The crowning irony of British actor Jim Dale's stellar career is that he will best be remembered for having been heard and not seen. As the sole performer of the entire Harry Potter canon on audiobook, including the seventh and final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Dale is more likely to be swarmed by fans who suddenly recognize the voice of young Harry and some 130 other characters than Dale himself, the show-stopping, Tony Award-winning song-and-dance man from the 1980 Broadway musical hit, Barnum.
"I've been acting for 50 years now and the last eight or nine years, more kids have gotten to know me than ever did when I was a young man," the 71-year-old Dale says from his Manhattan apartment. "There's a whole new generation out there that don't know me to look at but they know me when I speak, and that can be quite funny."
Funny because, unlike those mellifluous, immediately identifiable voices from the British stage (Gielgud, Burton, et al.), Dale once considered his voice one of his biggest obstacles.
"I was born with a very broad accent in the center of England, which is Shakespeare country, these small communities that have dialect that goes back 300 or 400 years, and it took me a long time to get rid of that. I never really thought my voice was anything special," Dale admits.
In fact, prior to Potter, Dale's stock in trade had always been a robust comic physicality. Stage-struck at birth, he began training at age nine in everything from tap, ballet, ballroom and eccentric comedy dancing to tumbling and judo. By 17, he was touring Great Britain as a standup comedian. During an appearance on "6-5 Special," Britain's first rock 'n' roll television show, Dale commandeered a guitar and rendered a song as a lark. Impressed, the producers offered him a regular singing slot.
Overnight, the comedian became a pop star whose record producer, George Martin, also worked with four lads from Liverpool. Swinging London, mid-'60s, what's not to like? Dale gave it two years and three albums, then returned to his first love, the theater.
"I really had a love of comedy and acting," Dale says. "I didn't enjoy the pop singing that much. I was quite happy performing for laughs rather than trying to perform over screaming teenage girls. I didn't enjoy that at all."
He left pop music on a high note however when "Georgy Girl," a song he wrote with Dusty Springfield's brother Tom, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966. It lost out to "Born Free." Dozens of stage productions followed, mostly Shakespeare and musical comedies, first in London's West End, then on Broadway. But it was the Carry On series of British comedy films shot between 1963-1992 ("As popular as M*A*S*H' at the time," says Dale) that made him a cultural icon in the U.K. Like most Britons, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling was a fan and sought out Dale to give voice to her blockbuster series.
Dale wasn't quite sure what he'd signed on for when he arrived to record Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1999.
"I had never done an audiobook before, so I started putting voices to the characters as I started to read on that first day and the engineer said, No, no, no Jim, you don't have to give the characters voices; it's going to be a hell of a lot of work. Just read. I said, I think it will bring the characters more to life, and they said well, OK. Little did I realize what I was letting myself in for—I didn't realize that the snakes and spiders had voices as well!"
On average, it took Dale three weeks to record each Potter book, working from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., or as long as his voice held out. "Whatever my voice is like in the afternoon must be the same as it will be the next morning after it has recuperated overnight, so I mustn't let it get too gravelly and worn down," he explains.
At the time of our interview, Dale had not yet recorded Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the much anticipated final volume of the series. He doesn't typically receive a Potter book until two or three days before he's scheduled to go into the studio, and doesn't even read it then because he's too busy organizing the characters so he can voice the parts.
Everybody was fair game as models for Muggles, hobgoblins and ghouls. Dale crafted Hermione after his first girlfriend, Professor McGonagall after a Scottish aunt and Professor Dumbledore after his friend John Houseman. Harry, of course, will always be the voice of young Jim Dale. To keep his audio cast straight, Dale makes a reference tape of all the different voices, then cross-references each character with page and line numbers.
Harry has been very, very good to Dale, earning him a 2000 Grammy Award (for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), four Grammy nominations, a shelf full of Audie Awards and the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 for his work on behalf of British children's literature. He also notched a couple of Guinness World Records for creating 134 character voices for one audio (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and occupying the top six places in the Top Ten Audiobooks of America for 2005. His excellent audio adventure won't end with the Potter series; Dale continues to record the new Peter Pan adventure series (Peter and the Starcatchers, etc.) co-authored by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
All this magic seems to have rubbed off on Dale. This fall, he plans to trade Hogwarts for the lead in a Broadway remake of the Tommy Tune musical, Busker Alley, playing an old busker whose true love, another busker, ran off to pursue the big time.
"Seventy-one is only my age; I'm 25 inside," says Dale. "Finishing Harry Potter, there will be a sadness in a way, but at the same time it will be an accomplishment. It's going to be lovely to be remembered in generations to come as the voice of Harry Potter."
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.