2008-07-01 04:47:02 UTC
FRANZ RUSSELL, 71: ACTOR
Stratford actor chose anonymity as a television voiceover
After a stage and screen career, he found that commercials
paid better. His work on food products was so lip-smackingly
evocative that he came to be called 'succulent Franz'
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 30, 2008
VICTORIA -- His was a familiar voice amid a cacophony of
Franz Russell's melodious pronouncements extolled the
virtues of cars and credit cards, jeans and juice, milk and
margarine, hamburgers and gasoline, pain remedies and
For many years, he was the radio and television herald of
Duracell batteries, offering basso profundo assurance that
"You can't top the coppertop."
When he declared AT&T to be "the right choice," it was hard
When he promised "hot, fresh, golden-brown, crispy chicken
from your microwave," it was hard to doubt the tastiness of
Shake 'n Bake.
His voice was warm, authoritative, trustworthy. Millions
would recognize the tone, though he was unknown by sight. To
maintain anonymity, he merely needed to keep his mouth shut.
Four Clio Awards were recognition from the advertising
industry of his talents behind a microphone. He became a
voiceover specialist after a stage and screen career in
Toronto and Vancouver, including roles in top dramas, as
well as some memorably inept Canadian television
productions. In a field not known for rewarding the
character actor or the bit player, Mr. Russell earned a
healthy income through his tireless schedule. "I approach
acting as a business," he said in 1966.
He was a performer without formal training, launching an
acting career from the humble beginnings of a high-school
radio program in his hometown. His after-school work on High
Time for Teen Time sparked a desire to perform on stage.
Born in Oshawa, Ont., he first won notice in the Toronto
newspapers as one of a "cast of little-known players" in a
production of The Rise and Fall of Marvin Derwent at the
Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont. Mr. Russell played a young
man who lives in a theatre.
A children's theatre production of The Dandy Lion placed him
in the role of Dalton the Daring, a sadistic lion tamer
whose cruel antics the audience was encouraged to hiss. He
had a secondary - and less villainous - role as a penguin.
Much in demand, Mr. Russell appeared on stage in a
production of The Glass Menagerie that offered public
performances at Toronto high schools, and on television in
the hour-long drama The Great Casa Loma Purchase on CBC's
Show of the Week. He also had a role in the CBC series
He found time in his schedule to attend the 1965 wedding of
Toronto actor Bill Kemp to Lady Iris Mountbatten, a cousin
of the Queen. Alas, the actress Lauren Bacall and her
husband, Jason Robards, were unable to attend the ceremony
as she was appearing on Broadway in Cactus Flower.
When not on stage or before the television cameras, Mr.
Russell was busy as an advertising pitchman. He appeared as
a barman for O'Keefe breweries and as a milkman for Borden
dairies. The actor had so many well-paying gigs that Globe
theatre critic Herbert Whittaker profiled him in an article
with the headline: An actor proves there are opportunities
to make money in Canada. Mr. Russell told the critic he
expected to earn $20,000 in 1966, had an agent who collected
10 per cent of his earnings (except for stage work), and had
more assignments than he could handle.
"Perhaps this burly, cheerful and energetic young actor is
more versatile than many of his fellow actors," Mr.
Whittaker wrote. "He may also be more businesslike, more
The 1960s offered theatrical possibilities away from the
stage. In 1968, Mr. Russell attended a house-wrecking party
with artists and socialites in the tony Forest Hill
neighbourhood of Toronto. An architect wished to have
destroyed an 11-room building he had purchased. A Yorkville
model in attendance described the soiree a "super-scene."
The following year, the actor helped raise funds to aid in
the legal defence of the producers of the controversial play
Futz, who faced a trial on obscenity charges.
In 1969, Mr. Russell was cast in a Toronto-based situation
comedy that producers hoped would be shown in daytime in
Canada and in prime time on a U.S. television network.
Starring Diane Nyland and Steve Weston as newlyweds Doug and
Tracy Young, the show's scripts were based on a popular
1930s radio program, Easy Aces. Mr. Russell played a
brother-in-law. The Young Marrieds was billed as the first
five-a-week serial sitcom in television history.
As it turned out, the show was rejected by all the American
networks. Renamed The Trouble with Tracy, the Toronto Star
described the production as "deep in trouble" before a
single episode aired.
Plagued by a small budget, tired scripts, and a breakneck
shooting schedule of seven shows in five days, The Trouble
With Tracy came to be seen as the epitome of everything
wrong about Canadian television.
Peter Kenter declared it to be the "worst Canadian show ever
made" in his 2002 book TV North. Five years ago, the Comedy
Network announced a revival of the series, an outrageous
unlikelihood that convinced a few critics before the move
was revealed to be an April Fool's joke.
Mr. Russell was cast in other television shows produced at
the CFTO studios in Toronto, including The Waterville Gang,
a children's puppet show set in an aquarium. He portrayed a
town councillor in Barney Boomer and its Upside Town sequel,
both filmed on location at Oakville, Ont. He also appeared
as a panelist on the show What on Earth.
Other Canadian television credits include roles in Wojeck,
The Beachcombers, Razzle Dazzle and Quentin Durgens, M.P.
On the big screen, Mr. Russell portrayed a small-town
businessman in Paperback Hero, a 1975 release filmed in
Delisle, Sask., that The New York Times called "a simple but
intriguing movie that says much if you are willing to
Mr. Russell befriended Robert Mitchum while working together
on Agency, a 1980 movie produced by Robert Lantos, former
CEO of Alliance Communications Corporation, that won three
He won his first Clio Award for a 1975 radio spot for the
B.C. Government's Alcohol and Drug Commission. Other Clios
were won for 1986 television commercials produced by the New
York advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather for clients AT&T and
Shake 'n Bake.
Perhaps because he so enjoyed food himself, Mr. Russell's
voice work on certain commercials was so lip-smackingly
evocative that he came to be called "succulent Franz." He
was versatile, too, a big man who voiced ads for vegetables
not as the Jolly Green Giant but as his sidekick, the Little
After working in Manhattan and Los Angeles, Mr. Russell
settled at Hilton Head island, S.C., where he and his wife,
Robin Douglas, co-hosted a public-affairs radio program
called Around the House. She had launched her radio career
at station CHIC ("Where the girls are") in Brampton, Ont.
After a stage hiatus of more than two decades, he returned
to the boards in Savannah, Ga., in 1996 in Here's Love, an
adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street. With his girth, jolly
disposition and white beard, he was not surprised to be cast
as Kris Kringle.
Mr. Russell once told The Globe that he felt shame that he'd
"never had any formal training in the business I've chosen.
"I've felt sort of awkward in social situations where people
are rapping about how well so-and-so handled the theory in
that part; and how so-and-so went to RADA [Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art], and how somebody else went to this other
theatre school, and I never went anywhere, you know."
Franz William Russell was born May 31, 1937, at Oshawa, Ont.
He died June 8, 2008, of heart failure at his home in
Guyton, Ga. He was 71. He leaves the former Robin Douglas
(nee Marilyn Allan), his wife of 39 years, as well as a
daughter, stepson two granddaughters and a sister.