A VOICE ACTOR’S VOICE ACTOR! Larry Robinson on His Dubbing Work at Titra!

Photo © Larry Robinson.

Lawrence Hamilton Robinson (1929-2006) was one of Titra’s voice-acting MVPs. If you’ve ever seen a dubbed Japanese monster movie, chances are you’ve heard Larry Robinson’s voice. Although he’s best known for supplying the voices for Yu Fujiki’s sidekick characters in Atragon (1963) and Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964), he can also be heard in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), Son of Godzilla (1967), and the TV series Space Giants (1966-67). In 2006, Mr. Robinson was happy to talk shop with Brett Homenick about dubbing.

Brett Homenick: First of all, please tell me a little bit about your background, growing up, etc., where you went to school.

Larry Robinson: I was born in Manhattan, right there in the middle of 61st and Madison Avenue. My father was a lawyer, and he cared for his family. He died at an early age and left me with my mother, brother, and sister to fend for ourselves during the (Great) Depression. So my mother had been a model for the Powers Agency and got her children into modeling for children’s clothes and children‘s fashion and so forth. From there, we went into radio. There was a children’s program on NBC called Coast to Coast on a Bus, and every Sunday morning, children would act in skits and even tap dance. It sounds a little bizarre, but actually they did that on the radio. We sang and entertained in general.

From there, I graduated to the other children’s show on CBS called Let’s Pretend where I stayed for, gosh, 20 years as one of the regulars on that. I also was in the original cast on Broadway of a show called Life with Father, which was quite a hit and then later became a Warner Bros. movie and then a TV series, but it was an eight-year run on Broadway. I was one of the four sons on that show. In a play called On Borrowed Time, directed by Josh Logan, I was one of the leads. Then I was in a play called My Heart’s in the Highlands by William Saroyan on Broadway, and Richard III — we know who wrote that. Then I was in The Grass Harp by Truman Capote in 1952 on Broadway.

Then a show called Time Out for Ginger, starring Melvyn Douglas — I had the juvenile lead in that. I was Ginger’s boyfriend. Then I worked with Tallulah Bankhead in Dear Charles on Broadway on a national tour, playing her son, and then there was a well-known production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Circle in the Square, and I had a lead in that. In fact, George Segal, who became a well-known movie actor, was my understudy in that show. The last play of note was at Lincoln Center, and it was a play called Bananas, but interspersed at that time was radio, dubbing of movies, and a TV series called The Goldbergs where I played the son, Sammy, for three years on that show. Then made a movie for Paramount called Molly, related to that show. So I’ve always worked and never did anything but act and had a wide range.

Never became a star, but I became a busy actor who did practically everything actors do. So I think you wanted to know something about the dubbing end of my business, but that was very widespread and a very busy sideline to my career. I worked for Jean Renoir in a French movie called French Cancan. He came over to America, and he’d been in Hollywood, too, and also a big French movie director. He saw me in The Iceman Cometh, which I mentioned a little while ago, and he cast me to do some post-syncing on this movie, French Cancan, with Jean Gabin and Danielle Darrieux. He was a marvelous director — one of the best I’ve worked for. I’ve worked with some good ones: Arthur Penn, who’s head of the Actors Studio, Bobby Lewis, Josh Logan, Sidney Lumet — I’ve worked for a great many times — and Peter Fernandez. I think you mentioned he recommended that you call me.

BH: That’s right.

LR: He’s an excellent director, by the way, as well as a good actor who has many fine credits, most in my area. But he was in Hollywood and Broadway and then he became a busy director of cartoon-type movies. So let’s see. What else can I say?

BH: Just for some more background, when was your birth date?

LR: October 15, 1929.

BH: How’d you get involved in Titra Studios?

LR: Well, actually, I originally began working for a guy named Joe Bellucci. I’m trying to think of how I began working for him. Actors recommend you. Who knows — it could have been Peter Fernandez who recommended me. But I did a lot of major movies — Fellini movies, De Sica movies, and a lot of French pictures for him. Through that contact, working for Joe Bellucci, I began working for Titra. Maybe a guy named Bernie Grant, who was a dubbing actor as well as a TV actor, and his wife Joyce Gordon, might have recommended me over at Titra, and I became one of the regulars there. Not a very great movie, but there was a series of French Westerns, believe it or not.

