I first got to know Fred Ladd when I started putting together the August 1996 issue of Animation World Magazine (AWN.com), which focused for the first time on anime. Fred Patten suggested I interview him as an important figure in the anime world. I really did not much about the topic at the time, but I knew enough to know Japanese animation was a force to be reckoned with. (This was prior to the Pokémon TV series which really opened up the floodgates, once and for all, to anime in the United States.) The response to my interview though surprised me. It not only became one of the most popular pieces I ever published, but it forever linked me to Ladd and somehow made me an instant anime expert.
The story of how Fred Laderman (aka Ladd) was hired by NBC Enterprises in 1963 to prepare a pilot episode for American audiences of Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom), that resulted in the “creation” of Astro Boy, is well known.
At the time, Ladd was something of a hustler who had become known for his adaptations of European animated films that were edited and dubbed into English and sold into syndication to individual (usually non-network) TV stations around the country. This was the same market that Astro Boy was sold to with great success, at times even beating out shows like The Mickey Mouse Club in ratings. But to Ladd, Astro Boy was just another job and not the breakthrough for anime in the international market it came to be.
With Tetsuwan Atomu, Tezuka had sought to capitalize on the legendary success of his manga by adapting one of them for his first animated TV show. He was obviously thinking of the overseas as well as the Japanese market when it went into production. As Frederik L. Schodt has pointed out, he avoided references to Asian religions in favor of Christianity, and even included some signage in English. Ladd realized that Tezuka’s attempts to appeal to a Western audience would not pass muster with NBC’s Standards and Practices (i.e., censors). As such, Ladd felt obliged to eliminate scenes of violence and nudity, and what he considered offensive religious references.
In terms of the soundtrack, he tried to enliven what he saw as dead spots with everyday sound effects, such as traffic noise. In addition, he added lyrics to Tatsun Takai’s iconic opening theme music, an idea which Tezuka promptly copied for future episodes.
Tezuka and his crew at Mushi Production were basically coached by Ladd on the needs of the lucrative American market. And soon other TV animation studios sprung up in Japan to capitalize on the Astro Boy’s success. So, it is not without reason that Tezuka, the God of Manga, dubbed Ladd “the Godfather of Astro Boy”!
Before he began work on Astro Boy, Ladd was shuttling between New York and Brussels co-producing Pinocchio in Outer Space (1965), an animated feature for which he wrote the story and recorded the soundtrack.
Nevertheless, he continued to be involved with anime, including Tezuka’s next TV project, Jungulu Taitei Leo (Jungle Emperor Leo), which he adapted as Kimba the White Lion. This was Mushi’s first production in color and Ladd arranged for Preston Blair to be brought in as a color consultant.
More important for Ladd, he and his partner, Al Singer bought up the American rights to Tetsujin 28 (Iron Man 28), which he renamed Gigantor. Disappointed with the show’s musical soundtrack, and under orders from Trans-Lux, the show’s distributor, he commissioned a new track from Lou Singer (Al’s brother). This included the very popular theme song, “Gigantor, The Space Age Robot!”
The initial boom in anime in the United States did not last long, as TV stations became increasingly hesitant to show them due to concerns over violence. Though anime disappeared from U.S. airwaves, it gained a strong foothold elsewhere around the world. In America it also started to gain an underground following, abetted by the availability of videotape.
For his part, Ladd became involved in a number of other projects, including co-producing the Filmation animated feature, Journey Back to Oz (1972), the colorizing of Warner Bros. and Fleischer cartoons in South Korea (for which some people will not forgive him) and consulting on the English dub of Sailor Moon for DIC in 1995. The latter was basically his last involvement with preparing anime for the American market. In the end, it seemed that it was the growth of anime fandom that brought Ladd his most enduring fame. He was a regular fixture at anime conventions in North America, where fans often saw him as providing a direct connection to the beginning of anime and to figures like Tezuka.
After my interview with him, Ladd took to calling me on a regular basis, sharing various and sundry anecdotes about his career. At one point looking for projects to supplement my freelance writing assignments, I suggested he should write his memoirs, which I could help him with. This is what led to Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider’s View of the Birth of a Pop Culture Phenomenon (McFarland, 2009), which actually had its greatest success in its Japanese-language edition, Also, the first chapter is scheduled to be published in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, a reference series published by Gale.
By the time the book was published, I was living in the Atlanta area, and did not see him as much. We got together a few times after I returned to Los Angeles in 2015 and talked about various things. He expressed interest in doing another book, but nothing came of it. Needless to say, I’m saddened by his passing. He was a sweet guy and a good friend who will be missed.