R.A.P. Interview: Harvey Atkin

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Harvey Atkin, Actor/Voice Actor, Toronto, Ontario

harvey-atkin-feb93by Jerry Vigil

He has been seen or heard in more than 4000 commercials for radio and television. He is a master of accents and dialects, speaks French, Italian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and has hundreds of imaginary characters and animals in his head and on the tip of his tongue. He has been in a number of feature films, films for television, and television series, too numerous to mention. You may recall a promo from Joel Moss/WEBN on the December '92 Cassette which featured Harvey Atkin's voice talent (see "On The Cassette," Page 15, Dec. '92 RAP).

Harvey's acting background is extensive and spans decades, but most recently, Harvey has begun to pursue the voice-over business, like many actors these days. This month we visit with Harvey and get some insight into the lucrative voice-over business -- what does it take to get into the voice-over biz and stay in? What part do talent agents play? What does it take to become a "voice actor?" We tackle these questions and more! Join us for an informative and all around enjoyable chat with Harvey Atkin.

R.A.P.: Your voice-over career began in the Canadian market. How did you get into the U.S. market?
Harvey: I went south of the border when I was doing some film work. My agent called me in one day for an audition. I got a call back two weeks later from the producer who said that they couldn't understand why they brought me in to read this particular spot because I was absolutely wrong for it! However, he loved my voice, and he said he had something coming up for me later. About four months later, the guy calls me up. His name is John Sarley. He asked me to do this Jack Webb kind of delivery for a company called Murata Pearls. After I did the spot, he wouldn't tell anybody who the voice was; I was his discovery. Anyway, this Murata Pearl spot went on to win the Southern California award for humor that year. Then I started doing a few other things for him. I did the Nationwise ads, and then he called me down to do Bally's International and a couple of other major deals. So, he's the one that really started me off, but he has very scrupulously avoided telling anyone who I am. I think I've received three or four Clios working for him in the last three or four years, and the Nationwise Auto Parts stuff won "best" for a lot of things at the Clios. So, my name is starting to get around.

R.A.P.: Is the Canadian voice-over market as big as the States'?
Harvey: A lot bigger checks come out of the U.S.. Take a look at the market. If you do a national spot here, you're talking about a market penetration of over 25 million people. Do a national spot in the States, and you're talking about a market penetration of 280 million. That's a ten to one ratio! Your residuals reflect that! There are more people in the Los Angeles area than there are in all of Canada.

R.A.P.: Do you think there are a lot of Canadian voices in the U.S. market?
Harvey: There's a tremendous amount of Canadians in the U.S. market that are major national voices. Many of them have come out of Toronto. I think the top four guys in New York are all out of Toronto.

R.A.P.: Your bio mentions that you speak several languages as well as several accents. Which came first, the foreign languages or the accents?
Harvey: I think they sort of came hand in hand. My father was in the construction business here in Toronto, and during the early 50s and 60s, the bulk of the construction labor came over on the boats from Italy and Portugal and everywhere else. That's where the Italian got picked up -- I have no formal training in Italian; it's just "street" Italian. All these characters in my head I got from the characters I met in the construction business. It used to be obligatory in Canada to take French, so I learned French in high school. And I got shipped off to Montreal to do some work in the construction business, and my French got better there.

R.A.P.: How many different accents do you do?
Harvey: I probably do twenty to twenty-five well and a couple others not as well. I won't do them on tape if they're not good. We're talking about English, Irish, Scottish, Wales, etc.. I can talk like I'm from Dallas, or I can talk like I'm from West Texas, which is a whole different accent altogether. I remember talking to one guy and recognizing his accent. I said, "Are you from Lubbock?" He said, "Hell no, I'm forty miles from Lubbock!" That's a true story! I've been married now for thirty years. I remember times, even before we were married, when my wife and I would go out for dinner at a restaurant, and the waiter would talk with an accent. After he'd take the order and leave, she would say, "Okay, where's he from?"

