The Mike Toole Show Voice of Many Generations
by Michael Toole, Jul 18th 2010
I really didn't want to write this. I have to get up really early tomorrow, you know. But I need to say some stuff here, even though there was supposed to be a column about robots in this space. Everybody loves giant robots, right? Well, there's a giant robot mentioned briefly in this column, but the robot isn't the giant I'd like to focus on. Instead, I'm going to try to frame up the life of a titan whose influence reached from Broadway to Hollywood, who took the cream of Russian science fiction, Italian westerns, and yes, Japanese animation, and gave them new voices that put them in a context understandable to regular old English-speaking TV and movie lovers like you and me.
To say that this gent is a showbiz legend would be an understatement. He's directed the great Orson Welles, joked and jibed alongside improv comic pioneer Jonathan Winters, and overseen Broadway and Law & Order legend Jerry Orbach. He got started early, beefing up his resume as a child stage actor and voiceover man in popular 1940s radio serials like The Sea Hound and Superman. He would become known for his mastery of voiceover, of narration and singing and rewriting, but his first big break was actually in front of the camera, starring in a film from Universal Pictures called City Across the River. He shone brightly as the lead, head and shoulders above the rest of the young cast-- a cast that included some kid named Bernie Schwartz. Schwartz would soon change his name to Tony Curtis and find some fame of his own, but this isn't his story. The real story is about this man, who found more satisfying and steady work in the studio, narrating and rewriting and directing new English-language versions of foreign films. With TV in ascendancy in the 1950s and movies still extremely popular, the public was hungry for any and all new media, and this man's hard work would help unearth international stars like Omar Sharif, and later Sonny Chiba. Eventually, he would direct voices in cartoons-- some of them foreign dub jobs, but many of them homegrown Saturday morning fare like Kenny the Shark. All told, this guy put together a career in show business spanning a good 7 decades. Unfortunately, he died this week, so I'm going to have to somehow get used to referring to him in the past tense. His name is-- was-- Peter Fernandez.
The first thing you might notice is that I didn't once mention Speed Racer in my introduction. That's because everygoddamnbody knows that Peter Fernandez was the voice of Speed Racer. It's arguable that, just as much as Ippei Kuri's iconic illustration and snappy writing, it was Fernandez' energetic delivery and inspired rewriting that made the character famous all over the world. His voiceover work might span just about every genre you can think of, but over the years Speed Racer became Fernandez' calling card. When Speed Racer Enterprises would roll out their eye-popping replicas of the Mach V for parades or charity appearances, it was often with Fernandez at the wheel. When the company tried to relaunch the series in 1994 with a new cartoon by Fred Wolf Productions, they first consulted Fernandez, who wasn't afraid to call The New Adventures of Speed Racer a stinker after it aired. When Volkswagen used the character and his car for one of its ad campaigns, they had Fernandez coach their commercial actor, so he'd sound exactly like the original Speed. And when the Wachowski Brothers unleashed their big-budget, big-screen Speed Racer spectacle in 2008, Fernandez was back in front of the camera, in a small role as a riveting race commentator.
Everywhere he went, Peter Fernandez was introduced as the voice of Speed Racer. And after awhile, this started to irritate me. You see, I first met Peter at AnimEast 1995, my very first anime convention. There, in New Brunswick, NJ, he held court at the massive (for its time) gathering of more than 800 anime fans, alongside fellow veterans Corinne Orr (his longtime collaborator and the voice of Speed Racer's Trixie - over the years, they've rarely appeared at a convention separately) and Billie Lou Watt (the voice of Astroboy). Not surprisingly, most of the questions from fans were Speed Racer-centric, and Fernandez and company were more than happy to talk about the good old days recording the hit series, digging through piles of barely-comprehensible, barely-translated scripts, how he would often down a few whiskey sours at lunch to keep the mood light, and how the show's entire pit crew of four regulars would chain-smoke in the recording booth from dawn to dusk. Fernandez was particularly fond of his creative and enjoyably weird new character names-- monikers like Inspector Detector, Cruncher Block, and Snake Oiler had to be thought up on the spot, and they were memorable enough that they made it all the way into the Hollywood movie. But at one point during the Q&A, a fan stood up and asked him about doing voices for a Russian science fiction film called Planet of Storms. At this point, Fernandez' face screwed up in concentration, but he eventually shrugged and confessed that he didn't really remember the film; he'd just done too many jobs over the years to recall it clearly.
