Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Oscar's Voice

First, a bit of disclosure: I'm among the majority of Americans who haven't seen one of the films that were up for best picture during Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, televised around the world by ABC.

And I'm not alone; according to a Reuters survey released last week, roughly two-thirds of the American public have not viewed any of the nine nominees for best picture, the top award presented each by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Of course, that inconvenient stat doesn't stop Hollywood's annual orgy of self-congratulation, but it should give the studios pause: in an era when we can watch movies on demand on almost any type of electronic device, more than 60% of all Americans are ignoring the supposed cream of the annual film crop.

To be fair, the movie business is still turning a tidy profit, but increasingly, the money comes from special effects-laden summer blockbusters that bring out the teen and twenty-something audiences; animated films (which still attract kids and parents) and the occasional breakout hit that seems to transcend all demographic lines.  But in much of "flyover country," the box office isn't always boffo; borrowing from an old Variety headline, the "stix" have been nixing most Oscar-worthy pix for a long, long time.

That's one reason it's always a bit sad to watch the "In Memoriam" segment of each year's telecast.  First comes the realization that most of the stars we watched and admired have passed on, and with them, the last links to an era when Hollywood shared at least some values with its audience.

Then, there's the annual debate over "who got snubbed" in the tribute montage. Admittedly, the producers of the annual telecast face a daunting challenge; in the time allotted, they can honor about 30 members of the film community, give or take a couple.  Glenn Close, who introduced the segment during Sunday's broadcast, noted there wasn't enough time to pay tribute to everyone who passed during the previous year. So, it was inevitable that actors like Milo O'Shea, Jean Stapleton and Ralph Waite were omitted, along with director Bryan Forbes, screenwriter Mike Gray and others.

But there was one more glaring omission as well.  For 26 years, the great Hank Simms was literally the Voice of the Academy awards, providing off-screen narration of the telecast.  Mr. Simms also handled the announcing chores for numerous other awards programs, commercials, movie trailers and a host of other assignments.  Viewers of a certain age know him best as the narrator for various Quinn Martin dramas of the 1960s and 70s.

Mr. Simms was a mainstay in the voice-over community for more than 40 years.  He entered radio at the urging of his brother, after serving as an Army Air Corps maintenance officer during World War II.  He worked at stations in Kansas, Oklahoma City and Dallas before being recalled during the Korean War. Simms was working in Hawaii when he met his wife in the early 1950s; a year later, they moved to Los Angeles, where he became one of the most sought-after voice talents in the city.

His long association with Mr. Martin was a combination of talent and geography.  Simms and his family lived next door to Quinn Martin in Beverly Hills; when the producer was looking for a new voice for one of his crime dramas, he hired his neighbor.  Martin also took the unusual step of urging Mr. Simms to join the Screen Actors Guild and made him a member of the cast.  That made Simms eligible for a better insurance plan and residual payments for re-runs.  Typically, announcers received a one-time talent fee for their services, while actors received decreasing payments for the first three (or more) airings of the program in syndication.

Simms retired from Hollywood years ago, settling first in Florida and later moving to Hot Springs, Arkansas to be closer to his children.  By all accounts, he was a humble man; he rarely appeared on screen and few people recognized until they heard that distinctive baritone.  When he passed away from cancer last August (at the age of 90), he requested no funeral or memorial service on his behalf.

Since Mr. Simms announced his last Oscars telecast, producers have employed a variety of announcers and voice-over artists, including Tom Kane and Randy Thomas.  Mr. Kane, Ms. Thomas and their contemporaries have done a fine job, but with all due respect, they can't hold a candle to Hank Simms.

That's why some of us who have slaved over a hot microphone in a previous life were waiting for an acknowledgement or nod to the man whose voice was synonymous with the Oscars, the Emmys and other television events.  Unfortunately, it never came.  To its credit, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences posted a tribute to Mr. Simms last fall, but the motion picture industry--to our knowledge--has not. Maybe because he was "only" an announcer, and not one of the luminaries who paraded across the stage.  But if the Oscars represent the film industry's "biggest night," then Hank Simms made his own contribution to the ceremony, with peerless narration that set the tone for the telecast.

From You Tube, here's Mr. Simms opening the 1981 Academy Awards, hosted by Johnny Carson. You may recall that telecast was delayed 24 hours, following the attempted assassination of President Reagan. Needless to say, the quality of the hosts has declined since then--with the exception of a few years when Billy Crystal was in his prime.                                              

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