Robert Easton (1930–2011)

Robert Easton, the voice of ‘Phones’ Sheridan and Agent X-20 in Gerry Anderson’s Stingray, died on 19th December 2011 at the age of 81. Although he is warmly remembered by Anderson fans for his work on AP Films’ first colour series, he became a legend in the acting community for his work as a voice coach. In this capacity he helped countless actors and other public speakers either improve their vocal technique or master unfamiliar accents. Thus, for example, the Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose real voice is never used for his films in German-speaking territories, as his accent sounds too rural) could sound Russian for Red Heat, Forest Whitaker was taught to sound authentically Ugandan to play Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland and Gregory Peck was transformed into notorious German Doctor Josef Mengele for The Boys From Brazil.

He also helped non-English-speaking actors master enough of the language to be understood for acting roles. In this capacity he aided Japanese actress Yoko Shimada for the famed mini-series Shogun, for which performance she won a Golden Globe in 1981.

Born Robert Easton Burke in Milwaukee on 23rd November 1930, Easton suffered from a stutter as a child. His parents split up when he was aged 7 and he relocated with his mother to San Antonio, Texas. Finding that the distinctive, drawn-out Texas drawl helped reduce his speech impediment, Robert was attuned from an early age to differences in speech patterns.

He took up acting as a teenager after appearing on a radio quiz show and was soon acting regularly on radio dramas, which led to film and television roles. He found, though, that his adopted Texan accent was leading him to be typecast in what he described as “dopey deputy and halfwit hayseed” roles. A notable role in this period was as Sparks in the 1961 SF epic Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, a part very similar to Stingray’s Phones.

In an attempt to broaden his employment prospects, Easton took an interest in accents. After marrying an Englishwoman, June Grimstead, in 1961, the pair eventually moved to England for several years. During this time he studied phonetics at University College, London as well as taking acting roles including his voice work on Stingray, where he would regularly voice guest characters in a variety of accents. During his time in England Easton appeared in a number of films, including The War Lover(1962) and in the same year appeared in The Saint episode The Latin Touch.

Moving back to Hollywood a few years later, his fellow actors were impressed by Easton’s skill with accents and asked him for tips. This led to him setting up as a linguistics coach as a sideline, which grew to become his greatest source of work, and as well as individual coaching he also taught at UCLA and University of Southern California.

He travelled widely for his work, still acting well into old age in films such as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country(1991) and Primary Colours (1998). Wherever he happened to be he searched for books on world languages and cultures, amassing an estimated 500,000 volumes. Even in declining health his services were in demand, working from home via telephone, his final assignment being to coach John Travolta towards a convincing Bosnian accent for the forthcoming film Killing Season.

Originally published in FAB 71.