Fred Ladd: An Interview

by Harvey Deneroff

Fred Ladd
Photo by Harvey Deneroff

With anime's new found popularity, it is perhaps easy to forget that Japanese animation had gained a measure of success in the United States some 30 years ago. Central to this success was producer Fred Ladd, who helped pioneer the American distribution of anime, a field in which he continues to be involved.

Ladd, a native of Toledo, Ohio, who studied Radio & TV at Ohio State University, was based in New York for the first 30 years of his career, which did not initially start out in animation. His involvement in this arena was, in fact, somewhat serendipitous.

"I had gone to work at an advertising agency," he recalls, "where I wound up doing a lot of nature documentaries. The very first one, Jungle, was about animals and their natural habitats. It was sold to some countries which could not export dollars to pay for the shows, but they could send us films in exchange.

Kimba, The White Lion
Courtesy of Fred Patten.

"So, the question became, 'What kind of film are we going to take?' We didn't want to have foreign art films--we weren't in that business--but there were a lot of cartoons that we could take," which they did. These films, many in what seemed to be in "bastard lengths of 30 to 50 minutes, which are standard programming lengths in Europe, for which there was no market for on American TV, especially as single films." Ladd thus took on the task to adapt these films for the American market.

His solution was to dub them into English and package them into 5 to 5-1/2 minute episodes, which were released under the name of Cartoon Classics. His success with this and two other programs, The Space Explorers and The New Adventurers of the Space Explorer, led to his involvement in the production of the animated feature, Pinocchio in Outer Space, which was released theatrically by Universal Pictures. (He would later help produce a second feature, Journey Back to Oz, which like the first involved the artistic collaboration of Preston Blair.)

Publicity drawings for the title characters in Osamu Tezuka's Kimba The White Lion and Astro Boy.
Courtesy of Fred Patten.

Astro Boy
"Sometime in 1963," Ladd recalls, " NBC's representative in Tokyo saw a very, very limited action, adventure show on television about a little boy called Tetsuan Atom, which means Iron Fisted Atom Boy. NBC Enterprises, a division of the broadcast network, picked it up very cheap, not even knowing what they were buying. No one spoke Japanese. No one really understood it.

"They then tracked me down, knowing I had done a lot of cartoon dubbing as well as Pinocchio in Outer Space, and showed me a couple of episodes and asked me what I thought. As a result, I made a pilot, NBC saw it and said, 'Alright, do another one. We think we can sell this. I did and it became Astro Boy."

Over the next two years, Ladd prepared 104 episodes of the show for the American market (out of an original 193). The show was not shown on network television, but was rather marketed via syndication and sold to some 50 stations around the country, where it proved to be very successful.

Robin Leyden and Osamu Texuka at Universal Studios in March 1978 with Leyden's statue of Astro Boy. (Leyden was an important figure in the history of anime fan clubs in the US.)
Courtesy of Robin Leyden and Fred Patten.

"Astro Boy," Ladd points out, "was created by Osamu Tezuka, who was known as the Walt Disney of Japan--a revered artist, a national treasure. Tetsuan Atom had appeared first as a comic strip and the Fuji Television Network, which had just started up, only transmitted in black and white, which is why the show was done in black and white. No one knew how to work in color in those days, mainly because you didn't have any studios before then.

"The show," he feels, "put Japan on the map as an animation production country. And as soon as that hit, all of sudden, all over Tokyo, a hundred studios sprang up overnight." Though the success of Tetsuan Atom in the US was not a major factor in this flowering, it certainly had an effect on Tezuka and his company, Mushi Productions.

Scene from the pilot episode of Kimba, The White Lion
Courtesy of Fred Patten.

Gigantor & Kimba
In 1964, an agent came to NBC Enterprises "with another Japanese show, Tetsujin 28 (Iron Man 28), about a giant robot in the year 2000 and beyond. But NBC passed on it, as they did not want to compete with themselves." However, they referred him to Ladd, who bought the show, which became Gigantor, which he had distributed by Trans-Lux and it "became a substantial hit."