R.A.P.: And you'd be able to get pretty close?
Harvey: Yeah. I've got a fairly extensive library here, both on tape and record, and books on how to speak the English language with a bunch of different accents, going all the way from Hungarian to South Africa to the Islands to Great Britain.... But, I don't want to get stuck on this accent thing in the voice-over business. The difficulty is that the call for an accent doesn't come along that often. When they do, they're usually in a humorous spot, and if your accent isn't right bang on, the spot falls. Usually, the people that get called for it are the people that the guys know are able to do the accents, not somebody else that thinks he can do it.


R.A.P.: Do you do more accents and characters than the straight stuff?
Harvey: I do much more character stuff than straight stuff.

R.A.P.: Are you doing any IDs and such for radio stations right now?
Harvey: No, I am not. But, after I spoke to Joel Moss in Cincinnati and did that parody for him, I decided to make a new demo tape and do a major mailing. I'm in the process of sending out a traveling mug with my picture on it. There's a demo tape in the mug and the mug says, "If you want to hear what this mug sounds like, play the tape."

R.A.P.: That's a great idea -- good, creative marketing of yourself!
Harvey: It fascinates me that so many voice talents don't advertise themselves! How do you know that the guy out there is going to know that you did that spot, if you don't get out there and make new demo tapes and work the room, as it were. You hear of Mason Adams. You hear of Danny Dark. You hear of those guys like that. But that's all you hear of.

I got a call from a guy at Paul Faye Advertising in Los Angeles to fly down to Los Angeles to do some thirty second spots for WCIX Channel 9 in Miami. I thought this was amazing, that these Florida TV stations were contacting agencies in LA to do pitches for them. If you don't advertise, nobody is going to know you're out there. And when John Sarley found out I was doing these spots for Channel 9, he called and had me do the same kind of a voice for Southwestern Bell Cellular. I'm starting to get the calls, and I'm really pleased about it. I'm an overnight success after twenty years in the business.

R.A.P.: You spent a lot of those twenty years in front of the camera doing the TV stuff and the movies. Would you say you're more of an actor than a voice talent?
Harvey: I wouldn't say that. I mean, there's not a day that goes by in the Toronto area that you don't hear one of my spots on the radio at least once a day. The thing is, I don't really push that, as far as the public is concerned, because that's the kiss of death. That's why a voice guy lasts so long; nobody knows him.

And actors are doing a lot of voice work. Just take a look. Jack Lemmon is now doing Honda. Charles Coburn is doing UPS. This is a big thing. All of the on screen people have now discovered, "Hey, we can make a good buck doing this!" Ricardo Montalban, of course, used to do the Chrysler stuff.

R.A.P.: Granted, a lot of famous actors are doing voice-over, but how much of this is an ability to be an actor behind the microphone versus these voices simply being familiar and famous?
Harvey: It's both. I call voice work "voice acting." In a thirty second spot, you don't have two and a half hours on stage to get their attention. In a two hour television show, if you come out and miss your mark by six inches, the camera's just gonna slide over. Or, somebody sitting in the sixth row isn't going to know that you didn't hit the end of the sofa. When you have a thirty second radio spot, you've got five seconds to grab them. If you haven't hooked them in five seconds, there's no point in going through the rest of the spot.

R.A.P.: It seems that most of the successful voice talents have an extensive acting background. Do you have any tips for our readers to help them develop these voice-acting skills?
Harvey: Well, something I do, believe or not, is watch commercials. I watch all of the commercials more than I do the shows. I tape them. I listen to these guys. I listen to the phrasing.

If somebody is really keen, really wants to be successful in the voice business, they will find out where there are workshops that specialize in voice training. Check into some of these people who teach singers how to use their voice. I think it's important that you take classes or workshops that help you understand how to read a script. What is it that you are trying to get across? What is it that the market is asking of you in this particular thing? Do you have to sound like the friendly butcher down the street? Do you have to sound like a cab driver? Do they want an announcer? You have to be able to put your head into that space, and if you can fit your head into that space because you've practiced or have been trained to interpret and read and understand what the subtext is, then you're going to be successful.

