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Old 01-03-2012, 11:05 PM   #1
rkolinski rkolinski is offline
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May 2008
Default Character Actor turned accent coach to stars, Robert Easton, R.I.P.

Appeared with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in "Comin' Around the Mountain"

"Robert Easton, a character actor turned accent coach to the stars, who transformed Drew Barrymore into Amy Fisher, Ben Kingsley into Meyer Lansky and Gregory Peck first into Josef Mengele and later into Abraham Lincoln, among other feats of articulatory alchemy, died on Dec. 16 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

His daughter, Heather Woodruff Perry, confirmed the death. Just weeks before he died, she said, her father was happily turning John Travolta into a Bosnian.

For more than 40 years Mr. Easton reigned as the entertainment industry’s dean of dialects, sought after by actors needing to lose an accent, or gain one, sometimes in the few frantic hours before a critical audition. “The Henry Higgins of Hollywood,” he called himself, and the description was apt: Mr. Easton could get his own larynx around at least 200 different accents — ethnic, historical, regional, sociological — with little to no study.

His profession was not for the faint of heart. A few years ago he was awakened in the dead of night by a series of long-distance telephone calls; through the line came the menacing voice of Idi Amin. But the caller was merely Forest Whitaker, Mr. Easton’s pupil, who was phoning — in character — for some last-minute instruction while filming “The Last King of Scotland” in Uganda.

Besides Ms. Barrymore (who starred as the Long Island temptress in the TV movie “The Amy Fisher Story”), Mr. Kingsley (who played Lansky in “Bugsy”) and Mr. Peck (Mengele in “The Boys from Brazil,” Lincoln in the mini-series “The Blue and the Gray”), Mr. Easton’s clients included Al Pacino (Cuban, “Scarface”), Laurence Olivier (Michigander, “The Betsy”), Liam Neeson (Kentuckian, “Next of Kin”) and Natasha Richardson, whom he turned into the title character of “Patty Hearst.”

Without doubt, Mr. Easton’s greatest triumph came when a student, the Japanese actress Yoko Shimada, won a Golden Globe for her nuanced English-language performance in the 1980 mini-series “Shogun” — despite the fact that she did not actually know a word of English.

Robert Easton Burke was born in Milwaukee on Nov. 23, 1930. His parents divorced when he was about 7, and he moved with his mother to San Antonio, giving him his first awareness of regional dialect. (As a young man, he legally changed his surname from Burke to Easton to distinguish himself from his father.)

A childhood stutter also made him attuned to the minutiae of speech. “When you have a big problem like that you overcompensate,” Mr. Easton told The New York Times in 1998. “I found it easier to do voices other than my own.”

At 14, he appeared on the popular radio show “The Quiz Kids.” This led to dramatic roles on hundreds of other radio programs and from there to small parts in films, including “The Red Badge of Courage,” and bigger parts on television shows like “My Little Margie,” “Gunsmoke” and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.”

But there was a problem. The accent Mr. Easton had absorbed in Texas was confining him, as he told Newsday in 1989, to roles of the “dopey deputy and halfwit hayseed” variety.

He soon mastered other dialects. After his marriage in 1961 to June Grimstead, an Englishwoman, he lived for several years in England, where he studied phonetics at University College London. He returned to Hollywood thoroughly linguistically armed and hung out his shingle.

Mrs. Easton died in 2005. Mr. Easton’s daughter and a granddaughter are his only immediate survivors.

His other acting credits include the TV shows “Father Knows Best,” “Get Smart” and “The Bionic Woman” and the films “Primary Colors,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” in which he played a Klingon judge.

Mr. Easton wrote the screenplay for “The Giant Spider Invasion,” a 1975 film in which he also appeared.

For all his skill at aural surgery, there was one actor, a master of dialect, for whom he could not take credit. As United Press International reported in 1986, nearly every time Meryl Streep made a movie, at least one of Mr. Easton’s friends would congratulate him on the fine job he had done with her accent.

And, Mr. Easton said, he would have to apologize and say: “No, it wasn’t me. But I wish it was.’ ”
The Alamo, Black Rain (Jp), Far from the Madding Crowd, Gray Lady Down, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Interrupted Melody, Lust for Life, Mississippi Burning, Moby Dick (Gregory Peck), The Other Sister, Ryan's Daughter, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Sink the Bismarck, Swing Kids, Testament, Them, They Died With Their Boots On, The Thing from Another World, War of the Worlds (Orig.) & When Worlds Collide
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