Character actor Robert Easton, known as the “Henry Higgins of Hollywood” for teaching dialects to such luminaries as Charlton Heston and Anne Hathaway, died Friday at his Toluca Lake, California home. He was 81.
While living in Britain, the Milwaukee-born Easton voiced Lieutenant George Lee “Phones” Sheridan and Surface Agent X-2-Zero in the 1964 Gerry Anderson Productions puppet-animated series Stingray. He had numerous other voice roles in the series, as well.
He was a member of the voice cast of Ralph Bakshi’s 1973 feature film Heavy Traffic. In addition, he had a live-action role as the store proprietor in Disney’s partly animated 1977 movie Pete’s Dragon.
Easton knew a huge range of foreign and American regional accents. He taught actor Robert Duvall a Virginian accent for his role as Confederate commander Robert E. Lee in the movie Gods and Generals several years ago.
“They said, ‘We want Virginia accents,’” Duvall remembered in an interview Wednesday. “Bob said, ‘Which one? There are 12 distinct accents, from the Piedmont to the ocean.’ He knew them all.
“He was a wonderful man, a very unique personality, and a master at his craft.”
He was born Robert Easton Burke on November 23, 1930. When he was 7, his parents split up. He and his mother moved to San Antonio.
At age 14, he toured the United States with the cast of young geniuses on the popular radio program Quiz Kids. The young 6’4″ performer was getting Hollywood roles by 18, usually playing country hicks due to his heavy Texas accent. He was on The Burns and Allen Show, Father Knows Best, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, Wagon Train, Rawhide and Gunsmoke.
Worried that he would be typecast, Easton widened his range of accents and learned various regional speech patterns.
After marrying June Bettine Grimstead in 1961, he moved with her to her native England and started studying phonetics at University College in London.
“He found a way to spell things,” said Forest Whitaker, whom he taught to speak like Idi Amin. “We established our own language.”
Between his coaching jobs, Easton taught at UCLA and USC. His movies included Paint Your Wagon, Pet Sematary II and Primary Colors. In 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, he portrayed a Klingon judge.
“I’m a great believer in the principle that there’s no wastage in the universe,” Easton told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “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.”
Predeceased by his wife in 2005, Robert Easton is survived by his daughter, Heather Woodruff Perry, and a granddaughter.
A memorial service will be announced later.