Sunday, July 18, 2010

A tribute to Peter Fernandez of SPEED RACER

Peter Fernandez, the actor who played Speed Racer in the 1960s cartoon, passed away on Thursday, July 15. He had been battling cancer. He was 83.




I say 'played' as opposed to 'voiced' because he not only performed the voice of Speed Racer, but he also wrote the English scripts and directed the cast. So he really had a complete role in creating that character. (He also wrote the English lyrics for the theme song!)


A painting I made back in 2008.
 

As a kid, in the early and mid-seventies, I was transfixed by SPEED RACER. The high-octane action, the unrestricted violence (that was back in the day that us kids could watch car crashes, fist fights and machine gun battles and not go ape-crazy at school the following week shooting up the entire class...). The world-hopping travelogue aspect of the show, the championship car races, the strong sense of love and togetherness of the Racer Family....All of these elements made for captivating entertainment. But it was the central character, Speed Racer, that really made the show for me. Not seeming that much older than me at the time (he's identified as an 18 yr old), Speed was a young hero who stood up for values such as family, honor and justice. Sure, he could be a competitive hot-head when pushed up against the wall, but he stood for the 'right' things. He was polite to people, a gentleman with the ladies and respectful of authority. But always ready to bring out the fisticuffs when injustice (and cheaters!) reared it's head.




Peter Fernandez was the voice, and soul, of Speed Racer. Peter really epitomized the innocence of the character, as well as the rock solid determination of a young man seeking to be the best racer in the world. Remarkably, Peter also voiced Speed Racer's older brother, Racer X! It's amazing to me to watch the cartoon now and think that those two different voices are from the same actor, especially as they're in so many scenes together. Peter's career in acting extends back to the 1949, so he was a seasoned pro by the time he worked on SPEED RACER in 1967.

Of course, we shouldn't for a minute forget Tatsuo Yoshida, the original creator of 'Speed Racer', named Go Mifune in the Japanese manga, MACH GO GO GO. Yoshida is one of the giants of Japanese manga & anime, who, after MACH GO GO GO, created other titles, including the GATCHAMAN manga, which was also turned into an animated series (known as BATTLE OF THE PLANETS once it hit the U.S.). But Peter Fernandez was charged with writing all the English scripts and directing the episodes, so SPEED RACER definitely carries his storytelling imprint.





In 2008, I was hosting an internet radio show, PLANET COMIC BOOK RADIO. Most of the interview subjects were comic book creators, particularly those who self-published their own work. But occasionally, I would have guests who I felt fit within the independent focus of my show, or other aspects of comic book culture. With the May 2008 release of the SPEED RACER film (see my glowing review in a previous Javzilla post) I thought it would be very appropriate to interview Mr. Peter Fernandez himself. And to be honest, I really just wanted the chance to at long last talk to the man!

I looked up his contact info online and sent him an email asking if he would be kind enough to appear. I'd like to share that email with you here:

Dear Mr. Fernandez,

My name is Javier Hernandez and I host a comic book podcast called Planet Comic Book Radio. The show is based out in LA. I would like to invite you on my show as a guest.

Of course I'm asking you to talk about Speed Racer. I am, I will tell you, a life-long fan of the show. And I absolutely loved the movie. I cannot believe how great the film was! And seeing you in it only added to the experience. The filmmakers really got the spirit of SPEED RACER: Family first, then all the fun, crazy action. I got choked-up several times during the film!

I used to catch the show here in Los Angeles in the 1970s. It would often air on an UHF station, called Channel 52. Another show you worked on, GIGANTOR, was also shown on that station. We were into anime before anime was even a known word back then!

My show podcasts live every Tuesday at 5pm (Pacific Time). If you are interested, I do have Tuesday, May 27th available (the day after Memorial Day). I would also have Tuesday, June 10 available. This would be by phone of course, and I figure I would take up about 45 minutes of your time, if that's okay with you.

In any case, please let me express my deepest gratitude and appreciation for the wonderful work you did in bringing Speed Racer to American audiences. The show remains my favorite cartoon of all time, and the movie is pretty much right up there.

Best,

Javier Hernandez

His response, the very next day:

Javier, PLEASE call me Peter!
I'd love to do your podcast. Tuesday, May 27th would be fine if your slot then is still available. My home phone is: xxx-xxx-xxxx.
All good wishes,
Peter

(The 'PLEASE' was capitalized by him.) The very next morning after the interview he sent me this:

It seemed to go very well last night!
Thanks!
Peter

Emails are of course, unlike letters or postcards, intangible. You can't put them in a scrapbook, or pin them on a corkboard (unless you print them out). I haven't read these emails in over two years, but I have to say right now I treasure them as if they were handwritten. It's sad to realize his Inbox will never be opened by him again.



For the sake of the podcast, I wanted to conduct an interview that shared his extensive experiences and professional career with my listeners, and his process in actually creating the episodes. There are some really interesting things to hear, and the fact that he was the one telling us makes this priceless. But to be honest with you, I really just wanted to be able to talk to Speed Racer for an hour. It was truly a selfish act, and a totally fanboy thing to do, and thank God I had the chance to do it. That I now have a recording of me and Peter Fernandez talking about SPEED RACER, well, that's something I can look back upon fondly.

