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The Man Who Spoke ‘Game of Thrones’ Into Existence

Before HBO came along, there was Roy Dotrice, an actor who created hundreds of voices for the audiobooks of George R.R. Martin’s novels, bringing Westeros to life for millions of listeners

Jason Raish

Karen Dotrice remembers being fast asleep when the phone rang. It was the middle of the night and her father, Roy Dotrice, was calling from Ireland, where he was getting ready to make a cameo in Season 2 of Game of Thrones. He was nervous.

Before leaving for the 2011 shoot, Dotrice had worked hard to memorize the script for the role of Wisdom Hallyne, the pyromancer who guides Tyrion and a skeptical Bronn through the wildfire reserves of King’s Landing. Dotrice had been acting almost his entire life, on both stage and screen. Having performed the five audiobooks in the series on which the TV show is based, he wasn’t just keenly familiar with the story, but had a unique connection to the material as well. Yet at 88 years old, memorization had become difficult.

He had gone over the script dozens of times back in Los Angeles, but all that changed once he got to Ireland. “So he’s just going off to bed and there’s a rustle under the door,” Karen recalls. A new script had been slipped under his door; the writers had revised the entire part. “Everything he’d learned was not on the page anymore,” Karen says.

“Fucking hell,” Dotrice cursed. “What am I going to do?”

George R.R. Martin may have created Westeros and populated the lands from beyond the Wall to across the Narrow Sea, but for audiobook listeners, Roy Dotrice spoke all of it into existence. From 2003 to before his death in 2017, he recorded more than 200 hours of narration for the five published books in the series. His recording of A Game of Thrones was recognized by Guinness World Records for having the most “distinct and distinguishable” character voices in an audiobook, at 224. Along with the other four books, he is perhaps the only person to have performed every single character in Thrones’ known world. Audiobook narrators have long been divided into two kinds of performers—neutral voices and theatrical voices—and there’s little surprise about which one Dotrice fell under. “A book like that is almost going to be treated like a film script,” said Matthew Rubery, author of The Untold Story of the Talking Book.

Dotrice could be a nobleman from Meereen, a smuggler from Flea Bottom, and a Dornish warrior, carrying each of their stories with equal weight—though not all would say his renditions were pleasing. He could pivot deftly from the nasally Northern accent of a steward of the Night’s Watch to the cackle of a toothless, murderous madman to the damp, unctuous overtures of Varys the Spider. When Daenerys beheld the bones of a child burned by Drogon, he suffused the moment with horror and heartbreak, as the character realized the havoc she’d inadvertently caused. He lulled listeners into a false sense of safety as Arya Stark trekked toward the Twins, where Robb and Catelyn sat unaware that the Rains of Castamere were about to fall.

Back in Ireland, Dotrice stayed on the phone with Karen and went over the new script. After spending years intimately exploring Martin’s books, he was keenly aware of the legacy held by the Game of Thrones series and his contribution to it. More than anything, he worried about letting the crew and his fans down.

“Of all the work that he ever did, Game of Thrones was the world he was most invested in,” Karen said.

Dotrice stepped on set, into the Guildhall of the Alchemists. As it turns out, by then he had found a way to memorize every line.

It’s likely that some of the earliest stories any of us have experienced were read to us. Maybe while sitting around a campfire or tucked under the covers. Though the solitary experience of reading a book is one of the most pleasurable parts of life, there’s also comfort in taking a journey alongside someone else. Audiobooks give adults a chance to rediscover that feeling, though unlike children, they’re rarely sitting in one place while listening. A good storyteller can quieten the world around a listener, whether they’re commuting to work, jogging in a park, or chopping an onion in a kitchen. But a great storyteller can make you forget where you are entirely.

Roy Louis Dotrice had been training to speak life into Game of Thrones for decades. His story goes back to the Channel Island of Guernsey, where he was born on May 26, 1923. A teenager when the Nazis invaded the island in 1940, he and his mother, Neva Wilton, fled to Britain, and soon after Dotrice joined the Royal Air Force. Two years later during World War II, his plane was shot down over the Baltic Sea and he was held captive in Germany. Dotrice got his first taste of acting when he and fellow prisoners staged plays to keep themselves in good spirits.

