THE CREATIVE VOICE OF KEN SANSOM

Published: Friday, Jan. 31 1997 12:00 a.m. MST

SOMETIMES HE talks in the distinctive accent of Perce Newton, a fictitious older gentleman from Harrington, Maine. He may slip into the voice of Muddlehead, who bears a striking resemblance to the cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Or he may embody the fluttering, stammering voice of Rabbit in the currently popular cartoon, "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh."

No wonder his fans have compared him to the legendary Mel Blanc, "the man with a thousand voices." Although Ken Sansom has been said to have as many as 250 voices in his repertoire, he says simply, "I never counted them."Not only does Sansom convincingly create either a man's or a woman's voice, then shift back and forth easily and frequently, he can be any age he wants to be.

It all started in junior high, when he began mimicking friends and teachers and recounting the movies he had seen by imitating the voices of all the characters.

After graduating from East High School, Sansom attended the University of Utah, thinking he would study to become an architect. That idea died when he took a speech interpretation class, and the eminent professor, Louise Hill Howe, asked him to read an assignment aloud.

"I read it cold, and she said, `I'd like to see you afterwards.' I thought, `Oh, brother, that's all I need,' but when we talked, she said, `Did you know you have a talent?' I said, `No, Ma'am.' She said, `You do. You're able to take what is on the printed page and make it sound not read. You give it meaning.' "

Sansom transferred to Brigham Young University and graduated with a degree in broadcasting.

When Horace Heidt came through Salt Lake City, Sansom tried out for his show by mimicking the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Lionel Barrymore. Partly because he could also do Ethel Barrymore, Sansom won the top talent award on the Heidt show, then accompanied Heidt on tour around the country.

Later, while in the service in San Diego, Sansom had a reunion with Heidt, who got him into a Special Services unit and took him traveling again. When he got back, he spent most of his time writing scripts and preparing shows to be performed at the naval air station.

The experience was invaluable.

When someone suggested he pursue a career in New York, Sansom tried unsuccessfully to get on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." When his savings were depleted, he took a job as a cashier in a department store, where he met a number of people who increased his cache of characters but didn't help him get his foot in the door.

Finally, he went to Chicago, where he studied with Jimmy Kemper, a top-flight actor. Kemper told him, "You've got talent, but you're waiting to be discovered. It takes work."

Work he did, for about four years in Los Angeles, but with limited success. When he returned to Salt Lake City, Ray Briem, a popular KLUB 570 disc jockey, was cultivating a devoted following. For fun, Sansom called Briem's radio show, using various voices, most notably "Granny," who requested he play Elvis Presley.

When Briem refused, Sansom made a big thing of it. Speaking as Granny, he threatened to come to the Hotel Utah, where Briem was broadcasting a marathon and force him to play Presley. When Briem said, "Whatever," Sansom dressed up as Granny and drove a motor scooter right into the hotel lobby.

Soon Sansom was doing regular voices, like Muddlehead, on the Briem show, but got no money and no status. When Briem implored the station owner to pay Sansom something, he said, "What for? He's having fun!"

One night, Sansom accompanied Briem to a sneak preview, where he met Rex Campbell, KSL's program director. Campbell said, "Are you the guy who does the voices for Ray? If they don't treat you right at KLUB, come on over to KSL." When Sansom explained he was not actually employed by KLUB, Campbell formally offered him a job.

The result was "Sansom and Then Some," a whimsical, popular KSL radio show that ran from 1957-1963, utilizing Sansom's many voices. He once said he was one of the best-paid schizophrenics in the business, utilizing at least 20 different voices on the program.

Those were carefree days in radio, with Sansom ad-libbing everything he did on the program. Sansom would get an idea, usually from the news of the day, then adapt it to his show.

Just before air time, Sansom and Marshall Small, who assisted him, would sit down for a few minutes and brainstorm. Small would ask what they should talk about. Sansom would say, "How about Paul Revere? This is the anniversary of the day he took his ride. Let's have him get mixed up. You know, let's have him forget how many lanterns he is supposed to hang and where. Let's have Paul take the wrong route and end up down at Cape Canaveral or somewhere like that."

"Sansom and Then Some" not only provided music, talk, entertainment and news - it also turned occasionally and unexpectedly serious with commentary. One day, Sansom's editorial addressed the need for restitution by criminals: "Have victims ever been compensated by assailants, robbers, rapists or murderers?"

Sansom resolutely proposed that prison inmates work and earn a salary that would be applied to the expenses of their incarceration. "The rest will be distributed to the victim or the victim's family. Prisoner coddling is a tremendous injustice against a law-abiding citizenry."

The serious tone then faded as Sansom shifted to a conversation with a fictitious engineer in the studio and then asked for an opinion on the editorial from typical Sansom characters, like Arnold Packit and a beautiful lady in a soft pink dress with parasol.

The latter, whom he found in "a gorgeous park in Mississippi," got nervous at the mention of restitution. "If you're a bill collector, you'll have to talk to my husband, Beauregard. I know we've run up a lot of bills, but to Beauregard, a debt is a gift you didn't know about right away."

Acting as straight man, Sansom asked her if that clever statement really came from her husband. "No," she said, "I'm the intelligent, clever, gifted person in the family." And so continued Sansom's recurring joke affirming the differences in men and women - even as applied to himself and his own wife, Carla - that the wife is not only "the intelligent, clever person in the family - but the pretty one as well."

Although Sansom could have gone on indefinitely supplying the appropriate voices, music from his keyboard and sound effects for a diverse, lively show, KSL changed its format in 1963 - and he was out.

Quickly, he moved over to KCPX to do both a radio and a TV show, but they were disappointing and short-lived. He was making less money, and he had to go out and sell radio time on his own show.

