Obituary: Robert Rietti, actor

Actor known as the Man with a Thousand Voices played a vital role in Bond movies, Robert Rietti. Picture: Contributed
Actor known as the Man with a Thousand Voices played a vital role in Bond movies, Robert Rietti. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 8 February, 1923, in London. Died: 3 April, 2015, in London, aged 92.

ACTOR Robert Rietti achieved only modest success on screen, in films and television. But he played an important role in the success of the early James Bond movies and in introducing Scottish film director Bill Forsyth to American audiences.

Known in the business as “The Man with a Thousand Voices”, Rietti was the guy film-makers called when they decided the original actor’s dialogue was not quite what was wanted, often because they were foreign and their English was not up to scratch.

He revoiced the villain Emilio Largo in Thunderball, one of Sean Connery’s early Bond films, and 007’s arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only, after Roger Moore took over. “In nearly every Bond picture there’s been a foreign villain and in almost every case they’ve used my voice,” he told Empire film magazine in 1994.

And it was not just foreign actors whose English could cause problems. Rietti was given charge of the revoicing operation on Bill Forsyth’s low-budget 1981 comedy Gregory’s Girl when the Scottish accents were deemed impenetrable for American audiences.

The film attracted the attention of Sam Goldwyn Junior, a successful independent producer and distributor. Rietti later recalled: “When Goldwyn saw it he said ‘My God, it’s beautiful, but I can’t understand two words. If Robert will dub it so I can understand it, I’ll buy it.’

“I went to Scotland to see if the actors could modify their accents because there’s nothing better than the original people, but they couldn’t.”

Many came from the Glasgow Youth Theatre and had only limited acting experience, though John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn went on to become stars.

“We redid the whole film, took it to American and it made a mint of money. They toured Gordon John Sinclair (he changed the order of his names) round various important cities giving interviews and nobody realised it wasn’t his voice.”

Rietti’s grandson Danny Rietti said: “He usually did some of the parts himself while he would have cast others to revoice the teenagers… Goldwyn wrote that he was always grateful for his direction of the revoicing, which Goldwyn felt saved the film.”

Dubbing happened for all sorts of different reasons, usually without any credit for the voice actor. Rietti regularly voiced Jack Hawkins on screen after the star got throat cancer and needed a voicebox, which made him sound a little like a Dalek.

Sometimes dialogue needed to be rerecorded in the studio, either in part or in total, for reasons that had nothing to do with the actor. And sometimes the original actor might be unavailable and Rietti had to mimic them.

Robert Shaw’s dialogue on Avalanche Express needed rerecording and the producers could not get Shaw back because inconveniently he had died in between filming and editing.

The son of a distinguished Italian actor, Rietti was born Lucio Herbert Rietti into a Jewish family in London in 1923. By the time he was ten, he was acting in theatre and films under the name Bobby Rietti. He played the character of Professor in the 1935 family film Emil and the Detectives.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Rietti was imprisoned as an enemy alien, along with his father, brother and 150 British anti-semitic fascists, one of whom tried to kill him. Rietti was saved when Italian gangsters intervened.

Eventually he was released and appeared in productions to entertain the troops. After the war he had small roles in such varied projects as Dickens A Tale of Two Cities and the comedy Blue Murder at St Trinian’s. He would go on acting throughout his career and appeared as a policeman in The Italian Job, a monk in The Omen and an academic in the Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal.

But from fairly early in his career he found himself in demand to rerecord dialogue. His voice was calm, mellifluous, urbane, but sometimes with a hint of menace. Word spread about his versatility.

He was involved in the James Bond films from the outset, voicing the British agent John Strangways in Dr No in 1962. Strangways gets killed at the start, but a few minutes later Rietti was providing the voice for another character else in another scene.

Adolfo Celi looked the part as the cold-blooded Emilio Largo, complete with eye patch, in Thunderball, the fourth Bond film. But his English was limited and he spoke with a strong Italian accent. So Rietti was called into action again. He worked on seven Bond films in total.

The huge international success of Thunderball led to more work for both Celi and Rietti. On the Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, Rietti voiced five characters, including Celi’s one, and wound up having conversations with himself.

That was nothing compared to Rietti’s work on the epic historical drama Waterloo. According to his own account, he not only revoiced Hawkins’ role, but 97 others as well.

Rietti also wrote plays and translated Italian works. In 1959 he and his father received Italian knighthoods and his title was elevated in 1988 to Cavaliere Ufficale. His wife Tina predeceased him. He is survived by two sons and two daughters.