Everybody has a peculiar talent or two, and one of mine has always been identifying famous people doing voice-overs on television. Valarie and I will be crashed in front of the tube watching a commercial, and I’ll say, for example, “The guy narrating that Navy ad narrated Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary.” As a result, I’ve become interested in how a lot of famous actors who presumably wouldn’t be caught dead lending their image to a TV commercial (except Catherine Zita-Jones in those T-Mobile ads) often are willing to lend their voices.
To name a few: Julia Roberts is the voice of America Online’s most recent campaign. Gary Sinise narrates Cadillac spots. John Lurie (Fishing With John, Down By Law) lends his gravelly voice to Toyota commercials. Stockard Channing can be heard urging us to drink milk. For years Donald Sutherland has hawked Volvos. Jim Belushi is the spokesperson for Johnsonville Brats. And Gene Hackman does voice-overs for Lowes, after many years with United Airlines and several others.
I’m always suspicious that these actors are hoping we won’t recognize them. That way, they can earn a hefty paycheck without the integrity of their acting careers being threatened. Sure, you could argue that by now Gene Hackman knows that we recognize him, and that it doesn’t take away from his multi-Oscar-winning career. But why is it we’ve never seen him actually appear in any of the countless commercials he has voiced? I think most actors know they’ll be perceived by many as sellouts if they appear on commercials. So is doing a voice-over for a commercial in which you don’t appear merely approaching the sellout line without crossing it, or is it just crossing it clandestinely?
I think it comes down somewhat to the product being sold. I doubt Gene Hackman has ever spent much time in the suburbs shopping for do-it-yourself home improvement products. I can, however, picture Donald Sutherland driving a Volvo. Does that make Hackman more of a sellout than Sutherland? Not necessarily, but Sutherland maintains just a hair more dignity in my book.
That said, I can’t help but want to pull the curtain from behind all of these Wizards of Oz.