A Thousand Voices, Never Stilled
by Tim Eldred
Peter Fernandez taught me that real people provide the voices for cartoon characters.
Maybe I already knew that at some level when I started watching them as a tot. (I wish I could remember my first; probably Looney Tunes.) But it didn’t really dawn on me until years later that this was an art, and Peter Fernandez was the artist who brought the lesson home.
Before Star Wars and Star Blazers came along, two things rocked my world: Speed Racer and Marvel Comics. I didn’t know at the time that they had both come from completely different cultures, but that made no difference. Speed Racer gave me the same thrills on TV that Marvel Comics delivered in print.
I’m sure Speed got to me first, since he arrived on American TV when I was only two years old, and I vividly remember leaping off the elementary school bus every weekday to catch his 4pm broadcast. My first Marvel Comic came later, but not by much; it was a 1975 issue of Spider-Man. So what’s the connection?
In 1974, Marvel licensed a handful of their comic books to Power Records. They were re-written and recorded as radio plays with a full cast, sound effects, and music. The two that found their way into my hands (probably as birthday presents) dramatized issues of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four – and darned if Speed Racer wasn’t in both of them!
Of course, I’m just talking about the voice of Speed Racer, which was unmistakable. He spoke for both Spider-Man and Johnny Storm. This was the moment I connected with the idea that there was more to Speed than an onscreen character; he had the voice of a real person who could speak for other characters equally well. Really well. In fact, I just listened to those Power Records again for the first time in probably 35 years (wow, they’re scratchy) and it turns out he also voiced the Mole Man. I listened to that record endlessly as a kid and never figured it out until now. Even in a dialogue exchange between Johnny and Moley, the voices were different enough to fool my ears. That’s the mark of a true artist. That’s magic.
If this account has ignited your interest in Power Records, here comes YouTube to the rescue:
The Incredible Hulk at Bay (Peter is all over this one!)
Another ten years passed before Peter’s voice graced my ears again, and it made for a triple crown: he produced the third series of Star Blazers, now known to us as The Bolar Wars. He’d brought some of his friends along from Speed Racer, and now they were on board the Argo in place of the cast we’d heard in the first two series. It was almost like a homecoming.
Ten more years passed before I finally got to meet Peter in person at Anime Weekend Atlanta, which has since become my favorite anime convention of the year. Within the first minute of our first conversation, he said something completely unexpected: “Don’t hate me!”
Despite his mastery of his craft, Peter had been under the impression for some time that Star Blazers fans held him personally responsible for the changing of the voice cast between Series 2 and Series 3. But as Peter explained to me (in words he’d obviously had opportunities to rehearse), it was a decision that did not involve him. The previous acting work was all non-union, so the mechanism for properly documenting the cast was not applied and it became impossible to locate them again. It took years of detective work and several lucky breaks for fans to overcome this, but that’s another story.
It was touching to me that a man for whom I’d built up so much admiration and respect would show such humility upon our first meeting. I spoke out of genuine sympathy when I assured him he had nothing to worry about. I admitted that the cast change took me a bit off-guard (a testament to how deeply those original actors imprinted themselves on us) but his skill and expertise ensured that the new performances could stand their own merits. Besides, there were plenty of new characters who had no prior imprint to overcome. Given the state of the industry for syndicated TV animation in the mid-80s, we’re darn lucky we got Series 3 at all, and even luckier that it landed in the hands of a true professional.
Relieved to hear this from me, Peter went on to explain that from a production standpoint his Star Blazers assignment was essentially a repeat of Speed Racer. Basically, he did the work of an army. He was entirely responsible for the localization of scripts, the casting, the voice direction, and a big chunk of the acting. Given all this, he was naturally much more comfortable working with his circle of friends (including the mighty Corrine Orr, known to many of us as Trixie and/or Spritle) because he intimately knew their pitch, range, and versatility from decades of experience.
After seeing both Peter and Corrine year after year in Atlanta, I finally got them to put all this on videotape in an interview that appears as a bonus feature on Disc 6 of the Bolar Wars DVD set. They discussed the project at length and (naturally) sidestepped onto all sorts of interesting byways. Peter enjoyed such a fantastically rich and colorful career that he had a story for all occasions.
You may notice that I went with the past tense in that last sentence. That’s because it is regrettably the only way we can talk about Peter now.
He died of lung cancer on July 15, 2010.
It took me about a day to process this tremendous loss before I got it in my head to write a tribute that would cover as much of his career as I could explore via the internet. Other such tributes popped up in short order, so rather than duplicate their efforts I’ll provide links to them below. This, too, taught me something: the proper tribute is one in which facts and history take a backseat to personal observations.
Mine is that Peter Fernandez taught me what voice acting was all about, and he did it the best way possible: by entertaining and surprising me for most of my life. I can’t imagine a better teacher (or a gentler gentleman) than that.
Between recordings, Peter enjoyed moonlighting as a play-by-play announcer at the famed Thunderhead Raceway.