In the late 1960’s, a new form of children’s entertainment began its march onto American airwaves. Cartoons imported from Japan and dubbed into English were the first steps towards the multi-million dollar phenomenon that is the current-day anime industry, and all of that can be said to have started with the success of Speed Racer, one of the earliest and most beloved of that first wave of Japanese cartoons.
At this year’s New York Anime Festival, Toon Zone News got to speak with Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, two of anime’s earliest stars. Fernandez was the director of the series, taking an English translation of Mach Go Go Go and transforming it into Speed Racer, co-writing the theme song and providing the voices of Speed and Racer X while he was at it. Corinne Orr provided the voices for Speed’s go-to gal Trixie and trouble-prone younger brother Spritle. The two old friends are as charming and endearing as their characters, and clearly still have great fun together.
TOON ZONE NEWS: Was the first time you two worked together in the days of Titra?
CORINNE ORR: Titra. Yes.
TZN: Was that on Marine Boy?
PETER FERNANDEZ: No, no, we started Marine Boy shortly after we started Speed Racer. That was 1968. Maybe 1967.
ORR: Well, we did Speed Racer in ’67. I think we met a year before that, in 1966. It was in the 60’s.
TZN: Peter, you were the casting director for Speed Racer. How did you pick Corinne to be in the show?
FERNANDEZ: I wasn’t really the casting director, because we didn’t have one. I was the director and the writer of the English version. The only instructions I had from the client, the distributor Trans-Lux, was “Here’s a series, ‘Americanize’ it.” I had free rein in naming the characters, writing the dialogue, the whole works. For casting, I was familiar with everyone in the cast. Jack Grimes I had known since we were kids. Jack Curtis, I had known since he was 16 years old. Corinne was more recent. I met her at Titra and got an idea of the kinds of voices she could do. I was a little stuck for casting Speed and Racer X, but not too long (laughs), since I gave them to myself (both laugh).
TZN: Corinne, what attracted you to being in Speed Racer?
ORR: Attracted me? I had a regular job — it was the greatest thing on Earth! Are you kidding? (laughs) Actors go from job to job and it was very difficult. I had just come to New York from Montreal, so to have a regular job was like a magical miracle.
TZN: Both of you came from theater backgrounds before you started in television. Can you talk about what was the most valuable thing that theater background brought to your voice acting careers?
FERNANDEZ: I guess that might have been the ability to project, which we don’t have to do these days. Really, we didn’t even when we did Speed Racer. But you learned from theater how to use your voice…your OWN voice. Without shouting or anything else, know that you’re being heard way in the back of the theater. It’s kind of a tricky sort of feedback you get as a stage actor. It works beautifully in any theater built for theater. You go and do a play in a movie theater, and your voice goes into a vacuum. You get NO feedback. You get laryngitis in one night if you’re not careful.
The theater background, for me, led into radio here in New York. I did all radio shows emanating from the East Coast. Radio was as big as television in those days, but I didn’t have to audition because directors would come and see Broadway shows and call me for their radio shows.
ORR: For me, I came from a French town and had a French accent. All the kids used to tease me at school, so my mother gave me elocution lessons. Now, I have NO French…I can’t even speak French now (laugh), and …
FERNANDEZ: Much less English…(laughter)
ORR: Yeah, that’s true. I got into children’s theater from my classes, and my first was Alice in Wonderland. I played the Dormouse and other characters. That went on from children’s theater into radio, and I guess I developed a multi-voice. Of course, as Peter said, your own voice is trained and good, but that’s what people forget. People say, “I have a weird voice. Can I do cartoons?” No! You need acting experience. Acting is the most important thing. The voice doesn’t matter, because if you’re an actor, you can do many voices. Also, with some of thse trick voices, you don’t ever want to hear them again! They get annoying after a while. You have to do more than one…you have to double.
TZN: Now both of you were also child actors. There are a lot of child actors who don’t make the successful jump into becoming adult actors. What do you think you did differently to make that leap?
FERNANDEZ: I always wanted to be a writer, also, and when I got out of the Army…well, long before that, as a teenager doing all the radio shows, there was a place at NBC on the third floor that was a great meeting place for actors. And there’d be these actors there, waiting around for a telephone call about a job. And I said to myself, “If I’m going to stay in this business, I certainly can’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring.” So when I got out of the Army, I started writing short stories and getting published. Westerns, stories about the wilderness of Alaska, all things for which I knew nothing! But I got published. Anyway, that was a fallback for when things got slow or sporadic, as they always do in the acting profession, I always had the writing to fall back on. So that’s how I survived in the business. I did get sort of an opportunity in Hollywood, I did the lead in one film, and I came back East the day we finished shooting because I just felt like a foreigner out there. I just didn’t feel comfortable at all. So I came back East.
