Daughter still proud of family's 'Star Wars' sound legacy

Jennifer Portman
Tallahassee Democrat

The first light saber whoosh?

Jennifer Portman

The relentless pew-pew sound of the lasers during the battle on the Death Star, when the Millennium Falcon was in the landing bay and Darth Vader reduced Obi-Wan Kenobi to a pile of brown cloth?

My father, Richard Portman, helped bring those iconic sounds to the ears of spellbound moviegoers in theaters enjoying the first Star Wars in 1977.

And R2-D2? That lovable droid? He would be called something different if it weren’t for my grandfather, Clem Portman.

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My father worked nearly 40 years as a Hollywood sound man and rerecording mixer before moving to Tallahassee, Fla., in 1995 to help launch Florida State University’s now-lauded film school. His name can be found among the credits of the original Star Wars and hundreds of other movies.

He was nominated 11 times for an Academy Award. If you’ve seen a movie from the 1970s he probably worked on it, including his favorite, Harold and Maude. He nabbed the golden statue in 1978 for The Deer Hunter.

Clem, a pioneer of nascent film sound in the 1920s, worked as a mixer on dozens of early Hollywood classics including the original King Kong, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Citizen Kane, to name just a few. A radio engineer by training, Clem was instrumental in making films talk.

Father and son are part of the pantheon of movie sound. Clem was an icon. My father was coined a “sound guru.” The men could not have been more similar, or more different.

I was born on a Thursday night in Burbank, Calif., the first day of a new decade. Four days later, with $6 in my mom and dad’s bank account, Richard took over at Samuel Goldwyn Studios as the head re-recording mixer. Clem had a minor stroke and was in the hospital.

He left a note on the dubbing panel: “Don’t embarrass me.”

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Richard didn’t.

By 1980, a decade after I was born, Richard’s name was on 92 movies. The first year of my life he worked on at least five movies. The next year it was six. In 1977, when he worked on Star Wars, he worked on 10 other movies — at least. By that time, he already had 69 movies as a mixer under his belt.

My father was the first person to ever re-record an entire movie by himself. By the time he traded his Hollywood movie career for teaching, he’d clocked more than 95,000 hours in a dark room behind a mixing board.

In 1998, Richard was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Cinema Audio Society. As part of a video tribute, famed film editor and sound designer Walter Murch talked about my dad’s contributions to the industry.

In this video from the 1998 Cinema Audio Society Annual Awards in Los Angeles, Oscar-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch details how Tallahassee's Richard Portman inspired the name for Star Wars films' R2D2.

He told the story about how my grandfather developed a naming convention for organizing sound reels. Before digital sound — back when the visual action and its accompanying sound were on tangible magnetic film, stored on giant metal reels — he passed along to my dad the technique of identifying parts of the working picture as “reel two, dialogue two.” They shortened it when speaking aloud.

Murch worked with my dad, he adopted the naming habit and it stuck. When Murch was working on American Graffiti, he called out the Portman reel-and-track vernacular, in the conventional shorthand.

“R2-D2,” Murch intoned.

Director George Lucas, slumbering in the dubbing room, woke up.

“What did you say?” Murch recalled Lucas saying.

Murch replied: “R2-D2.”

Lucas was writing Star Wars at the time. He scrawled it in his notebook. Movie history.

Richard Portman

Today, Richard lives right around the corner from me in Betton Hills with my stepmother, Jackie, who has collected all of his movies and cares for him in his twilight. He doesn’t go to the Lake Ella Publix so much anymore, but he’s still wearing his signature kaftan — looking every bit the part of a Jedi.

I remember attending one of the first showings of the original Star Wars at Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard as a 7-year-old. My teenage neighbor Steve took me with his girlfriend. I can still see the red curtains sweeping back and the lights going dim.

Man, I was proud.

Just like now.

Follow Jennifer Portman on Twitter: @jmportman