"In 1965," Ladd recalls, "Tezuka's company came out with its first color production, Jungle Taitei (Jungle Emperor), which became Kimba, the White Lion and was again handled by NBC. (In the original show, the lion was called Leo; we almost called him Simba, but Kimba was a unique word, Simba was not.)

Model sheet for Osamu Tezuka's Kimba, The White Lion.
Courtesy of Fred Patten.

"Kimba went to 52 episodes. More were made in Japan, but NBC didn't commit to them. They just took the shows where Kimba was a cuddly little white lion, not the ones where he becomes an adult. They just wanted him to stay a little lion, as Bambi was a cute little deer."

Like the previous Japanese shows he worked on, Kimba proved to be a "big money maker" in the US. Years later, it gained a bit of unintended fame when Disney was accused by anime fans of basing much of The Lion King on the show. Ladd recalls noting the many "coincidences" between the two when he first saw the Disney film. "Finally, after five or six striking similarities, there was a pan up to the sky. I said to my wife, 'Don't tell me that the father lion is going to appear in the clouds. And he did! I couldn't believe it!"

He feels that Disney's assertion at the time that no one on The Lion King had been influenced by Kimba was ludicrous. However, he notes that, "Tezuka was a big fan of Disney. In fact, Tezuka did a 45 minute featurette in which he used characters that looked like the seven dwarfs. So, when Disney proved to be an admirer of Kimba, the studio did not retaliate. When they were called about this, they said that they were sure that Mr. [Don] Hahn [The Lion King's producer] did not deliberately do this, and that, 'We are sure that Disney would not deliberately do this and it's all purely coincidental. Our leader [Tezuka died in 1989] would have been very flattered."

Speed Racer
Courtesy of Fred Patten. ©Tatsunoko Production Co.

Ladd continued working on various Japanese series, including doing the "early work," for the English-language versions of Ace Man and the legendary Speed Racer. His involvement in this area continues even to this day, having recently completed a stint putting together the American version of Sailor Moon for DIC.

American Personae
Ladd speaks fondly of his involvement in the early days of anime and of his friendship with Tezuka. Although he played a crucial role in bringing Japanese animation to the United States, he is quick to point out that he "had nothing to do with their creation. But the creation of the American personae [of these shows] came out of my shop," and it is something that he is very proud of.

The US Kimba crew in 1966 at a dinner during the middle of production. Standing, left to right: Fred Ladd, Cliff Owens, Hal Studer, Gilbert Mack. Seated, left to right: Eileen Ladd, Billie Lou Watt, Rose Mack, Francine Owens.
Photo by Gilbert Mack
Courtesy of Fred Patten.

For one, Ladd says that Tezuka was very pleased with what he did with Kimba. "He liked the English version very much," he says. "We injected humor where he hadn't envisioned any, and it just delighted him. We saw facets of the show that just didn't play in Japanese culture, but worked well in English. (His English was sufficient that he understood it.) For instance, we gave all the characters comic names, such as Mr. Pompous--for some reason that name really delighted Tezuka."

The early success of Japanese animated TV shows in the United States proved to be short-lived. "By the 1970s," Ladd points out, "you couldn't give away a Japanese-made series here, because of the pressure to reduce the amount of violence on TV." Thus, shows like Gatchaman, when they were released in the US were initially shown in highly sanitized versions, without much success. (Ladd did not work on the initial American release of the show, but was later called in by Turner to prepare a more integral version under the title of G Force, which is now being shown on the Cartoon Network.)

The five "Sailor Scouts": (left to right) Sailor Mercury, Sailor Venus, Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter in Sailor Moon
© DIC Entertianment

Now based out of Los Angeles, Ladd is very excited about the newfound popularity of Japanese animation in the US, which he thinks is long overdue. It is a popularity he credits to young people who, referring to more limited animation often found in anime, "don't count cels," and for whom "the play's the thing."

Harvey Deneroff, in addition to his duties as Editor of
Animation World Magazine, edits and publishes The Animation Report, an industry newsletter, which can be reached at

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