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Jackson Beck, 92; his voice became staple of radio shows

It is likely you never knew the name Jackson Beck, but that was never the point anyway. In all its varied personas across 60 years, you knew The Voice.

''Look! Up in the sky!" it told an unseen audience from an unseen place. ''It's a bird, it's a plane . . ." and the rest we all know.

The Voice floated through living room radios on shows such as ''The Cisco Kid" and ''''CBS Radio Mystery Theater."

In cartoons it became Brutus to menace Popeye and in television commercials it sold a thousand products -- from Ex-Lax to Brawny paper towels to G.I. Joe action figures.

In the very particular art of the radio and television voice-over, Jackson Beck, who died Wednesday at 92 after several years of declining health, was considered one of the masters.

''For me, he's the last of the grand old guard of radio performers," said Fifi Oscard, his longtime agent. ''One of the giants."

In fact, Mr. Beck was 5-foot-3, a gruff but endearing, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing New Yorker who spent a few years in Queens and Long Island but lived most of his life in his beloved Manhattan.

He was the son of silent film and Broadway actor Max Beck. Jeff David, a friend, said he spent a few years as a runner on the New York Stock Exchange then left to pursue a career in radio, which intrigued him with its ability to take people out of themselves.

It was the golden age of that medium, and in 1931, Mr. Beck started out on the soap ''Myrt and Marge." He worked steadily for 60 years after that.

He impersonated Fredric March and Edward G. Robinson in radio dramatizations of movies. Jack Benny adored him, requesting The Voice whenever he was in New York for a show.

One story goes that Orson Welles, being flattered after taping a commercial, said, ''I appreciate the compliment, but you obviously have never heard Jackson Beck. . . . He is a king, and all the rest of us who labor in this business are commoners."

Mr. Beck's craft was a particular one, a different sort of acting that required the unusual ability to achieve intimacy with an audience of invisible millions. It required, Oscard said, the ability to disappear.

''A great actor has an operative ego," she said. ''A great voice-over has to put the ego away, and the word has a surpassing importance."

While Mr. Beck took pride in his work, he saw little glamour or artistry in it.

''My job is to sell a carload of whatever the hell it is," he told Newsday in 1990, ''to clean out the supermarket shelves, and get them replenished. . . . I'm an advertising man, and I treat my voice as a business. People who treat it as art don't make money."

At the end of the day, he told his friend David, he was a ''working stiff."

Much of Mr. Beck's life was devoted to supporting colleagues through work in the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. While Mr. Beck held positions on local and national boards, he helped in other quiet ways, too.

''He made a lot of money in his life and he took care of a lot of people and nobody will ever know who they are," David said. ''He always sent his friends money; broken down actors, radio and TV people. . . . He was a fiercely loyal friend."

Mr. Beck married twice. His first wife died, and he was married 27 years to his second, Bernice. She died in 1986.

In later years, Mr. Beck appeared as a voice in two Woody Allen movies, ''Radio Days," a tribute to the golden era of radio, and ''Take the Money and Run." He worked until the mid-1990s, which was essentially until he couldn't work anymore.

''It wasn't just the quality and timbre of his voice," David said. ''It was his ability to communicate through the microphone to make you, the listener, in your bedroom or living room feel he was talking just to you, and you alone."

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