Think about that for a moment. Try and remember all of the jobs you've worked. It shouldn't be that hard, right? I've worked just about every day of my life since I turned 16, but I can still remember just about everyplace I've worked. But for someone like Peter Fernandez, a skilled performer in high demand, new jobs would come fast and furious, sometimes in bunches of a dozen or more. Hearing him point that out, I found myself impressed by the scope of what he did - someday I'd like to look back at a career so vast and multifaceted that I can't quite place everything. But the other thing that struck a chord with me was the fact that, except for a precious few dedicated fans, nobody really seemed to know what else Peter Fernandez did. I didn't like that - as inexperienced as I was, even I knew that he'd been working for decades, and as time wore on I'd discover his voice or his hand in great dubbed material again and again. A few years later, I got the opportunity to address Fernandez's lack of exposure for a few fans, and it's remained one of my fondest convention memories.
In fall of 2003, my old pal and collaborator Dave Merrill and I had already established our Dubs that Time Forgot panel as a fixture at several conventions. When I found out that Peter Fernandez would be appearing once again at AWA 9, I remarked to Dave that someone should put together a panel about all of the stuff that Fernandez had done that wasn't Speed Racer and discuss the work with the actor. Dave readily agreed, and penciled in DUBS THAT PETER FERNANDEZ FORGOT, a presentation featuring Mike Toole as the host. Oh shit. My big mouth had gotten me into trouble again, and my nerves weren't helped when I went into the ballroom for the panel to find a befuddled Peter asking me what exactly this thing was all about. Nobody had told him, you see. I explained the concept as best as I could, even as he wondered aloud of anyone would be coming by (there were only about a dozen people in the audience at this point). I gulped hard and pressed play, and a scene from Alakazam the Great flashed onscreen.
I've made no secret that Alakazam is an old favorite of mine. It was the third anime ever released in the United States, and it featured an uncredited Peter Fernandez as the title character. And for a few seconds at that panel, Peter gaped at the screen, lost in thought. Suddenly, his face lit up, and he said that he remembered that Jonathan Winters and Arnold Stang were in the film with him. Success! Peter went on to explain that the studio, AIP, were billing crooner Frankie Avalon as the voice of Alakazam (Avalon's singing voice was on the soundtrack), and so had sworn Fernandez to secrecy about his part in the movie. Buoyed on, I ran a scene from Planet of Storms, and... nope, he still didn't remember it. He certainly recognized his own voice-- and every time it rang out of the speakers, Corinne Orr, who sat in the front row, would exclaim, "Peter, you were wonderful!" much to the amusement of the slowly growing audience. But the next clip, from Mario Bava's gorgeously photographed but dull Planet of the Vampires, rang a bell with Peter. He'd spent a huge chunk of the 60s dubbing Italian and West German westerns and genre films, and was full of stories about the work. His dub of Planet of the Vampires (confusingly, there are two dubs out there) features a major character renamed Mark, mainly done so Fernandez, when rewriting character dialogue, could throw in his one-syllable name if there was a surplus mouth flap onscreen. He also told tales about how the German director Harald Reinl created western movies produced in Europe with local casts, but designed from the ground up to be redubbed - sometimes to the point that no original dialogue soundtrack would be recorded, and with only plot outlines for the actors to follow, Reinl would just instruct his cast to repeat famous names, sequences of numbers-- whatever it took to achieve natural-looking mouth movement, which Fernandez and his team would later dub.
