SPEED RACER MEETS GODZILLA! Peter Fernandez Reflects on His Storied Career as Voice Acting’s Leading Writer-Director!

Voice actor Peter Fernandez. Photo © Peter Fernandez.

Writer/director/voice actor Peter Fernandez (1927-2010) has never appeared in a Godzilla film, but in the 1960s and ’70s, his voice graced many of them. Mr. Fernandez not only voice-acted in many Toho sci-fi films such as Mothra (1961), Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964), and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), he also wrote and directed many of their English versions. In 2006, Mr. Fernandez, who is best known for providing the voice of the titular character in the popular anime Speed Racer (1967-68), discussed the art of dubbing with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: First of all, give me a little about your background, some of your biographical information, where you went to school, things like that.

Peter Fernandez: Well, I started at Catholic school, and then in sixth grade, I transferred to something called Professional Children’s School. I don’t know if Larry (Robinson) told you about that school.

BH: He didn’t.

PF: I had been a child model up until the age of 11. I was in many of the ads for products ranging from Hostess Cupcakes to Steinway pianos. At one point, at age 10, I was on the cover of Parents Magazine. On my eleventh birthday, I was hired for my first Broadway show, and I was with it for two years on Broadway, and then a national tour, which included all over Canada. So the school, when you weren’t there, you could do your work by correspondence. You had to do it every day to get a whole week’s work in by the end of the week by mail.

Then when I got back to New York, I did more Broadway plays. Radio was in its heyday then, just as popular as TV and cable are now. I didn’t have to audition because the directors and casting people would see the play and automatically call me for radio shows. So I did radio and Broadway at the same time. Then I also had my school friends, and friends at NBC and CBS, my friends in my neighborhood, and my friends, in the summer, up at Candlewood Lake in Connecticut. It was a great time for me.

BH: How did you get your start at Titra Studios?

PF: Well, I had always wanted to be a writer, and when I was in the army — I got drafted when I was 18 — I sold my first published thing which was a poem in Our Army magazine about a hangover from army beer.

BH: (laughs)

PF: The poem was entitled “Oh, That PX Beer.” I still have a copy of it. After the army, I went back into radio and did a couple more Broadway shows, but I also started writing short stories for the pulp magazines, which were very popular then. I have a lot Western stories, Alaska wilderness stories, of which I knew nothing, but I sold them. You got a penny a word, and after a while, you got a penny and a half a word. (laughs) Then television came along, and I started appearing on television, and eventually started writing for television and sold a script (“Bang, Bang, You‘re Dead”), which at that time got the highest pay anyone had received for a half-hour script. It had Gary Merrill and Patty Duke in it. I got $3,500, which in those days was a very hefty sum.

Things were going along as I was writing a show for CBS called The Verdict Is Yours — I was one of their staff on that — and appearing on it occasionally, as well. My wife, Marian Russell, would appear on shows, too, on CBS mostly. She would actually be the star of the show she was on. Then suddenly, the coaxial cable was united, which meant we didn’t have to do shows on either the East Coast and West Coast. On radio, you had to do the shows twice if you were on at nighttime. So anyway, when that was united, everything moved out to California. Marian wanted to go, but I said, “No, we just bought this farm in Pennsylvania.” So we struggled for a couple of years, really hard, and then I started getting calls to do something called dubbing. Marian was already doing some because she was the voice of Brigitte Bardot in the Brigitte Bardot films.

Anyway, I started dubbing, acting in dubbing, and I discovered that the people writing the scripts got 5% of the budget; the directors got 10%. Well, I started writing the dubbing scripts for Titra. All the guys who were writing and directing, and women, too, including Paulette Rubinstein, didn’t want to write because that’s what really took the work. They wanted to direct, which gave them 10% of the budget. So I had to go on a one-man strike and say, “Look, I’m not writing for anybody but myself, and I’m going to direct.” That’s what I ended up doing, and all kinds of films came in, including the Godzilla films. So I’d be writing, acting, and directing at Titra.

