|Go! Speed Racer Go!|
Forty years on, the voices of Speed and Trixie reveal the back story behind the now-classic TV series
His skills were unmatched by any driver on the Grand Prix Circuit. His car could leave the Batmobile standing in the dust in a drag race, and boasted more gizmos, gadgetry and gee-whiz goodies than a car finishing up two weeks on Pimp My Ride. Along with an overprotective father, a brother with a mysterious past, an adventure-seeking girlfriend and a rear-trunk-hiding younger brother and chimpanzee, Speed Racer has grown from a 1968 syndicated-strip cartoon series to a marketing bonanza, all culminating in a brand new television series and a live action summer 2008 major motion picture release – and a new production run of collectible tie-in toys.
“Speed Racer was the first cartoon I worked on that had a family that you felt really was a family,” said Peter Fernandez, who provided the voice for Speed Racer in the original cartoon.
Corinne Orr, who provided the voices of both Speed Racer’s girlfriend Trixie and Speed’s younger brother, Spritle, agrees. “Boys loved watching the show to see Speed Racer and his Mach 5 – that’s one reason why Speed Racer is so loved – but the other is the family connection, with Mom and Pops Racer, two brothers, the mysterious Racer X, and Spritle and Chim Chim the monkey.”
Long before Speed and his lightning-fast Mach 5 burned up the Saturday television circuit, the character was originally known as Go Mifune, and appeared in an early Japanese comic book, or manga, drawn by artist Tatsuo Yoshida. Yoshida, along with his brothers Kenji and Toyoharu, created Tatsunoko Production Co. in 1962, and their first effort, the 1965 cartoon Uchū Ēsu (Space Ace), was a moderate success. While Space Ace was still on the air, Yoshida crafted several issues of manga featuring the adventures of Go Mifune, an international race car driver and his racing family, who won races and fought crime around the world. Eventually the racing stories, under the manga title of Mach Go Go Go, became the most popular manga of its day.
With the success of the Mach Go Go Go manga, Yoshida and his brother Toyoharu (now using the pen name “Ippi Kurri”) developed an animated series based on the manga, which would be produced by their Tatsunoko company. In September of 1966, Mach Go Go Go premiered on Japan’s Fuji Network as a Sunday evening program. It proved popular and enjoyed a 52-week run.
In the early 1960s, Japanese animation studios like Tatsunoko and its competitors, Toei Animation and Mushi Productions, were able to export their popular cartoon TV shows to English-speaking TV stations and networks, who in turn redubbed and retitled the programs for their Saturday morning kids' TV schedules. Tetsuwan Atom, redubbed as Astro Boy, became the first Japanese anime (animated cartoons) to appear on an American TV network, when NBC aired the show in 1963. Other anime shows crossed the Pacific Ocean, including Tetsujin-nijūhachi-gō 28 (as Gigantor) and Janguru Taitei (as Kimba the White Lion).
And like the other programs, Mach Go Go Go was picked up by an American distribution company, Trans-Lux, whose previous television series included shows like The Mighty Hercules and Felix the Cat. Trans-Lux had already imported the Japanese cartoon Gigantor, and saw potential for syndicating the Mach Go Go Go series.
At that time, voice actor/director Peter Fernandez was part of Titra Studios, a New York City recording company that provided English translations for various foreign movies, including several Godzilla films and the Danish monster classic Reptilicus. American audiences in the 1960s wouldn't give two katana about Japanese TV shows in their original dialect, and companies like Titra were employed to “Americanize” popular Japanese anime into a product American kids would understand and enjoy.
“I had written most of the dubbing scripts for Astro Boy and Gigantor for a man named Fred Ladd,” said Fernandez, in an exclusive interview with Toy Collector Magazine. “I also worked on a lot of feature films with an editing company, Zavala-Riss. In 1967, Trans-Lux commissioned us to convert this new animated series from Japan to English for American television. I asked, ‘What are the instructions from the client?’ in terms of how close they wanted the American series to match the Japanese series. I was told there weren’t any instructions; they just wanted the series ‘Americanized.’”