His stage career flourished after the war. He married actress Katherine Newman in 1947, and they had three daughters, Michele, Yvette, and Karen. He joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (later the Royal Shakespeare Company) alongside actors like Charles Laughton. Among his accomplishments there, Dotrice was proud that he introduced baseball to the cricket-loyal group.

But Dotrice was best when he could fully immerse himself in the characters he played. Many remember him for his role in the 1984 film Amadeus, for which he played Leopold Mozart, or his portrayal of Charles Dickens in the 1976 TV miniseries Dickens of London. But arguably his most lauded role was his years-long one-man show, Brief Lives, in which he told the story of 17th-century diarist and noted gossip John Aubrey, who came to be known as the father of the English biography. (Karen said that Dotrice was so consumed by that role that Katherine felt he had turned permanently into an old man from a bygone era.) And five decades after starting his acting career he finally won a Tony Award, for Best Featured Actor in a Play, in 2000 for his performance in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.

In 1987, Dotrice started a 55-episode run on the American television series Beauty and the Beast, starring Ron Perlman, Linda Hamilton, and Dotrice as Jacob “Father” Wells. The show was a modern take on the classic fairy tale, set in Manhattan. This was where Dotrice met George R.R. Martin, a writer on the show. It was the start of a friendship that would last for years, even as the two continued on divergent career paths, moved to new cities, and lived in different countries. “Great memories, for me,” Martin wrote in a blog post he published in tribute to Dotrice. “That was a wonderful show, and a joy to work on. … It was an honor and privilege to write for him.” (A representative for Martin did not respond to interview requests.)

Even after the TV series ended in 1990, Martin and Dotrice remained close and their bond grew. While Dotrice was living with Katherine in Los Angeles, Martin would often drop by to see him. Eventually, the conversation would turn to A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin would sometimes turn to Dotrice for advice on his characters, and Dotrice, never one to keep an opinion to himself, did not hold back. “I don’t know if George ever listened to him to the letter, but he respected him enormously,” Karen said.

By that time, Martin had written several short stories, novellas, and novels, but the publication of A Game of Thrones was still years away. Martin, though, said he had no doubt who would perform the audiobooks. “He was my first and only choice as reader on the Ice & Fire audiobooks,” Martin wrote in 2010, adding that Dotrice was “the sort of actor who will take every line you write for him and make it better.”

Dotrice recorded the first installment of Martin’s epic series at the Penguin Random House Audio studios in Los Angeles. Then 80 years old, Dotrice worked every other day to give himself time to recuperate between sessions. He worked at a slow, measured pace, stretching recording sessions over weeks and weeks. The average book is about 11 hours long, but A Game of Thrones, released in 2003, sits at 33 hours and 46 minutes. The longest, A Dance With Dragons, is a little over two days long.

“Roy gave his all in the studio,” said Dan Musselman, a producer who worked with Dotrice on the series, by email. “George R.R. Martin wanted Roy to narrate his books, and he was absolutely right. Roy was the perfect narrator for the series and no one else could possibly have done what Roy did with the narrative, the story lines, and especially the characters. It was an enormous undertaking and worth every minute.”

And he was meticulous in his work and research. The night before recording, he would go over pages of notes on the next day’s characters. By the end of recording all five books, he had every character name listed in alphabetical order on more than a dozen pieces of paper. But despite his best efforts to stay organized, characters still sneaked up on him in the years and weeks between books and chapters. “You’re convinced it’s a brand-new character … and you find out that 15 years earlier you actually used a voice for it,” Dotrice said in an interview in 2011. He often listened to earlier recordings of the character before stepping into their skin once again. Sometimes, he even asked an old friend for advice. “He’d call George and say, ‘What the eff did you mean by this?’” Karen says.

