Herb Graham, voiceover actor for ads — including Obama’s Senate run — dies at 87
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter August 28, 2013 8:04PM
Herb Graham could make you hunger for a hamburger — or maybe even vote for a future president. His cinnamon-toast voice, warm and fatherly, sold Weber grills, United Airlines and the campaign of a young up-and-comer named Barack Obama. Mr. Graham, 87, died Aug. 19 at Skokie Hospital.
Updated: September 30, 2013 2:06PM
Herb Graham could make you hunger for a hamburger — or maybe even vote for a future president. His cinnamon-toast voice, warm and fatherly, sold Weber grills, United Airlines and the campaign of a young up-and-comer named Barack Obama.
Mr. Graham, 87, died Aug. 19 at Skokie Hospital.
“Herb’s genuineness and warmth animated every script he read,” said political consultant David Axelrod, who tapped Mr. Graham to do spots for Obama when he ran for the U.S. Senate. “He was my go-to guy and voiced-over hundreds of my ads, including Rich Daley’s.”
Mr. Graham was also the go-to talent for ad legend Joe Sedelmaier, who created fresh, subversively funny commercials.
“I used him a lot because he was always very straightforward. There was no ‘sell’ in his voice,” Sedelmaier said. “What a wonderful guy to work with.”
They collaborated on spots for WLS-TV’s “Happy Talk” news in the Joel Daly-Fahey Flynn era. And Mr. Graham did voiceovers for ads including Jell-O, Campbell Soup and Gatorade.
It wasn’t just his talent that made him stand out. He had no show-biz ego, Sedelmaier said.
Axelrod agreed: “I loved working with him. All my firm alumni are mourning.”
Mr. Graham, whose birth name was Herb Grossman, also was the voice of the Booby Beaver puppet on the long-running TV show, “The Magic Door.” Countless Chicago area children of all faiths tuned in to watch the Jewish-themed program, which began airing in the 1960s during the cartoon desert of pre-cable Sunday mornings.
Mr. Graham grew up in Chicago, the child of Russian immigrant parents. He attended Patrick Henry Elementary School and Roosevelt High, where he met his future wife, Estelle, in French class.
After being assigned to work on a French project together, they found each other so intriguing that they made the homework last. “We would walk eight blocks to a park every afternoon under the pretense of writing a script,” she said.
Even in the 1940s, his rich voice stood out. He read the dictionary to exercise his vocal cords. Teachers tapped him for talent shows and presentations.
He graduated in 1944 and joined the Army. He was sent overseas, but a doctor said he had the flattest feet he had ever seen. Instead of going into combat, he was assigned to the Armed Forces Network. He started quiz programs that were broadcast to the American forces.
“That’s where his life began, as far as radio,” his wife said.
Mr. Graham was assigned to Berlin and Biarritz, France, during the final months of the war. “He was headquartered in [Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim] von Ribbentrop’s summer home, and he said they had waiters waiting on them; lavish quarters,” his wife said.
After the war, he landed a radio job in St. Joseph, Mo. He returned home to study speech, audiology and psychology at Northwestern University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He and Estelle married in 1948 in a simple ceremony with tea cakes served afterward. They lived with her parents because post-war housing was scant. Later, they moved to Skokie and Morton Grove.
Mr. Graham did an early-1960s WRSV children’s radio program, “For Children Mostly.”
His radio stints included jobs at WAIT (AM) and FM 100, where he hosted the “Hour in the Middle of the Evening” for 26 years.
He shifted from broadcasting to freelance voiceovers, doing work for Kraft Foods, State Farm Insurance, Sears and Traffic Safety School films.
At one point, his recorded voice could be heard in exhibits at the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, where he narrated the chick-hatching display.
Mr. Graham wouldn’t do tobacco ads on principle, and he gave up smoking to protect his voice — but also because his three daughters worried about his health.
Illness could mean no paycheck, so “He stayed away from anybody who sneezed, coughed, might have a flu, or even looked like they were sweating,” EsteIle Graham said.
For more than 20 years, he performed on the Pacific Garden Mission radio drama, “Unshackled!” It airs worldwide. “When Herb would finish his performances, he would find a young child in the visiting audience, speak with them, and give them his script,” said the Mission’s Flossie McNeill. “He touched the lives of so many individuals.”
Mr. Graham was active with the SAG-AFTRA union, and he performed with the union’s Senior Radio Players, re-enacting classic radio programs at the Chicago Cultural Center.
He worked up until a year ago.
“He had such a warm and friendly voice,” radio historian Chuck Schaden said. “He’d get the intention. He’d get ‘the voice.’ He’d get the sell, whether they wanted it low-key, or a little more aggressive.”
In addition to his wife, Estelle, Mr. Graham is survived by his daughters, Nancy Graham, and Penny Foglio, and four grandchildren. His daughter Jill Graham preceded him in death. He donated his body to medical research. A celebration of his life is being planned.