With that, Fernandez had free reign to rename all the characters – gone was “Go Mifune,” who was renamed “Speed Racer.” His girlfriend, “Michi Shimura,” became “Trixie,” while his parents Daisuke and Aya Mifune were now “Pops” and “Mom Racer.” “The translations sent to me from Japan were very poor in those days,” said Fernandez, “so I had the opportunity to make up the dialogue of the characters, and being the director also, hire the cast. I gave myself the two best parts, Speed Racer and Racer X.”
Fernandez brought in three reliable voice actors for the project. Jack Curtis, who voiced Pops Racer and the police detective “Inspector Detector,” previously worked with Fernandez on several radio shows in the 1940s and 1950s. Jack Grimes, an accomplished voice and stage actor who appeared in the films Lady on a Train and Weekend at the Waldorf, would provide the voice for Speed’s mechanic, Sparky, as well as for Chim Chim, the pet monkey of Speed’s younger brother, Spritle.
Also joining the Speed Racer project was Corinne Orr, a Montreal-born actress who voiced all the female and juvenile parts, including Trixie and Spritle. “I originally was part of a daily TV show, Chez Helene, with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.),” said Orr. “After several years in the theater, I came to New York and started dubbing voices at Titra. I was one of the few actresses who had a ‘multi-voice.’ I could play many parts.”
The voice credits on the Speed Racer series, however, listed only Jack Curtis, Jack Grimes and Corinne Orr; in a cost-cutting move, Fernandez left himself off the voice credits list. “We were budgeted for only three cast members at $125 each an episode, and I didn’t think I could do the series with only three actors. So I called Jack Grimes, whom I had known since we were kids, and he had a vast amount of radio credits. I said ‘Jack, I have this acting job, but there’s not enough money in the budget – if you sign on, I'll split my fee with you.’ Jack and I each did every episode for $62.50 apiece. And being only three guys and one gal in the cast, we had to do all the villains and all the voices.
Most of the voices we made up on the spot. Every voice actor has a couple of distinctive ‘trick’ voices, but Speed Racer provided us with a challenge to come up with voices we never dreamed we could do.”
“We all liked working with each other on the series,” said Orr. “Today, if you’re working as a voice actor, you go in, you do your lines and you leave … You never meet anyone in the show. During Speed Racer, there was a lot of camaraderie. We worked hard and we respected and liked each other.”
Everything was re-translated at the Studebaker Building, a New York City office complex at 1600 Broadway. The Zavala-Riss Company, founded by Pablo Zavala and Sheldon Riss, took care of film editing, while Titra Studios was in charge of sound for voice dubbing. Essentially, a film would enter 1600 Broadway as anime and leave 1600 Broadway as a cartoon.
“All of the recording sessions were in New York City,” said Orr. “That building is now a big condominium. Everything has been torn down and condos have been put up.”
The series may have focused on the adventures of Speed Racer and his family, but Speed’s futuristic car – rebranded from its original name of the Mach to the Mach 5 – was as popular as any other character on the show. A white Grand Prix speedster with several built-in safety and defensive gadgets, all accessible from the touch of steering wheel buttons, the Mach 5 was arguably the most identifiable car among the Saturday morning set.
As the series progressed, Fernandez noticed there one of the recurring characters in Speed Racer was a mysterious masked secret driver who was equally as fast as Speed, and with a car (the No. 9 Shooting Star) that was a neck-and-neck contender to Speed’s Mach 5. Eventually that mysterious driver became “Racer X,” with a storyline that encompassed the entire 52-episode run. Unbeknownst to Speed, Racer X was Speed’s older brother, Rex Racer, who had left home to form his own racing team.
“The episodes came in sporadically from Japan for dubbing,” said Fernandez. “I might get one for a week and three the following week, and it would take me two days to write a script before I could go into the studio. I never knew myself what was coming up in the next episode. For instance, when a mysterious character showed up, I didn't know what to call him, so I called him Racer X – only because I couldn't think of anything to call him. It was a big surprise to me, when I learned from the Japanese scripts that this ‘Racer X’ was really Speed's brother. I gave Racer X the name Rex Racer, because Rex was the only name I could think of that had an X.”
