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Hanging on His Every Word Giving voice: Audio books superstar Frank Muller vividly brings to life characters from Hamlet to Hannibal Lechter.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

VENICE, Calif. -- Normally, The Voice comes from a cassette player, but right now it is emerging from this pleasant man who has opened the door. "Come on in," it says, all friendliness.

The Voice's deep timbre is recognizable, but it is uncharacteristically mild. It exudes none of its trademark world-weariness when it baby-talks to the pleasant man's two German shepherds, and it doesn't sound the least bit ironic when it offers cookies made by the man's wife.

Ah, but when The Voice is Sydney Carton declaring, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done," it is hard to imagine greater nobility. And when it is Nick Carraway saying, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," it is impossible to feel anything but loss and disenchantment.

And on those occasions when as Hannibal Lechter it hisses, "Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?" The Voice is evil incarnate.

The Voice is also without peer in the ever-more popular genre of recorded books. According to The Library Journal, it is "the first true superstar in the world of spoken word audio." When The Voice does narration, says author Stephen King, who wants none other to read his books, "The blind will see, the lame will walk and the deaf will hear."

Right now, though, The Voice is trying to be reassuring about Ayla, the more outgoing of the German shepherds.

"She's friendly," it says. "She's in heat now, so she's very friendly."

The line is uttered perfectly, with just the right inflection, a small example of the timing and delivery that make Frank Muller, The Voice's vessel, audio books' most sought-after narrator.

So popular is he as a reader, says Claudia Howard, head of studios for Recorded Books, that for many listeners, Mr. Muller is a bigger draw for a book than its author.

"I think there are women all over the country who are in love with Frank because they have this intense experience with him one-on-one through the books," she says.

That intense experience starts here in Mr. Muller's sunny bungalow, where he now does most of his recordings. At 44, he is a tall, square-jawed, square-shouldered man with longish brown hair just beginning to make its distinguished way to gray. As an actor, Mr. Muller has had a long string of credits in theater, television and commercials, but it is his work in audio books that has earned him his greatest celebrity and the devotion of thousands of fans.

While audio books still have a limited audience -- particularly the unabridged versions in which Mr. Muller specializes -- he is as proud of his narrations as anything he does on stage or before cameras. Perhaps more so.

"I do regard it as an art form in and of itself, its own medium, as is the theater, as is television, as is film."

And as its own art form, he believes, audio books narration requires a very particular set of skills, which not all actors possess.

The primary one is versatility, because unlike a screen or stage actor, an audio books performer must play all the parts, not just one. One of Mr. Muller's most striking gifts is his ability to give distinct personalities to a seemingly endless range of characters.

"It's an indulgence for an actor because you get to play all the parts, but that also makes it very demanding," Mr. Muller says. "I may play the macho hero; I also have to play the 4-year-old girl and the 80-year-old Auschwitz survivor and the gangsters and ++ the Nazis and the cowboys, the men and the women."

Changes in a microsecond

Admirers marvel at his versatility. "He can change from one to another in a split second," said Henry Trentman, founder of Recorded Books of Prince Frederick, for whom Mr. Muller often records. "Most people can't do it if they have 10 days to rehearse, and he can do it in a microsecond."

In Pat Conroy's "Beach Music," which Mr. Muller recently performed, the central character has three brothers and three close friends. "That's seven white guys of the same age from the same town in South Carolina who go through several decades of life experience," says Mr. Muller. "I have to keep each of them distinct and separate, give each of them their own identity, and then we have to watch them grow and mature as their various paths take them through two decades of life experience.

"Plus there are between 30 and 50 other characters in that book, and 628 pages of narrative text. You've got to keep all those balls juggling in the air and keep it alive and keep all your listeners awake for 28 1/2 hours."

While he is able to make each character distinctive, Mr. Muller does not view himself as an impersonator. "It's not voices, you see; it's characters," he says. "The author, having written the character, will define the character for me, and I will tailor to that. Yes, I always begin with myself and who I am. But if I said to you I had a repertoire of 312 voices, that would be ridiculous -- that's not what I do. What I do is I play the characters as they are brought to me by the author's words. In that sense it is infinite."

