Duluth native Don LaFontaine, the voice-over artist whose authoritative baritone and stern delivery graced thousands of movie trailers, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. LaFontaine, 68, whose affectionate film industry nickname was "the voice of God," may have been the busiest actor in the history of the Screen Actors Guild, though most of his projects lasted from 30 seconds to two minutes.
LaFontaine introduced scores of film trailers with the melodramatic formula "In a world where (some threat is present), one (heroic person) will (do something constructive)."
He made routine films sound like life-changing events. Over time his slogan "In a world where ..." became a comic catchphrase. His confident delivery was so well known that LaFontaine recently stepped in front of the cameras to parody himself in a series of TV commercials for the Geico insurance company.
LaFontaine recorded hundreds of thousands of television and radio commercials for General Motors, Ford, Budweiser, McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Over the past 25 years, he has also been the voice of NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and UPN, TNT, TBS and the Cartoon Network.
He narrated trailers for "The Godfather, Part II" "Fatal Attraction," "Terminator 2," "The Elephant Man" and "The Simpsons Movie." He recorded most of his voice-over work at his home studio in Los Angeles, when not being chauffeured to other studios.
Such was his fame in the industry that LaFontaine was featured in the short film "5 Men and a Limo" an introductory skit for a 1997 Hollywood Reporter awards ceremony. The plot was relatively simple: In a country where five men supply voice-overs for virtually every movie trailer, those five men share a limousine ride. LaFontaine was joined by top voice-over artists John Leader, Nick Tate, Mark Elliot and Al Chalk, all of whom spoke in a parody of their own style.
LaFontaine's journey from northern Minnesota to Hollywood was fueled by a mixture of talent and fate. After graduating from high school, he entered the military and was assigned to the United States Army Band and Chorus as a recording engineer. Reentering civilian life in 1962, he found work in New York City as a writer, director and editor of radio commercials for motion pictures. Three years later, an announcer failed to report for a recording session and LaFontaine stepped in, launching a career that lasted almost half a century.
In 1976, he started his own production company, Don LaFontaine Associates. Two years later, he was hired to run the trailer department at Paramount Pictures. In 1980, he was named vice president and became the voice of Paramount, but left in 1981 to return to his first love, active production. He moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the studios and during the past 27 years, his delivery was heard on some 5,000 film trailers. His distinctive intonation became as familiar to moviegoers as John Williams' music, and he served as in-show announcer for the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards telecasts.
LaFontaine rarely rehearsed or did multiple takes. "I find that the more you read something, the more of the honesty is leeched slowly out it," he told USA Today last year. He protected his throat by avoiding black coffee.
LaFontaine's agent, Vanessa Gilbert, said he died of complications resulting from a collapsed lung. He is survived by his wife, singer/actress Nita Whitaker, and three children, Christine, Skye and Elyse.
Watch video of Don LaFontaine at startribune.com/obituaries. Colin Covert • 612-673-7186