BH: (laughs)

LR: I’m not kidding. Winnetou was an Indian chief in America on the Frontier in our early days, and I played the trapper-friend of his, Old Surehand — I think was his name from the translation of the French. I think Stewart Granger had played it, and I dubbed it. I dubbed eight of these Winnetou Westerns. But that was just a way of making a buck and wasn’t one of my stellar activities. But I became a very busy actor, one of the so-called stock company, you might say, and did everything from leads to working on crowd days as background voice-over. Is that a sufficient answer?

BH: Sure. Just answer to the best of your ability. Well, my next question is, describe what it is to dub a movie. Just describe the process of it.

LR: Well, it can be very varied. I’ll mention a movie more recent and then go back. There was a movie starring Tom Hanks — I think Meg Ryan was in it — called Sleepless in Seattle. It involved actors, and there was a scene in a Seattle coffee shop where actors are sitting around, having lunch. They decided that they would not use a script, but they would give us the general background of the scene, which was actors chatting about “the business.” “Did you get wind of the audition, Brett?” “No.” “You were considered too young.”  That kind of thing. “I’ll have the apple pie. What are you having?” This kind of background chit-chat.

They moved us around a studio and held a mike in front of us. There wasn’t a mike on a tripod that you worked in front of.  So we ad-libbed our way through it. We wrote the script. Now that was just one scene, but fortunately it was one of those lucky breaks that actors get. Tom Hanks became a superstar in the next two or three years, and his movies were salable around the world. So there were residuals, that golden word, and I made some nice residual checks out of that — doing so little work it was kind of a joke. That was one form of dubbing. Then there’s kind of a dubbing day, like my work for Bellucci on the Brigitte Bardot movies, God Created Woman and others, where you come in at nine o’clock, and except for a lunch break, you’re there for the entire day till five, five-thirty.

You get up when you see your part, and they flash it on the screen, let’s say, in French, and you mouth English words which are provided for you with a script on a stand. Then they knock off the soundtrack, and you begin to say it in sync in English. The director corrects you, “You’re out of sync,” “You’re too early,” “You’re too late,” or he rewrites the moment to make it more in sync with the original lip movements of the actor. Then you do some takes, and it can be grueling work. It can be easy work, too, if you’re just doing a crowd day of people shouting and carrying on or on the street providing background there. But it can be very tough if you’re doing a lead and having to synchronize carefully what you’re doing.

By the way, most movies in Hollywood have a lot of synchronization later. They call it post-syncing, which is a form of dubbing, only it’s English to English. As an experienced dubbing actor, I always know when it’s dubbed. Instead of worrying about, let’s say, sound balances outside on the street and not being concerned about cars going by and extraneous noises, they have the actors say the dialogue, as they’re walking along, and then the actor will go into the studio. Tom Hanks, I’m sure, has done this innumerable times. They’ll start to post-sync it where they say the lines over again but in controlled conditions, acoustically-controlled.

They can raise volume, they can eliminate the noises that you hear, of course, in a busy city. But they don’t want to bother with that. That thing’s extraneous to the scene. So they can add in car honks if they want to, but it’s all done later. I would say half the dialogue you see in Hollywood movies is post-synced, is dubbed. It’s not the real thing in a sense. People don’t realize it when they see it, and it seems to be satisfactory to the producers. But they do it in commercials most of the time. Peter Fernandez will tell you the same story, of course.

I did a Russian movie, It was a big thing about the Second World War — Ballad of a Soldier. I did the lead in this. It was about four or five days’ work, and it was hard. Battle scenes with shouting and a lot of dialogue, and it had to be real. It had to be honest, and at the same time, it had to be in synchronization. That’s my voice in Ballad of a Soldier, and it was a fairly-well-received Russian movie here back in the ’60s.

BH: When it comes to dubbing the Godzilla movies and the different Toho sci-fi movies, I would imagine there was a script written, and you followed that, so there was less ad-libbing, and it was more following the script. Is that correct?