After briefly highlighting the joys of a typical Speed Racer episode with a scene of Speed chasing a bad guy ("Stop! Stop! Stop, or I'll stop you!") , we moved on to Ultraman, which ran in syndication in the 1970s. Man, that show was cool. Not only did Fernandez stylishly and faithfully rewrite the theme song (just as he'd done with Speed Racer), he gave the characters in this live-action production goofy, stilted "oriental" accents. This approach seems ridiculous today, but Fernandez could only shrug. They'd tried dubbing the first episode straight, but something just didn't feel right; the producers liked the accents better, and it turned out that the public was fine with them as well-- Ultraman ran on TV into the 80s, and DVDs featuring the dubbed version are readily available. It was also during the 1970s that Fernandez began to inch away from the microphone-- he spent much of his time working for a New York production house called TITRA at this point, and he'd go on to direct the English adaptations of a variety of anime films, such as the excellent Taro the Dragon Boy. One of these films was called Glick's Adventure, a charming cartoon from 1978 about a chipmunk leaving his comfortable home in the city to explore the forest. Surprisingly, the English version, retitled The Enchanted Journey, would feature known talents like Jim Backus (Gilligan's Island's Thurston Howell III) and none other than Orson goddamn Welles. Not surprisingly, Fernandez did remember working with Welles; although the famed actor and director would decry the cartoon roles he took late in life (about the Transformers movie, Welles was quoted as saying, "I played the voice of a toy... some terrible robot toy from Japan that changed from one thing to another."), he was apparently serious enough about his role, a streetwise pigeon who gives the hero some advice. When Fernandez described the character as a "city bird," Welles gamely attempted a Brooklyn accent, which didn't quite work. Fernandez also recalled that the famously quirky film auteur had a tiny pet dog that would sit quietly on a stool in the recording booth while Welles read his lines.
I wrapped our little presentation up with Galaxy Rangers, itself a very historically interesting affair-- it was funded by an American production house, but lavishly animated by Tokyo Movie Shinsha, and was the first TV cartoon to feature integrated computer graphics - quite a coup for 1986! The production, which Fernandez explained had an enormous budget courtesy of producer Robert Mandell, featured Broadway star Jerry Orbach as the hero, Zachary Foxx, several years before he would become a TV institution as Law & Order's Detective Lennie Briscoe. Along with Orbach, whom Fernandez described as a consummate professional, the show featured Mumm-ra voice Earl Hammond, as well as Fernandez's old partner Corinne Orr. Pleased with how things had gone, I called for the lights to come up, and turned, surprised, as the now more than 100 audience members applauded Peter and his career. He deserved every bit of it.
The last thing I learned at that memorable meeting was that one of Peter's hobbies was doing research on his old jobs, filling in the blanks in his resume - part of the reason that he had trouble recalling some of his jobs is because nobody kept records back in the 60s and 70s, and there wasn't an internet full of millions of nerds to track his every move. It's unmistakably his voice in films like Alakazam and Planet of the Vampires, but he never got onscreen credit for the jobs. As a result of his own research, Peter's IMDB profile, which was once quite sparse, now stretches for pages and pages. Amazingly, it's still missing some credits-- his work on Planet of the Vampires still isn't cited, for example, and his final role in Bandai Entertainment's Kurokami isn't mentioned either. I parted ways with Peter after insisting that he take my UK Galaxy Rangers DVD-- the series hadn't yet come out on DVD in the states, and he had idly remarked that he was looking for episodes to show his grandkids and put in his library.
I would see Peter Fernandez from time to time after that panel, always in passing. The last time would be at Otakon 2008, where he set up shop in the dealer's room at a booth that highlighted his onscreen turn in Speed Racer, and on the convention's busy Saturday afternoon, the line for fans to greet him was longer than I'd ever seen it at any event. It was great to see him given the opportunity to bask in his decades-long success, but as I passed, we just shared a little wave. After all, he still had a busy convention schedule-- New York Anime Fest here, Sakura-con there-- so it was only a matter of time before I'd bump into him again and have some time to talk. But here we are, and he's gone and zoomed off into the sunset.
Despite the sadness of his passing, the man has left us anime nerds with one hell of a legacy. Not only was he involved in the third anime film to be released in the states, he worked hard on Fred Ladd's adaptations of Astroboy and Gigantor (see, I told you I'd mention a giant robot!) before striking gold with Speed Racer-- in fact, he even dubbed a pilot episode of 8th Man with Ladd, which is sadly lost (anyone got a copy?). While he worked on a dizzying variety of projects, even working as one of ABC's nationwide TV announcers for a time in the 80s, he never strayed far from Japanese animation. He dubbed Star Blazers' third season. He dubbed Marine Boy, and Thunderbirds 2086, and Osamu Tezuka's live-action Space Giants. Peter might not be around anymore, but maybe that's not so tragic-- after all, I still bumped into him just the other night. I was channel surfing, you see, and I flashed past Cartoon Network. He voice-directed a show called Courage the Cowardly Dog for them once upon a time, and played the title character in a segment called Robot Randy. Just the other night, his voice rang out in that episode, in living rooms all across the US.
Godspeed, Peter - you crossed the finish line, and I hope you're celebrating well in the winner's circle.
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