Jackson Beck

Voice-over artist
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The Independent Online

In the invisible realm of the voice-over fame and fortune rarely go hand in hand: the right voice can command considerable sums for its owner from screen and radio producers, but rarely headlines. Orson Welles, one of the few to dent this rule, allegedly responded to a flatterer of one of his voice-overs: "I appreciate the compliment, but you obviously have never heard Jackson Beck . . . He is a king, and all the rest of us who labour in this business are commoners.

ackson Beck, voice-over artist: born New York 23 July 1912; twice married; died New York 28 July 2004.

In the invisible realm of the voice-over fame and fortune rarely go hand in hand: the right voice can command considerable sums for its owner from screen and radio producers, but rarely headlines. Orson Welles, one of the few to dent this rule, allegedly responded to a flatterer of one of his voice-overs:

I appreciate the compliment, but you obviously have never heard Jackson Beck . . . He is a king, and all the rest of us who labour in this business are commoners.

He had a point: Jackson Beck was the top American voice performer from the 1930s to the 1990s, earning an anonymous place in listeners' affections as the announcer of the Adventures of Superman radio show from 1943 to 1950 and again for the Superman television cartoon in the 1960s. "It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman" became a catchphrase for two generations of listeners and his stentorian delivery was much mimicked.

The son of the silent film actor Max Beck, Beck was a lifelong New Yorker who briefly dallied with the New York Stock Exchange and screen acting before becoming a radio actor in 1931. His vocal versatility saw him essay hundreds of roles on radio and, later, the small screen: in the Superman shows, he would also portray villains and supporting characters. Throughout the Forties, Beck was doing 20 to 30 radio shows a week, among others notably impersonating Joseph Stalin and other world leaders in The March of Time, a weekly news re-enactment radio show and newsreel during the Second World War.

Once the golden age of radio was over, Beck repeated his success on its successor, television. His authoritative tones were well suited to animation: in over 300 Popeye cartoons his was the deep, angry voice of the hero's nemesis, Bluto (later renamed Brutus). He also grabbed a large slice of the lucrative TV advertising market, voicing countless campaigns for toothpaste, insecticide, cereal, and sporting events, which he would later spoof deadpan on both radio ( National Lampoon) and TV ( Saturday Night Live). His distinctive larynx even briefly "appeared" on celluloid: adopting his earlier newsreel voice, he did voiceovers for two Woody Allen films ( Take the Money and Run, 1969, and Radio Days, 1987).

Beck was reportedly coining upwards of half a million dollars a year right up until his retirement in his eighties. He summed up his credo in a 1990 interview:

I'm an advertising man, and I treat my voice as a business. People who treat it as art don't make money.

Alan Woollcombe

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