We wrote the lip-sync scripts from translations from every language: China, Egyptian, Polish — you name it, I was doing all those. At the same time, I was desperate for money, having to commute from Pennsylvania. A guy named Fred Ladd said, “Look, I’ve got this cartoon series we’re doing called Astro Boy. It’s from Japan.” He said, “I’ll pay you $100 a script, to write the lip sync.” So even though it says on Astro Boy, “Written and directed by Fred Ladd,” I doubt if he wrote many of those scripts. Some were even written by the voice cast!

BH: (laughs)

PF: I did the same with Gigantor, on which I was also an actor. At that time, I was a very busy boy. Then along came something called Speed Racer, and I couldn’t continue working for Fred Ladd and do Speed Racer. So I pulled away from Fred and did Speed Racer. After that, all these shows kept coming in, like Ultraman, Marine Boy, Space Giants — a whole slew of them. Being the writer/director and acting on them, I gave myself the best parts — at least I did on Speed! Anyway, I continue to do that. I still do it when I get a call. I think the last series I worked on were the first 13 episodes of a show on NBC called Kenny the Shark. Before that, I did a show on Cartoon Network all the young kids know called Courage the Cowardly Dog. I directed the voices on that and was many of the villain voices on it.

BH: Talk a little about what goes into directing dubbing.

PF: Well, the first and most important thing always must be the script. It’s gotta be a good lip-sync script; otherwise directing is hell. Then one must hire the actor who will sound right for the character up on that screen. You gotta make sure, first of all, in the rehearsals that each loop comes around — a loop consisting of one or two lines at a time — get it in sync, and then try to match the acting up on the screen. Directing is the easiest of all if you’ve got the right people and a good lip-sync script. You can always say, “Next loop,” if the sync and the acting are good. That’s really all there is to that, as far as looping goes. When you’re directing a cartoon like Courage the Cowardly Dog, the voices on that, it hasn’t been made into a film yet. It will be animated after the recording. So you’ve got to encourage the actor to do as many different line readings as possible that suit the storyboard action and everything to give the animators something to work with. So that’s a little tougher, directing that kind of stuff, but you have it all in your head. You know what the tempo should be and so forth. What else can I say? (laughs)

BH: Speaking with Larry Robinson about a week ago, he told me that when it comes to selecting the type of voice that an actor uses in dubbing a film, he mentioned that you would be there with the client, and Larry would read a line a certain way, the client would tell you, “That’s not really what we want. We want it more along the lines of this.” Then you would tell Larry, “Try to read the line this way.” Is that fairly accurate?

PF: No, it’s very seldom that the client is right there when you’re doing a job. I don’t allow any client, anybody, to talk to the actor except me because I know as an actor myself, there’s nothing more confusing than having more than one director. So anything that a client may suggest would have to go through me, and then I talk to the actor.

BH: Well, that’s essentially what he said. He said that the client went through you and then to him.

PF: Yeah. It’s seldom the client is there. I mean, that’s like a nightmare!

BH: (laughs)

PF: One film in which the client was there the whole time was an animated feature — Light Years, it’s called — and every name actor in New York did voices in it. I had done the lip-sync script. The guy sitting next to me was this humongous bully, chain-smoking — well, I smoked, too — and (adopts a rough accent) talked like this. Finally, at one point, Christopher Plummer is in the studio. He’s got this long speech, and the client starts rewriting the script! I said, “You can’t do that. It doesn’t match the lips.” He says, “Don’t tell me about the fuckin’ lips.” So I stood up to him, and I was furious. I said, “I’m telling you about the fuckin’ lips because you’re paying me to tell you about the fuckin’ lips!” He goes, “Oh, okay, okay,” and that was Harvey Weinstein!

BH: Wow! (laughs) Oh, man!

PF: That’s a good story. (laughs)

BH: More about dubbing, talk a little about writing the script, about what sort of decisions you would make to have the dialogue match the lip movements, etc.