You have to develop a style. If it isn't your own, then pick one that you want and stick with it. Start listening to everybody's style. Determine whether or not you have a style because you have to have a base from which to go forward. You can't float. You can't be imitating one guy one day, and somebody else the next. Don't be all over the map. As you become more established, as you become more experienced, then you can expand your repertoire of what you are able to do for the person that is hiring you.

As far as consistency is concerned, there is no way that anybody is going to get a major account that does a lot of advertising if they can't sound, three months down the road, like they sounded the first time they did the first spot. If you are the voice of a product, and the advertiser is relying on you as the voice logo, you've got to sound like that guy all the time, every time you do the job for that product. This is something that's very difficult to do if you don't have your own style.

I've got a friend who is a DJ in Toronto. Every now and then a little amateur theatre production will be playing somewhere, and you'll find him popping up in it. It gives him a different perspective on using his voice, how to act, how to voice act, how to interact. You learn timing, which is real important, especially when you're doing two handers, interplay between two people. You learn how to jump on a line, how to anticipate a line. Again, it's acting. It's like reading a script.


R.A.P.: Radio Production Directors constantly work with ad agencies, producing their copy, sometimes writing it. I think it's safe to say we have a lot of gripes about ad agencies and how they operate. What's your perspective of them, being a voice talent who works with them regularly?
Harvey: One of the big arguments that I've had with a lot of the advertising agencies is, they don't understand the importance of the voice guy. They'll work on a campaign with the advertiser for months and months and months and get this thing all ready to go. Everybody's crossed every T and dotted every I, and they know exactly every nuance that they want to get across on this thing. When do they give the script to the voice guy? The day before. They walk into the studio and say, "Here, make this sucker sing!" And they look at you and say, "You're very close. Try it one more time." And then after you leave they say, "You know, it took the guy ten times to do the damn thing right!" They've been working on it for four bloody months, and I took forty five minutes to do it! I'm sorry it took me so long!

Many times you hear about a voice guy who comes into the studio, and the producer will say, "What do you think?" You do the read, then you say, "Excuse me, could we just take this word out of here and put it over here, and put a comma here instead of a period, so I can take a breath here, so it will flow a little bit easier?" "Oh, sure. Let me hear what it sounds like...Thank you. That was great!"

Because they're not actors, they hear this thing in their head. They write it and say, "This is a perfect thirty second spot." I come in and do this thing in 21 seconds -- they call me "motor-mouth" in Toronto. He says, "Did you say all of it?" "Yeah" "Well, it timed out good when I did it back at the agency." Then they say, "Can you slow it down?" So I slow it down, and it comes out to 24 seconds. You can drive a truck through the hole there! "What do you want me to do guys?" "Wait just a minute, let me call the client." Here it comes...rewrite time. I mean, how many times has it happened?

R.A.P.: Do you ever run into situations where the spot gets the blame for an advertising campaign not working?
Harvey: I've always said, not one car, not one deodorant, no one box of cereal has been sold over the television or the radio. The awareness of that product possibly has been created, but if we're talking cars, it's the salesman on the floor that has to sell that car. We deliver them to the front door; you take it from there, fellas. And innumerable times people will do a tremendous campaign. Then people will walk into their showroom, and they don't even have salesmen there to grab the guy who comes through the door. Who gets blamed! "Oh, that advertising sucked! It was terrible!"

The other thing that people have to understand is that there is a conditioning process, and advertisers have to understand that in order for radio to be effective, in my estimation, you've got to have a six week run. You must! A newspaper comes to the door. You pick it up; you put it down. You pick it up; you put it down. It's still there. You can read it. With radio/TV voice-over it's GONE! And if you don't happen to catch the guy at the right time when he's thinking about buying widgets and your spot for widgets comes on, he isn't going to pay you any mind. They don't realize that it takes a run longer than a couple of days. They say, "Hey, we tried it on the weekend, all day Saturday and Sunday!" Could it be, if that weekend was a long weekend, that everybody went out to the country? That doesn't matter; it's the agency's fault.