LR: Oh, yes. Definitely. Maybe I misled you, and I didn’t intend to. When I did that Sleepless in Seattle movie with the post-syncing, that was ad-libbed. But in the vast majority of cases, the dubbing I’ve done, whether it’s Godzilla or the Russian war movie, Ballad of a Soldier, or God Created Woman, the famous Brigitte Bardot movie, the script was there, definitely. We worked with a script. I want to emphasize that. It wasn’t just ad-libbing. Ninety percent of the movies and cartoons I’ve done have had a script that’s been carefully conceived and edited, and there it is. It’s a matter of discipline, actually, following it, and only if it doesn’t sync and sound natural did they do alterations of the script. So the answer to your question, Brett, is yes, definitely, you worked with a script.

BH: Just say a few words about working with Peter Fernandez, Corinne Orr, and some of the other voice dubbers at Titra.

LR: Well, Peter was a child actor and a very good one. He was in a play called Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman on Broadway, which was a big hit, by the way. He was a very good stage actor and a very successful one. Then he did a lead in some movie in Hollywood. He had a career there in the early ’60s, and he didn’t hang around to see what would happen. Actors have to wait sometimes to see how things develop. He wanted to get back to New York and pursue his voice-over commercial career and direct cartoons, so he didn’t hang around Hollywood and see how his credits out there would work. He could have, I think, been a very successful film actor, but he chose another path. But he’s a very good director; he’s a pleasant guy, and he’s easy to work with. He never gets overly emotional, never shouts, never insults actors.

BH: Well, do you have any memories of Corinne Orr?

LR: Corinne began at Titra as a production assistant. This is before she began to act. She would keep track of the so-called takes and keep them checked off. If the director would say, “We’re using take 8 on that,” she would make a note of that, keep the script in order, see that the actors were called for their assignments. Sometimes actors had conflicts, and they couldn’t appear when they were supposed to, but did turn up later on in the day, and she would have to make note of that or call the actors. So she was an assistant director, you might say, or a production assistant. That was before she got into the field of acting. She’s a good actress, by the way. I don’t think she’s very boastful about this, but she’s more than just the voice of a mouse or a little bird or something or some kooky character in a cartoon. She can act in a human being kind of sense.

It’s been an association in the voice-over sense for many, many years. She’s a nice lady and a good actress.

BH: Do you have memories about some of the sci-fi films you worked on, such as the Godzilla films, Atragon, the Gamera movies?

LR: No particular incident. Peter Fernandez is a low-key director, and there would never have been a so-called scene off-scene, like actors shouting, “You can’t talk to me that way!” and the director yelling back. There was none of that with him. He was a guy who had been an actor all his life and was very low-key and very, very courteous to his people. So it was fun working with him. I’m sorry the field of dubbing cartoons and the like seems to have been moved to Canada.

I hear they have a studio in Vancouver, and there’s dubbing up in Toronto, but as far as I know, the dubbing world has kind of receded, as you might say. I’m sure if there were cartoon dubbing at the moment, Peter would be involved in it. But I don’t have any spectacular stories to tell you, except that dubbing cartoons was about as difficult as dubbing a major Italian Fellini movie. It had to have truth, and it had to have synchronization, it had to have good voice choices made by the director who often would audition as he went along. Let’s say he had cast you, Brett, in a part, and it just wasn’t working. You had to do a little puppy dog or something, and the producer in the control room shook his head. Peter would say, “Uh, let Larry try that,” or vice versa. It could have been the other way around. So there was often changes of casting as we went along, which was tough unless you were a real pro that could handle that.

BH: When it comes to preparing your voice, and how you say the dialogue, talk a little bit about the preparation you did in order to come up with the proper voice.

LR: I’m not trying to be flip with you, or on the other hand, to avoid your question, which is a good one. There really wasn’t that much preparation — a good word, but preparation generally means a part in a play, a movie, where you have to memorize your role. Stanislavsky write a book called An Actor Prepares so he could get into a part emotionally and with psychological truth. There really isn’t that, and I’m not trying to deflect your question, Brett, I really am not, but you come into a studio, and you really didn’t know what you were going to do, whether it was a fight between two dragons, or a little boy running away from monsters and screaming, “Help, help!” You weren’t prepared for that.