What's essential

He does, however, use a variety of dialects, if characters are written with them, and he does do women, although not by making his voice sound effeminate. "That way madness lies, and I would be on the receiving end of well-deserved ridicule," he says. Instead, he often delivers a woman's lines in a higher register while imbuing her with her own tone, inflection and personality. "The characterization is what is essential and critical."

While it is impossible to rehearse a book ahead of time, Mr. Muller says it is crucial to be prepared and to make careful choices. "The wonderful and the terrible thing about this is that the minute a character speaks -- even if it's only two words -- you have an entire human being that you're responsible for as a performer."

Mr. Muller has given the craft a great deal of thought, which is no wonder after having narrated more than 120 unabridged works. His recordings range from classics such as "A Christmas Carol" and a single-voice recording of "Hamlet" to Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and other modern fare.

A surprise career

When he became an actor, Mr. Muller never envisioned that recording books would become the staple of his career, but then, the industry barely existed.

In 1979, Mr. Trentman, then a traveling salesman, decided to satisfy his own yearning to listen to books during the endless hours he spent in the car by founding Recorded Books. Searching for a narrator, he put up a notice backstage at Washington's Arena Stage.

Mr. Muller, Holland-born and Minneapolis-bred, was a young member of the company then. He also read books for the entertainment of his then-girlfriend. She coaxed him into answering the ad, and with a reading of Jack London's "The Sea Wolf," he became Recorded Books' first narrator. While he has continued to do stage and screen work -- a pursuit that brought him first to New York and then to Los Angeles -- he has been recording books ever since.

And ever since, the industry has exploded. Audio books is now a billon-dollar business, which grows by as much as 40 percent every year, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

While Mr. Muller has remained loyal to the company that gave him his start, he now also records for other publishers and has recently started doing more abridged work as well.

A year ago, Mr. Muller built his own small recording studio just off his dining room, and he is sitting in it now, applying himself to Part 4 of Stephen King's "The Green Mile," a serialized novel that takes place on death row. Mr. King specifically requested that Mr. Muller do the narration, and he is having fun with it.

"If you tell any of your candy-assed friends I said that," Mr. Muller is saying into the microphone in a suddenly wizened voice, "I'll deny it until Aunt Rhody's gray goose comes back to life, and these men'll back me up. You got a problem, son."

He doesn't like his delivery of the last line, and with a remote at his fingertip, he backs the tape up. "You got a problem, sonnnnn," he repeats, this time holding that last syllable an extra beat or so to add the right dash of menace.

Listening to Mr. Muller's narrations, it is clear he does not simply read, but he interprets as well, something else that distinguishes him from some narrators. "He is really giving us performance literature," says Robin Whitten, editor of AudioFile Magazine, a monthly magazine about audio books.

Not apologetic

Some purists believe that is precisely why audio books should not exist, that they place a filter between the text and the reader. But Mr. Muller, who sometimes refers to himself as a storyteller, is not the least bit apologetic.

"It is unquestionably a performance and an interpretation, but it is my responsibility to be absolutely true as I can be to the author's intent," he says, "and I have done a good job when I illuminate the text for the listener, not when I obscure it or impose myself on it."

Although Mr. Muller is not a recognizable face on the streets of Los Angeles or anywhere else, from the letters he receives and the responses he gets at his occasional public readings, he knows his fans feel an attachment to him that may be stronger than that directed toward other types of actors.

An intimacy

"The audio book medium is very intimate; it's very one-on-one," he says. "When I sit in a studio and work through a microphone, I am reading to one person at a time because I am aware that they listen one at a time. That creates an intimacy and a feeling on the part of the listener that you know me very well, and you do in many ways, especially people who listen to a narrator's work for years and will have spent literally hundreds of hours in intimate contact."

Those hours will go on and on and on.

Mr. Muller is in the enviable position as an actor of having far more offers for narration than he can possibly handle. After "The Green Mile," he'll be working on Elmore Leonard's "Stick" and soon after James Hall's "Buzz Cut." Then it will be on to Hemingway.

4 Coming soon: The Voice as an old man in the sea.

Hear The Voice

To hear Frank Muller reading excerpts from the Pat Conroy best seller "Beach Music," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6165. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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