Even if he had not appeared in episodes of The New Twilight Zone and Tales from the Darkside, I would still be writing about Adolph Caesar today. For although his name might not be familiar to you, odds are that you’ve heard his voice before.
Born in Harlem on December 5th, 1933 (some sources claim it was in 1934), Caesar eventually got into theatrical acting “just as something to do.” Before that, however, he joined the Navy after graduating from high school and eventually rose to the rank of chief petty officer. He started learning his craft at New York University. Although he had several television appearances and a feature role in the late sixties, Caesar took to the stage by joining the Negro Ensemble Company in 1970, later working with repertory groups like the Inner City Repertory Company, the Minnesota Theater Company and the American Shakespeare Company. It was around this time that he got into voiceover roles, lending his voice to countless commercials and film trailers. Although he did participate in the English dub for the animated French spoof Shame of the Jungle in 1975, he didn’t officially return to the screen until 1979’s The Hitter, which was followed by several other film roles while still providing voiceovers for a wide variety of ads and previews. One can easily imagine audiences being bowled over the split second they realized “The Voice” was onscreen. 1984 brought him what could arguably be his biggest acting break, playing Sergeant Waters in the film adaptation of the play A Soldier’s Story (a role he also played onstage). Just as how his stage portrayal netted him an Obie award and a New York Drama Desk award, his work on the film earned him an Oscar nomination. He also appeared in the Oscar-nominated The Color Purple as Old Mister Johnson, and made several other film and television appearances until 1986. On March 6th of that year, Caesar was in the process of playing the character Leon B. Little in the film Tough Guys when he suffered from a fatal heart attack. As he had only completed a single day of filming, his footage was scrapped and the scenes were refilmed with Eli Wallach in the role. In honor of his past work with the company, the Negro Ensemble Co. started the annual Adolph Caesar Performing Arts Award Benefit. Although his career was cut short far too early in life, he is survived by his wife, three children and legacy.
I’m not just referring to his acting roles, either. Although it’s true that he added a measure of class to schlockfests like Fist of Fear, Touch of Death and Shame of the Jungle and that his appearances will be shown in repeats and various home video formats for decades to come, it is his vocal work that defines him. From the 70’s through the 80’s, he was the voice of a generation, providing voiceovers in ads for everything from groceries to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Remember the line “…because a mind is a terrible thing to waste” from the United Negro College Fund commercials? Caesar originally provided that line. He was everywhere, on a scale rivaled only by the late Don LaFontaine. Although he narrated movie trailers (along with TV and radio spots) for both major studios and independents, his raspy, resonant voice provided an extra “oomph” to cult titles (especially horror films). He lent his voice to trailers for the original Dawn of the Dead, The Incredible Melting Man, both Blacula movies and countless others. It’s no wonder that when National Lampoon was putting together their Golden Turkey album, they tapped Adolph Caesar to record the hilarious ad for the faux movie “Prison Farm.”
While his work in that area was looked upon fondly by genre fans even while he could still be heard in theaters, appreciation for him only grew amongst horror fans as ads featuring his work often appeared numerous times in the many trailer compilation video cassettes of the 80’s. In more recent times, trailers featuring him have appeared on DVDs as special features, which tend to later get uploaded online on video-sharing sites and torrents. Narration from vintage trailers was reworked for use in ads for more recent movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and the Grindhouse edition of the Machete trailer. I have even heard a song using samples from his narration from the preview for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers trailer by the Meteors called “Halloween Scream” last October! I think it’s safe to say that fans will continue to hear his amazing voice for many years to come. For a more in-depth look at Mr. Caesar’s work on cult film trailers, please visit his entry at the Grindhouse Database.