I won't delve into it too much here, right now, but I can say that Speed Racer is as much an influence on my creation of El Muerto as other childhood heroes, like Peter Parker/Spider-Man. A few years ago I was working with Mort Todd on the exclusive El Muerto comic book that came included in the EL MUERTO movie DVD release. I wrote the story, and sent Mort very loose pencil layouts to work from. He certainly was more than capable of drawing the whole book on his own, but I wanted to at least provide the layouts for the story. When I got back the first couple pages, Mort had added heavier wrinkles on El Muerto's face, probably more in line with the type of zombies and monsters Mort was used to drawing. I told him to think of El Muerto more as a pretty-boy Speed Racer/Peter Parker type, and if he could please 'smooth' up the face! Mort ribbed me for that, but of course complied like a pro. If you ever wondered why I draw long eyelashes on Diego de La Muerte, wonder no longer!



My rough pencil layout, and below that is Mort's final, finished piece.

By the way, I have to mention that some years ago Mort wrote & illustrated a SPEED RACER newspaper strip, and I had mentioned this to Peter in an email. Peter wrote back asking me for Mort's current address, as he wanted to catch up with him. And I just now am realizing, as I write this, that an artist who worked on a Speed Racer strip also has worked on an El Muerto comic!



Back in 2009, the Planet Comic Book Radio website was hacked into and screwed up. That and the fact that we had some poor file back-up strategy meant I stopped doing the show for awhile. Eventually I got busy with other projects and had to pull the plug on doing Planet Comic Book Radio. The whole site had to be rebuilt, and all those interviews had to be uploaded (and the show notes would have to be rewritten), and at that time, I just found myself not being able to devote the time to work on it. Well, with Peter's unfortunate passing, I made a trip back to the studio where I recorded PCBR and searched for the old podcast interviews. But I also found out we had the podcasts archived on another server, and now I'm very pleased to be able to present to you, once again, or for your first time, this most special podcast interview with Mr. Peter Fernandez. Click on this link here. Once the page loads completely, there will be a Player located right under the SPEED RACER graphic. The podcast is in 3 parts, so after each one ends scroll down the bottom right hand corner and click on the 'Next' Arrow.

My condolences go to Peter Fernandez's family and close friends. His work on SPEED RACER definitely is a milestone in the history of Japanese anime finding a foothold, and audience, in the United States. I'm grateful to Peter for appearing on my show, and hope all of the SPEED RACER fans find value in the podcast. When you listen to the episode, you'll hear Peter talk about how he had recently met a fan, in his 40s, and how between tears the man tells Peter how much the show meant to him. I know exactly how that fan feels.

7 comments:

nilskidoo said...

What a great tribute, Javier. Hope to listen to the interview in full later tonight.

gonzalexx said...

A simply beautiful post, made in great taste, Jav. I feel the same way, and marvel at how connected you were, also realizing why Peter's passing affected you the way it did. My respects and condolences go to all involved. I too, grew up watching Speed, only that it was dubbed in Spanish. Years later, I got to watch the English version. And of course, the "recent" movie was an awesome tribute. Can't wait to listen to the original radio show interview.
Thanks so much for sharing. The phrase "GO Speedracer" will always elicit the spirit.

Greenblatt the Great! said...

Moving post, Jav. Your interview with Peter is probably my favorite of all the PCBR broadcasts. By the way, I was startled to read that the original site was hacked into, that's pretty devastating and why anyone would do that is beyond the imagination. I hope you make the time to reconstruct that site and get those podcasts back up for posterity.

That's pretty cool about the Mort Todd/Speed Racer connection. Pretty wild that now El Muerto has some Speed in his system.

Thanks,

Michael

Javier Hernandez said...

Thanks everyone. It was very nice to be able to write these thoughts down, even though the circumstances were very unfortunate. But positive memories are the best way to honor and remember somebody, I feel.

Gonzalexx: It's no surprise that Speed Racer found a whole life in Spanish speaking countries. Speed looks like a dark-haired Latino kid tinkering with cars, with a strong overbearing father, a loving, protective mother (always with the apron!), an annoying little brother and a runaway older brother!! LOL!

Mikey: Leave it to Mort Todd to inspire your classic cornball pun, 'some Speed in his system'!

Mort Todd said...

Javi!

Very nice tribute to a great guy. Pete also did some voice over work for animation I directed (in particular a band's promo piece called 'Vandalia's are Go) which I hope to post on YouTube soon. He was very supportive of my Speed Racer newspaper strip and I will miss him a lot.

Besides his many contributions to animation and film dubbing, he was also an actor and his first screen credit (City Across the River), a juvenile delinquent film, as him credited above Tony Curtis.

I did a piece of artwork for him showing Racer X unmasked... as Pete Fernandez. You can see it at http://home.alphalink.com.au/~roglen/pongunmasked2.jpg

Ed said...

Very nice tribute to my brother Pete. I want you to know that there were a lot more accomplishments than Speed Racer. Pete was a child model in the 1930's and a leading Broadway and radio actor in the late 30's until he went into the Army in 1945. He later starred in the movie City Across the River and then became a director and actor for dubbing foreign films and a pioneer in Anime such as Speed Racer

Javier Hernandez said...

Ed: Thank you for writing. When I interviewed Peter back in 2008 on my internet radio show, he did indeed talk about his early days as an actor in the various mediums. A very long and rich career. And through his pioneering work on SPEED RACER, he definitely left a profound and positive impact on so many around the world.

My thoughts and prayers go out to you and the Fernandez family.

Best regards,

Javier

Mort: Yeah, I remember that Racer X/Fernandez drawing! You're fortunate to have worked with him (as you have with so many other talented individuals). Thanks for chiming in.