He is the many voices of Harry Potter

Versatile Englishman proves a wizard at taking characters from book to tape



DALLAS - Jim Dale must have a bit of a wizard in him.

As the narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks, how else can he explain his uncanny ability to bring to life such varied characters as Harry, Hermione, Ron and wise, old Professor Dumbledore?

Well ... perhaps there is a little magic involved. Dale says he "inhabits" his characters. "That's really what an actor does. He inhabits the character from the description the author has given him," he said.

He also likes to conjure up an audience. When he goes into the studio to record a book, "I'm visualizing as if I'm reading to a theater audience."

Magic or skill, the narrator of all six Harry Potter books has been a stunning success, helping to create a large market of listeners, as well as readers of the immensely popular series. Along with winning many Audie Awards, which honor excellence in audiobooks, and a Grammy, he has even won a place for himself with Guinness World Records for "Most Characters in an Audio Book."

And while he was never a celebrity before, he now has fans recognizing him - or at least his voice. "I go into McDonald's and they'll hear my voice and say, `That's Professor Dumbledore!'"

He has certainly put his mark on the entertainment world - a goal he set for himself as a child. He came out of nowhere, born in the center of England. "Dead center," as he describes it, "meaning it was an incentive to get out."

In hopes of becoming an entertainer, he started ballet and tap lessons at the age of 9. By 17, he was doing stand-up comedy.

How would he describe his comedy routine?

"Very bad," he said, letting loose a Hagrid-like rumbling laugh during a recent telephone interview from New York City, where he has lived the past 25 years.

After a stint in the Royal Air Force, entertaining troops in England and Germany, he spent a few years as a pop singer. His recording manager was George Martin, the same man who would gain fame as the Beatles' music producer.

In 1970, he caught a break when Laurence Olivier invited him to join the British National Theater to be in a play, The National Health. His character was a hospital orderly who speaks directly to the audience.

"So he needed someone who had actual experience speaking to an audience. Typically, actors don't face an audience. That's how I got the job."

He came to America in 1974, signing on for a few films with Disney. Then in 1979, he got a starring role in the musical Barnum. He has been a New Yorker ever since, acting in plays and musicals, including the hit Scapino.

The actor has recorded all six of the Harry Potter books for Random House's Listening Library. Author J.K. Rowling has said the series will end after the seventh novel.

His versatility helped land him the job, when one of the publishing house's editors saw him in Travels With My Aunt, an off-Broadway show in which Dale played many different characters. "So they hired me."

The first book was only 45 voices, but the number of characters has greatly increased since then. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for which he won the Grammy in 2001, had 127 characters; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had 134 characters. The new book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, has 96.

Because he cannot show the character physically, he must try to convey those physical characteristics through his voice. "If he's a narrow-minded, squeaky sort of character, you have to incorporate those things into the voice."

Because of the need to get the audiobook in stores at the same time as the hardcover, Dale had little time to prepare before recording the latest installment in the series. He was given the first 100 pages to read over a weekend. After each day in the studio, he was given an additional 100 pages to read overnight and record the next day. That schedule continued until they were finished.

After each audiobook is finished, he sends a copy off to his grandchildren in England. One of the children likes to listen in bed as he's going to sleep. So one time, Dale sent a tape of the characters saying goodnight to him.

As the child was falling asleep, his father secretly slipped the tape into the cassette player and the boy heard a familiar voice whisper: "Dumbledore says good night."

Now, that must have been a magic moment.

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