Sunday, December 6, 2009
"Alive and Well and Living in Someone Else's Face"
Everyone's time comes eventually. Even a man of 3,000 faces.
This is the number one best obituary of all time.
Jan Leighton, Actor Who Played Everyone, Dies at 87
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: November 27, 2009
Jan Leighton, an actor who conjured a career by dressing up as historical figures, appearing in so many commercials, print advertisements and industrial films as George Washington, William Shakespeare and Christopher Columbus that he was both ubiquitous and anonymous, died on Nov. 16 in Manhattan. He was 87.The cause was complications after a stroke, said his daughter, Hallie.
Mr. Leighton, who was listed in the 1985 Guinness Book of World Records as the actor who had played the most roles (2,407), began his professional career as a legitimate actor, appearing on live television dramas and at least once on Broadway, in a 1960 Cy Coleman musical called “Wildcat,” starring Lucille Ball. But when the jobs became scarce, he reinvented himself as a walking, talking hall of fame, an impersonator for hire. He researched the characters, created his own costumes — he had more than 400 of them in his Manhattan apartment when he died — and often did his own makeup.
In disguise, Mr. Leighton might pop up in almost any medium. On television, he lit a cigar as Fidel Castro in a commercial for Bic lighters and sold Toyotas as Albert Einstein for a Southern California car dealership. He promoted a Minnesota savings bank as Abraham Lincoln and an Arizona department store as Robert E. Lee. For one bank commercial he portrayed Clark Gable, Groucho Marx, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, all complaining about other banks that charged for checks. He pitched Cheerios as Alexander Hamilton, beer as Johann Sebastian Bach, early mobile phones as Dracula and cough syrup as the Frankenstein monster. He even played Mr. Whipple’s twin in a commercial for Charmin bathroom tissue.
On film, he played Albert Einstein in a 1982 science fiction comedy “Zapped!” He motivated Westinghouse employees as George Washington and the salesmen of Scania trucks as Gen. George Patton. In print he appeared twice on the cover of New York magazine, once as Henry Kissinger and once as Leonardo da Vinci; he was Uncle Sam on the cover of Time. He was the face of Saul Bellow’s title character “Henderson the Rain King” on a paperback edition of the book, and appeared as a host of characters, including Confucius and Pericles, on the book jacket of Gore Vidal’s “Creation.” He made appearances at gala events and private parties as presidents and wizards and such.
He would go anywhere to do a job and would play anyone: Vince Lombardi, Babe Ruth, Gandhi, Mozart, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes. Ebenezer Scrooge, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, Charlemagne, Darwin, Wyatt Earp, Walter Cronkite and even Margaret Thatcher were all in his repertory.
“He was best George Washington of his day,” Jay Pearlman, who worked frequently with Mr. Leighton as a makeup artist said in an interview, adding that Mr. Leighton might get two dozen bookings as Washington in a year.
Mr. Pearlman remembered Mr. Leighton’s going to an amusement park in 1979: “I think it was Ashland, Ky. — and he shot four 60-second commercials in one day. He was a wolf man, he was a grandfather, he was General Patton and he was Groucho Marx. He’d call me up and say, ‘We’re going to San Francisco,’ and we’d fly out to San Francisco, and he’d do one Ben Franklin, and we’d get back on the plane and fly home.”
Mr. Leighton was born in the Bronx as Milton Lichtman on Dec. 27, 1921, and grew up mostly in east Harlem. His father, Harry, owned a handful of taxicabs and vending machines. Young Milton served in the Air Force in World War II, and afterward he studied music briefly at a university in Mexico City. He was living in El Paso and working as a shoe salesman when he decided to pursue what he had loved as a child — acting — and returned to New York. In 1949, like a number of Jewish actors, he changed his name in order to de-emphasize his ethnicity and get more work.
“His features were handsome but regular,” Mr. Pearlman, the makeup artist, said about why Mr. Leighton was so well suited to his work. “He could always submerge himself in makeup and in facial contortions.”
In addition to doing character work, Mr. Leighton was also a hand model, and he did numerous radio voices and voiceovers as well as children’s recordings. He and his daughter, Hallie, were the co-authors of two books, “Rare Words and How to Master Their Meanings” and its sequel, “Rare Words II.”
Mr. Leighton was married four times. The first marriage was annulled and the others ended in divorce. Ms. Leighton, who lives in Manhattan, is the daughter of his third wife, Lynda Myles; he is also survived by a son, Ross Leighton, of Queens, whose mother was Mr. Leighton’s second wife, Ruth Markowe.
The anonymity of his work was something Mr. Leighton embraced. Asked once how he was doing, he replied, “I’m alive and well and living in someone else’s face.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Scania trucks.
Correction: December 1, 2009
I am obsessed with Jan Leighton.
Here he is as ALFRED E. NEWMAN.
He could even class up that coonskin as Davey Crockett.
His FRANKENSTEIN is almost as good as his CHURCHILL.
I looked up the books he and his daughter wrote: Rare Words and Rare Words II.
I like his legacy so much.