Renowned Voice Coach Puts the Accent on Success : Movies: Robert Easton, who's helped Laura Dern talk trash and Ben Kingsley do New York, is the man Hollywood calls for a change of dialect.

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Aside from perhaps the failed nude scene, there may be nothing quite as embarrassing for the actor as the failed accent.

Think of the derision directed toward Kevin Costner for his Old English-via-Malibu turn in "Robin Hood" last year. Or listen to Melanie Griffith in this year's World War II-themed "Shining Through," caking on layers of old-age makeup for a contemporary framing device but getting giggles for talking in exactly the same light, unaged voice as in the five-decades-past flashbacks.

Actors wanting to avoid aural accidents like these often call on Robert Easton, the most renowned of Hollywood's dialect coaches, known for his frequent talk-show appearances and his own acting background as well as behind-the-scenes work with thesps needing a last-minute Louisianian--or Lithuanian--twang.

Two of Easton's recent clients were up for Oscars on Monday night: best actress nominee Laura Dern, who needed a "kind of tacky, white-trashy talk" to contrast with her more aristocratically spoken host family in "Rambling Rose," and supporting actor nominee Ben Kingsley, who traded his clipped British tones for hard-bitten New York ones as mobster Meyer Lansky in "Bugsy."

Easton's counsel often extends beyond strictly vocal coaching into the corollary realm of directing body language.

In his sessions with Kingsley, Easton says, "we talked about how he should not only have the cold, calculating, steely voice--with very little inflection up and down like the English have, but make it deadly flat--but also about how he could make his eyes cold. I said to him, 'If you have the voice cold and ominous, but you have the warm, saintlike eyes like you had for "Gandhi," it's not gonna work.' "

To help Kingsley lose the affectionate gaze--and get that looking-right-through-you look--Easton encouraged the actor to focus on objects hundreds of yards away before meeting fellow actors in the eye.

Easton, whose latest credit as dialect coach is for the recently released "Noises Off," works with actors in any and all stages of production--pre-, post- or on the set--but the earlier he gets them, he maintains, the better.

"It's all kind of a package, with the gestures and body language," says Easton, 61, whose longish white hair and formal, distinctive manner belie his chameleonic qualities.

"Sometimes people say to me, 'I want to work on the part and then later we'll do the dialect,' because they think of it as being a last-minute decision, like, 'Should I play the scene with or without the glasses? Should I wear the black shoes or the brown?'

"But it shouldn't be, because it's very, very internal. A dialect really has to do with how people who are raised in a certain environment at a certain time in a certain social class are trained to express the emotions."

Easton's own raising was in Texas, a fact that made him an easy mark for Southern-accented roles in "The Loved One" (as Dusty Acres), "Gunsmoke" (as Chester's brother) and the musical "Paint Your Wagon." (He was also a regular on such early TV favorites as "The Burns and Allen Show" and has appeared in movies ranging from "The Red Badge of Courage" to his latest small part, a cameo as a Klingon judge in "Star Trek VI.")

Early in his career, Easton remembers, he was averse to the idea of "losing" his Texas accent, until he realized that there was a "de facto kind of standard, variously called 'media-ese' or non-regional or generic American," that had specific qualities he could pick up as an alternative dialect without sacrificing the one he had. Eventually, he delved heavily into linguistic research, as evidenced by the small library building that stands separate from his Valley home, filled with thousands of volumes and thousands more tapes on regional dialects.

"I'm a great believer in the principle that there's no wastage in the universe," says Easton, an inveterate listener and natural mimic. "So when I work with somebody who is foreign who's trying to 'lose' their accent, I can always give their old dialect to somebody else that needs it later."

After years of being asked by directors to coach his fellow actors on the set, Easton took it on as a profession in 1964. Now he figures he can fluently ad-lib in 30 to 50 specific dialects, a talent that comes in handy for those "Tonight Show" visits, and teach clients another 50 to 75 more besides that.

But his legend as a man of many voices would have seemed unlikely to those who knew him in his youth.

"When I was a child I was a terrible stammerer," he says. "Even now, if I get very tired, if I have a very rough day where I've coached three or four people, I can come back and start stuttering a little bit. I hear it, and immediately the adrenaline kicks in and I get control of it. But that's true of everybody. When you're under a lot of stress, you do regress back to an earlier level.

"When I work with people I always point that out to them, that in scenes where they're very angry or tired or physically ill, where the conscious control of the speech weakens, they should have a stronger accent--especially if they're playing a character who came from a particular background and then tried to lose that.

"That's one of the things I talked to Laura (Dern) about: that when she's really upset, the dialect becomes even more countrified. When she's feeling secure and talking philosophically with Diane Ladd, it wouldn't be quite as strong."

That element of accentuation under duress also comes into play in "Noises Off," in which most of the cast members are Americans playing Americans playing Brits in the play-within-a-film, the result being that the affected English accents start getting comically looser as the fictional production descends into chaos.

It was director Peter Bogdanovich's decision to change the source play's milieu from all-English to cross-Atlantic, which afforded Easton one of his oddest assignments: to coach Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter and Marilu Henner, but not too well.

"He wanted their English dialects slightly off," Easton said of the director. "Now that's a toughie, because I'm used to trying to get it absolutely and totally right. And that's a subtle thing, because if they had done very bad dialects it wouldn't have been believable. It's like the old thing where if somebody is going to do comic singing, it takes a very good singer to get it just slightly off, to hit a flat where they shouldn't or maybe do overly much vibrato."

Easton doesn't only assist actors. Recently, he coached a New York expatriate lawyer who was losing California cases because he talked too fast; conversely, he assisted an ex-Oklahoma attorney who was losing cases because he drawled too slowly. Clergymen needing a vocal assist to better get across their message have also been among his clients.

But he does decline to help the con men who come his way--such as the fellow who wanted to learn a South African accent to peddle diamonds, or the man who had learned to beat the odds in Vegas and needed to adopt new personas to get back into the casinos he had been barred from.

And Easton has one hard and fast rule: "I will not help politicians."

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