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Actors Whose Voices Are Recognized Almost Instantly

Many of Hollywood's biggest stars are known for their towering performances, their impressive talents in front of the camera that have earned them awards and praise from critics and moviegoers. Some are famed for their charm, their good looks, or their ability to make an audience laugh. It might be a single role, a blockbuster franchise, or regular appearances in the celebrity gossip columns. But other actors have become specifically known for their distinctive voices, so associated with a particular accent or inflection that they get cast for their unmistakable vocals alone.

Often imitated, lovingly mocked, or invoked by fans and supporters who love them for their distinctive vocal style, these actors have become beloved as much for the sound of their voices as for their acting prowess. Many have become voice actors, lending their skills to animation, while others have taken to narrating television documentaries and commercials, being so recognizable they can draw an audience by just speaking a few simple phrases. 

From iconic masked villains to rough-riding cowboys to TV housekeepers, here are just a handful of stars who are almost instantly recognizable by their voices alone.

James Earl Jones

Could we have started with anyone else? Star of "The Great White Hope" in 1970, James Earl Jones won a Tony Award for his performance in the stage version three years prior. But the actor catapulted to international stardom not for his on-screen talents for his voice when he performed the role of Darth Vader in the blockbuster hit "Star Wars" in 1977. But getting there wasn't an easy feat, as Variety noted in a 2021 profile that called him one of the most famous voices of all time. Jones dealt with a serious stutter in his youth, which troubled him enough to leave him nearly silent for years.

Thankfully, though, Jones would find his voice and become a star. Beyond Darth Vader, Jones is also known for voicing Mufasa in "The Lion King." For a time in the 1990s — and again in the 2010s, per The Wrap — he was the signature voice of CNN too, while continuing to appear on screen and serving as narrator for films like "Judge Dredd" and "Click."

Nearly 50 years after he first appeared as Darth Vader, his voice would bring the Dark Lord of the Sith to life again with a deft digital synthesis in the Disney+ series "Obi-Wan Kenobi." Though the process (which involves using AI to meld a new performance with old voice recordings, per Inverse) is divisive, producers knew that fans wouldn't want to hear anyone else but the incomparable James Earl Jones.

Katherine Hepburn

Hollywood legend Katherine Hepburn, star of such classics as "Bringing Up Baby," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and "On Golden Pond," was known for many things. There was her shrewd wit, her stunning beauty, all those awards, her regal strength, and of course her unforgettable voice that you could identify at the very first word. As the Washington Post noted in her obituary in 2003, actress Tallulah Bankhead once described Hepburn's voice as "nickels dropping on a slot machine," while noted theater critic Walter Kerr called her singing an "indulgent cackle," according to the Chicago Tribune.

A touch of aristocratic flair, a bit of glib pretension, Hepburn's voice projected a traditional masculine power and a delicate feminine grace at the same time. In her era, there was no one with as distinctive and unforgettable a voice as Hepburn, who mixed the precise inflections of a trained accent with a unique style that was all her own. Since her time in Hollywood, none could match her style or sound, though many have noted that actress Kate Mulgrew ("Star Trek: Voyager") came close. So close in fact, that she was cast to play the actress herself in a Broadway show in 2002, where Playbill described her voice as similarly "husky, feral, curl[ing] around the receiver like a cat." 

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Early in his career, blockbuster action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger worried movie studios so much due to his unusual accent that they dubbed over some of his early roles, most famously in the action comedy "Hercules in New York." But after allowing audiences to hear the real Arnold in classics like "Conan the Barbarian" and "The Terminator," not only were the studios proven dead wrong, but the actor became known and beloved for his recognizable and easily identifiable voice and clear Austrian accent. 

From movie to movie, his unique voice came with him, even when it might have seemed it didn't fit the film or the character. But with as much screen presence as Arnold had, it didn't matter, and audiences came out to hear him deliver countless iconic lines. From action movies to comedies, Arnold has used his unmistakable voice to entertain moviegoers for decades. 

