When Meryl Streep needs to master a new accent—Polish for Sophie's Choice, say, or Danish for Out of Africa—she tackles it the hard way: She tracks down a native or two for aural study. Many other actors, including Al Pacino, Danny DeVito and Gregory Peck, use a much simpler method. They just pick up the phone and call Bob Easton.

Dubbed "the Henry Higgins of Hollywood," Easton, 56, has for the past 25 years performed linguistic transformations that would make Eliza Doolittle's mentor speechless with envy. Easton taught Pacino to imitate the broken English of a Cuban cocaine dealer for Scarface. He helped turn Jane Fonda into a raggedy-spoken Appalachian—and an Emmy winner—in The Dollmaker. Under his tutelage, Bryan Brown's Australian accent, which lacked "r's," thickened into the fine Scottish burr he needed for Tai-Pan, while DeVito's New Jersey twang became Baltimore-ese for Tin Men. Easton has even taught American Indians to speak more like old-time Indians, but his star pupil may be Japanese actress Yoko Shimada, who spoke virtually no English: For the mini-series Shogun, Easton coached her to pronounce her lines purely by imitation. In all, he figures he has taught some 100 regional and foreign accents—including Cajun, Minnesota Swedish and south Lincolnshire (England)—to 2,000 actors and actresses. Easton doesn't mind that Meryl Streep is not among them. "She's wonderful—she draws her accents from the life source," he says. "But most people don't have that ability because they don't know what to listen for. That's where I can help."

Easton does know about listening. Though he speaks no foreign languages fluently, he has made a career of studying speech patterns from all over the world. His sprawling Pasadena home is bursting with books, notebooks and tapes on every dialect imaginable, from Jamaican Creole to Micronesian Trukese. "My wife and I only live in one bedroom," he laughs. "The other rooms are filled with books." Because he finds eavesdropping educational, he is never without pencil and paper for jotting down overheard oddities. Speak to him for a couple of minutes and chances are he'll be able to pinpoint where you're from. "A Fuller Brush man came to our door years ago and started into his spiel," remembers Easton. "I said to him, 'So, do you get homesick for Pittsburgh?' That blew his mind."

Easton also has a flair for sharing what he knows. "Bob is the best in the business," says Ann Sothern, whose native upper Midwestern speech acquired a Maine accent for the forthcoming film The Whales of August. "I wouldn't work with anyone else." Whether he administers his two-to three-hour coaching sessions before rehearsals, during filming or in post-production, Easton varies his approach according to the actor's aptitudes. Visually oriented clients, like Charlton Heston and Steve Allen, benefit from seeing scripts respelled as their characters would pronounce them. "Ear-minded" types like Peck make tapes of the coaching sessions—their voices and Easton's—and play them back. For the most common accents Easton has invented his own whimsical versions of Professor Higgins' archetypal "rain in Spain" exercise. Americans struggling to sound British, for instance, are asked to repeat "Are you suh-tain that Richard Buh-tain threw up on the cuh-tain?"

Language didn't always come easily to Easton. A child prodigy whose over-zealous father "force-fed me intellectually," he felt inadequate and incompetent and developed a severe stammer by age 6. His parents' divorce and his subsequent move from Milwaukee to San Antonio with his mother improved both his self-image and his hesitant speech. The relaxed Texas drawl he picked up helped make him a favorite on the Quiz Kids radio program at age 14, and later, when he went into acting, it helped him land more than 1,000 radio, film and TV roles, including guest spots on Gunsmoke and Wagon Train. "If there was a shiftless sharecropper or a dopey deputy, it was usually me," he says. "One of my great memorable lines was on The Munsters when I met a pretty girl and said, 'Ma'am, yer jist as purdy as a bucketful of hawg livers.' "

Finally feeling straitjacketed by this Texas-boy stereotyping, Easton began teaching himself new accents—New England, Irish, German—and coaching a few actor friends. His 1961 marriage to June Grimstead, now 55, an English actress who laughingly claims he chose her for her accent, resulted in a three-year sojourn in Britain and the chance to study phonetics and dialects at London's University College. By the time the couple returned to Hollywood in the mid-'60s, it was clear to Easton that dialects were his destiny. He took up coaching full-time.

Today some might accuse Easton of taking his calling too seriously. He has no time for California fun and games. "We have no pool," he admits. "No Jacuzzi. No tennis court. I don't ski either." But Easton is a man with a mission. "A few narcissistic young actors who are only being themselves will put down the dialect skills of an Olivier or a Helen Hayes by saying it's just a bag of tricks," he says. "But Olivier always said to me, 'When I can find the voice, then I can find the character.' "

When a guy has Olivier on his side, it's awfully hard to argue, in any tongue.

  • Contributors:
  • Marge Runnion.