Peter Fernandez dies at 83; helped bring Japanese animation to American audiences

Peter Fernandez, who helped introduce the U.S. to Japanese animation in the 1960s by adapting the series “Speed Racer” for American audiences, has died. He was 83.

Fernandez, a voice actor who was also a writer and producer, died July 15 of cancer at his home in Pomona, N.Y., said his wife, Noel.

“He was a major pioneer of anime,” said William Winckler, a Tarzana-based producer of English-language anime films. “ ‘Speed Racer’ was once the most popular Japanese cartoon in America, and he did a wonderful job with it.”


He gave voice to fast-talking action hero Speed Racer and wrote the English lyrics to the catchy theme song that can still cause many now-grown fans to bust out a line from the chorus: “Go, Speed Racer, go!”

A former child actor who had worked in radio, Fernandez was specializing in English dubbing of foreign films and animation when he was asked to adapt “Speed Racer,” which first appeared in Japan as “Mach Go Go Go.”

“The only instructions I had was to ‘Americanize it,’ which meant I could name all the characters and write the dialogue the way I wanted,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2008.

The 52-episode series debuted in 1967 and featured voice-overs by Fernandez and three other actors who took Speed Racer and friends on adventures in the Mach 5 super-car.

Naming the characters was the most fun, Fernandez often said. He called villains Cruncher Block and Guts Buster, and he delighted in writing such lines as “The secret film was filmed secretly.”

Corinne Orr, the only surviving member of the dubbing cast, recalled that “he sent us through the Crooked Strait” and wrote rapid-fire dialogue to try to match the English to the fast-paced Japanese " mouth flaps.”

“He loved his wordplay,” Orr said, “and he got such joy later in life appearing at cartoon conventions all over the country, where people worshiped the fact he was the voice of Speed Racer and Racer X,” the mysterious masked racer.

Born Jan. 29, 1927, in New York City, he was one of three children of Pedro and Edna Cooper Fernandez.

When his father’s import-export business failed during the Depression, Fernandez started modeling at 7 to bring in money.

By 11 he was acting on Broadway with Ethel Barrymore in “Whiteoaks” and toured the country in the production.

As a teenager he appeared in several Broadway shows, including “Watch on the Rhine,” which led to what Fernandez later called a “thrilling” experience: performing at the White House and dinner with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During World War II, Fernandez served in the Army and was assigned to the Pentagon, where he worked in communications, his wife said.

After the war, he sold stories to pulp magazines and acted in radio, television and film. The Times called Fernandez a “new-found film star” in 1949 after he appeared in the movie “City Across the River” with Tony Curtis.

In the 1960s, Fernandez segued into dubbing and wrote scripts for two animated Japanese imports, “Astro Boy” and “Gigantor,” which led to “Speed Racer.”

The series experienced renewed popularity when it aired on MTV in the 1990s. In the 2008 live-action film “Speed Racer,” Fernandez had a cameo as a radio announcer. He continued to work as a voice actor and director until about a year ago.

Prone to exclaiming “jeepers” in interviews, the kindly Fernandez would try to explain the enduring popularity of “Speed Racer” by pointing to children’s fascination with cars and the show’s emphasis on Speed’s family relationships.

He also admitted that he “always tried to get across a subtle message of some kind about decency or fair play.”

In addition to Noel, whom he married in 1978, he is survived by three children, April, Peter and Elizabeth; siblings Jacqueline and Ed; and nine grandchildren.