Wednesday, December 21, 2011
RIP Robert Easton
By ELAINE WOO - Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Robert Easton, a character actor whose command of a vast
array of foreign and American regional accents led to a flourishing
second career as a dialect coach to Hollywood stars such as Charlton
Heston and Anne Hathaway, has died. He was 81.
Often called the Henry Higgins of Hollywood, he died of natural causes
Friday at his home in Los Angeles, said his daughter, Heather Woodruff
A consummate phoneticist like Higgins, the exacting speech tutor in
the musical "My Fair Lady," Easton taught Forest Whitaker the African
inflections of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and Ben Kingsley the gruff
tones of a New York mobster. He helped Arnold Schwarzenegger turn his
Austrian accent into Russian English and Liam Neeson's Irish brogue
into a Kentucky drawl. He once coached Heston from a bathtub in
Munich, helping the actor pronounce his lines like a Scot.
When actor Robert Duvall signed on to play Confederate commander
Robert E. Lee in the movie "Gods and Generals" several years ago, he
wanted Easton to help him sound authentically Virginian. The affable
coach quickly became popular with the rest of the cast.
"They said, 'We want Virginia accents,' " Duvall recalled in an
interview Wednesday. "Bob said, 'Which one? There are 12 distinct
accents, from the Piedmont to the ocean.' He knew them all.
"He was a wonderful man, a very unique personality, and a master at
Despite recent health problems, Easton continued to coach via
telephone and tape recorder. "A month ago, he did an entire script on
tape for John Travolta," his daughter said.
Born Robert Easton Burke in Milwaukee on Nov. 23, 1930, Easton
developed an awareness of speech as a child struggling to tame a
stutter. When he was 7, his parents split up and he moved with his
mother to San Antonio. Noticing how Texans tend to draw out their
speech, he trained himself to talk more slowly, which enabled him to
control his stammer.
At 14, he auditioned for a spot on the popular radio program "Quiz
Kids" and toured the country with the cast of child prodigies. By 18,
the lanky, 6-foot-4 teenager was winning parts in Hollywood, mainly
playing country bumpkins because of his thick Texas drawl. He appeared
on "The Burns and Allen Show," "Father Knows Best," "The Jack Benny
Show," "The Red Skelton Show," "Wagon Train," "Rawhide" and
Fearful of being typecast as the slow-witted deputy or hillbilly
cousin, he decided to work on different accents to broaden his
opportunities. He discovered he had a facility for mimicking regional
In 1961, after marrying June Grimstead, he moved with her to her
native England and began studying phonetics at University College in
London. He had absorbed a number of European accents by the time he
returned to Hollywood three years later. Fellow actors, impressed by
his new ability, asked him to teach them. Before long, he had a side
business as an accent tutor that quickly grew into his main
He learned over the years to adapt to his clients' different learning
styles. He found some actors, such as Robin Williams, had strong
auditory ability and could pick up accents by listening and repeating.
Others were more visual and needed to work with phonetic scripts. "He
found a way to spell things," said Whitaker, who called Easton an
artist who understood the vibration and power of words. "We
established our own language."
Still others were more physically inclined, such as Patrick Swayze,
who had been trained in dance. For that type of student, Easton told
the Chicago Tribune in 1992, "I talk to them about the difference in
mouth position, what happens with the vocal cords, how it makes the
voice more or less nasal."
He expanded his repertoire during his foreign travels, absorbing the
speech rhythms of local cabdrivers, shopkeepers and hotel guests. He
often enlisted his wife in his studies, motioning her to continue
chatting up an unsuspecting subject while he took notes.
His wife died in 2005 after 44 years of marriage. He is survived by
his daughter and a granddaughter.
Wherever Easton went, he prowled bookstores, eventually turning his
home into a linguist's paradise with an estimated 500,000 volumes
about the languages and cultures of the world. Bags and boxes of books
spilled into every conceivable corner, as well as a few surprising
"He had two 'retired' cars in the driveway," his daughter said. "Guess
what's inside them? He was a bit eccentric about his books." She hopes
to establish a library to make them available to actors and scholars.
In between his coaching assignments, Easton taught at the University
of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
He also continued to work as an actor in movies such as "Paint Your
Wagon," "Pete's Dragon," "Pet Sematary II" and "Primary Colors." He
played a Klingon judge in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered
As a dialect coach, he also worked with non-celebrities, such as the
New York lawyer who was losing cases in California because juries,
hearing his nasal, rapid speech, judged him slick and impatient. After
he learned to speak more slowly and improve his tonal quality, he
started winning cases, according to Easton.
In one of his toughest assignments, the dialect doctor helped Japanese
actress Yoko Shimada in the TV miniseries "Shogun." She spoke no
English and turned words like "order" into "odor," but after three
weeks of work with Easton she re-recorded her mangled pronunciations
and went on to win a Golden Globe award in 1981.
"I'm a great believer in the principle that there's no wastage in the
universe," Easton told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "So when I work
with somebody who is foreign who's trying to lose their accent, I can
always give their old dialect to somebody else."
EASTON, Robert (Robert Easton Burke)
Born11/23/1930, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Died: 12/16/2011, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A
Robert Easton's westerns - actor:
Take Me To Town -1953 (train vendor)
Buffalo Bill, Jr. (TV) - 1953 (Danny)
Gunsmoke (TV) - 1955 (Magnus)
Annie Oakley (TV) - 1956 ('Smiley' Douglas, Abner Hackey)
Circus Boy (TV) - 1957 (Len Clemens)
The Adventures of Jim Bowie (TV) - 1958 (Otie)
The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (TV) - 1958 (Swapper Sam Scott)
Wagon Train (TV) - 1959 (Slim)
Riverboat (TV) - 1959 (Corporal Chase)
Johnny Ringo (TV) - 1960 (Billy Counts)
Rawhide (TV) - 1960 (bugler)
Wanted: Dead or Alive (TV) - 1961 (Jeff)
Death Valley Days (TV) - 1964 (Moore)
Pistols 'n' Petticoats (TV) - 1966 (Will Dill)
Paint Your Wagon - 1969 (Atwell)
Alias Smith and Jones (TV) - 1971 (Hank)
Centenial (TV) - 1978 (Major Sibley)