The voice of the first talking G.I. Joe action figure is a true American hero
Bill Corsair is the voice of the first talking G.I. Joe doll, a SAG award winner and a Guinness World Record holder.
But the title that the Manhattanite is proudest of: Army veteran.
Corsair, 79, went to Vietnam in January 1969 as part of the fabled First Cavalry Division. He came back 10 months later a changed man.
“To me, it was the bravest and most patriotic and unselfish thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t,” Corsair said from his Upper West Side home.
Today, as the country wages a health war on the home front, Corsair wants to honor those 2.7 million men and women who served alongside him by calling attention to Sunday’s National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Roughly 60,000 made the ultimate sacrifice.
The native Rhode Islander was flying high as one of WICE-AM’s hottest DJs — spinning rock-and-roll records from noon to 3 p.m. at the Providence station — when President Lyndon B. Johnson activated his National Guard unit, the 115th Military Police Company.
Off he went to West Point, where he spent the next nine or so months both training — night infiltration, reconnaissance and field maneuvers — and pulling regular duty. He ended up assigned to the First Cavalry’s “Sky Troopers.”
Only a couple of years earlier, Corsair recorded the voice of “Talking G.I. Joe,” a doll made by the Rhode Island toy giant Hasbro. He auditioned for the gig along with every other DJ at WICE-AM — at the insistence of Hasbro exec Sammy Speers, who simply told the talent that their tapes were for “something new we’re going to try.”
The job — which paid $100 bucks, about a month’s rent in those days — went to Corsair, but how Speers made his choice didn’t exactly thrill the up-and-comer. “He told me, ‘You were the only one who didn’t sound like an announcer,’” Corsair recalled.
After making the recordings — seven or eight short sentences like “Enemy planes, hit the dirt” — Corsair didn’t hear from Hasbro again until he was well into his stint overseas. He had gone to the company looking for a supply of talking G.I. Joes to give to kids in a nearby village. The answer was a flat no.
“They had nothing and were great little heroes in their own right,” Corsair said of the kids. “But the response from the PR guy was, ‘Sorry, Bill, but Hasbro is trying to distance itself from their war toys.”
Corsair arrived in Vietnam shortly after the Tet Offensive, the massive surprise attack launched by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army that coincided with Tet — the Vietnamese New Year.
He spent endless hours aboard choppers and fixed-wing aircraft, conducting reconnaissance over Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam. One goal was to get a head count of roughly 2,500 prisoners of war, about half of whom are still unaccounted-for.
“Those kinds of situations,” Corsair recalled, “were very quiet and scary — kind of like right now.”
For his service, Corsair received a host of medals, including two Bronze Stars and the Combat Air Medal. The honors humble Corsair: “The guys I was fighting beside were so much better and they made you better.”
Corsair ended up at WCAU-AM in Philadelphia. There, in 1974, he set the Guinness World Record for most calls to a talk radio show when more than 355,000 listeners tried to get through — in one evening — to quiz psychic Howard Sheldon. The record stood for 20 years.
Then he and wife Janis segued into theatrical careers in New York City.
“We’re with each other 24/7 for 53 years — 53 relentless years,” joked Janis, 71. “And the secret,” Bill added, “is never assume you’ve got the job.”
Both are SAG award winners — Bill in 2003 for his role as a Movietone newsreel announcer in the musical “Chicago,” Janis in 2014 for her performance as the female usher in “Birdman,” which won the Oscar for best picture. They also do character work on “Saturday Night Live.” Bill plays Grandpa in the commercial parody “Depends Legends.”
A close friend of the couple is “Forrest Gump” star Gary Sinise, who established a foundation for America’s defenders — veterans and first responders. The three met on a project and a friendship grew out of their dedication to veterans.
“He’s a prince,” Corsair said of Sinise.
The admiration is mutual.
“Having Vietnam veterans in my family, Bill and I connected immediately, and I have great respect and admiration for his service to our country,” Sinise wrote in an email. “He’s a great American who loves and served his country and it’s an honor to call him friend.”
For the Corsairs, today is an opportunity for all Americans to recognize Vietnam veterans for their service, particularly because so many were shunned when they returned home from fighting America’s most unpopular war.
“Nobody said, ‘welcome home’ when we came home the first time,” Corsair said. “A day like Sunday is the country’s way of finally saying ‘welcome home.’”
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