The Voiceover Artist Left His Prints Everywhere
Peter Thomas’ voice has lured me away from all kinds of good intentions: organizing tax documents, cleaning between the sofa cushions with the Dirt Devil crevice tool, going to bed early.
It’s not easy to describe his voice, although I’ve listened to it for a minimum of 600 collective hours. Thomas was the narrator for Forensic Files, and he’s part of the reason fans like me can’t stop rewatching all 400 episodes of the true-crime series’ 1996 to 2011 run.
Toned up. I guess what’s so inviting about his narration is that his warm, assuring voice is devoid of affectation. He speaks smoothly, although not in a “you’ll get 150 sparkling silver gem studs absolutely free with your BeDazzler” manner. And like all voice artists, he has great diction — but it’s not so crisp as to make it alienating.
“Peter Thomas is the same guy who narrated school documentaries,” says Paul Dowling, executive producer of Forensic Files. “He’s not some sleazy guy from AM radio. He makes it okay to watch.”
Indeed, something about Peter Thomas’ narration enables me to see an episode about a college student who hacked his father to death with an ax — and sleep like a baby afterward.
Randy Thomas, a voiceover artist who narrates the Tony Awards, also admires his work on Forensic Files.
“There are some voiceover actors who think they’re doing a good job just because they pronounce the words correctly,” she says. “Peter was different. He had an inquisitive nature about so much of life, and that transferred to whatever he narrated.”
Sunshine boy. My own dream of interviewing Peter Thomas someday — and having that voice all to myself for a little while — expired when he passed away last year, but I had fun researching a bit about his life.
Thomas was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1924, to two people who enjoyed speaking aloud and enunciating well: an English teacher and a minister.
“His father told him to paint pictures with words,” says Randy Thomas (no relation, but the two were close friends).
Peter Thomas started acting in school plays as a child and, at age 13, picked up some voice work at a local radio station. A sponsor gave him flying lessons for free because he was too young to receive a real salary legally.
G.I.-normous. At 18, he took a detour, enlisting in the army and then fighting German gunfire in Normandy, France, in 1944. He earned a Purple Heart after suffering a shrapnel wound during the Battle of the Bulge.
After returning to the U.S. and marrying longtime girlfriend Stella Ford Barrineau, he worked at Memphis radio station WMC at night and went to college during the day.
His big break came when a Hamilton Watch Company executive heard Thomas’ voice on a Florida poetry program and invited him to New York City for an audition. He won the gig, and soon nationwide audiences got to hear his voice say: “The passage of time is beyond our control, but it passes beautifully when Hamilton marks the hour.”
No mere vapor. A tidal wave of offers followed. CBS hired Thomas as the New York City anchor of The Morning Show with Jack Parr. Thomas narrated medical shows and educational documentaries and did commercials for Estée Lauder, Coke, American Express (“Don’t leave home without it”), Visine, Listerine (“The taste you hate twice a day”), and Hewlett-Packard.
A 2004 Broadcast Pioneers documenatary from Florida station METV recalled how — in the days long before TV assaulted viewers with Preparation H and Cialis commercials — Stella rebuked her husband for narrating a Vicks Mentholatum ad. She didn’t appreciate having to watch ointment rubbed onto an actor’s chest.
Plenty of more-serious work came his way. He snagged narration gigs for the PBS series Nova as well as for the History Channel — the holy grail for voice performers.
Didn’t phone it in. His association with Forensic Files began when the 30-minute docu-series was still in development. “I fell asleep on the couch one night and there was a World War II documentary on,” says show creator Paul Dowling, “and I heard this voice, and he was carrying the whole thing. It was mesmerizing.”
Thomas turned down Medstar Television’s offer for the Forensic Files job at first because he was still earning a fortune from TV commercials and other one-offs. But after some persuading, he agreed.
His approach to the gig reaffirms one of my favorite truisms about life: No matter how talented the worker, there’s no such thing as an easy job. Thomas would spend six hours rehearsing each script at home. Stella would give him feedback.
“Forensic Files is on somewhere in the world at any given time,” says Randy Thomas. “There’s always the consistency of Peter Thomas’ voice behind the microphone, and he’s become the show’s brand.”
He also occasionally contributed to the show editorially.
“If he didn’t like something I wrote, he’d say, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but can I change this?'” recalls Dowling. “And I said, ‘I can take all the help you can give.’ We never told him to just shut up and do the script, which is how most producers treat talent, and I didn’t find out until his funeral that we were the only ones who didn’t treat him that way.”
Thomas remained in demand for his work through age 90. He died at 91, on April 30, 2016, but his voice lives on — and not just on recordings. His sons, Peter Jr. and Douglas, followed him into the profession. — RR
Update: Read 10 fun facts about Forensic Files narrator Peter Thomas.