It was at Anime Weekend Atlanta 2003 that I first beheld the visage of Fred Ladd, staring owlishly from
the audience towards the front of the panel room where I was setting up for another “Dubs that Time
Forgot” program. An acquaintance had tipped me off, warning me to be careful if I was to showcase any
of Ladd’s dubbing work. “He’s liable to speak his mind if you make any cracks about his shows,” they
told me. But then, I never had a whole lot of complaints about Fred Ladd, the man who, in the 1960s,
beheld the rise of Japanese mass-market animation and concluded, quite correctly, that it was not just
suitable for export to the west, but ideal.
Ladd’s trajectory towards a fateful 1963 meeting with Osamu Tezuka and NBC Enterprises to decide the
fate of a brand new TV series called Tetsuwan Atom was crooked, but only a little. Ladd had studied
broadcasting in college, and envisioned himself creating radio programs for children. When the radio
market collapsed with the advent of TV, Ladd spent some time in advertising, but by the early 1960s was
working in TV, developing his own cartoon show, The Big World of Little Adam, based on a series of
short NASA documentaries he’d acquired. The suits at NBC Enterprises, presented with a really solid-
looking little animated TV series from Japan during a time when even limited TV animated programming
was tough to get, brought Ladd in to get his opinion—both about the quality of the show, and about
whether or not he’d be able to adapt it to the English language.
As it turns out, Ladd was up for both tasks. He recognized that the show’s story and characters would
appeal to youngsters, and was quick to spot problematic bits of footage—usually violence—that would
need to be excised to pass muster with American TV censors. While the retitling of Tetsuwan Atom to
Astro Boy was sort of a collaborate effort, Ladd came up with American names for the characters (“Mr.
Pompus,” Ladd’s name for Astro Boy‘s gruff, mustachioed schoolteacher Higeoyaji, was a favorite of Dr.
Tezuka), selected the voice cast (a whopping three actors for most episodes; the team was eventually
joined by a savvy radio and TV voiceover man named Peter Fernandez, who’d eventually make a name
of his own as Speed Racer), and got the production underway. Working with two projection systems in
tandem, Ladd’s lean crew was able to dub an entire episode of Astro Boy in a single day, which is still a
daunting feat today, even with state-of-the-art digital tools!
Perhaps most momentously, Ladd listened to Tatsuo Takai‘s cheerful instrumental march that opened
each episode of Tetsuwan Atom and immediately decided that the song should have lyrics; after all, kids
loved to sing along to their favorite songs. Songwriter Don Rockwell was brought in to write the words
to Astro Boy, and when Dr. Tezuka visited New York to meet with Ladd and the NBC team, he was
astonished to hear the catchy words—and promptly brought the idea straight back to Japan, where
Tetsuwan Atom also had lyrics added to the opener starting with episode six. One might say that the
practice of having a theme song with lyrics was a foregone conclusion, that anime studios would have
started doing it on their own, but it was Ladd who inadvertently broke that ground.
From there on, for many years, as long as anime was relevant in America, so was Fred Ladd. He dubbed
Mushi Production‘s first color TV series, Jungle Emperor Leo, as Kimba the White Lion, where it was also
carried and sold to American TV by NBC Enterprises. When NBC balked at more anime acquisitions and
he lost out on doing a new program called 8th Man to a studio in Miami, Ladd picked up an anime TV
program himself, forming Delphi Productions with his partner Al Singer in order to license Tetsujin 28,
Japan’s first giant robot TV series. Retitled “Gigantor,” the series became a hit—and as Ladd was never
shy about pointing out, stayed on TV a lot longer than Astro Boy did, paving the way for future super
Anime’s overseas cachet sagged for much of the 70s, but this didn’t discourage Ladd; he still found time
to dub several fine Toei films at the studio TITRA in New York, among them The Wonderful World of Puss n’ Boots, Animal Treasure Island, and the great Little Norse Prince. These movies really benefited from Ladd’s brisk but studied approach; despite small voice casts and production teams, these old dubs
burst with personality, and still hold up today.
Ladd’s next big project? Colorization. No, really, the weird TV fad from the 80s that involved
experiments in film tinting and recoloring to give old B&W TV and movies a dubious facelift actually had
its genesis in the 70s, with Ladd’s efforts to recolor old Porky Pig and Popeye cartoons for TV broadcast.
I include this detail not just because it’s interesting, but because it speaks to Ladd’s sense of
practicality—the man clearly loved TV and film, but he readily changed names, trimmed footage, and
applied whatever other tweaks were necessary to get his shows on the air and delivered to the eyeballs
of viewers. No detail was sacred—if sanding it off would get a TV contract signed faster, Ladd would do
it! Ladd even colorized an anime movie, the 1965 Mushi Production telefilm New Treasure Island, under
the title “Treasure Island Revisited.” I’m not gonna lie, I would have loved to see his attempt at
colorizing Gigantor—but the colorization project folded before he could get his own show done.
As anime returned to prominence in the 80s and 90s, Ladd stayed in the game, helming a new
Gatchaman dub called G-Force, directing a TV dub of TMS‘s 1980 Shin Tetsujin 28 TV series, and doing some crucial early adaptation work on DiC’s production of Sailor Moon before the TV scripts were
handed off to Optimum Productions. Towards the end of the 90s, he started hitting the convention trail, and that’s where I met him. I didn’t manage to rouse his ire at that “Dubs that Time Forgot” panel (I seem to recall running some clips from Puss n’ Boots, but I spoke highly of his dub then, and still do now), but I did get him going at one of his panels. As he regaled the audience about his Gigantor adaptation, I couldn’t help but let out a childish giggle at “Dick Strong,” his name for the character Kenji Murasame. Just like that, he was jabbing a finger at me and exuberantly explaining that “Dick” was a perfectly good name, and that the slang term my filthy little mind was thinking of didn’t come into play until years later. Wow, the man was not shy about defending his work!
If you look at the catalog of his anime works, Ladd actually wasn’t incredibly prolific—but pretty much every one of his shows was momentous. Astro Boy introduced TV anime to North America. Kimba the White Lion was the first color TV anime, and Gigantor the first super robot TV anime. His anime movie dubs introduced the works of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki to American audiences, over a decade before they would form Studio Ghibli. His dub of G-Force returned the iconic Gatchaman to the airwaves, and his work on Sailor Moon paved the way for one of the medium’s success stories in the west. To my mind, the guy just never missed—not even once.
Ladd was pretty accessible to fans, so I kept in touch with him over the years, and emailed with him last in 2010. I was particularly taken with his Toei movie dubs, and wrote to him a few times to ask questions about them. He, too, was taken with their quality, and particularly with that of Little Norse Prince, one of the medium’s most important cinematic works. “Toei‘s international department thought very little of the picture,” he commented to me. “I thought the film was wonderful… it wove a spell rare in animation.” That’s the Fred Ladd I’ll remember—a producer and director who was willing to go to bat for great animation. As long as anime is enjoyed in English in North America, his influence will be felt.
Fred Ladd image © Madman, Funimation