“I Can Play Tall:” an Interview with Larry Albert

Larry Albert is well known to anyone on the West Coast who does audio drama. For over 30 years he was a stalwart company member of Jim French’s Imagination Theater company, eventually becoming editor as well. He’s a proud member of SAG/AFTRA and a generous contributor to his community, casting a long list of Seattle actors over the years for the Theater’s productions, volunteering at Old Time Radio events, and generally being a mensch. (He’s the man who got BRASS on the radio first,  so we owe him a particular debt of gratitude.) Now on the verge of launching a new audio drama company, he sat down with us for a lengthy discourse on how he got into the medium, how it’s guided his artistic development, and some of what he hopes to see audio drama do as part of the Podcast Revolution.

BRASS: What was your artistic road to audio drama?

Albert: Oddly enough I became interested in the Golden Age of Radio first. One Sunday afternoon back in the late 1950s my parents sent me to my room for some infraction of the rules or other, and being denied TV I chose to tune my radio to the local Rock and Roll station. Quickly becoming bored as any pre-teen would I started to roam the dial, and to my surprise found myself listening to an episode of a show called “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” This was something new and I was curious to see if there would be any more. There was, and soon I was sucked into “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Suspense.” For several of the following Sundays I went willingly to my radio for more of these adventures. However, the draw soon re-asserted itself and what I later found to be the last hurrah of network radio drama was forgotten. . .until I was in the Army stationed in West Germany, where I found a book in the unit library titled “The Great Radio Heroes” by Jim Harmon. It opened an entirely new world to me, one I’d had only sketchy knowledge of, and I longed to hear these “lost shows.” Soon after I was sent to Vietnam. There through the facilities of Armed Forces Radio,  I was able to hear many of the programs mentioned in the book.

Luckily for me, about two years after my discharge the nostalgia craze of the of the 1970s kicked in and what was old was new again, including old time radio. New books covering the subject seemed to appear every week along with LP recordings of long-forgotten or lovingly-remembered series. I bought everything I could get my hands on, and  was able to hear rebroadcasts of the best of the period on Seattle station KVI. Every night of the week, for an hour each evening, the station would air “The Theater of the Mind” program and I would set my reel-to-reel recorder to capture these broadcasts. In 1974 I learned that an on-air personality  named Jim French was writing and airing new full-cast audio shows over KVI , and since I’d just begun my own acting career, I saw a fantastic opportunity to ask for an audition for a part in these new radio shows. Sadly, Jim was only hiring union talent for his programs, but said when I joined to reconnect with him.

Meanwhile I continued to learn my craft and improve my “gifts.” In the interim I managed to get roles on several independently produced audio dramas on a sporadic basis. I joined the (at the time) two broadcast unions in 1990, and submitted my demo once again to Jim in 1994. He cast me and I recorded my first fully professional show in December of that year.

B: Jim French had learned a lot of his craft from that first iteration of American audio drama. What were some things he passed on to you that were good lessons for voice acting?

A: Always see in your head what you’re talking about, visualize the world you’re creating. How big is the room, what are folks wearing, design the universe and see it clearly. He was also insistent that I know what the character I was playing looked like, how he moved, used his hands (if he had any), what his objective was. He made it clear that all of the training I used on stage had to apply in audio work, Create a backstory, know where my characters came from and what they hope to achieve, even if it’s just getting a better tip for pouring coffee. Never shortchange your audience or play down to them. Take them for a ride, and always remember: you’re giving them a paint-by-number set to fill in with your voice, letting them build the sets, design the costumes and see how your character looks.

B: You’re probably best known as a voice actor for two landmark roles, playing Dr. Watson to John Patrick Lowrie’s Sherlock Holmes and the hard-boiled detective Harry Nile. How long have you been playing each? What have you learned playing two characters in long-running serials? Did you have a lot of the characters from the beginning–vocal range, cadence, attitude–or was that something that gradually got worked in?

A: I began playing Watson in March of 1998 and I took over the role of Harry Nile in January of 2005, so 21 and 14 years respectively. I am the longest running actor to play Dr. Watson in the history of broadcasting. That and five bucks will buy me a latte.

