The Voice

One man overcame all odds to become the voice trusted by millions. Now he takes on a new role: hero to fine arts students

Omar Mouallem - 19 December 2015

Alan Bleviss has a distinctive look - a shaggy white mane and woolly beard crowd his face - but it's his voice that is singular. Sonorous and honeyed, inviting yet imperative, his words have summoned you many more times than once from your living room to rent a car, to switch phone providers, to buy the leading brand of diapers and to see "the one movie you can't miss."

"There were other lines I kept using: 'In a world' or 'one of the best movies of all time,' " says the voice-over master from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, sitting beneath a framed original poster from what might actually be one of the best of all time. He narrated the trailer for Scarface in the early '80s, as well as those for Dirty Dancing and Flashdance, though producers stopped calling him decades ago, he says. "They're going for younger voices." These days, it's mostly commercials and documentaries that he narrates, just steps away in his home studio linked up through a network to New York and Los Angeles.

The 72-year-old actor, born and raised in Edmonton, earned a modest fortune doing voice work. He continually gives some of that wealth back, including endowing two scholarships to help University of Alberta students pursue theatre: the Bleviss/Motkovich Family Graduate Award and the future Bleviss/Motkovich Family Undergraduate Prize in Drama.

In recognition of Bleviss's success, the University of Alberta Department of Drama has named a technical auditorium the Bleviss Laboratory Theatre. He hopes the theatre, which officially opened in March, will be used for experimental productions. "I go to the theatre and it seems that the majority of the people there are grey-haired," he says. "I think experimental theatre, be it experimental in attitude or subject matter, will bring a younger audience."

But the reasons for his charity go deeper than trying to establish a future for theatre. He is passionate about accessible education and believes all education should be free, though he knows that will probably never happen and probably isn't pragmatic. "You need a commitment from the students," he admits. "But it wasn't free for me and I wasn't that committed, either." He erupts in bassy laughter that startles his nearby Doberman.

Bleviss wears his sense of humour prominently, and will happily tell you about some of the pranks he pulled while at the University of Alberta. His puckish nature even stretches into his philanthropy - including naming a theatre scholarship and two facilities in the surname of his deceased father, Joe Bleviss, who disdained plays and refused to fund Alan's education. (Motkovich is his mother's maiden name.)

Though the elder Bleviss once owned two performance venues in Edmonton, the Varscona and the Roxy - plus the former Garneau movie theatre - he saw them strictly as business ventures. As was Hub Cigar Store, which he tried to give his eldest son in order to dissuade him from pursuing schooling in the arts.

Bleviss was unfazed by his father's objections; he followed his love and became a gifted stage actor. But it was a Canada Dry voice audition that earned him his prestige. "It was something like, 'From the salt spray of the Pacific Ocean to the wheat fields of Alberta … the champagne of ginger ales.' And then I got my first paycheque. It would have taken me months to earn what I earned in an hour. I continued theatre, but in my lunch hours I would grab a bag of chips and then go do commercials."

Alan Bleviss

And there were many. AT&T. Kodak. American Express. The U.S. Democratic Party. "I was invited to Bill Clinton's inauguration - both times - but I didn't go, to keep the mystery. My voice will create an image for them to believe in."

His was one of only a handful of voices trusted to sway the American people. He earned a slew of awards, including six prestigious CLIOs and one in 1985 from the Cannes International Film Festival. But in 1992, at the peak of his career, he developed chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a crippling nerve disease that might have been brought on by a virus or a bug bite; he still doesn't know. It disabled his legs, leaving him on crutches to this day. "Sometimes I think this was God telling me to slow down. First, he took away my legs - 'Just slow down.' " Bleviss didn't. So next, he thinks, God came for his voice.

The disease paralyzed his vocal cords, leaving his voice - his gift, his livelihood - out of his control. He remembers nervously recording an AT&T commercial, hoping his voice could get through the 30-second spot intact. "I would start talking and my voice would just -" he inaudibly mouths words "- it would just disappear. It was just air." Other times it came out as a growl.

After years of speech therapy that involved singing - songs, his scripts, the newspaper - he regained control of his speech. But by then all but two of his clients had stopped using him for their projects. For 20 years, he hardly worked.

Today, Bleviss's faith tells him it was a painful blessing. In addition to commercial and documentary jobs, he's getting more out of life now: attending Scottsdale theatres, taking regular vacations with his three adult children, visiting his mother in Edmonton and building one of the most impressive Civil War token collections in the world. (Merchants privately minted the currencies in the 1860s when the American government shut down. About 700 collectors belong to the Civil War Token Society, over which Bleviss presided as president until 2008.)

His disability is also improving. Though he still requires crutches or a motorized scooter to get around, he's optimistic about a new treatment that he began this year. But most of all, he's happy to have mastered his voice again.

"So many functions of the body we take for granted, until you take a look at a newborn. When a child is born, you look at him and go, 'Wow - 10 fingers, 10 toes, a nose, two eyes, the kid can see something, and he's crying - he's alive. There is so much to what creates that sound, that voice."