Goodnight Mr. Berns

As a voice agent, it’s one thing for a talent to leave the agency, it’s another for a talent to leave the world entirely. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced this too often but on Sunday, we lost a great one with the sudden death of Don Berns.

Don was already part of the talent roster when I bought PN Agency in 2002. He was, in one way, a certain type of voice you hear all the time in the industry: the deep voiced, seasoned radio pro, or as I like to call them, an ORG (old radio guy). I have written before about how much I like representing ORG’s here but Don had something extra: he was at heart, an actor. Not just a strong voice but a true performer. Just the perfect combination of artist and actor and broadcaster, all served with a healthy side order of ham. He landed a large percentage of voice gigs that were anywhere near his wheelhouse: years of national commercials for True Value hardware, the imaging voice of The Sports Network (TSN) and the Bell Express Vu movie channel, hundreds of radio spots and corporate narrations. But for every more traditional voice job he did, like the narrator of the true crime series Cold Blood, he would be cast in a more nuanced role like the James, Brother of Jesus documentary. And of course, the gig that brought him and the agency the most acclaim was the voice of the Global Television network, which had him recording at the Global studios on a daily basis for several years.

As you can imagine, being a talent agent means dealing with a wide spectrum of personalities and egos. Don was all personality and no ego. Gracious, humble but larger than life – a pleasure to represent. In over a decade of working together, I can’t recall an argument about anything or a harsh word between us, perhaps with the exception of the time Don left an expletive-filled 3 minute rant on my voice mail about a parking ticket he’d received at the end of voice session that had run way overtime. And even there, the anger was directed at the client, not me.

It’s impossible to develop a friendship with every talent who passes through the agency door but there was always a true bond with Don. We shared an approach of not taking life too seriously, a love of radio/broadcasting, a sympatico view on most political issues (most notably American politics, given we were both American citizens) and I like to think a similar approach to our work and dealing with people in our profession: that you could be professional but playful, firm but kind and most of all, self-promote without arrogance!

Don invited me to lunch a couple of years ago and broke the news that he was leaving the agency. It wasn’t me, it was him. Or something like that. He had carved out a nice later-in-life acting career, both on-camera and in the theater, and he felt it was time to rejoin ACTRA and purse more acting roles. His new agent would represent him in all areas, including voice. He expressed some sadness at leaving the agency which was clearly a reflection of the friendship more than just the professional relationship. As you often do, we said we’d stay in touch and in his case, it wasn’t that hard. Don had several email mail lists for his various interests and pursuits: political, comedic and industry. He was a constant presence on Facebook and with his wide spectrum of friends and colleagues tagging him in various photos and performances, his name was in my in box and his face on my computer screen on a fairly consistent basis. This is in addition to in-person reunions: a mutual friend’s birthday party in March, a Toronto film fest party event in September etc.

I have been touched by the tremendous outpouring of affection for Don on Facebook and various corners of the web this week. It’s really no wonder. He was a radio legend in the U.S. (see here) and Canada (here), a pioneer of the electronic music and rave scene here in Toronto (here), and as mentioned, his career touched almost every area of the industry, from theater to improv to television and film.

For years, we had a running joke about how he could never attend the PN Agency Xmas party because I always seemed to schedule it on the same night as a family event he always attended. In fact, of the 10 or 11 agency parties held during Don’s time on the roster, I can only recall him attending 1 time. This past December, though, I extended an invite to him. This time, he was actually able to make it and he had a blast re-connecting with former voice over and radio colleagues. This was the only time I can remember inviting a former roster member. At the end of the night, he gave me a warm hug and expressed a genuine gratitude for still being considered “a part of the family”. If it had to be the last time I saw him, I’m glad that was the moment.

RIP Mr. Berns. You were truly an original creation.

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5 Responses to “Goodnight Mr. Berns”

  1. A Journal of Musical ThingsDon Berns, CFNY Legend Passes Away. - A Journal of Musical Things Says:
    March 4th, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    […] remembrance from someone who used to work with Don in the world of […]

  2. Ellison Berns Says:
    March 4th, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    I am Don’s brother and have spent countless hours clicking my way thru the multitude of tributes piling up throughout the ether and in print. Too many to thank but yours touches me quite deeply. To have contributed so much and influenced so many between the dash we inhabit from the time we are born to when we die is a feat, and Don did it.

  3. Trevor Says:
    March 6th, 2015 at 8:31 am

    Great piece. I didn’t know him, but now I think I do.

  4. Ros Feldman Says:
    March 8th, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you, Roger. Your words and recollections mean a lot to me. Don and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at your Christmas get together, and on the road home he said…that man is what you would call a mench. A higher complement he could not pay you.
    Ros.

  5. Don Berns, CFNY Legend Passes Away | 102.1 the Edge Says:
    March 9th, 2015 at 8:45 am

    […] remembrance fromĀ someone who used to work with DonĀ in the world of […]

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