Because the shows were dubbed, Fernandez had to both match up the words to the characters’ mouths, and make sure all the dialogue was spoken in the short amount of “talking time” on the screen. This resulted in another iconic Speed Racer trait - the characters’ frenzied staccato diction.
“Peter got the shows from Japan, along with a very loose translation of the broadcast,” said Orr. “It wasn’t really the best English translation, so he had to rewrite the episodes and make a story out of them. When you dubbed film, you would do three to four lines at a time, and we had to match the mouths on the screen. And because there were so many lines of text, we would rattle the lines off quickly. Boy, we really concentrated back then.”
“The dubbing was all done in loops,” said Fernandez, describing a technique where the voice actor tries to match his words with the lip patterns on an already-completed film. “We were working from a 16-millimeter print, and we would have a white grease pencil and mark off in the script what would be a loop. Having been actors for years, we wanted the loops as short as possible so that only one or two lines would go by. Once in a while, there was a long speech in which there didn’t seem to be any (natural) break. You’d have to memorize each line so you could take your eyes off the page, look at the screen, and fit yourself into that loop. Sometimes it became rather challenging to memorize a long speech and match it to the finished product.”
What made things even more daunting for the voice actors was that Zavala-Riss had a second show, Marine Boy, on the production line. For Marine Boy, the voices would be recorded first, then the tracks would be sent to Japan for animation, employing the opposite formula used to create Speed Racer episodes.
“The four of us worked on Marine Boy at the same time as Speed Racer,” said Fernandez. “The voices were recorded first, and then it was shipped to Japan to be animated. I tried to get a Marine Boy script done on the same day as a Speed Racer script. We could do a Speed Racer script in one day, and a Marine Boy script in an hour.”
Speed Racer wrapped up its 52-episode run in 1968, and the American voice actors went to other projects. During the 1970s, Fernandez and Orr, together with Jack Curtis, appeared on the radio anthology series CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which aired from 1974 to 1982. Fernandez continued working as a voice actor and editor, with post-Speed Racer credits including the shows Galaxy Rangers, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Kenny the Shark. Orr has remained a popular voice actress – that’s her voice you hear as the Snuggle Bear on every Snuggle Fabric Softener commercial.
As for Speed Racer, Trans-Lux held on to the series until 1969, when the company sold off its animated television holdings to concentrate on manufacturing illuminated stock market tickers. Trans-Lux's film catalog was purchased by independent distributor Alan Gleitsman, whose Alan Enterprises continued to syndicate Speed Racer to independent TV stations throughout the 1970s.
In 1986, another production company, Color Systems Technology, bought the entire Alan Enterprises catalog in a multimillion dollar transaction, and Gleitsman went from television syndicator to millionaire philanthropist. From 1989 until his death in 2006, Gleitsman oversaw the Gleitsman Foundation, bestowing humanitarian awards to such proponents of social activism as Nelson Mandela, C. Everett Koop and Ralph Nader.
Speed Racer's time with Color Systems Technology was brief. The company hoped to “colorize” the black-and-white movies in the Alan Enterprises catalog, but the less-than-enthusiastic public response to colorized movies forced Color Systems Technology into bankruptcy. The broadcast rights to Speed Racer went into limbo. Broadway Video purchased the rights to some episodes through a bankruptcy auction, while Caputo Publishing acquired the rest of the episodes, and released a comic book series and VHS tape series.
Then John Rocknowski entered the picture. A former toy distributor for Mattel, Rocknowski became part of a television distribution company called Harmony Gold. While there, Rocknowski and Carl Macek, the president of Harmony Gold, cleverly converted three previously unrelated Japanese anime series - The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada - into one wildly successful 65-episode series called Robotech. The success of the Robotech series, both domestically and worldwide, helped to cement a working relationship between Rocknowski and Tatsunoko Productions. By 1992, Rocknowski created Speed Racer Enterprises, to manage the American rights for the Speed Racer series and its characters (Tatsunoko still holds the rights to the series and characters in Japan). John’s son Jim Rocknowski, currently the executive vice president of Speed Racer Enterprises, remembers watching the cartoon as a child. “I came home from school and watched the show every day on Channel 52 in Southern California [KBSC-TV Channel 52, now KVEA]. It was a cool show. I enjoyed the car and the family and the mysterious Racer X. Cars and little boys go hand in hand.”
