To begin this story, I first must explain what Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax are. In basic terms, it is a concept where comedians provide a commentary to a movie that makes fun of, or “riffs”, the movie. In the case of Mystery Science Theater 3000 it was a bunch of B-movies, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. With Rifftrax, it is any movie that strikes their fancy. You just download the audio file and sync it to your DVD.
This story begins with the Rifftrax version of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In this movie we find Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy on trial in a Klingon court for assassination. Presiding over the trial is an ancient Klingon, hooded and cloaked, speaking with a gravelly voice.
One of the comedians, Bill Corbett, commented, “You know, we are being reminded of better movies. The phlemgy-voiced judge is played by the same man who played the hick in Giant Spider Invasion.”
“You consider that a better movie?” another prompts.
“Well, getting hit over the head would be better than watching this film, and Giant Spider Invasion mimics the effect of being hit over the head.”
Giant Spider Invasion was a 1987 film written, set, and shot in Wisconsin. It was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000. And, as the title suggests, it is a low-budget monster movie. Robert Easton happens to star as a particularly unlikeable Wisconsin dairy farmer who is more than willing to sell tainted meat to his neighbors, when he’s not cheating on his wife or hitting on her underage sister.
“Amazing,” I thought, “to see an actor from such a low-budget film be in a ‘Star Trek’ property. I wonder what else he did?”
Well, first of all I discovered he wrote Giant Spider Invasion and funded a good portion of it. But that is only a small slice of this Hollywood legend’s story.
He was born just before Thanksgiving in 1930. The son of John Edward Burke and Mary Easton of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Robert Easton (aka Robert Easton Burke) was an average midwestern child – except he had a very pronounced stutter. In spite of these humble beginnings, he would become known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices” and “The Henry Higgins of Hollywood.” Ultimately, his career would span sixty-six years and hundreds of movies and television shows. Chances are very good one of your favorite movies or television shows received the touch of Robert Easton.
From the Academy Award-winning performance of Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland to the gravelly-voiced judge in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Robert Easton became a necessary fixture in Hollywood for decades. Not because of his acting chops, which were above average nonetheless. Not because of his looks, which even he would have acknowledged were not “conventionally Hollywood handsome.”
No, Robert Easton became “The Man of a Thousand Voices” because his method of dealing with his childhood stutter was to become arguably the best accent and dialect man in the business. In fact, just weeks before his death at age 81, he was coaching John Travolta on how to sound Bosnian for his 2013 film with Robert De Niro, Killing Season.
According to Easton himself, and the New York Times, Robert was able to mimic at least 200 different accents. And not just accents like laymen view them (i.e. “British” or “Southern”) but the individual dialects of those accents. Famously he once told Robert Duvall, when asked to teach him how to do a Virginia accent, “Which one? There are twelve distinct accents.”
Needless to say, he went on to successfully coach the actors of Gods and Generals to sound authentic.
His greatest triumph, he would tell anyone, was Japanese actress Yoko Shimada who won a Golden Globe for her English-language performance in Shogun. She did not speak a single word of English. Easton taught her how to speak flawless English phonetically.
So how did this stuttering, gangly kid from Wisconsin become one of the most sought-after men in Hollywood? It all started in 1937 when his parents divorced. His mother took the boy to San Antonio, Texas. While in Texas Robert noted that the locals spoke slower – in the typical Texas drawl – and that deliberate drawl allowed him to control his stutter. He retrained himself to speak with a Texas accent.
By 14, his intelligence and colloquial way of speaking landed him a semi-permanent gig on the radio show Quiz Kids. At age 18 he was playing “country bumpkins” on everything from Jack Benny to Gunsmoke.
But he quickly saw himself being typecast because of his accent so he decided to learn others. This is where he learned he had a unique talent for mimicking others.
In the 1960s, accents became a consuming passion for him. He moved to London and studied phonetics at University College. He returned to Hollywood after three years of study and learning several new accents.
By the mid-1960s, Easton had two careers: actor and dialect coach. As a dialect coach he quickly became highly demanded. His method was simple, learned partially from his maternal grandfather: “Be cool, calm, and deliberate.” By applying this method, along with the way Texans spoke slowly and more drawn out, Easton accidentally hit on the way to learn dialects: one word at a time to start, slowly, sounding the words out and building that into sentences.
One of Mr. Easton’s rules about learning accents was you do not make fun of the accent or joke around. He coached his students to immerse themselves in the language and culture of the accent they were learning so they would better understand it. Instead of just mimicking an accent, Easton was teaching them to think and talk like someone from the region they were portraying.
Robert Easton’s teaching wasn’t limited to actors, however. He coached lawyers who were unsure of themselves in the courtroom, CEOs and board members who needed to be better at public speaking, and even just friends and family who were worried they weren’t very articulate.
The crux of Easton’s method was simple: slow down, think about what you are going to say, and say it as you thought it. Basically, he taught himself, and then his students, to edit before speaking. It seems simple but it turned out to be the foundation for learning any accent. He would go on to say it was also the foundation for learning any language (Easton was also multi-lingual.)
The list of movies he worked on behind the scenes is impressive: Khartoum, Inchon, Scarface, The NeverEnding Story, The Beverly Hillbillies (show and movie), Good Will Hunting, The Last King of Scotland – just to name some of the award-winners.
But it doesn’t just end there. Not only was he teaching actors how to sound authentic, but he was sounding authentic himself in his own acting roles, including: The Red Badge of Courage, Gunsmoke, Father Knows Best, Wagon Train, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies (show and movie), Petticoat Junction, Perry Mason, Get Smart, Lassie, Pete’s Dragon, Primary Colors, Gods and Generals, and Lost. That’s just some of the notables.
In his personal life, Easton remained faithfully married to his wife June for 44 years – up until her passing in 2005. They had one daughter. His passion was language and literature and his personal library had over a half million books. They demolished a tennis court and built a two-story library on his property to house them all.
Mr. Easton never stopped teaching, and he never stopped learning. Up until his death he was still studying languages and accents. His personal library was sold at action in 2015, 250+ different lots of rare and old books in multiple languages. The total value was not listed, but a cursory glance at the auction site suggests an amount somewhere between $50,000-100,000.
Easton died on December 16, 2011, of natural causes. In spite of being largely unknown outside of the inner-circles of Hollywood, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both ran full-page obituaries on the legend. Sadly, most of the movie going public would never know who Robert Easton was or his incalculable influence on Hollywood and media in general.
I was one of those people. The lesson I learned, brought to me by an off-hand joke in a Rifftrax episode, is that just because someone is involved in a bad movie it does not mean they are a bad writer, director, or actor. This is a lesson I somehow knew peripherally already, thanks mostly to Roger Corman, the King of B Movies who, while often completely shooting a movie over a weekend and releasing it within a month, somehow also made some of the gems of pop culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Robert Easton is even more of an example of that. Some of his most public work is not his best. A Klingon in one of the least-loved of the often-panned “Star Trek” films. A hick in a bad monster movie. Yet he was also the driving force behind some of the greatest Academy Award Winners of all time. From Sir Lawrence Olivier to Charlton Heston, if you dig into the credits you will often find that their award-winning performances were coached by the venerable Easton.
I’m sad that I wasn’t aware of who Robert Easton was before his passing. But I am so happy I was able to discover him posthumously. Because the way he enriched Hollywood enriched all our lives, and he deserves recognition for that.
ErikMcketten is a published author, streamer, and Editor-in-Chief of TEST Gaming TV.