Dotrice had an affable, outgoing nature, and was always quick to tell a (usually bawdy) joke. “I learned what a wonderful raconteur he was from him telling a dirty joke,” said audiobook narrator Scott Brick. “It got to the point where all the other narrators would be—figuratively speaking—sitting at his feet, saying, ‘Please tell us more stories.’”

Yet it was exhausting work. Some days during recording, Dotrice would just sit in the lunchroom to collect his thoughts before diving back into the characters.

“He couldn’t even remember his name at the end of the day,” says Karen.

Part of being a fantasy or science fiction fan is accepting that you’re living in a world where the rules are different. But like some of the best fantastical stories, the universal hold that A Song of Ice and Fire wields doesn’t come from grumkins or snarks, but a deeper human experience we can all cling to—the bond between human and animal, the desire to safeguard your family, the choices made by a reluctant hero. The mastery of Dotrice’s storytelling is that it places the listener firmly within the character’s mind. His ability as a voice actor aside, it’s the decisions he made that pulled us fully into the narrative—a dance of personality, physicality, intent, and circumstance.

“The thing that makes fantasy work is that you can’t break that illusion of grandeur,” says Carlo Rotella, a professor of English at Boston College who has written about Dotrice. “His voice made everything he said sound more ancient and powerful.”

Listeners can hear it in the boyish tones of Arya Stark, so determined to reject all notions of femininity learned from her mother and sister. They can hear it in the quiet kindness hidden under the I’ve-seen-some-shit gruffness of Brynden “Blackfish” Tully. It’s in the expansive proclamations of barrel-chested Robert Baratheon, his mirth always ready to burst. It’s in the halting, childish tones of young Robin Arryn, pausing to catch his breath between words as he chillingly asks when he will see another man “fly.”

His rendition of Eddard Stark is another sign of Dotrice’s prodigious skill. The last we hear Ned’s voice, he is thin and weak, but he sounds oddly similar to the commanding voice Dotrice imbued the character with throughout A Game of Thrones. Ned had been a guiding light for readers, just as he had been for the Stark children. And then, he was gone. The light was extinguished, and for a brief moment Dotrice catapulted listeners into the dark, until they felt a familiar voice lifting them up, placing them back on their feet, and continuing the story.

The popularity of audiobooks has boomed in the past decade, making it one of the most successful sectors in publishing. Audiobook sales in 2017 totaled more than $2.5 billion, according to the Audio Publishers Association, a 23 percent increase from 2016. More and more Americans are listening to audiobooks as well. New data shows 50 percent of Americans aged 12 and above have listened to an audiobook, up from 44 percent in 2018. Technology has helped that journey immensely, as cassettes and CDs have given way to cellphones that let you carry books wherever you go.

According to Audible, Dotrice’s performances of Martin’s series have been downloaded by millions of listeners. People weren’t just responding to his work, they were growing hungry for more. In 2005, Dotrice was unavailable to record A Feast for Crows, so the task fell to another gifted narrator, John Lee. Lee’s work on the book is fantastic, but for ardent Dotrice fans, it wasn’t the same. Readers demanded his return, so when Dotrice came back to record the fifth book of the series in 2011, he also recorded Feast.

Martin’s story craved performance, and before fans could witness Daenerys rise from the flames or watch the Red Wedding unfold before their eyes, Dotrice filled that void.

“I loved what Roy did on the audiobooks. He did not just read my words aloud, he brought them to life, in a way few actors could,” Martin wrote in 2017.

Yet not everyone loves Dotrice’s narration. Some hate the oily undertones of Tyrion Lannister’s voice, the vowels pulled and stretched into a Welshman’s cadence. They hate Missandei’s foreign accent from the island of Naath. They hate the way he rhymes Petyr with better, turns Brienne into Bry-eene, and switches between Cat-lyn and Kate-lyn. An unmistakable difference can be heard in the final books, when Dotrice was almost 90 years old.

