When Jim Dale reads Harry Potter, he does all the voices hundreds of them. Hermione is the voice of his first girlfriend (they were 13). Dobby, the house elf, is the midget who stood behind him in a crowded elevator and said, Excuse me, sir, could you take your bum out of my face? Dale, who is 69, a Shakespearean actor and a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, is the guy who narrates the Harry Potter audio books. He has otherwise been P.T. Barnum, Petruchio, Autolycus and Voltaire. He is a guy who, once a year, hears 200 voices in his head, all of them imaginary. I am a little intimidated. It is a sunny day when I meet Dale for tea at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where he is staying overnight. The hotel is fancy and golden, with peach marble and truckloads of yellow tulips in glass vases. When Dale appears, he is straight off the plane, and a bit tired. But his eyes are kind. Professor Snape is the sort who sneeeers, he says. Dale created all the characters before the first movie came out, and his slithering, sneering Snape is the polar opposite of Alan Rickmans clipped, stick-up-his-bum Snape. I know Alan, he says, and thats the way I knew Alan would do it. Hes wonderful. In terms of character-voice evolution, Harry in Book 6 is just a little older. It could very well be that his voice has broken over the winter. Hes come back for the summer with a slightly deeper voice. I found that I didnt have to put my voice up one level higher. I kept it to what it is now.What it is now is sort of mellow and midtone. Not too high, not too deep. A voice more butterbeer than blood-red wine. J.K. Rowling, who was familiar with Dales stage work, had asked him to be the voice of her books, and Dale, who had never done an audio book before, thought it natural to create different audio personalities for each character. He drew a color-coded chart to keep track. He flips open his plastic binder and indicates a photocopied passage. This is for the reading tonight, he explains. Something straight from the book. Notes in pencil are scribbled about. There are pink and yellow highlighter dots. He reads a line Well call you, murmured Ron then takes a sip of his drink. Instead of tea, Dale is drinking tap water, lukewarm. Juice tends to dry you out, as do fizzy drinks. Now, I dont know that its Ron until I get to that name. Every time I read a line by him, I have to put a dot in the corner. Everybody has a different color. (Rons dots are pink.) Live readings are easier than studio recordings, which are exacting. If the line says ha ha ha ha ha, you have to read ha ha ha ha ha. Word for word. Just as he is telling me that the Potter books are not that big a part of his life, he spots someone lurking nearby. Someone squat and compact, with a tuft of white hair. Theres a mate of mine. Dale bounds up, lanky chicken limbs akimbo, eyes gleaming. The men embrace, tickled to see each other. Arte Johnson and Dale were in Candide together. Dale squeezes his friends cheeks, ruffles his hair. Are you getting another one of those cheap awards? Johnson teases, referring to the Audie Awards, the Oscars of the talking-book world. Those readings are terrible, by the way.Sorry bout that, Dale laughs. They talk wives (Johnson: Hows Julie? Dale: Shes better than nothing!), vacations and Rowlings opus. Its C.S. Lewis in scope, they agree. Its Narnia. You never know what shes going to do next. Harry could end up being pope or president of Miramax. But its good to be able to leave something behind for the grandkids, says Dale of his audio books. My numbers are getting bad, old friend. Johnson shakes his head. I read the papers and say, Oh my God, hes gone? Its bad when people you know are winding up on postage stamps. The men sigh. Dale pats my knee.Later at Storyopolis, Dale performs some of his funniest Potter scenes: Professor Sprouts Herbology lecture, the mournful Sir Nicholas ghostly Death Day party and a truly magnificent rendition of a Quidditch game, with commentator voice done in classic breakneck sports-announcer style. The audience, whom Dale divides into Gryffindors and Slytherins, cheers rowdily. He invites kids to read it like Jim Dale did and makes funny faces as a little girl does a loud, nasal Mrs. Weasly. Difficult, isnt it? says Dale. Of all the characters in Harry Potter, I had asked earlier, which one are you? Oh dear, Dale said after some thought, No ones asked me that question. They say whose voice are you, and, well, Im Harrys . . . But who am I? Peeves, maybe. Inside, Im a clown.
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