Hanging on His Every Word Giving voice: Audio books superstar Frank Muller vividly brings to life characters from Hamlet to Hannibal Lechter.

March 31, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

VENICE, Calif. -- Normally, The Voice comes from a cassette player, but right now it is emerging from this pleasant man who has opened the door. "Come on in," it says, all friendliness.

The Voice's deep timbre is recognizable, but it is uncharacteristically mild. It exudes none of its trademark world-weariness when it baby-talks to the pleasant man's two German shepherds, and it doesn't sound the least bit ironic when it offers cookies made by the man's wife.

Ah, but when The Voice is Sydney Carton declaring, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done," it is hard to imagine greater nobility. And when it is Nick Carraway saying, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," it is impossible to feel anything but loss and disenchantment.

And on those occasions when as Hannibal Lechter it hisses, "Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?" The Voice is evil incarnate.

The Voice is also without peer in the ever-more popular genre of recorded books. According to The Library Journal, it is "the first true superstar in the world of spoken word audio." When The Voice does narration, says author Stephen King, who wants none other to read his books, "The blind will see, the lame will walk and the deaf will hear."

Right now, though, The Voice is trying to be reassuring about Ayla, the more outgoing of the German shepherds.

"She's friendly," it says. "She's in heat now, so she's very friendly."

The line is uttered perfectly, with just the right inflection, a small example of the timing and delivery that make Frank Muller, The Voice's vessel, audio books' most sought-after narrator.

So popular is he as a reader, says Claudia Howard, head of studios for Recorded Books, that for many listeners, Mr. Muller is a bigger draw for a book than its author.

"I think there are women all over the country who are in love with Frank because they have this intense experience with him one-on-one through the books," she says.

That intense experience starts here in Mr. Muller's sunny bungalow, where he now does most of his recordings. At 44, he is a tall, square-jawed, square-shouldered man with longish brown hair just beginning to make its distinguished way to gray. As an actor, Mr. Muller has had a long string of credits in theater, television and commercials, but it is his work in audio books that has earned him his greatest celebrity and the devotion of thousands of fans.

While audio books still have a limited audience -- particularly the unabridged versions in which Mr. Muller specializes -- he is as proud of his narrations as anything he does on stage or before cameras. Perhaps more so.

"I do regard it as an art form in and of itself, its own medium, as is the theater, as is television, as is film."

And as its own art form, he believes, audio books narration requires a very particular set of skills, which not all actors possess.

The primary one is versatility, because unlike a screen or stage actor, an audio books performer must play all the parts, not just one. One of Mr. Muller's most striking gifts is his ability to give distinct personalities to a seemingly endless range of characters.

"It's an indulgence for an actor because you get to play all the parts, but that also makes it very demanding," Mr. Muller says. "I may play the macho hero; I also have to play the 4-year-old girl and the 80-year-old Auschwitz survivor and the gangsters and ++ the Nazis and the cowboys, the men and the women."

Changes in a microsecond

Admirers marvel at his versatility. "He can change from one to another in a split second," said Henry Trentman, founder of Recorded Books of Prince Frederick, for whom Mr. Muller often records. "Most people can't do it if they have 10 days to rehearse, and he can do it in a microsecond."

In Pat Conroy's "Beach Music," which Mr. Muller recently performed, the central character has three brothers and three close friends. "That's seven white guys of the same age from the same town in South Carolina who go through several decades of life experience," says Mr. Muller. "I have to keep each of them distinct and separate, give each of them their own identity, and then we have to watch them grow and mature as their various paths take them through two decades of life experience.

"Plus there are between 30 and 50 other characters in that book, and 628 pages of narrative text. You've got to keep all those balls juggling in the air and keep it alive and keep all your listeners awake for 28 1/2 hours."

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