“His character voices lose suppleness and range in the last two books, but his elders sound more fantastically wizened than ever,” Rotella wrote for The New York Times Magazine. The presence of these potential flaws, and the backlash to them, is something Kate Reading is familiar with. Along with her husband, Michael Kramer, Reading recorded all 14 books (and a prequel) of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, another epic fantasy saga born around the same time as A Song of Ice and Fire and inspiring a similar allegiance from fans. “For every person who loved you, there’s going to be someone who hates you,” Reading says.

Ultimately, just as Jordan had faith in Reading and Kramer to interpret his work, Martin had a trust in Dotrice. But when the fantastical universe grows as wide as A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time, the world ceases to belong only to the author or the people who perform the work.

In April 2011, Game of Thrones premiered on HBO, ushering a new era of ardent fandom for the astounding yet incomplete series, and Dotrice was set to join the cast. Martin and Dotrice would finally be reunited, years after their kinship began on the set of Beauty and the Beast. When Martin himself made the announcement on his blog, he could barely contain his excitement.

“The moment the HBO project was given the go-ahead to film, we knew Roy had to be a part of it,” Martin wrote in 2010. “It will be a real thrill to be working with him again, and I have no doubt that he will elevate every scene that he’s in.”

Dotrice would be Grand Maester Pycelle, the wizened self-serving adviser to the Iron Throne. But that performance was not meant to be. Before the series began shooting, Dotrice was diagnosed with leukemia and had to bow out of the show. The role of Pycelle went to Julian Glover, who portrayed the obsequious, doddering maester until Pycelle was killed in Season 6 by Qyburn’s little birds. But as Martin said in 2017, “Sometimes I still wonder at what might have been.”

Dotrice eventually returned, healthy once more and ready to work, as Wisdom Hallyne in Season 2, but it wasn’t the role he wanted. A few years later, he needed help recalling Hallyne’s occupation. “Pyromancer, yeah. Whatever that is,” he said.

On June 2, 2011, Dotrice finished recording A Dance With Dragons, the fifth and (so far) last book published in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Wearing a beige jacket and shirt buttoned to his neck, he leaned back easily, his fingers intertwined over his lap. “How many voices did we do for this latest one?” he asked his recording partner. “310” was the answer.

“I was beginning to run short of nationalities,” Dotrice joked in a 2013 interview.

Scott Brick spoke to Dotrice for the last time just a few months after that studio interview. He had been recording in Los Angeles, but he planned to soon move back to London. In the years since Brick had met Dotrice, the two would sometimes liken the wait between A Song of Ice and Fire books to all those years of waiting between Star Wars sequels. But as the release date for Martin’s next book continued to be postponed, and as Dotrice grew older, the actor had to come to terms with the sad truth that he might not be able to finish the story he loved so much.

Dotrice died in October 2017 at the age of 94, before the last season of the show and Martin’s remaining two books. Even in his last days, he wished he could have stayed around long enough to see how it all ended, to have seen an old friend complete his life’s work, to finish his own part in the final hallmark of monoculture. “One of his death bed sorrows was the fact that he wasn’t going to be around to finish these books,” Karen said. “A huge part of his soul went into the books.”

A few names have been floated by fans as replacements after Dotrice’s death. There’s Harry Lloyd, who narrated A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and also played Viserys Targaryen on the TV show. There’s John Lee, who briefly stepped in for Dotrice. Michael Kramer, Simon Vance, and Steven Pacey, all acclaimed voice actors who have worked in the fantasy genre, have also been thrown in the ring.

But the truth is that Dotrice is irreplaceable. His absence will have a sizable impact on the stories for those who loved his work. His masterful command of the books aside, his dedication to fans makes his loss harder to bear. “I think my efforts are just fairly ordinary, but [the fans] make them sound as if they’re extraordinary,” he once said in an interview.

“With Roy gone, I have no idea who will … possibly get to do the audiobooks for The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring,” Martin wrote shortly after his death. “But whoever it is, they will have a hard, hard act to follow.”

Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance journalist who has written for publications such as Bon Appétit, Taste, and Eater.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

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