman, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Meryl Streep, Diana Rigg, Angela Lansbury (hypnotic in The Manchurian Candidate, wasn't she?).
    Totally unique voices: Geraldine McEwan, Dora Bryan, Billie Burke

    1. Good choices, Eve! I agree, on all you've listed, but would probably never have thought to include Angela Lansbury (whose voice I love). So many voices that bring back good memories.

      And I haven't even mentioned radio, where a voice meant far more than it did in TV or movies. One that comes to mind there, though it was a bit before my time, was William Conrad.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

  5. Wow. John. Gene Hackman no doubt. How'd I get it so wrong?

    1. Back when these were airing, O'Neil, it took me forever to figure out who the narrator was. Isn't it funny that once you do, once you have a face and name to put with the voice, you wonder how you could've possibly missed it?

      Seriously, our daughter was convinced it was Baldwin.

  6. These are great choices. Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, etc. could all read me census data and I would applaud. Donald Sutherland could probably get on a list. Distinctive and plays well with his words.

    I quite like Peter Lorre's voice! But in that lane Sidney Greenstreet's is better...

    1. Ha! Great minds, Bob--I too put folks like Sutherland on the list at one point, and Robert Duvall and James Coburn and Goldie Hawn, etc. So many familiar voices.

      As for Lorre, I gotta side with Anne--that voice of his gave me the creeps. One I hadn't thought of was Sidney Greensteet!!

      This stuff is fun.

  7. John, I did not recognize Hackman’s voice in the United ad, but your list is good. To Jeff’s excellent suggestion, I have to add Bela Lugosi. But Jeff’s right. The first time I heard Michael Jackson’s Thriller, I sputtered, “That sounds like… like…”

    Alan Rickman, Patrick Stewart, and Sam Elliott top male voices for me. I regret one exception regarding Rickman. He introduced the instruments on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II, somewhat drowsily, I thougght, not coming close to Vivian Stanshall’s original masterful introduction (which took many takes.) John Cleese provided the voice in the 2003 remaster.

    As for females, when I was a teen, I thought Claudine Longet was liquid sex. That was before her bad habit of murdering lovers.

    Speaking of J.K. Simmons, I’m halfway through the Counterpart series. Thus far, I recommend it.

    Sometimes a distinctive voice can be terribly annoying. I wouldn’t have convicted Walter Brennan’s wife if she’d strangled him wheezing in his sleep.

    1. Leigh, you always, always, come up with facts I didn't know. (Rickman and Tubular Bells, etc.) And I can honestly say your mention of Claudine Longet was the first time I'd heard, or read, her name in many years.

      Note, on Sam Elliott: If ever there was perfect casting in a movie, it was Elliott as the stranger in The Big Lebowski.

      I truly love the voice of J.K. Simmons. I gave up on Counterpart after the first couple of episodes, and my kids have been trying to convince me to restart it. I need to do that.

      And good old Walter Brennan--how could I have left him out? Even after all his Western roles, he'll always be Grandpa McCoy to me (Gol-durn it, Luke!).

      Thanks for the insights!

  8. Replies
    1. Good addition, Rob. First time I recall seeing AA in a movie was Wait Until Dark, when he played a killer and said very little. Now, his is one of the more memorable voices anywhere.

  9. John, forgive me for adding one more distinctive voice, one that appeared in Star Trek Next Generation and in two, I think, Pink Floyd albums– Stephen Hawking. As voice processor technology rapidly improved, Hawking declined upgrades, saying his voice was his.

    1. Another thing I didn't even know about, Leigh. Thanks!

  10. Great article:

    I'd add

    Sydney Greenstreet
    Orson Welles
    Vincent Price (and other horror stars of the era like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff)
    Peter Lorre
    (Yeah, yeah, I like classic movies)

    1. I do too, Bill.

      This is, I think, the first mention of Orson Welles, who certainly had a memorable voice--thank you!

      Another from (fairly) long ago: Ava Gardner--a one-of-a-kind voice if ever there was one. And, now that I think of it, John Huston, Bette Davis, Brando, Cagney, Paul Lynde, John Houseman, etc. And Gracie Allen.

      Thanks for the observations!!

  11. As a fan of "Rhapsody in Blue," here's a link to my favorite version of it on YouTube. Leonard Bernstein conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic in London, a little over 17 minutes:


  12. Frank Capra said that Jean Arthur had a voice "like a thousand tinkling bells," and I have "watched" movies she appeared in with my eyes closed, only to listen to her.

    I'd add Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan, and, yes, Orson Welles (except for that ridiculous pseudo-Irish accent he used in Lady From Shanghai, which I think gives Peter Lorre a run for his money).

    1. Josh, I'd not heard that quote by Frank Capra, but I remember Jean Arthur and I can see why he said that, about her voice. I'll have to re-watch Shane again, and listen specifically to her dialogue.

      I also agree, about Barbara Stanwyck. I'm afraid I never considered her the beauty others thought she was, but she sure had a unique voice.

      I do NOT remember Welles' performance in Lady from Shanghai--you've now given me a reason to put it in my Netflix queue.

      Thanks as always, Josh.

  13. Just have to comment on your first sentence, okay first half of first sentence, which is possibly the cleverest thing I've read in a decade :)

    1. Ha!--Don't know how clever it is, Melodie, but I think it's the truth. We watch the news on the network channels, and that's about all. After that I try to stick to Netflix and Amazon Prime.

  14. I, too, am a fan of "Rhapsody in Blue!" I would have to add Liam Neieon and John Wayne to the distinctive voices, but Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart are two of my favorites. For women, I think Salma Hayek and Gal Gadot are quite distinctive and I wonder how much of that is simply my fondness for accents. As for the commercial? I actually initially thought it was Dan Rather....Boy was I wrong. Thanks for this trip down memory lane!

  15. And boy did I slaughter poor Liam Neeson's name. That'll teach me to proofread before hitting send...

    1. Micki, I'd hate for anyone to count the times I misspelled a name. As for Neeson the actor, I agree, and I actually had both him and John Wayne in my list before I decided it was getting way too long. (One reason Liam Neeson's voice might be so familiar to many is that he's been in a TON of movies these past few years--I watched two this past week!)

      Names I did not consider were Hayek's and Godot's, but you're right there as well, and I agree that beautiful accents are one reason I like so many actors'/actresses' voices.

      The voice quality on the commercial I chose to include wasn't very good--but I had to throw that video in because it was the one that puzzled me for so many weeks back in the 80s. I KNEW I knew whose voice it was and yet it took me a long long time to place it.

      Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by SleuthSayers! Hope to see you at Bouchercon.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>