He romanced Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen (in "A Little Night Music"). He appeared in a recurring role opposite Angela Lansbury on TV's "Murder, She Wrote." And then there was that little matter of a 1979 Broadway show called "Sweeney Todd," in which he and fellow Tony winner Lansbury "killed the people" every night in more than one sense of the expression.
But his fans and admirers may not realize that actor Len Cariou has also had a long and lucrative career as a commercial voice artist. In fact, Cariou signed as a voice talent with Don Buchwald & Associates way back in 1969—and he's been with them ever since.
When Cariou first came on board at Buchwald, he was performing on Broadway as Lauren Bacall's co-star in "Applause," but when it came to commercial gigs, the Winnipeg-born performer was still a new kid in town. It took him considerable time to become established in the voice and voice-over scene.
"It wasn't an easy nut to crack," he says. "Even then it was a pretty tightly knit fraternity. I guess I thought I was going to go in and they'd go, 'Aren't you wonderful? Let's go!' 'Cause I had a pretty good set of pipes."
In the mid-1970s, he landed a major campaign for Chanel No. 5. Later, he had a relationship of six or eight years with the investment firm Shearson Lehman Brothers. "The creative team there was writing really good material. It was dramatic stuff because it was dealing with the almighty dollar. It grabbed everybody's imagination, I think." Cariou served for a time as a spokesperson for Amtrak as well.
In the early part of Cariou's career, voice talent would often find themselves on the actual premises of the advertising agencies. It was important back then, he says, that performers project the right attitude: "You had to be more of a diplomat, if you will."
These days voice tracks are produced off-premises and sent to the ad agencies, so there's less pressure on performers to make nice. But, says Cariou, it's still essential that performers take the work seriously—that they not treat auditions with a "devil-may-care" attitude.
Somewhere in the early 1990s, Cariou discovered that his kind of voice was out of vogue. "I kind of dried up—I and all guys of my era, my ilk, my age. I guess maybe they were hearing too much sameness in our voices on the air." Cariou continued to narrate documentaries and record books on tape. And he did some work for cable television, although it was not nearly as lucrative as the network spots. (One thing Cariou has never done is to sell the services of his singing voice to advertisers.)
So Cariou was "stunned" when he was signed recently for a major Burger King campaign: "I would have thought they would have gone after a 'younger' voice. But the creative team is trying to give Burger King some kind of new attitude."
Cycles of fashionableness, in terms of vocal type, are not unusual in the advertising world. Often a client will want to come in and "shake things up" with a different kind of campaign. Still, Cariou advises, newcomers to voice and voice-overs should learn the usual on-air sound associated with a particular product—and bring that knowledge to auditions.
Commercial voice work has helped provide Cariou with a measure of financial stability over the years. It's given him the flexibility to pick and choose roles in regional theatres: He doesn't necessarily have to take every job "in the boondocks" just to pay the rent.
There have been times, though, when juggling his commercial career with his theatrical and film work has proved challenging. For instance, when he did a play in London's West End several years ago, he had to find a way to simultaneously honor his Shearson Lehman contract.
But, he says, with the technological breakthroughs of recent years—the development of things like Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines—a performer can now be situated almost anywhere in the world and be available to record voice spots.
—Mark Dundas Wood