'Kid from Toledo' still animated after decades of illustrious work

5/22/2004
BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Fred Laderman
Fred Laderman

Sitting in his home in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, producer Fred Laderman laughed when he thought about whether he'll get a call from the Hollywood giant Disney.

"I'm sure they hate my guts," he offered. "I'm sure they'd say, 'You'll never work in this town again.'●"

The Toledo native isn't worried. Getting work hasn't been a problem for the 1945 Scott High School graduate - a spry 77-year-old who turned a love of entertaining into a five-decade career in which he helped pioneer a genre of animation.

Honored yesterday as a distinguished graduate of Ohio State University, Mr. Laderman is considered an industry trailblazer - the first to transform Japanese animation into an American commodity.

Charactor from <i>Sailor Moon</i>.
Charactor from &lt;i&gt;Sailor Moon&lt;/i&gt;.

"He's a legend," said Harvey Deneroff, an animation historian who is writing a biography on Mr. Laderman.

Known in industry circles by the last name Ladd, Mr. Laderman also made industry waves when he publicly challenged Disney after the firm released a movie, The Lion King, that had striking plot similarities to an earlier Japanese series that went uncredited.

He's raised children on Long Island and spent the last two decades on the western edge of Los Angeles. But he says: "I'm still the kid from Toledo."

It was in his old North Toledo neighborhood where Mr.

Laderman began developing a love of entertaining that would end up creating a new niche in Japanese animation.

The grandson of a Russian immigrant, Mr. Laderman's father was a road laborer in the Depression. His mom was a homemaker. But he had different dreams.

His cousin had a friend who made it big as a character actress in radio, opening the eyes of a boy nicknamed Freddie to the possibilities of making a living by entertaining. He did impressions as early as the fourth grade but by high school was known for writing short stories and the annual Scott variety shows.

One former classmate, Loree Firestone Hinds, joked that he suffered from "terminal talent."

After graduating from Ohio State in 1949 with a degree in radio and speech, Mr. Laderman spent a year at an FM station in New York and then landed a job at an advertising agency that dabbled in films - a medium that he learned on the job.

Eventually, he repackaged an assortment of old nature clips into a documentary that was sold to a European firm. But this was during the post-war years, when some European countries couldn't export cash, and so the firm traded the rights to European cartoons. The job of re-editing and dubbing them in English fell to Mr. Laderman.

Within a decade he had become an expert in the niche of dubbing foreign clips. The father of two was called into the Rockefeller Center offices of NBC to help them dub a new foreign cartoon, this one from a place then scoffed at by the U.S. animation industry: Japan.

It was a TV show about a little boy called Tetsuam Atom, translated to mean Iron Fisted Atom Boy, that was a hit in Japan. Mr. Laderman redubbed it into Astro Boy - tweaking the plots to fit American tastes - and it became an early syndication hit across the country.

"Astro Boy was huge as far as anime [Japanese animation] goes," said Sean Akins, a creative director at Cartoon Network.

With TV hungry for new cartoons, the success of Astro Boy would spawn a new genre of Japanese animation repackaged for American audiences. Forty years later, the genre would become common in America, producing such hits as Pokemon and Dragonball Z, and lead Cartoon Network to devote its own block of programming, Toonami, to such shows.

And Astro Boy would spawn a surging career for Mr. Laderman. The series Gigantor would follow, and in 1965 the same Japanese firm that produced what became Astro Boy produced a cartoon series about a young lion prince's adventures.

Mr. Laderman re-edited and dubbed the series into Kimba, the White Lion, about a young lion prince who is driven from home after his father is killed. In his absence, a brutal lion with a scar over one eye takes over the throne and the young prince returns to defeat that lion.

The series ran more than 10 years, and it would lead to one of Mr. Laderman's most frustrating moments in the industry.

He went to the screening of a new Disney movie in 1994 called The Lion King, whose prince was named Simba, who was driven from home after his father is killed, and who had to reclaim the throne from his brutal uncle with a scar over one eye.

After noticing those similarities and others, Mr. Laderman left the theater shaking his head at plot twists Disney insisted were purely coincidental.

"It was almost disbelief, like 'What were they thinking?'●" Mr. Laderman said.

Because the original Japanese animator, Osama Tezuka, thought highly of Walt Disney, Mr. Tezuka's company declined to complain. But some anime fans did complain, and Mr. Laderman became a well-quoted figure in a debate that still simmers today.

Granted, Mr. Laderman said, he isn't dwelling on the issue.

After spending the 1970s dubbing and producing films in New York City, he moved in 1980 to Los Angeles and has worked on such shows as Sailor Moon and is now producing an updated series of Gigantor.

While he isn't a household name, he remains a major figure in the genre of dubbing Japanese animation - a sought-out speaker for forums, or simply fans hungry for information.

Mr. Deneroff learned that after writing a 1996 profile of Mr. Laderman in Animation World Magazine.

"I've never gotten so much fan mail," he said. "People kept - for years - e-mailing me saying, 'How can I get in touch with Fred Ladd?'●"

Mr. Laderman is humble and laughs at the idea of retiring.

"I'm having too much fun," he said. "The day you find out I'm retired, look for my obit."

Contact Joe Mahr at:

jmahr@theblade.com

or 419-724-6180.