Posted at 1:08 PM on January 7, 2009
by Jeff Horwich
I'm back on the job today after essentially two weeks off (between the kid getting sick, my getting sick, the holidays, and a long-planned actual week off, feels like it's been forever).
Amidst the many home projects and childcare duties, I got caught up on some of my recorded TV -- especially all the stuff I seem to bank from public television. Frontline, Nature, Wide Angle, Nova...I record all this stuff, but when the time comes I'm usually more in a "Family Guy" kind of mood. That's why it's very satisfying to finally have the time to hunker down for some good documentary viewing.
But along the way, it dawned on me that there is an extremely small club of narrators who now define the genre. It has gotten to the point where I can name names as soon as hear the first dulcet tones. Here now, my guide:
WILL LYMAN (aka "The Frontline Guy")
The reigning king of public television narration. Lyman's delivery is deadly serious, to the point where just opening his mouth can trigger a deep emotional depression. So authoritative you'd swear he actually reported from the ground in Iraq or wherever, rather than just sitting in a sound-proof booth reading a script. I also heard him on a Nova episode over my break, and he has done American Experience in the past. I swear I also hear that voice on the occasional car commercial. Like all these guys, he's a commercial film and TV actor, though I'm pretty sure "Frontline Guy" will be on his tombstone.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (or "Can't you hear how delighted I am about this butterfly?")
Even if you think you don't know him, you do. Among LOTS of other stuff: Played Salieri in Amadeus, and (had to use this picture) the bad guy alien in Star Trek: Insurrection. I believe he is most often heard as a narrator of episodes of "Nature," where he gets to sound just as happy about everything as Will Lyman has to sound stern. As a narrator, he's a little on the hokey side. But the delivery is instantly recognizable, even if most people wouldn't make the connection between the narrator they're hearing and the commercial actor they've seen umpteen times.
LIEV SCHREIBER (Ubiquitous...but forgettable)
Personally, I'm not entirely clear why Liev Schreiber is so in-demand as a narrator. He's a hard-working guy, all over the place: Nova, Secrets of the Dead, American Experience -- plus tons of other random documentaries. Not quite a marquee name yet, but he's getting bigger all the time as a commercial actor (big break was in the Scream movies, later Manchurian Candidate and other not-so-successful movies, now evidently in the next X-Men movie). As a narrator though...he kind of becomes wall-paper. Maybe that's the appeal.
JAY O. SANDERS (Who?)
I finally had to look this one up after watching an episode of Wide Angle. I realized I'd been hearing this voice an awful lot, but couldn't place it. Of these four, Sanders is the one guy whose name does not always appear in the opening credits. He's a commercial character actor, but still kind of waiting for that big break. As a voice, he's deep and forceful -- authoritative like Frontline Guy, less mellow. Maybe a little over the top. But I like how he doesn't seem actively trying to depress me. Sanders is the dark horse of the bunch.
Maybe there are others I'm overlooking. But for those of us who watch a lot of public TV, these four guys have an incredible mainline to our brains.
Our editor, Kate, asked a very appropriate question: Where are the women? Aside from the occasional celebrity (like Sigourney Weaver) public TV narration seems to be very much a man's world. What's up with that?
Always weird to see the photos of people you hear all the time. that's totally not what I thought the frontline guy looked like -- but I did enjoy the original 'manchurian candidate.' Great movie.