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The voice: Career as dialect coach began with the kindness of strangers
By Charles Swenson
Charles Hadley speaks softly, but has a sharp ear.
You need both in his business.
Hadley retired several years ago from his day job as a professor of comparative literature and linguistics at Queen’s University in Charlotte. He isn’t quite ready to give up his other line of work: coaching actors to speak Southern.
He took his name off the list of technicians that studios keep, but his wife has urged him to put it back. He used to be at the top for Southern dialect coaches. “It was a very short list,” he said.
But Hadley has a list of credentials that’s hard to equal, starting with his first job when he coached Vivien Leigh for her role as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on the London stage. He’s worked with Charlton Heston, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Richard Widmark, Nick Nolte, Laura Dern and, in his last screen credit, John Travolta and Scarlett Johannson.
He also gets calls. One was from Tom Hanks who was trying to pin down an accent for “Forrest Gump.”
“It sounds so name-droppy, but this is my work,” Hadley said during a visit to Pawleys Island.
He grew up in Statesville, N.C., and started coming to Pawleys Island with his family in the 1930s. Now 84, he missed a few years recently until Tom and Jo Claire Dulin, friends from Charlotte, invited Hadley and his wife Jane to spend a week at their condo in Litchfield by the Sea.
“You can imagine what it was like in the ’30s when we first came down,” Hadley said. “I’m like a homing pigeon. I just have to get back once a year, and I’ve missed several years.”
One thing about Pawleys in the 1930s was that it was cheap.
Hadley’s father was a hardware salesman who lost everything at the start of the Great Depression. He rebounded and started a hardware store in Statesville.
Hadley was born the year after movies began to talk with the premiere of “The Jazz Singer.” When he was 10, his parents let him see “Gone With the Wind,” but only after he promised to cover his ears for Clark Gable’s final line.
“Of course I never did,” he said.
He graduated from Davidson College and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in France. It was 1949. “There were still unexploded bombs in the roads,” Hadley said. “I saw Europe almost in a state of war.”
His travels took him to London where he sat in on some classes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
“The head of the school, the dean, came to me and said there’s a call for an American, in fact she read me the request. It said ‘Wanted, genuine American, Southern, preferably cultured.’ Of course all the English students laughed at that,” Hadley said.
He said he wasn’t interested.
“Well, for your information,” the dean said, “it was put in by Laurence Olivier.”
“I thought, that sounds like a possibility,” Hadley said.
The job Olivier had in mind was coaching his wife Vivien Leigh in “Streetcar,” which he directed.
“It was so unbelievable because I had fallen so in love with her as a child back in Statesville when ‘Gone With the Wind’ appeared,” Hadley said. “It was an extraordinary adventure. It was my first sailing into dialect coaching, which became kind of a second profession for me.”
It was a decade after Scarlett O’Hara and Leigh wanted to brush up her Southern accent. Hadley was with her every day. “I would read the London Times in my good old North Carolina accent. I didn’t know any more. I was 21. What does anyone know at 21. But that was sufficient,” he said.
They would also read the script and Leigh shaped her speech for Blanche around his accent.
“I would watch her every night from the wings and what is so miraculous, I didn’t know this of course, she was really having a nervous breakdown playing a person having a nervous breakdown,” Hadley said. “As far as I could tell in my limited knowledge, she was all right. She was high strung, but she wanted to do it right and she worked and she worked to get what she thought was the speech.”
He would drive with her from her home to the theater, but Olivier told him not to speak to Leigh on the ride. She was already in her role, and no one else was allowed to speak with her.
One night while Hadley sat outside Leigh’s dressing room Winston Churchill arrived.
“Here’s this country boy from Statesville saying to the man who won the war, who led us to victory, saying ‘I’m sorry, sir, you can’t come in until after the show.’ ” Hadley said. “When I think about it, the effrontery just boggles the mind.”
Someone in the cast mentioned his name in Hollywood as a dialect coach, but the information stayed in the files. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that he got a phone call.
“Would you be interested in doing the dialect coaching for ‘Chiefs’?” he was asked. “We have a record of you being a dialect coach.”
The mini-series based on a book by Stuart Woods was due to start filming in Chester. Hadley declined, but the producers asked him to give it a try.
“Down I went to Chester and began the most extraordinary experience of my life,” Hadley said.
The cast included Heston, Paul Sorvino and Keith Carradine.
“Many people, including Hollywood actors, think we all talk alike. And that would be Gomer Pyle. My biggest job is to tell these actors we’re so different,” Hadley said.
The director of “Chiefs” asked him in front of the cast whether he could do a Southern accent. “And I said, ‘I reckon I can, I’ve lived here all my life,’ ” Hadley said.
He tried to point out there is more than one. The director wanted “Chester.” So would that be black or white, urban or rural, rich or poor, Hadley wanted to know.
“Most people think it’s all one accent, but it’s simply not,” he said. “It’s become my life’s work listening and learning about accents.”
It’s a field that continues to evolve along with the language, but one that is full of unknowns.
Hadley coached Nick Nolte in “The Prince of Tides” and the actor called to get advice when he played the title role in “Jefferson in Paris.”
It’s impossible to know how Jefferson sounded, or even when the American accent diverged from its English roots. “The unknowns about language are so great. It’s one reason it keeps me so interested.”
Coaching dialect is a skill best acquired through experience, Hadley said. “As far as I know, there are no schools.”
“One of the most important qualities is to get along well with the actors,” he added. “I think I’ve done that well.”
And most actors are willing to work hard to get the accent right. Most have an ear for the sounds. But not all.
Without naming names, Hadley recalled one actor who never grasped the quintessential Southern word Bubba. It came out buh-BAH. “I said, no, the accent’s on the first syllable, like brother. Can you say brother?” Hadley recalled. The actor said he could.
The camera rolled. “In the first take he said, ‘Come in the door, Mr. buh-BAH.”
Try bubble, Hadley suggested.
“He never got it and there was not a thing I could do,” Hadley said.
He would occasionally get calls from people seeking help to lose their Southern accents. “I say why? Be proud of your Southern accent,” Hadley said. “There’s such a social stigma.”
The television series “Homeland” is being filmed two blocks from his home and he paid a visit to the set recently. “I had a cameraman say to me, ‘Every time I hear a Southerner speak I subtract a hundred points from their IQ,’ ” he said.
He used to be teased about his accent when he started working on films. “I go along with it. I’m good natured,” Hadley said. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. It did in the beginning.”