From the start, Speed Racer Enterprises tried to reel in all the episodes from the bankruptcy holdings, and then attempted to strike new licenses for toys, model kits, clothing and memorabilia. Very few tie-in items were produced during Speed Racer’s initial run before the existence of Speed Racer Enterprises. Because the original show was syndicated, it did not run in all markets, therefore there was a riskthat toys would have languished on shelves in markets where the 30-minute episodes did not air.
“There were some very small (licensing) deals still in place when we acquired the Speed Racer property,” said Jim Rocknowski. “There was a comic book line with NOW Comics, there was a guy in Florida who made T-shirts, and a videotape company (VidAmerica) that produced home VHS tapes of Speed Racer episodes. Alan Enterprises and Trans-Lux weren't merchandising people … My dad figured it out, and made a deal with Tatsunoko in 1991. That's when he formed Speed Racer Enterprises. In 1991, I was selling life insurance with Prudential. He called me and told me what had happened, and I quit Prudential that day to join Speed Racer Enterprises.”
Immediately Speed Racer Enterprises cranked up the Speed Racer licensing machine. Die-cast replicas of the Mach 5, the Shooting Star and several other vehicles were produced by Johnny Lightning/Playing Mantis. Model kits of the Mach 5 were created by Streamline (in cold cast resin) and Polar Lights (in styrene). Speed Racer bobbleheads were now available from Funko, while Hollywood Huggables issued bear-shaped beanbag dolls dressed in Speed and Trixie racing clothing. Speed Racer collectors, who previously could only acquire Speed Racer toys from Japan or from Latin America (where the show, rebranded as “Meteoro,” is still popular today), could now get Speed Racer snowglobes, action figures, slot cars, limited-edition sericels, and much more.
In 1999, the Child Safety Network used the Speed Racer character as its promotional face for child safety, and spent $650,000 to build a full-scale Mach 5. In 2003, a San Diego car company also made several driveable Mach 5 replicas, and one of those was later sold to Dallas radio broadcaster Russ Martin.
“I drove one of those replica Mach 5s,” said Peter Fernandez. “It was built on a Corvette frame. I was told it could have reached 185 miles per hour, but I was afraid to drive it over 35 mph. The Child Safety Network wanted to make Speed Racer and the Mach 5 a symbol for child safety, however I always questioned whether it was safe to put Spritle and Chim Chim in the trunk all the time. The full-scale Mach 5s didn’t have a trunk – that was where the gas tank was located.” “We took a test drive of one of the Mach 5s in Los Angeles,” said Corinne Orr. “After we drove it, we signed the dashboard. People stared and waved at us on the highway. It was such a pretty car.”
In addition to all the licensing of Speed Racer-associated merchandise, Speed Racer Enterprises also found that cable channels were willing to re-air the original series. In 1992, Speed Racer was part of the MTV lineup. A few years later, the series went to the Cartoon Network. By 2004, it was a regular broadcast on the Speed Channel, a racing-oriented cable network.
While the 52 original episodes remained popular, there were some attempts to re-introduce a new Speed Racer animated series to television. In 1993, The New Adventures of Speed Racer, a syndicated cartoon series, was produced by Murikami-Wolf-Swenson, famous for bringing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the big screen. Unfortunately, fans never warmed to The New Adventures of Speed Racer (the Mach 5 looked more like a souped-up Ford Escort), and the show was cancelled after 13 episodes.
In 1997, a new Mach Go Go Go animated series aired in Japan; five years later, the show appeared in America as Speed Racer X, but only lasted 12 episodes. One episode from this series, “The Silver Phantom,” later appeared as an extra on a 2002 high-end Speed Racer DVD boxed set.
