In a world where voiceovers ruled movie trailers, one man became a legend. Now, he’s gone.
The man was Hal Douglas, known throughout the film world for his solemn vocal stylings on hundreds of preview trailers. According to The New York Times, Douglas passed away on Friday from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 89, and worked steadily until 2012.
Douglas—born Harold Cone in Stanford, Connecticut—became a Navy pilot in World War II, and later studied acting at the University Of Miami, thanks to the G.I. Bill. He moved to New York, but acting jobs were hard to come by, so he began taking work as a voiceover artist and announcer. Eventually he and his contemporary, the late Don LaFontaine, became the two most recognizable and popular trailer narrators in the business, famous for their resonant voices and ability to make the most outlandish copy sound hugely important.
Take, for example, this Hal Douglas classic: the trailer for Michael Bay’s The Rock, from 1996. If you or I tried to say lines like “Secrets have a way of coming back to haunt you; The one you train to defend you… becomes your greatest threat… and the one you abandon… becomes your only hope,” we would be laughed out of the room. Douglas turned the phrase into pure poetry. When he gravely intones, “This summer, get ready… to rock!” just try not to get ready to rock. It is impossible.
Douglas’ voice carried such weight and gravitas that when he talked, it almost sounded like God had descended from heaven to pimp Waterworld or Crimson Tide. He could make junk look like the greatest cinematic art in history. The only reason anyone—myself included—went to see the turgid Dante’s Peak in the theater was because of the way Douglas promised it contained “the most awesome sight you will ever see.” Sold:
Douglas had a sense of humor about his schtick, which eventually became so codified from years of overuse that it turned into a cliché. In the teaser for Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian, he spoofed his own catchphrases:
Few modern trailers use voiceovers. In recent years, studios have shifted toward more text, more visual spectacle, and more Inception braaahms in coming attractions to put butts in the seats. Douglas’ craft is already becoming a lost art. Maybe it seems a little silly to 2014 sensibilities for someone to say “Now… get ready for something lethal!” when describing a movie called Lethal Weapon 2, but it worked like a charm back in 1989.
That’s what Douglas did: He got people ready. With time, his voice became a kind of Pavlovian signal; viewers heard him speak and started to drool for movies. With Douglas’ passing, an era has truly ended. Now… when one man must save us all… who’s going to tell us about it?