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By Jason Gay
"Can we have breakfast menus?" Liev Schreiber asked. It was a Monday morning not long ago in New York City, and Schreiber, the 43-year-old actor, was trying—politely, unsuccessfully—to summon the attention of the wait staff at a stylish, subterranean breakfast spot. He looked toward the kitchen and asked again, and nobody turned.
"See?" Schreiber said dryly. "Very few people recognize my voice."
But if you've been anywhere close to an HBO Sports series or documentary over the past decade and a half, you've heard Schreiber talk. He's a Tony-winning Broadway star; he has appeared in movies like "X-Men: Origins"; but as a narrator, he has quietly become the Mariano Rivera of the pay network's sports coverage—the steady, reliable closer. "He's as important as any element of a documentary," said Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports.
Schreiber's voice isn't immediately identifiable or iconic—it's not Al Pacino's "Hoo-ah" or Morgan Freeman's low rumble. The voice sounds older than its owner, but it isn't showy; it's smart, but not tweedy. It's a soother-light caramel, absent of rasp or scratch.
"It's not entirely me," Schreiber said. "There's an effort to enunciate more than usual, to phrase toward clarity. It's not naturalism. It's a character, in a sense."
At first it seems like an incongruous pairing—the urbane thespian's thespian who seldom glances at a box score and a network with a deep sports obsession. (HBO's latest sports documentary, "McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice," about the great tennis rivalry, premieres Saturday night.) But the broad-shouldered Schreiber possesses athletic DNA, having played football as a student in Brooklyn ("I loved hitting people") until an ankle injury curtailed his career. As a kid, he snuck into Madison Square Garden to see games, and he recalls being enraptured by the folkloric NFL Films narrated by the stentorian-voiced John Facenda.
Schreiber was hired to do his first HBO documentary in 1995, about the old American Football League. Greenburg had been impressed by Schreiber's narration on a PBS rock 'n' roll series and wanted the same voice for sports. At the time, Schreiber was in his 20s, and his film career was just starting. "This stud comes walking down the hall," Greenburg said. "I'm like, 'You're Liev Schreiber?' I was sure it was going to be some 65-year-old guy with a cane."
"I was really into Greek mythology in junior high school, and [NFL Films] was like Greek mythology—superheroes, slow motion, steam coming off giant men," Schreiber said. "The way John Facenda talked about it, it was like 'The Odyssey.' "
Schreiber's acting career would blossom, but he maintained his link to HBO. In the years since he has managed to record narration from far-flung filming locations including Europe, Morocco and Thailand, where he was staying with his two children and his partner, the actress Naomi Watts. "I was doing hockey voice-overs in the middle of Phuket—totally surreal," he said.
By now, Schreiber is trusted to arrive in the final stages of production and verbally stitch it together. (He used to smoke in the recording booth but has quit cigarettes altogether.) On occasion, he might suggest a small alteration—eliminating a word, a slight change of phrase or pace. "He just reads it right," said HBO writer Aaron Cohen. "And if he doesn't, he does it better than you imagined."
Schreiber seems amused by his side journey into sports. Putting voice to film is not an extrovert's business—hardly anyone finishes watching a documentary and wants to spend a half-hour discussing the narrator. But for an actor who has experienced the velvet side of celebrity (courtside at the Knicks between Anna Wintour and Rex Ryan), it's a happy sliver of (relative) anonymity.
Even if the job sometimes makes a (relatively) young man feel old, like on a recent HBO production about Jerry Tarkanian and the UNLV Runnin' Rebels of the early '90s.
"It's awful," Schreiber said, sighing. "UNLV! That's like recent history to me."