Plus, his accent — the likes of which Hollywood had never heard and the same one that had frightened producers early in his career — led to a mountain of comedic imitators, honorable homages, and respectful spoofs. This included Robert Smigel's upside-down impression on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," and of course the classic "Saturday Night Live" buddy sketch "Hans and Franz" starring Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon as Arnold-obsessed bodybuilders.

Wallace Shawn

If you don't recognize his face, trust us when we say that you definitely know his voice. (If you do recognize his face, there's a good chance you're a child of the '80s.) Though his career stretches back further, his most notable role for an entire generation was in the 1987 fantasy adventure comedy "The Princess Bride" as the scoundrel Vizzini, who takes Princess Buttercup hostage. In his most iconic scene, he has a battle of wits and will with the Dread Pirate Roberts, who he hopes to lure into drinking a poisonous mixture. No viewer left the film without "Inconceivable!" indelibly etched in their brain, spoken in Shawn's customary shrill, nasal tone.

Of course, the next decade would see him take on another iconic comedy role as the lovelorn Mr. Hall in "Clueless," while also becoming a favorite of Trekkies with his recurring role as Grand Nagus Zek on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Both roles brought with them Shawn's identifiable voice, of course, but it was in 1995 that he began a journey as a kid's favorite in "Toy Story." Across all four big screen features and several shorts, Shawn would supply the voice of Rex, the frightened toy dinosaur who hates confrontation.

George Takei

Famous for his role as Sulu on the original "Star Trek" series, actor George Takei has exploded in the pop culture sphere in a whole new way over the past couple decades, thanks to his social and political activism. For the many causes speaks on, it helps that his voice is so instantly recognizable, with his even, measured, deep baritone pipes smoothly delivering powerful statements like a knife through butter. As a gay icon, he's become the face of multiple movements, while his association with "Star Trek" still makes him a beloved figure among sci-fi fans across the world (per IndieWire).

Over the years, he's done more than just trek the stars on TV and film, though, offering his vocal services to cartoons like "Star Wars: Clone Wars," "The Simpsons," and the Hulu original Marvel series "Hit Monkey." He's made memorable appearances playing himself in everything from "The Big Bang Theory" to "Entourage" and "Scooby-Doo." He has also been a favorite guest of radio host Howard Stern, who often uses clips of his familiar catch phrase with regularity. Oh myyy.

Whoopi Goldberg

Another star of "Star Trek," actress Whoopi Goldberg's career has taken her from the otherworldly realm of ghosts to the final frontier to the talk show circuit and back again. An Oscar winner for the 1990 supernatural romantic drama "Ghost," she led a pair of "Sister Act" films while starring as the bartender Guinan on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And despite a misfire here or there, she lent her recognizable voice to animated works like "The Lion King," where she played the hyena Shenzi, as well as performing the role of Frannie the 2005 animal comedy "Racing Stripes."

More recently, Goldberg became a face for a new generation of daytime talk as a co-host on "The View," dispensing Guinan-like wisdom over the televised airwaves. In 2022, she returned to "Star Trek" too, reprising her role as the bartender in "Star Trek: Picard" opposite her old friend and fellow voice icon Patrick Stewart. As a Tony winner for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," a Grammy winner for her own comedy album, and an Emmy winner for her work on "The View," she is one of just 17 entertainers to count themselves among the prestigious ranks of EGOT winners (per Town & Country), a fact that she poked fun at in an episode of "30 Rock."

John Wayne

When you think of the word "pilgrim" you either think of the settlers on the Mayflower, or the unforgettable voice of classic Hollywood action hero and movie star John Wayne. Whether it's his Texan drawl, his deep voice, or his slow and even cadence, the actor's easily identifiable sound was matched only by his cool and collected cowboy swagger. But in the history of film, particularly classic Western and adventure films of the 1940s through the 1970s, there are few whose voice alone could either intimidate or comfort, frighten or put at ease, like the legendary Wayne.

