Charles Hadley ’49, Queens University Professor Emeritis, will be the first to tell you that his is a most unlikely story. What began as a chance response to an advertisement in London seeking a native English speaker, from the southern United States, launched a 30-year career that relied solely on word-of-mouth recommendations.
The retired professor of linguistics and English/drama has rubbed elbows with Hollywood’s elite—from Vivien Leigh to Scarlett Johansson—carving out a niche as a dialect coach specializing in points south.
“I grew up in Statesville [N.C.] where about the only theatre we knew was the movies,” he said. “My parents were very un-Hollywood, you know. So when this thing happened to me, it was just so unlikely.”
Hadley attended Davidson College where he broadened his horizons and met classmates from all over the country. His collegiate experience culminated in a Fulbright Fellowship that took him to France and England.
While visiting some courses at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London, the call came in: “Wanted: Genuine American (Preferably Cultured).” His English friends laughed, wondering where one could find a cultured American. Hadley was reticent to answer the call, suspecting it was “some kind of chewing gum ad,” until the head of the academy told him the request had come from Sir Laurence Olivier.
“And I went out intimidated and met the man, who was even more intimidating. He needed me to work with Vivien Leigh, who was playing Blanche Dubois in the West End London production of A Streetcar Named Desire,” Hadley said.
Ten years since her acclaimed performance in Gone with the Wind, Leigh had grown insecure about her southern accent.
The young Hadley knew nothing about dialect coaching, but he was willing to try.
“Olivier said, ‘If you would just read the New York Times in your accent—you are from where?’ And I said ‘North Carolina,’ and he said ‘I guess it doesn’t matter.’ We would read the script in my Statesville accent, which really wasn’t the accent we needed for Mississippi, but they didn’t care, I didn’t care—I just was happy to meet this woman,” Hadley said, gesturing to a photograph of the glamorous Leigh on the wall behind him.
Leigh’s performance was well received; indeed, the British actress was cast over Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s 1951 successful film adaptation of Streetcar.
Back Home and in Demand
Hadley returned to the United States in 1955 to Queens University of Charlotte, where he quickly became a popular professor, and garnered practically every teaching honor the university bestows, including the North Carolina Professor of the Year. He busied himself with teaching, directing, producing and travel—then the phone started to ring.
More than two decades after his first foray into dialect coaching, Hadley was contacted to work with Charlton Heston, Danny Glover, Paul Sorvino, Keith Carradine and a host of other celebrities on the television mini-series “Chiefs.”
At first, he was less than enthusiastic. “I said ‘No! I have no idea how to do this.” But, he eventually agreed to work on the series, which proved a test of his mettle.
“It’s extraordinary, all the jokes about how stupid we are in the south—one person approached me and said, ‘when we hear you speak, we subtract 100 points from your IQ automatically,’” Hadley said.
The director, a fellow Hadley describes as “cynical,” sat him down in front of the cast and demanded, “Can you do a southern accent?” Hadley, by then a bona fide linguist, responded, “well I reckon I can, I’ve lived in the south all my life—which accent do you want?”
“I knew he wanted Chester, South Carolina, but I wanted to show him I knew what I was doing. He said ‘What do you mean? Don’t you all sound like Gomer Pyle?’ And I said, ‘We’re in South Carolina, and it’s a large state, and language is complex; if we start on the east coast, do you want Gullah, Charleston, the low country around Charleston, the Piedmont region, or the mountain area? All those have different accents—which one do you want?”
Flummoxed, the director told him to “do Chester.”
“I said ‘Well, Chester is in the Piedmont section of South Carolina. Now, do you want educated, uneducated, urban, country—you see, its boxes within boxes. There are no two southern accents alike, even from the same family.”
Hadley’s good humor and calm demeanor have served him well in an industry rife with big personalities and even bigger egos. During the filming of “Chiefs,” Hadley forged a friendship with Heston that, coupled with a proven knack for the trade, provided a springboard to coaching jobs with Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall…the list goes on, and the phone continues to ring.
“I’ve slowed down because it’s hard for me to travel as I used to,” Hadley said. “The long hours on the set, the waiting in heat and cold—they’re really just too much for me now.”
Despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s clear that “slowing down” for Hadley means something all together different than it might for his peers.
He and his wife of more than 40 years, Jane, also a retired professor at Queens, have directed and produced hundreds of programs all over the southeast—they also partnered to make the documentary titled, Ray and Rosa Hicks, Last of the Old Time Story Tellers, which has been featured on PBS.
The couple filmed a year with Rosa and Ray (who has since passed away), documenting their lifestyle and speech. Hadley lights up at the recollection of the experience.
“They spoke the most unadulterated Scots-Irish American speech we could find in North Carolina; managed without plumbing or electricity; grew their food; and made use of herbs for medicine. How we eventually gained their confidence to let us film is a long story, but we finally did.
“We still go back to visit,” Hadley said. “It was the one of the most interesting experiences of my life.”
Honing the Craft
Mass media expanded in the 1980s. Audiences grew savvy, creating demand for authenticity from performers. For instance, prior to the media revolution, actors could get away with using a British accent for any foreign role. With the cultural shift came an increased need for dialect coaches, yet there remains no clearly defined path for entry into the trade.
The lack of professional standards occasionally results in quality control issues.
“Actors will call from California panicked, often because they were coached somewhere else wrongly,” Hadley said. “In the south we rarely say certain things—the coaches out there put it in and I have to take it out.”
Hadley credits nature with some of his professional success.
“I’m blessed with a good, sharp ear. It’s just something you’re born with or not,” he said.
Hadley is hesitant to rate his celebrity students. He has successfully completed most coaching assignments but, he explained, on rare occasions he has asked that his name be removed from the credits.
“I’ll run into an actor who does not have a good ear, and I’m in big trouble there because there’s nothing I can do. We simply can’t make any progress,” he said. “But if I have an actor with a good ear, we sit down, go through the script, I record him, then I go away and work on it before any cameras start rolling. I also go to where the film will be set, spend days there listening to the accents and getting ready for the crew to come.”
Save for the demand for coaches, little has changed within the trade, but Hadley has seen enormous change in his state, adopted city, and in the patterns of speech he knows best.
“When I first came to Charlotte in the ’50s, there was a set of graceful southern ladies and gentlemen who lovingly dropped their r’s as in ‘motha,’ ‘daughta,’” Hadley said. “That group has grown smaller with the influx of people from all over the country. The older folks like me have fixed accents, but the young folks are picking up different ways of speaking.”
Hadley retired from Queens after more than 50 years, but he and his wife remain fixtures on the campus where the Jane and Charles Hadley Theater and the Hadley Reading Room stand as testaments to the couple’s status in the community. The room is filled with stories told in photographs lining the walls, theater and film manuscripts, and names of students who have gone on to careers in theater, television and film—a fitting tribute to a couple of many talents and passions, or, as Sir Laurence Olivier might put it, “genuine cultured Americans.”