R.A.P.: I get the feeling you've worked with some big agencies and seen some pretty amateurish stuff. How do they get away with this?
Harvey: The agencies have big names. Take a guy who's trying television or radio for the first time, and he's got an advertising budget of $50,000 for the year. To him, that's a whole lot of money. He's not going to come up to the people at this big name agency and tell them they don't know what they're doing with his advertising. Would you go to the doctor for an examination and tell him what to do? These are the gods; these are the experts. But the agency is only as good as the Account Execs and the writers they've got working on that account.

The funniest thing I see happens sometimes when I'm doing a read. Let's say it's take five or six. Sometimes you'll just want to get on the talkback and say, "Jeez, that was a really bad read. Can I do it again?" But right before you say a word, the talkback comes on and says, "Hey, that was terrific! We're going to do a playback." Ninety percent of the time, that happens when the client is sitting in the control room. You get an advertiser who is spending two million dollars a year with the agency, and the client's Advertising Vice President is in the studio while recording. Then he says, "Hey, I like that take!" How many agency guys have got the balls to stand up and say, "You know what, sir? I think he can do better than that. Can we try it again?" Hey, the boss likes it; let's be quiet. Let's not rock the boat.

R.A.P.: Let's talk about talent agents. Do you think they're necessary?
Harvey: They're necessary in that, for some reason or another, and justly or unjustly deserved, "talent" are regarded as flakes, and they don't know anything about business. So, if I find myself in a situation where I know it's going to get a little rough negotiating, I say to the people, "Hey guys, I'm just talent. I'd love to work for you. I wanna do this account. I wanna do these spots. But please, don't clutter my feeble little mind with numbers. Speak to my agent. Whatever he tells me to do, I do."

A guy might come up and say, "Look, we wanna do ten spots here. Can you get us a little bit of a deal because union rate is X, and we can't really afford to do it for X, but we can offer you Y...." "Hey, hey, hey, don't get me mixed up in that. I don't know anything. Talk to my agent!" You do have to have an agent.

Here's something that's happening with agents right now. You can call some agencies and production houses in Los Angeles, send your script down there, and for X dollars they will get a "professional" announcer to voice your spot. This is an underground market.


R.A.P.: What do you mean?
Harvey: Well, they've got guys who are signed up with agencies, who are professional, who are members of the union and everything else, doing stuff outside the talent agencies.

R.A.P.: And the talent agents aren't catching this?
Harvey: That's right. But, obviously, if this service is going on, there must be a need. It must be filling some kind of a market niche, and it's appealing to all those people in middle America and all of the smaller market areas that want some professional sounding stuff. And for 200 or 300 or 400 extra dollars, they've got a spot that jumps out of the radio in comparison to everything else that is running.

R.A.P.: And they're getting it at a rate less than what they'd have to pay if they went through the agent?
Harvey: Oh, there's no question about that.

R.A.P.: But it's extra money nonetheless, and the talent isn't having to sit there and deal with directors and clients in the studio.
Harvey: Right. He's usually doing it after seven o'clock at night.

R.A.P.: Yeah, and they're probably keeping the first take!
Harvey: Yeah, right! "Okay, let's see this sucker! Let's dump this toad! Alright, you wanna go for a beer? How many spots you got? Nine? Give me a half hour!"

R.A.P.: Many times, a client or agency will approach a radio production person who has produced a spot for them, and ask how much it would take to let a spot they've produced and/or voiced go national. What should the radio person charge to let the spot go?
Harvey: The easiest way to find that out would be to call a local talent agency or a talent agency in the next major market that handles some voice people, and actually masquerade as a client. Say, "Look, I'm a small manufacturer, and we'd like to do a commercial. We'd like to know what it would cost us if we got one of your people, and let's say we wanna play it in twenty markets east of the Mississippi. What's it gonna cost us?" That's the only way you're going to find out what the cost is. Then, price yourself accordingly. If you go into this thinking that the advertiser has no conception on what it would cost him to get this done professionally, you're wrong. They do.

On the other hand, another thing a voice talent has to be well aware of is the fact they are in business, and the product you're selling is yourself. You have to keep yourself in the market, but you can very easily out-price yourself, too. When you do that, they hit the dialer, go down to the guy that's right underneath you, and they get him. Then you're history!

