December 27, 1921
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
|Died||November 16, 2009 (aged 87)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Jan Leighton (December 27, 1921 - November 16, 2009) was an American actor and model who appeared in more than 3,000 roles. He specialized in portraying historic characters, but also worked as a voice actor and hand model. He was credited by the Guinness Book of World Records with having played more roles than any other actor.
Life and career
Leighton was born in The Bronx, New York as Milton Lichtman in 1921. He would later change his professional name to Jan Leighton in 1949 to de-emphasize his Jewish heritage in order to get more work. His father owned a fleet of taxis, and his mother was a housewife. He attended Aviation High School, but left school at age 17 to work as a mechanic for an aeronautics firm. He joined the U.S. military during World War II, working as a physical training instructor. He briefly attended the University of Mexico in Mexico City after the war, but moved to El Paso, Texas after six months. While living in Texas, he received government funding to attend an acting workshop in New York.
Stage and television actor
Leighton began his acting career appearing in live television dramas and in theater. He was described as "a large, broad-shouldered man with an amiable face." He won a small role in the Broadway production, Home Is Tomorrow and roles in the television series, Robert Montgomery Presents, Kraft Television Theater, Studio One and Man Against Crime. In 1960, he appeared on Broadway with Lucille Ball in Wildcat.
Portrayal of historic characters
Leighton later developed a career as an impersonator of historic characters in numerous media—television and print advertisements, industrial and training films, radio, personal appearances and at least one feature film. To prepare for a role, Leighton read biographies on the subject and studied any available reproductions of the subject's appearance and voice.
In 1988, Leighton told The New York Times that "getting" the voice was the key to unlocking the rest of the personality. He said, "By adjusting my face, body and voice, I can be anyone in history. It's my calling." Leighton also created his own costumes. He maintained a prop and wardrobe collection arranged by character and period in his crammed Manhattan apartment; the collection included 121 pairs of shoes, 203 wigs, 197 hats, 71 pairs of glasses, 36 pipes, ten togas, and three inkwells.
He was credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the actor who had played the most roles. In 1988, Guinness credited him as the man with the most disguises, having played 1,200 famous people in television and print advertisements, and 1,800 more on radio. At a gathering of 32 Guinness record-holders in 1988, Leighton appeared in full costume as General George Patton.
"I never go to costume parties. That's a busman's holiday. Heaven for me is to lie in bed stark naked with no costume -- living in my own face and not someone else's -- and luxuriate in my own skin."
An acting publication, SAGWatch, wrote of Leighton: "You'd never know it from his IMDB page, but the Guinness Book of Records says Jan Leighton played more different roles than any other actor in history. ... He was known as an actor who would go anywhere to do any role, in any medium. His website noted 'If you call Jan Leighton at 10 in the morning from New York City, he can show up and play the person before lunch–in full costume!'"
Hand model and voice actor
In addition to his work portraying historic figures, Leighton also worked as a hand model and voice actor. His hands were transformed into the Ford logo in a long-running advertisement for the automobile company. He was also the trilling voice of the "R-r-r-olling Wr-r-r-iter" pen. He also provided the voice for a talking Spalding golfball, "I'm a Spalding dot ... and this guy can hit me a helluva long way if he wants to."
The historic and fictional figures he portrayed included Thomas Edison, George Patton, Benjamin Franklin, Sherlock Holmes, George Washington, Saddam Hussein, Margaret Thatcher, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Shakespeare, Christopher Columbus, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Inspector Clouseau.
A sampling of Leighton's 3,000-plus roles include the following:
- As Albert Einstein in the 1982 motion picture "Zapped!";
- As Leonardo da Vinci and Henry Kissinger on covers of New York magazine;
- As Uncle Sam on the cover of Time magazine;
- As William Shakespeare in a skit on Late Night with David Letterman;
- As Confucius and others on the jacket of Gore Vidal's book "Creation";
- As Fidel Castro, lighting a cigar, in a commercial for Bic lighters;
- As Alexander Hamilton in a commercial for Cheerios;
- As Mr. Whipple's twin in a commercial for Charmin toilet paper;
- As Johann Sebastian Bach in a beer commercial;
- As Albert Einstein in a commercial for a California Toyota dealership;
- As Dracula in a commercial for a mobile telephone company;
- As Frankenstein's monster in a commercial for cough syrup;
- As John Wayne on the 1981 hit disco single "Get Tough" by Kleeer;
- As Abraham Lincoln in a commercial for a Minnesota bank;
- As Robert E. Lee in a commercial for an Arizona department store; and
- As Clark Gable, Groucho Marx, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, complaining about check charges, in a series of commercials for a bank.
Leighton and his daughter, Hallie, co-authored the book Rare Words and Ways to Master Their Meanings: 500 Arcane But Useful Words for Language Lovers in 2003, and a 2008 sequel titled Rare Words II and Ways to Master Their Meanings. Charles Osgood called the first book "both rare and well done". The books' publisher also issued a series of flash cards, "Rare Fare," with words and rhymes from Rare Words II.
Family and death
Leighton was married four times, including actress/Emmy-award winning writer Lynda Myles, his co-star in "The World Turned Upside Down." His first marriage ended with an annulment, and the others ended in divorce. In November 2009, Leighton died due to complications from a stroke at age 87. Leighton was survived by a daughter, Hallie Leighton, and a son, Ross Leighton.
- Weber, Bruce (2009-11-28). "Jan Leighton, Actor Who Played Everyone, Dies at 87". The New York Times.
- Bernice Kannner (1989-05-29). "Man of a Thousand Faces: Jan Leighton, Master of Disguise". New York magazine, pp. 20-21.
- "Among Records, A Record Holder". The New York Times. 1988-05-11.
- "Jan Leighton". IMDB. Retrieved 2009-11-28.
- Bruce Weber (2009-11-27). "Jan Leighton, Actor Who Played Everyone, Dies at 87". The New York Times.
- "Jan Leighton Home Page". Jan Leighton. Retrieved 2009-11-28.
- "HIS RECORD MAY NEVER BE BROKEN". SAGWatch. 2009-11-28. Retrieved 2009-11-29.
- "Full cast and crew for "Zapped"". imdb.com.
- Jan Leighton & Hallie Leighton. Rare Words and Ways to Master Their Meanings: 500 Arcane But Useful Words for Language Lovers. Levenger Press. ISBN 978-1-929154-12-8.
- Jan Leighton & Hallie Leighton (2009). Rare Words II II and Ways to Master Their Meanings. Levenger Press.
- The comment by Osgood is contained on the back cover of the book, which is linked above.
- "Rare Words II and Rare Fare Cards". Levenger Press. Retrieved 2009-12-02.