When Jim Dale, an award-winning Broadway actor, was asked eight years ago to narrate the audio version of the first "Harry Potter" book, he wasn't sure he could do it.
"The first book ["Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"] had 30 to 40 different [characters'] voices in it. It was off the wall! I thought to myself, 'Who the hell can do that?' " Dale said in a recent telephone interview.
It turns out that Dale, 71, can do it. Those 30-40 voices were just a fraction of the voices he has now created for the "Harry Potter" series by author J.K. Rowling. In fact, Dale holds a Guinness World Record for having created 134 different character voices for one book -- "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the fifth book in the series.
Asked if he beats his own record for voices in the final "Harry Potter" book, Dale replied that he's not allowed to respond until "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is released at midnight tonight.
Dale finished recording the book several weeks ago, setting in motion a production frenzy designed to ensure that the audio book is ready for release the same day as the print version. This is the same highly unusual process (most audio books come out weeks or months after the regular version is published) used for most of the previous "Harry Potter" books.
Overall, Dale has created more than 200 voices for the audio versions of all seven "Harry Potter" books. More than 5 million copies of the audio books have been sold since the first one was released in 1999, making them the best-selling audio books of all time.
Here are a few more astounding figures:
The total length of the audio versions, including Book 7, is 117 hours and four minutes. It would take five days to listen straight through the entire series, according to officials of Listening Library, the Random House division that publishes the audio books.
If you listened to the whole series straight through in your car, driving at 60 miles per hour, it would take you a loop around the United States -- from New York City to Seattle to Los Angles to Dallas to Atlanta and back to the Big Apple, the Listening Library folks said.
Book 7, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," is 21 hours, and 38 minutes long, and consists of 17 CDs or 12 cassettes. Listening Library has ordered a first printing of 635,000 copies for Book 7 -- 565,000 CDs; 70,000 cassettes -- the same it ordered for the previous book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
"Jim Dale's recordings are worth listening to, even if you have read the books a few times," said children's-book expert Anita Silvey. "He brilliantly distinguishes characters and brings out the excitement and pacing of the narrative."
Dale's success in bringing the "Harry Potter" books to audio life isn't surprising, given his successful and eclectic background. A native of England, Dale spent much of his childhood training for a career on the stage.
It paid off. At the age of 17, he became the youngest professional comedian in Great Britain. In the following years, Dale became a pop recording artist, hosted a BBC television show, worked as a disc jockey, joined the prestigious British National Theater (at the request of Sir Laurence Olivier) and then headed to Broadway, where he appeared in numerous shows.
Dale has since collected awards and nominations that include: a 1966 Academy Award nomination for the lyrics to "Georgy Girl"; a 1980 Tony Award for "Barnum," plus five other Tony nominations; and a 2000 Grammy for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," plus five other Grammy nominations.
In the next year, Dale plans to perform in a Broadway musical, "Busker Alley," narrate the ABC fall series "Pushing Daisies" and record more books. Looking back over his unusual career, Dale reflected: "I like the idea of exploring every branch in the tree of show business."
Recording audio books is tricky, he said. He has gotten each of the last few "Harry Potter" books just two or three days before he must begin recording. Dale can read 18 to 20 pages an hour, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., on a good day, but doesn't know where the story is going as he never has the chance to read the entire book before he starts. It usually takes him around 10 days to complete a recording.
Audio-book fans particularly treasure Dale's ability to give each "Harry Potter" character a distinctive voice. Dale said he keeps an ear out for voices he can use, noting that "Hagrid" is the voice of an uncle, "Professor Mc-Gonagall" is the voice of an aunt and "Dobby," a house elf, is the voice of a dwarf playing "Dopey" in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
"I first met him in a crowded elevator backstage at the theater. I heard a small voice behind me say, 'Excuse me, sir, you're wiping my nose with your bum!' "
Dale insists that he can't pick a favorite, although he said he particularly liked doing voices such as Professor Slughorn's that allowed him to play with a wide vocal range.
Recording the last "Harry Potter" book was a bittersweet experience, Dale added. "At the same time, there are other books out there, and we're hoping -- through my popularity -- to encourage others to follow me and listen to other classic books."
Karen MacPherson is the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library.