Saturday, September 18, 2010

Billie Mae Richards, Iconic Voice of Rudolph, Passes

A Christmas classic has been silenced.

The woman behind the voice of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer has died after suffering a stroke at her home in Canada. She was 88.

Actress Billie Mae Richards voiced the popular festive cartoon in the early 1960s and the TV special has since become a seasonal institution.

Richards landed the part thanks to her ability to speak like a young boy.

A veteran of Canadian radio, she's credited as Billy Richards in the Christmas show, narrated by Burl Ives.

Like most of the cast, Ms. Richards was a veteran of Canadian radio when the producers traveled north to assemble the voices for the program based on the 1949 song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Radio dramas were still going strong in Canada in the early 1960s, providing producers with a stable of voice actors, Ms. Richards told Filmfax magazine in 2005.

Her trademark — being able to speak like a young boy — was well-established when she took the part of Rudolph, the misfit reindeer who saves Christmas in the stop-motion animation production. She was credited as "Billy Richards," which further obscured her gender.

"Kids won't believe it when my grandchildren tell them that their grandmother is really Rudolph," Ms. Richards said in the Filmfax interview, but she said she could prove it by conjuring the voice on the spot.

Producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass also went to Canada because they could record the voices for the special more cheaply, according to Goldschmidt.

Narrator Burl Ives, who voiced Sam the Snowman, was the show's only celebrity. He also was the only actor to receive long-term residuals, a point that rankled Ms. Richards and other Canadians in the production as "Rudolph" became a classic that is still shown during the holidays.

She earned residuals for three years, a business deal she regarded as a "sore subject," Ms. Richards said in 2000 in Toronto's National Post.

Yet Rudolph remained her favorite part, Ms. Richards once said, and she reprised the role in two sequels, "Rudolph's Shiny New Year" (1976) and "Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July" (1979).

Whatever Rudolph did, "he's doing it for a reason," she said in the Filmfax interview. "That's why it's been so popular. That and Burl Ives, for heaven's sake."

Born in 1921 in Toronto, Ms. Richards was the daughter of a silverware salesman who had aspired to a stage career.

At 2, she was taking dance lessons and by 5 she was dancing and singing in stage revues.

During World War II, Ms. Richards joined the Canadian Navy and entertained troops in Canada and Europe.

After the war, she studied at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto and went to work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

For 25 years, Ms. Richards performed in radio dramas and had her greatest success playing a boy called the Kid on "Jake and the Kid," which aired in the 1950s.

She went on to act in more than 25 film and television projects, including Care Bears movies and animated TV shows.

As it became clear that she would be remembered for giving voice to Rudolph, "she really embraced it," Goldschmidt said.

As Ms. Richards said on National Public Radio in 2004: "What better legacy can you leave than a show that everybody loves?"

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