There was a time when big-name actors wanted nothing to do with books on tape. Not anymore. Coming soon to a tape player near you: Academy Award winners Ben Kingsley (reading Schindler's List) and F. Murray Abraham (Interview With the Vampire); Matthew Modine (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Blair Brown (The Client), and Kirk Douglas (his own new novel, Last Tango in Brooklyn). ''There's a certain prestige now,'' says Lori Weintraub, president and CEO of Time Warner AudioBooks. ''We find it possible to get almost anyone.''
What's in it for the stars? Around $3,000 to $5,000 for a day or two in the recording studio and the chance to flex the acting muscles. ''It's every actor's dream, like [playing] Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to play all the parts,'' says Anthony Heald, who can currently be seen on screen as one of the law enforcement bullies in The Client and who has read a dozen books on tape, including Robert Ludlum's The Gemini Contenders and John Grisham's The Pelican Brief.
Scott Linder, a voice-over agent says: ''I equate it with the days of radio drama, when four or five actors each played four or five characters. Only here, it's one performer.''
Which is why, even in the abridged, three-hour versions favored for most books on tape, an audio adaptation requires stamina and versatility. Actors must tell the story through their voices and dazzle listeners with accents. ''My experience has been that the best jobs are done by classically trained stage actors,'' says David Rapkin, a New York-based independent audio producer.
Says Weintraub: ''It's more important to have an actor who is an excellent professional reader than to just have a name for name's sake.''