PF: Well, I know Larry told you that you start with labials. Of course, you want to follow the meaning of the lines, and it should start and end on time at a normal tempo, the way people would be talking on the street. Then you have the labials, and there are three labials in almost any language. They’re interchangeable when you put them into English: M, B, and P. In the alphabet, they’re the only three that your lips close on. So you try to work all that in so that it looks like English and sounds like English. That’s the toughest part, but it’s sort of a good challenge. Most of the people hated writing those scripts. I enjoyed that challenge, and I still do.

BH: What would you say is the main challenge about writing a script like that? Is it to get the lip movements to match, or is it to make it sound like natural dialogue?

PF: Both, both are essential. You don’t want it to sound stupid. Speaking of dubbing, when Titra was in its heyday, many foreign films, great films, were coming into the country from Europe. They would be subtitled into English because people said they wanted to hear the original sound. That was mostly the East Side of Manhattan, so to speak. The other people wanted to hear it; they didn’t want to read it. So that’s really how dubbing into English started.

Most of the films coming in were dubbed from the different countries. They shot silently and put in their lines later. Fellini would shoot silently, and he wouldn’t even have the dialogue! He’d see an interesting face on the street. He could get a lot of sympathy with that face. So he takes the person and says, “Look, I just want you to count as you just learned that your little child has been killed.” When the film was complete, he dubbed the lines. You know, “Oh, no, my baby,” whatever.

I know that because I worked as a dialogue director on many of the films of his collaborator, Alberto De Martino. Alberto had me as the dialogue director on the first Italian film ever to be shot with live sound. He said, “I want you to listen to the sound, and you can say cut as well as I, the director, can.” So the first film on which this was done was shot in Montreal. The opening scene was at a funeral home with a dolly shot. Stuart Whitman was the star. Okay, first shot of the day was the dolly shot in the funeral home. I had to say cut within 10 seconds! Everyone said, “What, what, what?” I said, “The squeaking.” They never oiled the dolly. They didn’t hear it because it didn’t matter when they were shooting silently as had been the custom.

BH: (laughs)

PF: I just want to conclude by saying that so many of the films that the people want to hear the original sound, they weren’t hearing the original sound at all because there hadn’t been any.

BH: You’ve certainly worked with a number of voice actors during your time, and one of the most famous of them all would have to be Hal Linden. Do you have any memories working with Hal Linden?

PF: Nothing specific. He was very good. I think the most famous person that I worked with — I mean, I met people like Cyd Charisse and names like that — was a cartoon feature which Jim Backus was to be one of the voices, and a pigeon was to be played by Orson Welles. So anyway, I had to go out to California and direct Orson Welles and Jim Backus. It was a one-day trip. I didn’t know what to expect from Welles. They gave me a check, saying, “Look, if he misbehaves or anything, don’t pay him. If he’s fine, then give him this check, make it out to him for $4,000.”  Well, he was just great. I made it out to him for five thousand! The producer was a little miffed, but, well, it was a great moment.

BH: (laughs) I had no idea you worked with Orson Welles. So he was a good person to work with?

PF: Yes, for that one animated feature.

BH: Getting sort of specific about sci-fi movies and the Japanese sci-fi movies, do you have any specific memories about working on movies such as Godzilla vs. the Thing, Son of Godzilla, even Ultraman or Space Giants, some of the television shows that you worked on?

PF: Not really. Space Giants was one long dialogue every half hour. It had very little action in it, and if there was, it seemed to me repeated action that you saw in episode 2, they repeated it in episode 5, the same shot.

I liked doing Japanese films because you could really make them look like English. As for the Ultraman series, I was at some personal appearance about three years ago, and at the table across was a Japanese lady who only spoke Japanese. She had a translator and everything. Finally, on the last day, I said to somebody, “Who is that?” They said, “She was the female lead in the Ultraman series.” I said, “You’re kidding. I dubbed that!” So there had to be introductions. Before meeting, I practiced bowing, which I’d never done before. So when we met, we did the bowing routine, and it was translated who we were. Well, we ended up like two old actors hugging each other and so forth. She told me that the dubbing of Ultraman won some kind of prize in Japan for its English dubbing.

BH: Wow!

PF: Yeah, I know! I don’t know anything more about it than that.

BH: (laughs) You’ve been waiting all this time to accept your award, but no one’s come forward yet!

