Saturday, 14 November 2015

A Pencil, A President and Others By Allen Swift

His voice wasn’t evil. It was creepy evil.

Simon Bar Sinister was provided a perfect voice by Allen Swift. He wasn’t ravingly mad. His even, intense tone was, well, sinister. Swift’s performance was riveting to young cartoon-viewing me.

“Underdog” was the first place I remembered hearing Swift but, pretty soon, I could pick out his voice in all kinds of commercials. For a few decades, Swift may have been the most wanted spot voice on the East Coast because he could do straight reads and characters.

Swift had a diverse career. He hosted a children’s show on television in New York. He produced a documentary. He operated a playhouse. He appeared on Broadway. He even recorded a tune for the Jubilee label in 1955 called “Johnny Podres Has A Halo ‘Round His Head.”

“Merchandising your talent ... is almost as important as having the talent,” Swift once said. And Swift knew how to sell himself. He caught the ear of all kinds of newspaper columnists in New York, and there was a stream of feature stories from either a paper or wire service or syndicator about Swift seemingly every year from the mid 1950s. In fact, I’ve found two completely different stories from the Associated Press’ New York bureau from early 1969. He sent blurbs to columnists about the commercials he had just voiced. He sent them one-liners they could use as comedy filler.

I’m going to present only four stories about Swift. It’s a case of first-come, first-serve. I restricted myself to the ‘60s and these are the first four I found. So you’ll miss Earl Wilson’s column about him from 1960. I’ll post a fifth one next week dealing with landing commercial roles. He got lots of ink in the ‘70s, too.

Sorry, animation fans, but there’s little about his cartoon work here. One sloppy newspaper somehow thought he was in a show called Thunderdog. A neat title, actually, but the Associated Press columnist had it correct in the original write.

Two things: it’s interesting to read Swift talking about being willing to work for scale. That may sound like cheapening yourself out, but Swift was a smart businessman. The real money in commercials isn’t in getting paid to read it; the money is in the residuals. Voice talent keeps getting a pay cheque if the spot keeps running. Swift knew overpricing himself meant potentially not getting his foot in the door, and getting his foot in the door was all he needed for a potential, eventual big payday.

There’s also a reference to I Am Curious (Yellow), a controversial-for-its-time movie from 1967.

This story was published in March 21, 1964.

His Voice Is Tops, His Pay-Minimum

National Enterprise Association
New York—To Allen Swift a scale is not something to weigh yourself on or a musical exercise. It is something to work for.
Swift, 40 and a native New Yorker, is billed as “the man with a thousand voices.” As such, his tones — all one thousand of them — have been in televiewers living rooms as a piston, a monkey wrench, a rubber plunger, a pencil, a pen, a lamp, a germ (a bad one), tooth decay, a clam fish, a mail box and lots of dogs.
All this hardware animal and piscine life has appeared in television commercials. Swift, one of the top voice-over men in the commercial field, has made over 12,000 of them. His annual income is in the six-figure neighborhood, a nice place to live. But he doesn’t have exclusive contracts with any companies. And his fees are as modest as a actors union allows.
“I would rather work for scale — that’s the minimum wage set by the union — than to have only one or two clients whose assignments would leave me half my time here to play golf.”
BECAUSE Swift is recognized as a prestigious talent in his field, the fact that he works cheaply is a surprise to many agency men.
“I heard someone at a cocktail party say, ‘You should have gotten Allen Swift,’ the answer was, ‘We couldn't afford him.’ I set that man straight in a hurry.” Swift has not been seen on camera in several years. The back of his head appeared on That Was The Week That Was as President Eisenhower. He also provided the voice of Eisenhower in “The Longest Day.”
Proving his versatility he once dubbed some lines in a movie for David Niven and has been sports stars Pancho Gonzalez, Don Carter and Cary Middlecoff for commercials when those athletes found the reading of lines less than easy.
The son of a lawyer, Swift’s early interest was art. “But I think my love for acting superseded my desire to be a painter. I never really had the opportunity to be a serious actor. There were always other fields in show business where I could make an easier living.”

Next up, July 6, 1965. I have not found a copy of this column with a byline. Swift told a similar story about Godfrey and the clueless client to Earl Wilson, revealing he also imitated Godfrey’s basso announcer/sidekick, Tony Marvin, in the same commercial.