There wasn’t, let’s say, a script sent to you and a long conference with the director either in person or on the telephone. They knew what you could do. They knew what Corinne Orr could do with the voice of a little boy, which she was very good at, and she wasn’t groomed, so to speak, or prepared. She was expected to know how to do things and did it well. That’s why she was used a lot in these cartoons. It was hard to find a little boy, a real little boy because an eight-year-old, nine-year-old doesn’t read well on average and has to be accompanied by an adult to the studio and has school to go to. So his availability, or her availability, is limited.

They can’t just say, “You come in for nine hours, Bobby, and do what we tell you to do,” because Bobby has to go to school, and he might go to a place like the Professional Children’s School, which gives kids a chance to get away from class to do work, do auditions. But he isn’t an adult that you can just count on or order about. You have to be careful with kids. You can’t just say, “Okay, do it this way and don’t mess up this time.” You can’t talk to a kid like that. He might end up in tears. So they prefer in a cartoon to use a Corinne Orr, who is not going to be a problem in terms of her being a juvenile but being an adult, and she handles well a child’s voice.

BH: Absolutely, she’s very good in what she does. Just to clarify my question, where I’m going with that question is, when I think about some of your characters like dubbing the sidekick, Yu Fujiki’s voice in Godzilla vs. the Thing and Atragon, your voice matches the character’s physique very well, and I’m just wondering, is it your decision to voice the character a certain way, or does Peter Fernandez, the director, say, “Larry, I want you to dub it with this voice”?

LR: Generally, Peter or the other directors will make a comment. He might say something like, “The client has decided that he wants a very low-key approach to this,” even though this villain, the bad guy, is supposed to be really mean and growl and shout, and onscreen he’s rolling his eyes and breathing flame, and striking out with his claws and everything. But I would underplay this because the client doesn’t want it overdone. He might start off, and generally does start off, with a comment or two.

Then you go into it, and when I say you, you’re the actor. He’ll say, “That’s good, Larry, that’s the low-key approach we want. In fact, it’s so good, let’s try one. Why don’t we put one down.” That’s terminology for recording. You do it, and then you hear a playback, and he says, “Well, it’s a little flat.” If the client is there, he might have a conference with Peter and say, “Well, I did intend the villain not be overdone, but he’s a little too flat. He has to be a little more frightening. After all, we want the kids to be kind of scared.”

So you do another take, this time heightening the evil of this villain, and shouting more. So you improvise as you go along, and sometimes instructions go out the window. It’s tempting to say, “You told me to do it this way!” Well, that’s true, but you can’t stand there arguing all day about it. You have to try and give them what they want.

BH: That’s very interesting! I really had no idea it worked that way.

LR: You have a script, so I’m contradicting myself a little bit, and you have to stick with the script. That’s important, even in a cartoon. But you have to be flexible, almost to the point of being an improvisational actor. You have to be able to move with the wind and listen to changing opinion. Generally, the client is there, who’s often not a professional, not an actor, not a writer, not really an accomplished producer. But he’s a guy who owns the series, wants it to be a success, sure, and may be a nice fellow, but he’s not a good pro talking to an actor as Peter Fernandez is. Peter is the translator. He’s saying it in Chinese, and Peter has to translate it into English for the actors! (laughs) It can be pretty tricky and very, very tough.

BH: Well, working with some of the Godzilla movies, and I’m not sure by clients how high up that goes, but did you ever have any meetings with, say, Samuel Arkoff or James Nicholson from American International Pictures when you were dubbing the Godzilla movies?

LR: I could well have. You know, the business is strangely informal, and they expect an awful lot of understanding from the actors. They generally don’t go through a big, “Brett, I want you to meet the producer. Listen to him, but if you want to, in the last analysis, I’m the word on this.” You can’t talk that way because the producer is going to get awfully miffed. So he’s generally a face behind a glass screen, a glass window, and he’s consulted by Peter who might be shuttling back and forth between the control room and the studio.

