Rex Harrison walked, talked, squeaked and squawked with the animals in his upper-crust English accent for the original 1967 film version of “Doctor Dolittle.”
Eddie Murphy stuck with his own American accent when he portrayed the creature-communicating physician in two comedies, 1998’s “Dr. Dolittle” and 2001’s “Dr. Dolittle 2.”
As Robert Downey Jr. steps into the role for “Dolittle” (in theaters Friday), the “Iron Man” star takes on the vocal equivalent of battling Marvel uber-villain Thanos: His doctor has a Welsh accent, which the actor has described “the single hardest accent on Earth.”
The accent derives, of course, from Wales, the tiny country to the west of England that produces many stars (Taron Egerton, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among them) but which is rarely spoken in cineplexes.
USA TODAY review: New ‘Dolittle’ does little with Robert Downey Jr.’s animal magnetism
Dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland) and Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) speak in "Dolittle." (Photo: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
“Welsh is a very particular accent and hard to pull off. It’s a brave choice, I take my hat off to Robert Downey Jr. for going for it,” says Simon Thompson, a Los Angeles-based Welsh film critic who was surprised to hear Downey zeroing in on his home accent. “He went deep to make this character Welsh, with no explanation why, and it didn’t go well all the time.”
Few actors or films have dared. Director John Ford’s 1941 film “How Green Was My Valley” was set in Wales and is rightfully dismissed by the locals, Thompson says. Even British actor Tom Hardy struggled with it in 2014’s “Locke.”
“It’s just a tough accent to do,” says Thompson.
The Welsh people have collectively wondered if Downey was going to have a go at their accent since the first “Dolittle” trailer teased it in November.
“Is his Dr. Dolittle character Welsh?” a headline on the Wales edition of the BBC website asked incredulously.
“I can’t say I’m chomping at the bit to see this new ‘Dolittle,’ but will sit through it just to hear Downey Jr.’s accent,” BBC Radio Wales film critic Gary Slaymaker wrote. WalesOnline predicted the “Avengers” star “looks set to singlehandedly boost the Welsh tourism industry through the roof” by even attempting the accent.
Robert Downey Jr. takes sail as Dr. John Dolittle in "Dolittle." (Photo: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
Downey addressed fans on Instagram at the time with the words, ” ‘Ello butty.” (Welsh slang for “Hi, friend”).
The elocution is a vocal step away from the original literary character, Victorian English Doctor John Dolittle, originally concocted by author Hugh Lofting while serving in the World War I trenches with the British Army. Rather than write home about the horrors of war, Lofting sent illustrated letters to his children that featured the physician with the unique ability to speak to animals. The author wrote his series of 12 beloved children’s books, starting with 1920’s “The Story of Dr. Dolittle,” after moving to Killingworth, Connecticut following the war.
Harrison’s English accent for the 1967 movie, a big-budget bomb, was only a slight variation of his Oscar-winning performance as Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 hit musical “My Fair Lady.”
“It fits with the literary character. But it was like the director said, ‘Rex Harrison, keep doing what you’re doing.’ The accent was very much held over from ‘My Fair Lady,’ ” says Matthew Kennedy, the author of “Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s.”
“Dolittle” filmmakers declined to speak to USA TODAY about the shift in accent. But producer/star Downey was quoted in the film’s media notes saying it was his call to make the misanthropic Dolittle a Welshman.
Rex Harrison was all English in the 1967 musical "Doctor Dolittle." (Photo: 20TH CENTURY FOX)
“I thought it’d be even better if he’s Welsh because, even though the Welsh are part of England, they give the English a lot of guff,” said Downey.
The actor worked with a dialogue coach and a “Welsh consultant” (actor Tim Treloar). He recorded and listened to interviews with Welsh actor Michael Sheen for further tips. “At least for the running time of the movie, it will be able to stand up to scrutiny,” Downey predicted of the accent.
Sheen, incidentally, veered away from his native tongue in the film, adopting an English accent playing Dolittle’s campy nemesis Dr. Blair Müdfly.
The verdict from the rest of Wales on Downey’s intonation will come after the film’s worldwide release this weekend. But Thompson is ready with his accent review.
“When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s really bad,” Thompson says. “But as flawed as it is, it warmed the cockles of my heart to hear a Welsh accent in the cinema.”
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