Lou Scheimer: A Candid Conversation with Filmation's Founder
I've been lucky to do a number of interviews with influential people through the course of my career. I don't do an awful lot of them, but I've done enough to generate a conversation at a dinner party, if ever I should attend one. However, there are a few interview opportunities that have come my way that exceed fortune. I haven't been lucky to talk with these people -- I've been blessed. Thurl Ravenscroft, Dan DeCarlo, Mort Walker, Stan Lee... pioneers all, and veterans of their craft who impacted the world in so many ways, some of them not always through the things for which they are most remembered.
I can now add Lou Scheimer to that list.
What's that? Who's Lou Scheimer? Oh, you know who Lou Scheimer is. You've seen his work, and you've seen his name at the end of it, often circling around with Norm Prescott's. Lou Scheimer is the founder of an animation company known as Filmation, who produced an outstanding array of children's programming, from Fat Albert to Star Trek to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Of course, the thing that really got the ball rolling for Filmation was a guy in a blue union suit and a red cape: DC Comics was shopping around for a company to breathe animated life once again into their flagship character, Superman. Lou Scheimer and his friends had an animation studio -- sort of. It was nowhere big enough to handle something of this caliber. The receptionist was a mannequin. Filmation needed to impress Elliot S. Maggin into giving them the work. So Lou and his friends did the only thing they could at the time.
They pulled a fast one.
They hired a roomful of people to pretend to be animators and production assistants and voice talent. Among the cast of extras was Ted Knight, who was so eager to repeat his memorized lines to Maggin that he chased the men down to do his spiel when he was passed by. (For a greater detailed version of this story, check out some of the bonus feature interviews on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.)
Of course, they got the job, Superman flew into living rooms everywhere, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or maybe it's more like mythology.
I knew right away that I was in for some good storytelling as soon as our conversation began.
Lou Scheimer: My life... there's not that much that's fascinating, I can assure you of that.
Oh, I get the feeling there are a lot of untold stories -- that's just the sense I get from having watched all the special features on the BCI releases. Has anyone ever asked for the rights to record and publish your memoirs?
That's funny; there are a couple of guys who want to do it. And one guy, especially -- (and who the hell is going to be interested in this stuff?) -- but he's the guy I've spent so much time with, a guy named Andy Mangels. He's done a lot of the stuff that's on the DVDs, and he's a good guy, so I couldn't help but say, "If you want to do it, Andy... I think you're crazy." But he's coming down in a couple of weeks to spend some time talking about it. And he'll really be disappointed in hearing that all of my stories are already told.
One of the most recent releases from the Filmation vaults is the live-action Ghost Busters series with Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch and Bob Burns. Did people just forget that you had done Ghost Busters before Ivan Reitman did the Dan Aykroyd / Bill Murray comedy?
Well, I think they ripped us off. Fact is, when I first heard of it -- I read it in the trades, I can't remember which trade it was -- I said, "That's ridiculous. That's our show. That's our premise, that's our concept.
We got in touch with Columbia, and I had our attorneys call them. We met with them, and they said, "Well, this was an animated show on Saturday morning," and I said, "Huh-uh." He said, "What do you mean, 'huh-huh'?" And I said, "Live!" And he said, "Uh-oh. We've got a problem."
Obviously a deal was worked out, but how did that carry over into the animation side, because for a while there were two competing shows, Filmation's Ghostbusters and the so-called Real Ghostbusters.
It was weird. We did the live series in 1975, and the animated series was in the 80s. What happened was, we made a deal with Columbia to give them the rights to do the picture, and we got $500,000 for the use, and I made a dumb move. Oh, and we got 1% of the profit from the pictures. It was amazing. I think they spent something like $65 million, and they grossed something like $150 million, and they never had any profits. That's when I was exposed to the Hollywood accounting practices. (They weren't practices -- they were well practiced.) And I didn't make a deal with them that excluded the animation. I never thought of it.
