Remembering Peter Thomas

Off topic today, I want to pause and recognize the passing of a remarkable man.

Peter Thomas

Peter Thomas

His name may not be familiar, but if you hear his voice, you most assuredly will recognize the distinctive sound of Peter Thomas. Peter passed away this past weekend at his home in Naples, Florida. He was 91. Most recently, Peter narrated Forensic Files on TruTV. You can also hear his voice on episodes of the PBS series NOVA. He narrated documentaries, recorded promotional announcements for NBC News and did countless TV and radio commercials. Over the years, he also became my friend.

I met Peter while I was working at an advertising agency in Phoenix in the late 1980s. I was a young copywriter who had just been promoted to Copywriter/Producer. The promotion did not include a raise in salary, it simply meant that in addition to writing commercials, I now had the added responsibility of producing them as well. I had been given the assignment of writing a 60-second radio commercial for one of our clients, a local art museum. Our Creative Director had selected Peter Thomas to record the spot. Peter would record from a studio in New York City and I would direct him over the phone. I was told that Peter was a national voice talent and was charging a lot of money to do the commercial. And we were paying by the quarter hour for the New York City studio. Nothing like putting the pressure on a young advertising guy.

The copy included a number of Native American Indian names which were difficult to pronounce. I wrote them out phonetically on my script so I could effectively direct Peter. When the session started, I dialed into the New York studio. The session engineer answered the phone and told me he would begin to set up the "phone patch" which would allow me to talk directly to Peter through his headphones in the announce booth and direct the session. This was my first time doing any of this and I was plenty nervous.

The engineer introduced me to Peter. He asked me a few questions about the client, where the commercial would air and a few questions about me. Then he asked how I wanted the copy delivered. Geez...I really didn't know. This producing thing was harder than it looked. Peter sensed my inexperience and said "Why don't I give you a read or two and you can see if we're on target?" Peter read through the copy, in exactly 60 seconds I might add, and his delivery was amazing except...he mispronounced one of the Indian names. I walked him through the correct pronunciation and he asked if I wanted to give him any additional direction on his delivery? I thought maybe I should produce and direct a little but all I could think of was "purple mountain majesty" and I blurted out "How about a more mountainous read?" The engineer cut in "Mountainous? What does that mean? Peter? Mountainous?" Peter, sensing that I had no idea what the hell I was talking about or at the very least, could not communicate it clearly, responded "I think I know exactly what John wants here. Let's roll tape."

Peter recorded the spot again, pronounced the Indian name correctly and delivered the most majestical, mountainous, magical read possible. After the playback, Peter told the engineer that I was brilliant and that my direction was "spot on." Over the years, I have worked with less experienced, less talented voice over and on camera talents, who treated advertising agency people as a nuisance. Peter was one of the best in the business and he took the time that morning to make a young, inexperienced ad guy feel big and important. That was a defining moment in my career. And I never forgot it. The client, by the way, loved the spot and the campaign was very successful.

I worked with Peter many, many times over the years. Some of the projects were big and some were quite small. Even when I did not have a budget for national voice talent, if the campaign seemed perfect for Peter's voice, I'd call him. He would ask me what the client could afford and I'd be honest with him and Peter would do the work. No matter how much he was being paid, he was always professional, courteous, gracious and...amazing.

Peter served in World War II in five major campaigns including The Battle of Normandy and The Battle of The Bulge. He was issued a Battle Star for each of his campaigns and a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He was married to Stella Barrineau Thomas, the love of his life, for 68 years until her death in 2014. 

A great voice has been silenced and I will miss my friend.

Here is a Peter Thomas narration if you care to check it out.