He stressed that the voices I used had to be based on reality. If you go back and listen to the early episodes of “Holmes” and “Nile” you’ll find that my approach to both parts has evolved over the years as I became more confident in the roles and Jim French told me, the writers heard my voice in their heads as they wrote the scripts. Harry especially has taken on some of my own character traits and to some degree is an extension of myself, though not fully. He doesn’t have my temper for one thing and I don’t have his mind for deduction. Before I took on the part I’d appeared in 61 of the stories starring the original Nile actor, Phil Harper so I had a clear idea of what was expected and I believe I honor the vision as set out by Jim and Phil.

For Watson it was bit more difficult, following in the footsteps of so many who’d come before me wasn’t going to make it easy. I was determined though that the character would be played as Doyle wrote him, not as films and other audio series had portrayed him, as the buffoon and comic relief. Jim agreed but since he’d never read any of the original stories he needed to bone up, which he did. It took several tries to get the doctor in hand though and by episode 6 or 7 I think I finally set a solid foundation on which to build my own interpretation. Working with the two men who have played Holmes over the years has been an enormous help. Both John Gilbert and John Patrick Lowrie were and are men of great talent and understanding of what it takes to create a vivid picture of the Great Detective.

I’ve always played with voices and dialects to one degree or another since I was a youngster. Doing audio drama has helped me take this talent to a level that requires a sense of reality I’d never paid much attention to if I wasn’t doing a play.  Doing a voice for a character means giving that character a full-bodied identity along with a physicalizing or stance, which goes a long way in dictating how he talks and responds. His cadence as in real life comes from what world he lives in and the influences of his environment. I try to take all of this into account as I create his sound. Sometimes it works better than others.

Larry with Mary Kae Irvin, the current actor playing Murphy in Harry Nile

B: In addition to voice acting, you’ve done a considerable amount of stage acting, particularly musicals. What have you learned as a voice actor that translates into the very different form of live theater? Do you ever find it difficult to change from one medium to another?

A: After 25 years as a full cast audio actor, the work has taught me an appreciation of getting the full meaning of a speech. Each word in the script is there for a reason. Sometimes it’s OK to substitute one for another, but the meaning must remain the same. I spend more time on delving into the dialog to fully understand what the author wanted in the performance. I firmly believe I’m a much better stage and film actor because of my years as a voice actor.

B: For BRASS, you’ve played a wide variety of characters–a London police sergeant, a chimney sweep assassin, a bookish arch-villain, and at least a couple of brilliant if somewhat eccentric scientists. What are your favorite BRASS roles and why?

A: I have yet to play a role in BRASS that I haven’t approached with relish and enjoyment. However, I think my favorites are the doddering scientists, the mad bookish villain, the men of bombast and the evil Southern general. Why, because they’re so distinct in their view of life and the world and let’s face it the characters in this world are a hoot to give life to.

B: You’ve dedicated a large portion of your artistic life to the cause of audio drama–a form that was seen as obscure if not dying by many people. Now that audio drama is seeing a resurgence of interest in the podcast era, what are your hopes for your own future as an actor and producer of the form?

A: Unlike the late actor Tony Randall, who sometimes made disparaging remarks about audio drama and the lack of acting skill it requires, I take the completely opposite view. Audio acting, as with all dramatic disciplines, needs truth and honesty to be successful. You can’t just stand at the microphone, say the words and expect to reach that place in your listener’s imagination where the world of their minds is created. Audio drama is the only form that employs the listener as a part of the creative team. It’s their own private world that’s created; no one else sees the world, the people or the setting as they do. It belongs to the individual and no one else. Like a really good book, audio drama is a banquet for the Imagination.

I would like to see an even greater resurgence of well-done professional audio drama. It allows actors who are pigeon-holed by their physical appearance to explore parts and emotions that would otherwise be denied them. I’m just under 5’6” and I have played Dracula on the radio. Harry Nile is 6 feet tall; I can play tall and do because I believe and make my audience believe I am. My love of the medium is profound and I hope that through more well produced offerings it will once again find a place in mainstream entertainment.

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