R.A.P.: You mentioned the mug you're mailing out. What other marketing tools have you used in the past couple of years to market your voice-over talent?
Harvey: A couple of years ago, I sent out pens. On the pens I put, "Write when you get work. Then call me." Anything you can do that can give you an excuse to talk to somebody that is in the position to hire you, is what you should take advantage of.

From the 10th of December through the New Year holidays, no work gets done because the only thing that the people in the agency are thinking about is, "Who's got the Christmas party tonight?" So, what do you do? You work the room. You make sure you've got business cards on you. You make sure you've got those pens on you. There's a friend of mine in the business who leaves memo pads in the studio, or he hands them to the agency people to take back with them. I've always argued with him that once the paper is gone, you're off the desk. This is why I did the mug thing. I mean, they may leave it in the car, but they're going to have that face looking at them all the time.

R.A.P.: Let's talk about demo tapes. What are some important basics we should know?
Harvey: Your demo is very important! It's your business card. Offer variety. Always have a good beginning and a good end. Make it no more than two minutes long, unless you're a really well established guy with so much good stuff that it goes to two minutes and thirty seconds.

R.A.P.: Should the voice talent put "fake" spots on the demo for clients he didn't actually do voice work for?
Harvey: You're getting into an area here that is very difficult because it's a double edge sword. Normally, you go into the station and get old scripts that have already been done, and you read those scripts for your demo. You are very likely to send your demo to the agency or company that did that spot. And the first thing someone's gonna say is, "That son of a bitch never did that spot!" You have to be very careful because that can come back to haunt you.

R.A.P.: How would you say the voice-over business has changed over the past ten years?
Harvey: It has become much more actor oriented, as opposed to announcer oriented. Still, there are a tremendous amount of dinosaurs in the industry who are doing those "hand to the ear" kinds of spots -- "For tonight's recipes from Kraft foods, write to P.O. Box...." But now there's the character stuff, the comedy. There's a lot more comedy being used.

R.A.P.: And this opens up a lot of doors for people who don't have those big, deep voices.
Harvey: There's a couple of announcers I know that have a very pronounced lisp, but they've capitalized on it. But it is not entirely just the voice that makes a voice talent good. It's the ability to read. It's the ability to be consistent. It's the ability to read and come in on time because when they say they want it at 28 and half, they want it at 28 and a half, not 26 and not 30. It's the ability to look at the clock at the same time you're reading. If you're doing voice over for television, it's the ability to make sure that your voice comes in at the right picture; the timing has got to be there. It's not just as easy as saying "Hey, I've got a good voice. People told me I should get into voice-over." It doesn't work that way.

And it's also practice. One of the things that I do -- my wife and kids always laugh at me -- I'll be driving down the highway reading the big billboards: "I'd walk a mile for a Camel." And I'll do it several different ways. Practice! What does a golfer do when he's not in a tournament? He's out there hitting balls.

Also, it amazes me, all the people in the voice business that smoke. I keep saying, "Man, you need those pipes to make a living. What are you clogging them up for?" I used to smoke, and I do a lot of cartoon voices for television. I used to do the Super Mario cartoons. And I remember coming in years and years ago to do a spot. It was 8:30 in the morning, and I was sitting in the studio with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. The guy said, "Okay, what we want here is a little squeaky voice, you know, like a little tiny animal." I said, "Sure, (cough), sure (cough), be right with you (cough)...." I looked at the cigarette and butted it out, and that's the last one I had. You've got to take care of the pipes and keep them in tune. There are exercises and things you can do. I do a lot of Chrysler stuff, and they require a particular kind of read. When I'm on my way to the studio, I will make sure that I have a mug of hot tea and honey to sip on all the way down the parkway.


R.A.P.: Do you attend any of the voice-over workshops?
Harvey: Nah, they'll ruin me. All my training has been hands on, on the job. Some ten or fifteen years ago, I very dearly submitted a voice tape of character voices and animals and sounds and stuff, to Mel Blanc in Los Angeles. At the time, he was running a place called "Bugs Bunny U." This was a workshop type of atmosphere, actually a school, where he taught people, but only people with credentials, how to do animation and voices and characters for cartoons, etc.. I sent him my tape, and I was hoping and praying that I would get a form in the mail that said, "You've been accepted." Instead, I got a phone call from Mel Blanc, who said to me, "I've listened to your tape. And if you come here, I'll ruin whatever you've got." He said, "You'll be okay. Just keep practicing."

