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‘Americanizing’ a cartoon classic

by Patrick Macias

Without Peter Fernandez’s contribution, it’s unlikely that “Speed Racer” ever would have made it over the starting line outside of Japan.

Back in the late 1960s, Fernandez wrote the English scripts for the original “Speed Racer” anime. He also directed the English-language cast in their performances. And the voice of teenage “demon on wheels” Speed Racer himself was Fernandez’s own.

The pitch and tone of that voice are immediately recognizable as he recalls, “My only instructions for ‘Speed Racer’ were to ‘Americanize’ the Japanese version. I was given free rein to come up with the script. The translations I got were very sparse, so I had to make up a lot of the dialogue.”

Born in New York City in 1927, Fernandez entered showbiz as a child model before moving onto the stage and radio, finally making his film debut in 1949 opposite a young Tony Curtis (then billed under his real name, Bernie Schwartz) in the juvenile-delinquent drama “City Across the River.” It would be the last time he would appear on-screen until the new “Speed Racer” film this summer, in which Fernandez has a cameo part as a newscaster.

Still, the 81-year-old has a film and television resume that veers into triple digits.

During the 1960s, Fernandez was employed by Titra Studios in New York. The company oversaw adaptations of many foreign films and TV shows for the English- language market, including works by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, along with early animated TV imports from Japan such as “Astro Boy” and “Gigantor.”

As for “Speed Racer,” Fernandez says, “The show was actually kind of a vacation during the day from some of those very serious — but very wonderful — foreign films. But it was also tiring, because it took me two days to write a script and one day to record it. I was doing the same with another TV series at the same time as ‘Speed Racer’ and I was also working on numerous English scripts for foreign-language films.”

The motor-mouthed and enthusiastic performances by the U.S. cast of “Speed Racer” kicked the series into an even higher gear than the Japanese version. “I tried to match the energy levels of what was on the screen and whip everyone up into a frenzy,” says Fernandez. In part, this was achieved with fuel of another kind. “In those days, Jack Dempsey, the fighter, had a restaurant across the street from our studio. We’d have an hour for lunch and I’d have two or three whiskey sours, and I guess that helped me with the rest of the afternoon.”

Another major contribution to the “Speed Racer” mythos to which Fernandez can lay claim are the memorable names of its characters. Back in the ’60s, America wasn’t ready for a hero with a Japanese name such as Go Mifune, so Peter came up with names that made it to the Wachowski brothers’ new movie, including villains Snake Oiler and Cruncher Block, and the mysterious, masked Racer X.

While Fernandez has provided his talents to many film and television productions since the salad days of “Speed Racer,” the franchise keeps luring him back. He’s just signed on to lend his voice to the new U.S. animated series, titled “Speed Racer: the Next Generation.”

“I think Speed Racer has two values,” says Fernandez, explaining the series’ enduring popularity. “One is cars; most of us played with cars as kids. And second, it’s a show about family. Speed has a close, loving family that is believable. I think that added a great deal of value and over the years made the show and characters more memorable. Children identified with it and now adults do as well.”