PF: Yeah, well, I think it was kept over there! (laughs)

BH: Well, that’s very interesting; I never knew about that, either. What sort of preparation would you do when you would actually dub a movie? I asked Larry Robinson this question. In other words, when it comes to a character in a particular movie, in a Godzilla movie or what have you, would you look at the character’s physique and then work on voices to match that physique, or what would the process be?

PF: You would adjust to match the appearance of the person on the screen. Of course actors who were in dubbing also had careers in radio and could do different voices. But I tried to make it as realistic without somebody putting on a trick voice or anything. Made it easier for me and easier for the actor, and there was a wide selection of actors to choose from.

BH: As I understand it, you also wrote the Ultraman theme song.

PF: Not Ultraman, no, Speed Racer.

BH: You only wrote the Speed Racer theme song, not the Ultraman one.

PF: Right, and I didn’t write the song; I wrote the lyrics.

BH: About some of the people that you’ve worked with, aside from Hal Linden and Orson Welles, do you remember working with Larry Robinson, Corinne Orr, and some of the other voice actors that we’ve talked about?

PF: Oh, sure. Well, I’ve known Larry since he was six years old.

BH: He didn’t tell me that. So you were old friends growing up.

PF: Well, we weren’t friends; we did a lot of the same radio shows or at least we were in radio. He was in Broadway shows when I was in Broadway shows — not the same shows, though. But yeah, I knew Larry since he was six years old. Corinne, I only met at Titra. She had been a well-known actress up in Canada, came to New York to make her fortune, and ended up being the slater in the studio, a very boring job that paid like $15 a day where all she did was take down notes of what take and call out what take, “Take 42!” But I saw that there was more to her than that, and when Speed Racer came along, there was my Trixie.

BH: (laughs) Of course, the rest is history.

PF: She also did all the other female characters on the show.

BH: Do you have any memories about working on Inframan, which was a Chinese superhero movie from the mid-’70s?

PF: Yes, I do. I did it for a distributor named Joe Brenner, a very nice man. I think maybe some of the violence was cut out toward the end. But all I remember is that the last half hour of the film was so easy because it was mostly grunts. It was all fighting, which made it as easy as doing a soft porn film!

BH: (laughs) Now have you ever dubbed any one of those?

PF: Oh, yeah! I did a lot of those!

BH: Really?!

PF: Yes, mostly for a guy named Radley Metzger.

BH: (laughs) Do you have any memories about working on those? Would you approach them the same way you would approach a Godzilla movie?

PF: Oh, sure. Same way.

BH: Make sure the labials match and everything.

PF: (laughs)

BH: But actually, about Inframan, I noticed that some of the monster names were renamed. In the Chinese version, the names would be something else, and then you renamed the characters things like Nemesis and whatnot. Was that a conscious choice on your part to rename them?

PF: Yes.

BH: Any particular reason that you did that?

PF: Well, to make it more understandable to the audience. They’re not seeing a Chinese film; they’re seeing a film with Chinese people in it who speak English.

BH: That certainly makes a lot of sense. Okay, well, I think that pretty much closes out the questions that I have. Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on, that you think is important that we haven’t so far about dubbing or Godzilla or anything else?

PF: No, I wish there was more of it done accurately and well. But now, so much of it is done in Vancouver or Hong Kong, Florida, Mexico, and those people are not trained to do a good lip-sync script. That’s the first part. If they were, then the thing would be better.

BH: Any closing comments about dubbing in general?

PF: A lot of the films are now shot in English. They may be post-synced, but most of them, I think, are shot that way. Many of the really good foreign films have English-dubbed versions, but I don’t know where they end up being dubbed. I mean, nobody seems to care.

BH: It seems to be done on the cheap nowadays, and that’s the main concern.

PF: That’s right, which means it’s on the cheap for scripts. Forget direction, the script is where it starts. I think they get the actors on the cheap, a lot of them. I know in Florida, and in Dallas — that’s another place — there are several dubbing studios that do a lot of the Japanese anime, and I know that’s done on the cheap.

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