Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Soup Cans Interview: Will Lyman

The great Will Lyman has narrated "Frontline," the bestest show on PBS, for the last 25 years. Lyman was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Soup Cans about his distinguished career, instantly recognizable voice and about how "Frontline" teaches people that they can learn from their mistakes.

Your voice is so distinct and pretty well-known. Do you ever get recognized over the phone?

I can’t say that I’ve had that experience on the phone. There aren’t really that many people that pay that kind of attention to voices. I’ve been in situations in person, say, dealing with a salesperson, who will say as we’re concluding our business, “I enjoy your work on Frontline,” and it catches me by surprise. One guy said, “I recognized you as soon as you said ‘Hello.’”

How did the job with "Frontline" initially come about?

I had done some work on shows that were being produced by WGBH, a couple of “Nova,” a special on John Updike, narration of Eric Sevareid’s “Enterprise,” but, most noticeably, the narration of “Vietnam: A Television History.” That 13 part series, which won multiple Emmies and the Columbia-DuPont Award, got me noticed. After that aired, “Frontline” was heading into its second season and the Executive Producer, David Fanning, was looking for a narrator to be the “voice of Frontline,” somebody who would be the recognizable voice of the series. They asked me and I said, “Sure, you kidding?”

My first job for WGBH came as a result of playing in a regular Friday night poker game with an editor and a producer who happened to be working together on a program for “Nova.”

How does it feel to be known as "The Voice of Frontline?"

I’m very proud of the program, and believe it is the best long-form news journalism on the air today. I take comfort in the fact that, when I feel like I haven’t done anything else of much importance in the last 12 months, I can always point to “Frontline” as a significant contribution.

After the jump, Lyman talks about what it's like to narrate Hollywood movies as well as how he preserves his valuable voice.

What are the differences between narrating a documentary and a feature film like Little Children? Do you find one to be more challenging than the other?

Mainly, I suppose, in a feature film, you have the leeway to inject a little more personality and personal viewpoint into the storytelling. In a documentary narration, there’s a certain line I try not to cross. It’s hard to define that line, but I think of it as the point at which the viewer is listening to the wash of words and suddenly says, “Hang on a second, who’s talking?” That will happen if the viewer hears what sounds like an opinion or a blatant point of view from someone who hasn’t been properly introduced. If the narrator has also done an on-camera standup at the beginning of the show, or introduces himself personally as the “person who made this film,” he or she can say whatever he likes. But, in the case of “Frontline,” I am not introduced and therefore am not allowed by the viewer to give anything but information: no opinions, personal feelings, questioning of motives etc. The trick, of course, is to come across, at the same time, as an involved and caring human being. After doing "Frontline" for 25 years now, I may have a little longer leash than I used to have and, in a recent program, actually referred to the filmmakers as "we." The producer and I were clearly betting that the audience had grown so accustomed to my voice that the use of the first person would be accepted. But it was a considered decision.

Is one harder than the other? I don’t think so: just different. In a feature film, you have to make sure that this unseen storyteller has a presence in the reality, has a real connection to what is going on onscreen, while at the same time allowing the action to take place in front of you. In most cases, you want to feel that the storyteller is involved in the action, but not manipulating the action.

Have you ever found yourself become emotionally involved with a specific topic in an episode of “Frontline?”

Sometimes the shows make me very sad. When you look back on events, it is easy to see the mistakes we make and the opportunities we let slip away from us. It’s sad to see the consequent suffering related to bad decisions or random choices. But we are reminded of the vigilance and concentration and attention it takes to be a world or community leader in this life. And mostly I would say that is vigilance, not against evil, but against hubris; concentration, not on ourselves, but on the needs of others; and attention, not on what we think we know, but on what is happening right in front of us.

Did you ever think that the job with "Frontline" would the job that you'd be most recognized for?

In 1983? No.

How do you prepare your voice prior to a narration?

Wake up early enough to get my blood moving and my body stretched out. Try to do a mental and maybe a physical check of the three parts of the voice: bellows, reed and resonator/soundbox.

Betty Grable's legs were famously insured by her movie studio for $1,000,000. PBS should insure your voice for at least that much. What do you do to care for your voice?

It’s a part of the body, so it doesn’t need anything more than the regular care you give to anything else: nutrition, exercise and rest. The greatest threat of injury comes from screaming at sporting events, when you can strain it without even being aware. It gets awful loud in the Garden.

Your resume reveals an incredibly busy life. What's next for you?

I have a full season this year, doing Joyce van Dyke’s new play “The Oil Thief” at Boston Playwright’s Theatre in November, Athol Fugard’s “Exits and Entrances” at New Rep Theatre in March and another premiere, “The Wrestling Patient,” a collaboration between BPT and Speakeasy Stage in April.


Mac said...

Great piece. I wonder if there any exclusivity involved in doing "Frontline." Doesn't he also do a series of TV ads for some line of automobiles, or is it someone sounding like him?

Ken Burnham said...

I don't know anything about any exclusivity arrangements, but you are correct, it is Will Lyman in the auto ads. Since his voice is 'unique' you recognize him where other narrators just go in one ear and out the other. He is one of the best.

jackl said...

Does Will do the parody voiceover voice that's used on the Dave Chapelle show?

Anonymous said...

Amazing guys!!really The soup tv show is my fav show.The Soup tv show is a comedy show that has real comedy! i couln't stop laugh.I love the voices of the characters of this show. download The Soup

Joe Tursi said...

The Frontline exclusivity is only with regard to similar continuing programs, work such as the auto voice overs are seperate and not affected.
Gene Packard