Voice Specialist Well Paid For Imitating Men, Things
NEW YORK (UPI)—One of the more wonderful characters in the modern show world is the voice specialist. A good one—and there are fewer of them than you have fingers — can earn $200,000 a year or more. A chap like Mel Blanc or Allen Swift for example.
Blanc is well known for his impersonations of many Hollywood shows and the Jack Benny television show and for his peculiar scrambled vocal effects.
Allen Swift, who is younger and works in New York, is not as widely known but he earned a quarter of a million dollars last year mainly by doing voice specialties on television commercials.
Swift a native New Yorker who started out to be a stand up comedian only to see that phase of show business fade out about the time he was beginning to arrive, also imitated the voices of famous personalities.
He imitated President Eisenhower’s voice in a feature film, for example.
Bit of Flim Flammery
“On another occasion, I imitated Arthur Godfrey’s voice. This was a bit of flim flammery,” he chuckles. “A certain advertising agency had a client that wanted Godfrey for a show.
“The client wanted Godfrey to audition but Arthur doesn’t audition for anybody, so they got me to imitate Arthur for the audition and kept the client happy.”
Much of Swift’s work is in devising original vocal effects for commercials. “I have done vocal effects that made me appear in commercials as a penguin, a peanut, a sparkplug, a pencil or a piston for example.” he said.
Another of his recent jobs was as Harvey Spooner, the guy who goes all to pieces if he doesn’t get Campbell’s soup for dinner.
In a career of not too much over a decade, Mr. Swift, who looks a bit like a younger Peter Ustinov, has done 12,000 radio and television commercials.
“For an actor to do commercials well he has to like doing them,” Swift said. “He has to think like a merchant as well as like a performer and copywriter. If he can’t project himself into all three mental roles, his commercials won’t ring true.”
Talent Most Important
Merchandising your talent in special effects is almost as important as having the talent but not quite, Swift said. If you don’t have a native and special talent in the first place, all the training and merchandising skill in the world won’t put you over.”
Swift discovered his talent when he was eight years old. It was at a performance of Maurice Chevalier to the film ‘The Beloved Vagabond’ in Philadelphia, he recalls.
“I discovered I could mimic Mr. Chevalier, whom I regard as the greatest entertainer of our times, quite well. From that moment I determined to become an entertainer.”
A lot of Swift’s assignments are emergency work. “Just the other day one of the big networks had to make an emergency change in a taped show. One of the performers whose lines had been changed at the insistence of top network officials wasn’t available to speak the new lines. I was called on to imitate his voice in patching the tape; this saved a lot of time and money.”
For this kind of work, which pays well, Swift has to be on tap so fast that a telephone answering service isn’t sufficient. He carries around with him a little “beep box” radio for which he pays Radio Relay Service $19 a month.

The first of a pair from the Associated Press. This one is from May 26, 1968.