But in terms of those names, I can’t think if I’ve personally talked with them because there’s so little conversation between the client and the actor, and you don‘t go out and have lunch with him. He has a kind of exalted position; you don’t kind of chummy up with him or her because they resent that. If you’re lucky enough to have a Peter Fernandez, you stick with him, and you smile nicely at the producer and say, “Thank you.” But you don’t get to know him. You should check that out with Corinne Orr or Peter if you wish.

BH: Sure, absolutely.

BH: Well, what did you think of the genre overall, specifically the Godzilla movies and the related Japanese sci-fi movies?

LR: Well, I think they’re fun. They’re entertaining; they’re less violent than the stuff that kids are watching today, which I cannot approve of. There’s enough violence to be exciting, but it isn’t the focus of the whole show. I think violence has become a little much in feature films, definitely, and all the way down to cartoons. Here’s an example of what I mean, Brett.

On 60 Minutes, I think it was a week ago yesterday, they had a segment about a kid who was a master at video games. He began in his teens, and now he’s in his twenties, and he’s considered, goodness knows why, a champion of this kind of thing. So we had an ample chance to watch the video games he plays and does very well with, but they’re monotonous in the extreme — forgive me for saying this — because it’s all zap and bam and kill and shoot. A figure comes running across the screen, and he explodes in a bunch of dust and flame. Meanwhile, this young man has a machine gun, trying to shoot down the next threat. It’s almost like a shooting gallery, only it’s done electronically. It’s so violent that it gets ridiculous. There’s really little story to it and not much except the coordination necessary to shoot, like trapshooting. I’m not sure whether you’ve ever shot a shotgun or done any of that. I’ve done a bit, and you have to shoot a target, a clay pigeon, in the air as it moves. That’s not too easy, but this guy can do it with this electronic medium.

But after watching it for quite a while, I thought, “Gosh, this is really deadly.” I mean, this is really boring! There’s no story to it, there are no characters to play off each other, there’s no real dialogue involved except, “Pow, zoom, bam, wow!” There’s so much of this that I yearn for Godzilla.

BH: I agree with you that Godzilla is certainly a good alternative to some of the overly-violent movies and video games of today. But what do you think about the stigma against dubbing? When it comes to Godzilla movies, whenever some of the so-called mainstream media or television shows mock the Godzilla series, invariably there will be bad dubbing jokes. What do you think about that?

LR: Well, I would say, about 10 minutes ago, I was talking about the fact that half of the movies in Hollywood are post-synced or dubbed as English to English. It’s not French to English, it’s not Chinese to English; it’s English to English. It’s called post-syncing. Half of them have ample post-syncing or dubbing. So if they put down dubbing or make a joke of it, they’re making fun of themselves! Most commercials, 90% of them, unless they’re non-union stuff, are all synced later in the studio after they’ve done a soundtrack on the set or off the street or wherever they are. They redub it.

So they can’t make fun of it without making fun of themselves. I know when they’re out of sync, but all you can do is smile and let it go by because the general audience doesn’t know it’s bad, it’s out of sync, it’s second-best. Very good actors in feature films are very, very conscious of being asked to do poor dubbing because it’s not the original performance. It’s trying to facsimile something, and it’s not as good as the original where you actually relate to another actor. You go into a studio, and you try to approximate something. You try to fake something, and it’s not the same thing as real acting. But to make a kind of joke of dubbing, hey, it’s a fact of life.

You realize the domination of a company like Disney over the entertainment business, and they think dubbing is cool! They think, “What are you talking about? Got a question about that? Come on, don’t be silly!” So I say if they’re laughing at dubbing, then they laugh at themselves.

BH: Are there any closing comments you want to say?

LR: It’s a kick and fun for me and good for me. I hope it does well, and I hope out of my long-winded speech, something interesting will come out of it, maybe informing the audience about what really goes on behind the scenes. Believe me, there’s a lot going on, just like in the theater, the actors offstage have a show of their own to do before they get  onstage to say their lines. There’s another play going on in the dressing room. There’s a relationship between actors which has to be maintained and kept finely honed and prepared. So actors will relate to each other in a dubbing studio as they will before a movie camera or an audience on Broadway. They really will. But I’m delighted to be part of this interview. I really am, and I appreciate it.

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