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Robert Newton, www.robertnewton.net

The Sincerest Form of Flattery . . .

Robert Newton's influence on pop culture is more pervasive than many people realize. In 1950, he was the first actor to portray the character of Long John Silver with the swaggering vocal intonations that most people now associate with pirates. According to an article in Financial Times, "An actor can become a star by playing against grain or inclination, against pedigree or plausibility. ... [A favorite example:] Robert Newton as Long John Silver. There never was a Cornish accent like this, but who would carp? That chop-licking, eye-rolling, Jim-ladding growl remapped pirate argot forever, and achieved extra immortality in the repertoire of a dozen comics from Tony Hancock to Eric Morecambe." (KN)

Here are just a few examples of Robert Newton's sometimes-unwitting imitators:

  • From a young age, rock drummer Keith Moon was heavily influenced by his hero's performance in Treasure Island, often mugging and speaking just like his Long John Silver. Click here for more about Moon's obsession with Newton.
  • The 1975 blockbuster Jaws offers two Robert Newton impersonations in one film: As scientist Matt Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss briefly impersonates Robert Shaw's feature-length Robert Newton impersonation in the role of the crusty Captain Quint (complete with multiple "arrrs"). (SB)
  • In the 1994 documentary Crumb, underground comic-strip artist Robert Crumb and his brother are depicted as being obsessed with Robert Newton as Long John Silver--an interest that takes them down some unsual paths. (SB)
  • In Disney's 1971 live-action/animated classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the leonine king on the Island of Naboombu (voiced by Lennie Weinrib) sounds a lot like Newton's Long John. The only thing piratical about the character, however, is his frequent utterances of "arr" and "matey."
  • The 1994 20th Century Fox film The Pagemaster features an animated seafaring character named Adventure (voiced by Patrick Stewart) whose speech patterns are inspired by Newton's Long John--but also features a genuine cartoon characterization of/homage to Newton's classic Disney performance (convincingly voiced by Jim Cummings, also the current voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh and Tigger among others).
  • In an episode from the 1999-2000 season of Dharma and Greg, the main characters play "pirate," with Greg, sounding very much like Robert Newton, in pursuit of "wench" Dharma.
  • The pirate cat (voiced by Don Messick) in 1982's The Last Unicorn has a suspiciously Newton-like swagger.
  • In the "Treasure of the Lost Planet" episode of the 1960s TV series Lost in Space, Albert Salmi portrays a very Newton-like space pirate. (SB)
  • The seafaring Captain McAllister, a recurring character on The Simpsons, may not look like Robert Newton, but Newton was actor Hank Azaria's inspiration for the captain's voice and liberal use of the trademark "Arrr" (and many variations thereon!). (Click on the "Captain McAllister" link for a list of sample lines.) (LH)
  • The cartoon series SpongeBob Squarepants regularly pays homage to Robert Newton: SpongeBob's krusty boss, Mr. Krabs (voiced by Clancy Brown), owes much of his nautical swagger to Robert Shaw's Captain Quint in Jaws (who in turn owes a lot to RN), but his laugh is a clear nod to Newton: "Ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar ..." In one episode, Mr. Krabs takes SpongeBob and pal Patrick on a treasure hunt and spends a good part of the voyage instructing them in the proper inflection of the word "arrr(gh)." Blackbeard's ghost, who guards the treasure, looks a lot like the real Blackbeard, but his voice is a full-on Robert Newton impression. The pirate vocalist's hearty laugh at the end of series' theme song (sung to the tune of "Blow the Man Down") ends with a "harrr." And the persona of sometime live-action host Patchy the Pirate (Tom Kenny, also the voice of SpongeBob) is clearly inspired by Newton. (The Flying Dutchman character on the show was voiced by Brian Murray, who also provided the voice for Long John Silver in Disney's animated Treasure Planet.) (EO, JP)
  • Long John Silver in Disney's 2002 animated feature Treasure Planet, which reworks the story of Treasure Island into an interplanetary sci-fi tale, sports an Irish accent, but his vocal inflections (courtesy of Brian Murray—no relation to Brian Doyle-Murray, brother of Bill) and appearance are clearly influenced by Newton. (JP)
  • The Disney theme-park ride "Pirates of the Caribbean" has long been "chock-full of Robert Newtonesque voices" (many of which were provided by prolific voice actor Paul Frees). (Richard) 
  • Down Periscope catches the underdog submarine crew, headed by Kelsey Grammer, turning rogue pirate in LJS fashion, complete with "Arrrr's", "Matey's," and plucked chickens lashed-to-shoulder for full effect. (PM) 