Although only 52 original episodes of Speed Racer were produced, the series has remained in print on VHS tapes, DVD and laserdisc formats. In the mid-1980s, while still owned by Alan Enterprises, several episodes of Speed Racer were sold with episodes of The Mighty Hercules as part of Continental Video’s “Cinema Kid” line of children’s films. From 1988 to 1992, two companies - NOW Comics and VidAmerica - released those Speed Racer episodes that were under their ownership. From 1993 to 1995, Family Home Entertainment released 12 episodes of Speed Racer on both video and laserdisc. The company also issued four episodes of The New Adventures of Speed Racer, the 1993 remake of the classic series.
In addition to a full-season DVD boxed set produced by Speed Racer Enterprises, five different DVD sets were released by Artisan/Lions Gate Entertainment. These sets are notable for their unique packaging and bonus prizes in each box. Volume 4 contains a die-cast Mach 5 car, while volume 5 has a collectible license plate. Volume 2 comes with a musical bonus. When pressed, a secret button on that particular edition’s box plays the Speed Racer theme song.
Currently, Speed Racer Enterprises is involved in several projects designed to bring Speed and the Mach 5 back with new adventures. In 2008, Speed Racer: The Next Generation, a sequel to the original program, will premiere on the Nicktoons Network. This 26-episode series features the son of Speed Racer, who enters a special racing academy for the most gifted drivers. An adult Spritle, voiced by Peter Fernandez, will be one of the headmasters at the school, and the younger Speed will have possession of his own car, now titled the Mach 6.
For everyone who grew up with the classic series, the next-generation series will be a logical extension of what they remember from childhood, said Jim Rocknowski. “They’ll know why Speed’s son races the Mach 6,” he said. It'll make perfect sense. This new series does not discard the classic series, and all the characters from the original series will make appearances throughout the program run. The New York City animation company Animation Collective is working and writing the series. They're integrating some of the classic parts of the old series into the new show.”
The new Speed Racer series is scheduled to appear in May 2008 – at the same time as a long-awaited live-action Speed Racer motion picture hits movie theaters. The film, produced by Joel Silver and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix), will feature Emile Hirsch as Speed, who, with the support of his parents, Pops and Mom Racer (John Goodman, Susan Sarandon), his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), continues his high-speed adventures on the international racing circuits.
Peter Fernandez will also have a cameo part in the movie, finally realizing a promise that producer Joel Silver made to him over 15 years earlier. “In 1990, someone strung three episodes of Speed Racer together as a movie and released it in theaters. There was a lot of TV coverage around the world at this so-called premiere, so I was in the lobby of this theater in Los Angeles doing interviews. Suddenly this big guy came up to me, he said to me, ‘I just wanted to shake your hand, I'm Joel Silver and I'll be producing a live-action film based on Speed Racer.’” “I said ‘That’s great, will there be a part in for me?’”
“He said, ‘No – but I want you to do the promos for the film.’ Fifteen years later, he finally got around to making the film – and he gave me a cameo part in the picture.”
“[The Wachowskis] were always very big fans of Speed Racer,” said movie producer Joel Silver. “When they were kids, it was the first time they had seen Japanese animation, which made them understand there was a different kind of animation out there in the world. Having grown up on Hanna-Barbera, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear, this was the first time they saw something that was really different. And at the same time they wanted to make a film for their nieces and nephews, friends and their families. They’ve made a lot of R-rated movies and they’ve never really made films for everybody. And it was an opportunity to make something that was a big family movie, a big fresh idea, and to do something that they’ve always loved, Speed Racer, and so here we all are.”
A new line of Speed Racer toys and collectibles will be produced to coincide with the movie’s May 2008 premiere. Mattel’s Hot Wheels division will produce various die-cast vehicles, race sets and track sets based on the film, while Mattel’s Tyco division will create remote-controlled Mach 5s and Shooting Stars, among other cars. Speed Racer-themed board games, puzzles and UNO card decks are also scheduled for production.
These days Fernandez and Orr are fixtures at anime and sci-fi conventions, and will be guests of honor at the New York Anime Festival in December. “When we go to conventions, fans are so happy to meet us,” said Orr. “They shout at us, ‘Hi Trixie, Hi Speed!’ I met one fan in Las Vegas at an auto show who’s a NASCAR driver today. Another fan of the show later grew up to design cars for a major corporation.”