Swift Is a Fast Change Artist In Voice Disguise Department

NEW YORK (AP) — A few years ago a struggling young actor named Allen Swift went down to one of the networks to audition for a job as staff announcer. He was handed four of five pieces of copy to read, and afterwards, the producer came out of the control booth in hysterics. Swift, it turned out, had read each announcement in a different voice.
“That's great. Simply great,” the producer told him. “But sorry, we want all our announcers to sound alike.”
That may have been a temporary disappointment for Swift, but it didn't hold him back. You can’t turn on a television set or radio today without hearing his voice—and likely as not it's different each time.
Swift, a man who is seldom seen, does more commercials than anyone else. He has more than 400 playing at this time, and in all he’s done more than 20,000. Because of his great facility for voices and dialects, Swift is said to be the only one in the business allowed to make commercials for competing products.
SWIFT, 44, WHO with a blond moustache and a spade beard looks remarkably like Peter Ustinov, is the voice of the Jello Zodiacs, the duck for Drake's Cakes, the peanut for M&Ms, the Herring Maven and all of the voices for “Tom and Jerry,” “Underdog” and other cartoons.
“From such a thing you make a living,” he admits with a smile.
He is the announcer for the presidential campaign spots for Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, D-Minn.—the same function he served with Adlai Stevenson.
He was the voice of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the motion picture “The Longest Day.” And when a sports figure can’t put enough sell into his endorsement, Swift steps in. He has even substituted for other announcers — using their voice.
“I CAN’T SAY that I’ve made a special study of dialects, but I listen constantly.” He says, “I don’t keep any kind of book, but it gets stored away and I can call on it when I need it.”
Lighting up a cigar, Swift said he takes no special precautions to preserve his voice. “I think use strengthens it, just like exercise.
“I was doing dialects and funny voices even as a kid and my mother was always telling me to stop talking like that or I’d ruin my voice," he said. “You know, I’ve heard my wife telling my son the same thing. He just finished an engagement with the road show of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.”
Swift got into commercials in 1954 when he was the voice of all the puppets on the “Howdy Doody Show.”
“One day an advertising agency called up NBC and asked who was the voice of a certain puppet,” he said. “The network told them it was Allen Swift and they hired me for a commercial.
“Later they called again and asked who was the voice of another puppet and again the network told them it was Allen Swift. So I did another commercial and one just led to another after that.”
SWIFT SAID THE anonymity is something that would have bothered him as a young man, “but today I'm grateful for it. I have two little girls and I can take them into the park and nobody knows me.
“After a Mike Douglas show I was recognized everywhere I west, it seems, and I didn’t care for it at all. What happens to well-known people? They can’t go out on the streets.”
Swift’s voices have their uses outside television. When his secretary’s away, he answers in her voice. And once when an artist friend didn’t get paid for a piece of work, Swift used a British accent in a bit of subterfuge to collect the commission.
THE BIG THING IN the future is a television interview show he has created called “A Date with Genius.” He has taped several pilot shows in a studio he converted from an apartment.
“We interview great men on contemporary problems and they answer in their own words,” he said. “For instance, Mark Twain speaks out on the problems of youth, and Nicolo Machiavelli talks about Vietnam and the political situation.”
William Redfield is the interviewer and Swift does all the other parts with the aid of make-up and costume. “I like to play roles where nobody recognizes me,” he said.

And, finally, from March 29, 1969.

Monsters Seen Invading Future TV Commercials

AP Television-Radio Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – Would you buy a used car from Count Dracula? That may be the coming thing in television commercials.
“The next big thing is monsters.” Allen Swift puffed quietly on his cigar until the guffaws subsided. “I’m serious,” he said. “You're going to see a lot of monsters in commercials.”
Swift, a round-faced man with a ginger-colored Van Dyke, should know what he’s talking about. He’s been the voice on more commercials than anyone else. At last count the number had passed 30,000.
“I did a movie with Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller called ‘The Mad Monster Party’ and I did all the other monster voices,” he said. “I guess it was Karloff's last movie.
“I don’t know if this is sparking it or what. But in two or three months you’re going to see these monster commercials.”
Slipping into an Inner Sanctum voice, he said, “Welcome to the Ford torture test. We’ll take your car and put it through all kinds of torture—you know, things like that. Another company is building a whole food product around monsters.
“It seemed like I do at least one a day,” Swift said. "Listen, you have no idea how funny it is. You’d think everybody is tapping everybody else’s telephone lines.
“There are three advertising agencies after this one account. One’s got it and is trying to hang onto it and two others are trying to get it away from them.
By coincidence I did the presentation commercials for all three —and, can you believe it, all three came up with virtually the same kind of monster approach.” He laughed. “The thing I’m afraid of is they're going to blame me for leaking it to each other.”
Asked about the increasing use of sex in commercials, he sighed and said, “Sex in commercials will grow in direct proportion to the lowering of barriers. Let's put it this way: I refuse to do nude commercials. I’m not curious, I’m just yellow.”


  1. I've got a 1963 recording of a Cousin Brucie radio show off WABC in New York that features a five-second spot by Swift for a movie. But in this case, the Simon Bar-Sinister voice is used as a double-entendre, to signify not creepy evil, but creepy pervert. Glad I don't remember hearing that ad before Underdog premiered.

  2. "Bar sinister" is a heraldic term denoting one born out of wedlock, i.e. a "bastard." Simon was modeled on Lionel Barrymore's "It's a Wonderful Life" character Henry F. Potter, and Swift pretty much nailed Barrymore's voice in his portrayal.