ORR: Tell them the movie. City Across the River, and Tony Curtis was in it. And Peter had the lead! Tony Curtis just had a walk-on.
FERNANDEZ: No, he had a good part.
ORR: For me, I never did anything but acting, and I think I did it with passion and determination. I’m not a lazy person, so every day I would make 15 to 20 calls. At that time, you could call on agents, physically. You can’t today — they won’t let you in the office. I think I just drove myself to it with determination and persistence. Now it’s all vanished. I’m the laziest girl in town (laughs). I don’t even make a call a month.
FERNANDEZ: I don’t think that you’re lazy, it’s just that the business has changed so much.
ORR: Totally, yes.
TZN: That actually leads to my next question — how do you think the business has changed over the span of your careers?
FERNANDEZ: Well, from an actor’s point of view, getting a job. It’s very hard to get an agent, and without an agent, it’s hard to get a job. I just don’t know how young people break in, except perhaps doing things Off-Off-0ff Broadway. Going to dramatic school is probably a great help to open doors and teach them how the business works a little bit. I didn’t do that because I just happened to grow up in it.
ORR: I’d say ageism. They don’t want anyone over 30 to do commercials. I’ve seen many incidents.
FERNANDEZ: Yeah, but why they don’t want anybody over 30 — I’d say not over 30, but maybe 40 — is because who’s the biggest buyer of the products? It’s been the young people. However, that’s changing with the baby boomers getting older. It’s a whole, big lucrative market.
ORR: I find that the casting directors are all in their 20’s, and if you look like their mother, they’re not too interested in you (laughs). They say, “Gee, I don’t want her.” So there is age discrimination, no doubt.
TZN: I’m going to ask you 2 questions, one of which may get you in trouble with each other, but you’ll have a chance to make up for it with the next one. You guys have worked together for a long time. What does the other person do that drives you nuts?
FERNANDEZ: You want me to answer? (laughter)
ORR: There’s our first problem with each other!
FERNANDEZ: All right, what does Corinne do…. (smiles) Talk.
ORR: Oh, be quiet! (laughter) He drives me crazy, nags me, always criticizing me, you know. So I talk.
FERNANDEZ: I don’t always criticize you.
ORR: You don’t? Oh, well, but we speak almost every day, so there must be some kind of friendship in there! (laughs)
TZN: The way we’ll get you out of trouble is: what does the other person do that you really really wish everybody else in the industry did?
ORR: Peter is extremely generous, and I think we’ve both recommended each other throughout the years for jobs. We share. We’re big sharers. I’d say that, wouldn’t you Peter?
ORR: Thank you. First time you’ve agreed with me in months! (laughter)
FERNANDEZ: Yes, Corinne is a very generous person. Talkative, but generous (laughs). And she hides a lot of her thoughts, her more serious thoughts, at times by playing a coquettish little girl.
ORR: Oh, come on. I’m never gonna grow up! I don’t want to! (laughs)
TZN: It’s overrated, anyway. The last remaining cast member of Speed Racer who’s still alive is Jack Grimes. Why doesn’t he show up to conventions with you two?
FERNANDEZ: Jack is not too well.
ORR: He’s got an oxygen mask.
FERNANDEZ: He …well, we all did it. He’s smoked since he was a very young teenager.
ORR: I never did it.
FERNANDEZ: Well, I grew up when it was a current thing. Everybody smoked. In fact, we used to do cigarette ads on the radio. I talk to Jack quite frequently, and he sounds the same on the phone, but he’s a little older than I am. Not much. I’m not going to say how much.
ORR: Not me. I rejuvenate. I’m a silly child. You know, I will never grow up. I refuse (laughs). Sorry!
TZN: Is there anything you want to say in closing to any of your fans of the work?
FERNANDEZ: I’d just say thank you so much, because without the fans, there wouldn’t be work.
ORR: I just adore them. They remember things. They flatter me. We didn’t make money, but we get so much love and appreciation and interest, and that’s a blessing in a way. Who else gets that? That’s my payment.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr for taking the time to talk with us, and to Peter Tatara and the staff of the New York Anime Festival for making this interview possible.