Bill Cunningham, the original voice of Barbie’s boyfriend Ken for Mattel during the early 1960s, has died. The singer-turned-talent agency founder was 96.
Cunningham died on July 15 at his West Hollywood home, CESD Talent Agency told Deadline Thursday. No other details were provided.
Cunningham was “among the great innovators and gentlemen of the talent representation business,” CESD partners Ken Slevin and Paul Doherty said in a statement to PEOPLE Thursday. “Bill set the template for client and customer service, particularly in commercial, voice-over and print. He was a warm, gregarious, classy man who made a positive impact on all those he represented and employed. It was our honor to know him and to learn from him.”
Born in San Francisco, Cunningham moved to Hollywood to pursue an entertainment career before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He performed with the Fort Emory Drum and Bugle Corp during his service, touring throughout the Pacific theater.
After the war, Cunningham found success as a singer. He performed on NBC’s Voices of Walter Schumann and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and sang on movie soundtracks for nearly every major Hollywood studio. During this period, he also voiced Ken in Mattel’s early Barbie records, decades before Ryan Gosling played Barbie’s boyfriend on the big screen. Cunningham also toured with Judy Garland and Dinah Shore.
In 1963, Cunningham switched careers, investing his life savings into Pacifics Artists Agency upon encouragement from singer and TV star Peggy Taylor. The startup began with 10 voice-over actors, with Cunningham delivering headshots and bios for his clients to ad agencies in Los Angeles himself, notes Deadline.
The firm was renamed Cunningham & Associates in 1967, and Cunningham opened offices in New York and Chicago in 1971. T.J. Escott, Slevin, and Doherty joined the firm in the 1970s and 1980s. Slevin and Doherty became partners in 2005, and the firm was renamed Cunningham-Escott-Slevin-Doherty (CESD) Talent Agency.
CESD bills itself as “one of the nation’s most prestigious commercial, voice-over, print, digital influencer, theatrical/TV-film and young performer talent agencies and a dominant force,” according to the firm’s website.
Cunningham retired in 1989 and published an autobiography, I Wonder What Became of Me, in 2014.
His survivors include nephews and nieces Kirk, Kevin, Kristen, Janet, Barbara, and Debbie.