Star of some of the most famous cowboy and war movies ever made, including "The Searchers," "Stagecoach," "The Longest Day," and "The Green Berets," Wayne embodied Hollywood masculinity: strong, capable, steely-eyed, and tough as nails. But try as hard as one might, no matter how tall or gruff, no matter what kind of garb one dressed in to mimic the great John Wayne, there was one thing everyone else lacked, that they could ever match — his undeniable and identifiable voice. Many have tried to imitate it, whether as homage or for laughs, but nobody has ever sounded like the Duke.

Morgan Freeman

With a voice so readily recognized that it has become an internet meme, actor Morgan Freeman is an icon of dignity and gravitas. While many may place him as the co-star and narrator of one of the greatest films ever made, "The Shawshank Redemption," his history narrating documentaries and films stretches back further than the 1994 prison classic where he played the resourceful inmate Red. In fact, he was the voice of Ken Burns' "Civil War" documentary in 1990, one of his first major works as narrator, perhaps chosen thanks to his role in the 1989 Civil War drama "Glory." 

When it comes to fiction, he's narrated movies as diverse as Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," Mike Myers' "The Love Guru," the 2011 reboot of "Conan the Barbarian," and the 2018 action adventure "Alpha." In the realm of documentaries, his contributions are almost too numerous to count — in addition to "Civil War," he was the calm and soothing voice of real-life TV programs in nearly every genre, from science and history to mystery and religion. We can't nearly hope to accurately describe the breadth and range of Freeman's voice, but you don't need us to, as you certainly already know. Suffice to say, he might be the most beloved voice in Hollywood history.

Fran Drescher

There may be no more easily recognized voice in sitcom history than Fran Drescher, who for six seasons in the 1990s starred on the hit series "The Nanny." Her shrill, nasally voice — combined with her unforgettable laugh and idiosyncratic Long Island accent — made her both a fan favorite and a personality so obnoxious you couldn't help but love her or hate her. 

More than most on this list, however, Drescher is well aware of the distinctive nature of her own voice, and in fact had to work past it to get her break in Hollywood. In a 2018 interview with BUILD conducted while promoting her role in "Hotel Transylvania 3," Drescher addressed directly the fact that she had been told early in her days as an aspiring actor that she'd never get work "with that voice."

Thankfully, Drescher kept her voice and accent intact, and came to fame with roles in "Saturday Night Fever," "This is Spinal Tap," and the Weird Al Yankovic vehicle "UHF." From there it wasn't long before she was tapped for her own series, playing Fran Fine in "The Nanny." 

Jack Nicholson

The only thing more distinctive about star Jack Nicholson than his voice might be his iconic smile, something that helped secure him the role of the Joker in the 1989 "Batman" film. But it was more than just his haunting grin, as his voice too helped cement him as the terrifying Clown Prince of Crime in Tim Burton's Gotham City. Sly, sinister, sometimes creepy even when he might try to be putting on a friendly tone, Nicholson's weaselly, nasal voice has secured him villainous roles in classics like "The Shining," where his manic, over-the-top persona was at its best in the role of writer-gone-mad Jack Torrance. His unforgettable "Here's Johnny" remains memorable and terrifying today thanks to his crazed eyes and unmatched vocal tone.

With a far-out voice and an uncontrollable attitude, Nicholson has been singularly impressive in films like "A Few Good Men" and "The Departed" on top of his Oscar-winning performance in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Nobody has ever been able to come within spitting distance of his out-of-control personality and recognizable voice, which often borders on the deranged side. This has made him a favorite of stand-up comedians, and an easy target for comics who are looking for a simple and identifiable celebrity impression.

