Dialect Coach To The Stars Dies

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What do Jesse Eisenberg, Julia Roberts and Naomi Campbell have in common? They've all worked with a man known as voice coach to the stars. Sam Chwat died last week on Long Island at age 57 of lymphoma.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

What do Jesse Eisenberg, Julia Roberts and Naomi Campbell have in common? They've all worked with a man known as the voice coach to the stars. Sam Chwat died of lymphoma last week on Long Island, at the age of 57.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance of a coach whose clients also included music stars, including Shakira and Jon Bon Jovi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIPS DON'T LIE")

SHAKIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

NEDA ULABY: Shakira's from Colombia, and when she decided she wanted a crossover audience, she knew she had to Americanize her voice. So she went to Sam Chwat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIPS DON'T LIE")

SHAKIRA: (Singing) Oh, baby, when you talk like that...

ULABY: Chwat helped Andie McDowell lose her Southern accent. And he taught Willem Dafoe to talk like a Transylvanian.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

BLOCK: (as Character) We were together in the night, and then she left me.

ULABY: In 1996, Chwat was asked on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED how he was at teaching Eastern European accents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

BLOCK: Fairly good, fairly good. Some of the things that you have to do...

ULABY: Like switching out G's at the end of words so...

BLOCK: It becomes a K. So instead of shopping bag, it becomes shoppink bak.

ULABY: Sound substitution was key to Chwat's methods. His wife, Susan, said today he started as a speech pathologist.

BLOCK: Fixing people who couldn't speak because they had a lisp or stutter or voice problem, or had a stroke.

ULABY: But about 30 years ago, Chwat helped a young executive with a strong Spanish accent. His bosses worried it would hold him back. Since then, Susan Chwat said he worked with thousands of clients who felt their voices did not match their images.

BLOCK: A man with a higher voice who always lived in fear of speaking because people would think he was a woman; people who were paralyzed with stage fright - Philip Roth is one, and he would help him before his book tours.

ULABY: And actors - too many to name: Patrick Stewart, Kate Hudson, Leonardo DiCaprio. One favorite? Robert De Niro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPE FEAR")

BLOCK: (As Max Cady) Ooh, ooh, I got the all-over fidgets on that one. You've really shaken me up. I'm shivering all over.

ULABY: De Niro and Chwat listened to hundreds of tapes of prisoners talking while developing an accent for his character in "Cape Fear." Eventually, they found an Appalachian who'd committed an awful, bloody crime.

In an earlier NPR interview, Chwat said incorporating his speech patterns into De Niro's New Yorkese involved painstaking work on every sound he made in the script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

BLOCK: And we had spontaneous conversations with it, and he made phone calls to department stores asking them for information with this accent. Little did they know who they were talking to on the phone.

ULABY: Months of work, then daily sessions on set during a long shoot in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPE FEAR")

BLOCK: (As Max Cady) Are you my friend?

BLOCK: (As Claude Kersek) No, I'm not your friend.

BLOCK: Oh, because I thought maybe you were my friend because I like to plan my comings and goings with friends. But if you're not my friend, you're planning my comings and goings, I'd call that presumptuous. In fact, I'd call it downright rude because I ain't your porch baby, buddy.

BLOCK: (As Claude Kersek) Well, gee, golly, gosh. I sure am sorry, I offended you, you white trash (bleep).

ULABY: For that role, De Niro got an Oscar nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "POLLOCK")

BLOCK: (As Lee Krasner) Did you see the Magazine of Art review?

ULABY: And Marcia Gay Harden won one after Chwat schooled her in speaking like Brooklyn-born artist Lee Krasner in the movie "Pollock."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "POLLOCK")

BLOCK: (As Lee Krasner) Now, he says, an impregnable language of image, beautiful and subtle patterns of pure form.

ULABY: Sam Chwat, a Brooklyn boy himself, said it's easy to find accents charming if your own doesn't make other people look down on you. And he said you can't ever completely shake an accent. Go back to the neighborhood; the muscles in your mouth will tell you when you're home.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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