  • In Boris and Natasha: The Movie (starring Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman), Boris, true to form, ineptly "conceals" himself in a crowded plaza by milling around as John Q ... Pirate, in full LJS regalia: peg-leg, parrot, and copious arrgh-ing to boot. (PM) 

  • Hook's Robin Williams attempts to pass undetected among a throng of pirates, with the occasional outburst of ... you guessed it. (PM)
  • An old Canadian commercial for High Liner seafood featured a sea captain who sounded very much like Newton's Silver (and looks a lot like Captain McAllister!). (GKC, LH)
  • From an episode of Hawaii Five-O:

    Steve McGarrett: "Pirates in modern day Hawaii, eh?"

    Dan-O [with a bit of a growl]: "Ayyyye, Steve!" (PL)
  • Many, many years ago, the legendary radio team Bob and Ray on New York's WOR did some fantastically funny impersonations of Long John: One was a radio story entitled "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," which had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual book but was a hilarious impersonation of Long John beating up a hapless crewmember. In one of their "Mary Backstage" series, Mary and her gang are shanghied on a boat captained by a John Silver sound-alike. (ME)
  • There's a character in the Lemony Snicket book "The Grim Grotto" who talks like Robert Newton's Long John Silver, putting an "Arr!" in just about every sentence.
  • The widest audience in 40 years for a Robert Newton soundalike was the recurring character on Laugh-In played by Arte Johnson. "Arr-rrh . . ." was many times all he said (with a leer and a squint, of course). (TB)
  • An episode of "Miami Vice" included a Robert Newton impression. I don't recall the episode title, but rich yacht club kids were ripping off drug-runner boats at sea. One character carried a pair of MAC-10 submachine guns in shoulder holsters. He used Newton's English Pirate Brogue when he boarded the drug boats at gunpoint. (FB)
  • In the comic series Blackadder 2, in episode "Potato," actor Tom Baker clearly imitates Newton as the redbeard Captain Rum. (Venie)
  • A Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch features a rugby match between teams called the Bournemouth Gynecologists and the Watford Long John Silver Impersonators. The Gynecologists easily beat the Impersonators, who lean immobile on their crutches, snarling "Arrr, Jim lad ..." in Newtonian tones.
  • Facebook's interface is now available in "English (Pirate)" featuring an endless supply of gratuitous "arr"s and lots of pirate jargon. (To change your preferred language, scroll to the very bottom of the Facebook page and click the language link in the far left corner next to the "Facebook ©" notice, or choose "Language"—"Tongue" in Pirate English—under "Settings"—a.k.a. "Adjust ye riggings.") Be forewarned, the interface will prove a challenge for those who are not well-versed in nautical-speak and the 18th-century English of Stevenson's Treasure Island so study up, me hearties!
  • September 19, Talk Like a Pirate Day, is now an international holiday! Here's a video of musician/filker Michael "Moonwulf" Longcor's tribute to the true inspiration for the occasion:

    recorded at Capricon 28 by Leane Verhulst, February 2008


A Cultural Icon


Book cover: Pirates! Raiders of the High Seas by Christopher Maynard Illustration: "Blackbeard's appearance and the stories told about him made everyone fear him."

Illustrations from two children's books: Robert Newton's name is mentioned nowhere in either book; he simply is Blackbeard!

Left: Cover of Pirates! Raiders of the High Seas by Christopher Maynard, New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1998. Photo courtesy Ronald Grant Archive.

Right: From Pirates by Karen McWilliams, New York: Franklin Watts, 1989. Photo courtesy of Aerial Photography Services--no artist credit given for painting.

Postcard:  "Getting some Ahrrr and Ahrrr in the Florida Keys"
A genuine Florida postcard (GKC)
1977 tour programme for Emerson Lake & Palmer "Works"
In 1977 the progressive-rock band Emerson Lake & Palmer released the album Works Volume 1 featuring an epic song titled "Pirates." Their 1977 tour programme featured this two-page painting to accompany the lyrics to "Pirates." (Click image to see larger version.) (EJ)

If you know of a Robert Newton impression that should be listed here but isn't, please e-mail me so I can add it to the list (and give you credit). A big "Arr, thank 'e kindly, matey" to the following contributors (whose initials follow their contributions above): Steve Bingen, Frank Brayman, Tom Bright, Glenn K. Call, Mike Emmer, Louise Hansen, Erling Jacobsen, Philip Leibfried, Priscilla Moreno, Kim Newton, Erin O'Neil, John Pickens, Richard, Venie, Leane Verhulst.



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