Sean Connery

An easy way to know if a famous face has a famous voice is how often they are lampooned on "Saturday Night Live," and one of the best and funniest impressions on the show is Sean Connery. In a long-running series of "Jeopardy" sketches, Connery was played by comedian Darrell Hammond, and elicited more laughs than most with his not-so-dead-on impression that still managed to pinpoint the hallmarks of the Scottish actor's voice and personality. Whether it's his iconic accent or his unique ways of shpeech (what linguists call "s-backing"), Connery's voice has long been one of the most recognizable in Hollywood, whether he was playing a cowboy in "Shalako" or the father of the whip-wielding relic hunter Indiana Jones in "The Last Crusade."

Of course, Connery's most famous role was among his earliest, where he starred in seven big screen adventures as British super-spy James Bond, beginning with the series' first installment, "Dr. No." Full of witty one-liners and classic zingers, everyone has their own impression of Bond's classic "shaken, not stirred," and it's usually delivered with Connery's voice and charm in mind.

Patrick Stewart

Before he voyaged from one iconic sci-fi franchise to another, British actor Patrick Stewart was largely unknown to American audiences in the late 1980s when he was cast as the new captain of the starship Enterprise in the sequel series "Star Trek: The Next Generation." A bald English actor taking over for the revered Captain Kirk proved divisive, but it wasn't long before Stewart proved the naysayers wrong and acquitted himself as a fine successor to William Shatner (per Metro). But it was more than just his upper crust British accent and debonair attitude, but also his distinguished voice that helped cement him as a TV star.

Following the conclusion of his hit sci-fi series, Stewart was cast in yet another franchise role, that of Professor X in the "X-Men" films. Once again, his proper English accent and powerful, authoritative pipes proved invaluable in the part as the superhero team's respected leader, Charles Xavier. So instantly recognizable was his voice, in fact, that when the trailer to "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" arrived, a single line from off-screen by Stewart sent fans into a frenzy.

Thanks to his forceful tones, Stewart has voiced a number of characters in animation too. In fact, in "American Dad," his voice proved so inseparable from his persona that the design of his character, Deputy CIA Director Bullock, was modeled after him as well. Over the years, Stewart's easily recognizable voice has appeared in everything from documentaries and commercials to video games and beyond.

Kristen Schaal

An actress as known for her work behind the microphone as in front of the camera, you'll know Kristen Schaal in a single word. That's true whether she's playing Mel on "Flight of the Conchords" or voicing oddball daughter Louise on the long-running animated series "Bob's Burgers." Though some might consider her voice annoying, many think of it as childishly endearing, a quality that has helped her secure voice roles on cartoons like "Gravity Falls," "Bojack Horseman," and "Adventure Time."

But Schaal is first and foremost a comedian, having risen to television fame as a correspondent for "The Daily Show" when it was still hosted by Jon Stewart. From there, her sitcom roles started coming in, with appearances on "30 Rock" and "Modern Family." Other major roles have included Trixie in the "Toy Story" movies and recurring parts on two Taika Waititi TV co-productions, "What We Do in the Shadows" and "Our Flag Means Death."

Christopher Walken

Arguably one of the most popular stars for other celebrities to impersonate, actor Christopher Walken, star of "King of New York," has been lampooned by everyone from Kevin Pollack to Bradley Cooper to Jay Mohr (via YouTube). His appearance on "Saturday Night Live" in April of 2000 led to the now famous "More Cowbell" sketch that became a sensation for decades, cementing his legacy as a comedy favorite. His relaxed tone and distinctive speech pattern make him easily and instantly recognizable, whether he's leading a film or just appearing in a single scene, as he did in the 1994 classic "Pulp Fiction."

But like Fran Drescher, Walken knows well that people think of his voice as unique and peculiar, and has spoken about how his unusual start-and-stop cadence came to develop. "It has to do I think with where I come from in the city, and also the neighborhood," the actor — who is the son of German and Scottish immigrants — told the Observer in 2016. "Both my parents had accents, European accents; they were pretty strong ... I think I grew up listening to people who spoke English in a kind of broken way. I think maybe I talked that way."