05/05/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Dustin Hoffman, Sally Field and Robert (Kramer vs. Kramer) Benton may have been the big winners at this year's Academy Awards, but the honoree whose name came up most often was Alan Splet. Alan Who? "It always happens," deadpanned host Johnny Carson when Splet failed to appear to collect his special Oscar for sound editing on The Black Stallion. "First George C. Scott doesn't show, then Marlon Brando and, now, Alan Splet."
To ad-lib maestro Carson, the absence of the obscure sound editor was a golden chance to add ginger to the tedious proceedings with a running gag of "Alan Splet updates." Johnny placed him first as missing his freeway turnoff and later in a gas station with carburetor trouble outside Banning, Calif. Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away, the real Splet slept. He has been in London since January, creating sound effects for the film adaptation of The Elephant Man. He knew about his Oscar for several weeks, but even though United Artists would have paid his way to the ceremony, he decided he was too far behind to come.
A 41-year-old Philadelphian, Splet studied electrical engineering at Drexel Institute and worked as an accountant before an industrial film producer lured him away in 1968. He learned the craft on projects like a safety film for Bethlehem Steel and ones on contraception and venereal disease for the Navy. For Black Stallion, his first feature, Splet strapped a special microphone to the underbelly of a race horse to capture the sound of galloping hoofbeats. He also attached a mike to the steed's head to catch its breathing while on the run.
Splet, who leads a quiet life in the Noe Valley section of San Francisco with sound-assistant girlfriend Ann Kroeber, is bemused by his sudden notoriety. Only time will tell if the name Alan Splet has passed into the Hollywood lexicon and the Carson repertoire like, for example, Sonny Tufts. But there's no question about Splet's reasoning: "If I'd gone to the Oscars, I'd have been on and off in 10 seconds and people would have paid absolutely no attention."