It's not that I'm against the workshops, but who gives the workshops? Is it the top guys, or is it some casting director or voice director that's going to say, "Here's what I think you should do?" If you said to me there was going to be a workshop in New York done by Mason Adams, I'd be signed up tomorrow.

R.A.P.: Do you wear headphones when doing voice work?
Harvey: Yeah, always. I like to be able to hear what I sound like coming through a speaker. When you are not listening to headphones, the physiology of your listening is through the bones and everything else in your head. What you hear, without headphones on, is not what the public hears. It's a different voice. How many times have you put somebody on tape for the first time and heard them say, "Oh, I don't sound like that! Oh, gee, I didn't know that was me!"

R.A.P.: Do you have a favorite microphone you like to work with?
Harvey: It depends on the type of read you want. Some microphones, like the Sharp or the Japanese ones are a lot crisper, a lot sharper than a lot of the other ones. The old Neumanns are a lot more mellow, and they're a pretty good microphone.

Incidentally, one of the other things about being a good voice person is that you have to know how to use the microphone. You have to be able to say the word "perhaps" or "performance" or "purchase price" without popping the microphone. Understand the physiology of what that does and how it's working, that it's a puff of air coming against the diaphragm. Learn not to breath it but to say it. Getting back to the headphones again, by listening to the takes in the headphones, you're hearing what they're hearing in the control room, and you're hearing those pops.

R.A.P.: Is "voice acting" easy?
Harvey: It's a lot tougher, a lot more complicated than people really think it is. I was doing a spot for Chrysler a couple weeks ago, and they had a little bit of a crowd scene where somebody comes out and says "Oh, I like the color." The producer said, "Oh, you don't need another voice. I'll come in the booth with you." He did the line about five times, left the booth and said, "I don't know how the hell you do this." And this is the guy that's been hiring me for about four years now! He said there's no way in the world you'd catch him in the booth. He said now he understands why I get paid what I get paid.

R.A.P.: Why is the new softer, intimate delivery so popular now?
Harvey: I think it's because the audience has become more sophisticated, and you can't treat them as masses and lead them around like you used to be able to. If you do, people will sit there on the other end of a radio and say, "C'mon dude, you don't really expect me to believe that, do you?"

Years ago, when I was doing some spots for a herbicide, one of the first things that was nailed into my head was to sound country, but not stupid. These people who use this product are not stupid. So we did a two hander, two guys over a back fence, just talking. It was a conversation, two real people talking, and you just overheard them. There was nobody being pitched at. There's a whole subtly to it.

If you're interesting enough, have an interesting enough voice, do an interesting enough read, and if you've got the ability to attract the attention, you don't have to be yelling and screaming all over the marketplace. As a matter of fact, the quieter you talk, the more attention they're going to pay.

R.A.P.: Is it tough getting into the voice-over business?
Harvey: The voice over business is a very tight club. Actors and actresses are on camera, and as they get older, they change their appearance. They become different types and take on different roles. On the other hand, if you're an established voice person, you just go on and on and on. And it's very hard for new guys to break in because the established guys are known to be able to get in and out of the studio in a half hour. They can read. "Why should we try somebody new? We know what this guy is going to do." So, in order to break into that club, you do anything you can to get yourself known.

I think the first thing I ever did was probably a background third voice on something where I made some smart ass comment and they said, "Oh, let's put that on tape." Then, one job led to two. It begins very slowly. Then you start to get some credentials in the industry. In order to really get yourself established in the voice business you've got to be out there plugging constantly and be on the air for a good three or four years before people tend to recognize you because that's how long it takes for stuff to rollover, for people to come back and say, "Oh, you were the guy who did that!" That's the tough part of it because there are a lot of very talented people out there driving cabs and pumping gas. Also, it's a little bit of luck, too. You've got to be at the right place at the right time.

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