So he left KCPX and started spending most of his time on commercials - until 1968. Reacting to the strong encouragement of his wife - "I couldn't have married a better woman" - he decided to move to Los Angeles, where his talent might be more easily marketed. To keep food on the table for his three children - Matthias, Melani and Malissa - Sansom got a job as a night watchman at Santa Monica Airport for $85 a week.

Sansom secured an agent, then worked for the summer at KBIG-FM. When he was chosen for his first national commercial by Chevrolet, he asked station owners for a day off to shoot it, but he was denied.

"So I quit," says Sansom, without apology. It was a crucial beginning for him in the industry, and he couldn't afford to let it pass him by. From then on, one thing lead to another, and a number of TV and movie roles followed.

He got a role in a TV movie of the week, "Where Have All the People Gone?" with Peter Graves, followed by a role in the movie "Escape from Planet of the Apes," with Roddy McDowell. Finally, he got a juicy part in TV's popular "Mayberry RFD," the successor to "The Andy Griffith Show."

"I was scared to death, because I had a big part. I stammered over my lines as a high school master of ceremonies, and they said, `Great, wonderful character.' Then I became the chief librarian in Mayberry. I was thrilled, because I had a TV series. I was in the last four or five episodes of the season, then CBS dumped it."

Later, he had a continuing role as psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Powell on TV's "The Days of Our Lives."

Sansom returned his focus to commercials, and in the next seven years became known as "The Commercial King." He was the pitchman for such well-known companies as McDonald's, Duncan Hines, Continental Airlines, Pledge, Toyota, Hunt's Tomato Sauce, Honda, Three Musketeers, Kellogg's, Tide, Green Giant Corn, Mattel Toys, Prell and Mocha Mix - all of them off-camera. He also spent three years as spokesman for Del Monte vegetables.

Sansom found that for about 30 minutes a whack, he could do voice-over commercials and be paid the same as he was for those that required his face on camera. So he dropped the on-camera work, except for the movies.

His most memorable role was in the Robert Redford-Paul Newman classic, "The Sting" (1973), in which he appeared as a nerd-bureaucrat who was displaced from his office so some of the film's principals could pretend to paint it while carrying out a prelude to the sting.

Even today, when "The Sting" is repeatedly shown on TV, people notice Sansom's brief but stand-out role.

In 1975, he played the chief steward in "Airport 75," partially made in Salt Lake City, a role that required him to be blown from the staircase of a 747. The same year, he was especially pleased to land a role as Daddy to Baby Snooks in Barbra Streisand's second film, "Funny Lady."

Because he had five meaty scenes in this film, he took his wife to the sneak preview, but found, to his dismay, that all five scenes had hit the cutting-room floor. "At the very end, it shows me with Streisand, and you hear my voice - that's it, but I get residuals all the time."

Residuals - the payment an actor receives by contract for each rerun of a film - have been Sansom's lifeblood.

Most of his roles required none of his many interesting voices. He just used his innate reading ability to convince the public that the product was worth having. Finally, his agent sent him out for cartoon roles, and he was subsequently hired by Hanna-Barbera to act as voice for various scary characters.

Among others, he did "The Little Ponies," "Moondreamers," "The Littles," "The Transformers" and finally, his most long-standing role - for the past 10 years - as Rabbit in "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh."

Over the years, he has done several Disney films, as well as a number of University of Utah theater productions, playing such colorful characters as Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey," the agreeable mayor in "Inherit the Wind," and the pious judge in "Witness for the Prosecution."

The energetic and charismatic Sansom is pleased with his diverse, unpredictable life in show business. "I was never eligible for unemployment compensation. I always worked or had a residual coming in. Since only about one percent of actors earn a living in acting, I consider that a really great blessing."

Because Sansom, who is LDS, thinks his talent is God-given, there were several roles he passed on rather than risk jeopardizing his principles. "I'll play a drunk if it shows that being drunk is not good. But I won't play a drunk just to be funny."

He remembers auditioning for a Woody Allen film once in which he was supposed to portray a motel owner who is reading Playboy magazine alternately with the Bible, depending on who is in the room.

"One thing you learn early in the business is that you don't say, `I don't do that sort of thing.' So I did a pantomime of it, and Allen said, `Great,' but I told my agent I didn't want to do that. I teach Sunday school, and even if I didn't, I wouldn't want my kids to see that."

The agent probably told Allen that he was "not available" for the role. He also has always stayed away from cigarette and alcohol commercials and anything else he thought might put him in a compromising position.

At a time when most people would be tempted to bask in accomplishment and retire, Sansom has moved back to his beloved Salt Lake City, where he has built a dream home overlooking the valley, and remains active in the voice business. He puts up with the inconvenience of dividing his time between fax machines and Fed Ex packages. He maintains a studio in his home, so that when he gets a call from his agent, he can produce an audition tape in an afternoon and get it to California the next day.

Currently he is interested in selling a new concept to radio stations. He has produced several five-minute vignettes designed to provoke thought and offer diversion from a regular programming schedule. He hopes to see those air in several radio markets, preferably three or four spots within an hour of broadcasting.

After all, radio has been his first love since he was a child. But today he finds the crucial ingredient - "imagination" - conspicuously missing from radio. "Every place you go, it is used for background."

Sansom has had so much success that he tends not to worry much about the future. Even though "in this business, worry is your middle name," he is not even overly concerned about the health of his income ticket - his rich voice. Like most people, he's had occasional voice problems, but he relies chiefly on natural antidotes, such as "camomile tea with a raw egg and just a touch of vinegar."

If he does have voice trouble and he is scheduled to cut a tape, he has the luxury of slipping into the older, comfortable tones of Perce Newton. That's OK, because any of his multiple voices enable him to do what he loves best - use humor as a perceptive mirror of society.

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