Years after the live picture was released, Columbia decided to do an animated feature. And it was a very nice guy running Columbia, Herman Rush, who had turned out earlier in my history had been an agent for us. So I called Herman and suggested to him, "Why not do something together. We've got rights, you've got rights." And our parent company then, Westinghouse, said, "Oh, we don't need them." And I said, "Bad idea. I think we need them. Because they'll have one, we'll have one, and nobody will know what's going on." And as it turned out, that's essentially what happened.
I think there was a whole generation out there that was only familiar with the feature film, and saw the Filmation cartoon as some sort of copy.
You know, the sadness was, we had the gorilla as part of our original show. They put a black man in the team, and I got a phone call from a nice man -- I can't remember where it was -- and he was horrified that we had taken the Columbia picture and turned the African-American into an ape. And I tried to explain, "No, you don't understand, that was in our original picture." It was sad. I couldn't convince that guy that we hadn't somehow done something terrible.
By the way, I've never told anyone that before. You're right, there may be things I didn't tell anybody yet.
Let's switch titles -- and there are so many to choose from -- and jump from Ghost Busters to Star Trek. The animated series really helped to keep the franchise alive after the original series had been cancelled. One rumor about the development of the animated series was that there were plans for teenaged sidekicks for the Enterprise crew. Is that correct?
No. Rumor. You can squash that. Actually, the conversations with Gene Roddenberry... He and I became very close. Of all the crazy stories you've heard, he was not a difficult man to work with. All he wanted to do was do his series, and he wanted to keep it honest, and I did too, because I loved that show. We tried as hard as we could to keep it as close to what Star Trek would have been. The one thing that was interesting was that we used basically the same writers. The only place Gene really got involved -- after we did the models and showed him how the stuff was going to work -- was that he wanted to be involved with the stories. And it was a gift as far as I was concerned, because nobody knew it any better, and he could now do things with it that we could do before because they couldn't afford to do it in live action. We could take them anyplace, do anything we wanted to do, as long as it was true to the original.
We got an Emmy for Star Trek. It was absurd, really, in a way, because it was not a youngster's show. We did the same kind of stories, with the same kind of concepts, that were done in the nighttime show. It was the only show I ever worked on that got an Emmy. I didn't mind getting an Emmy, I was delighted with it, but Fat Albert should have been the first show to have got it.
You were certainly able to pull in a greater variety of better looking aliens than the live action series was able to do.
Well, sure. All they could do was put ears on guys. They had their money problems. But it was as easy for us to do a monster as it was to do a human being.
Were there any properties that you wanted to license for animation that got away?
I looked at everything. It was just easier to sell a well known product to the networks than it was an original because the promotion that you'd have to have done just didn't exist. To do something like Star Trek, you had a built in audience. I tried for damn near every program that seemed to have any reason for existing. I'll tell you one I tried to get and couldn't get: F-Troop. I couldn't make a deal on that. I tried to make a deal with the guys who did Cannon. We tried to make a deal to make Young Cannon with a little heavy kid who was a detective. It was not a great idea, but it was fun talking with them.
I had a writer working for us named Bill Danch who wrote on the original Fat Albert, and had been a comedy writer in the old radio days. And when he started working for us in the late sixties, early seventies, he was 65-70 years old then. But he had worked with everyone: Bob Hope, Fred Allen... And he said to me, "Oh, tell William Conrad that Bill said Hello."
I said, "What? I'm gonna get down there and meet with him, after he gets off working a whole day long... don't put me on."
He said, "You ask him if he doesn't remember the guy who knows he flew a P38 under the Golden Gate Bridge."
I said, "You're full of shit. He flew a P38 under the Golden Gate? Come on!"
So I get down there, and we're talking to him, and I said, "One of our writers said you flew a P38 under the Golden Gate Bridge," and he said, "Oh, you've been talking to Danch!" I said, "That's right! It's a true story? He told me the truth?" And he said, "Yeah!" So I said, "Well, that Danch is not a bad guy."
Speaking of licensed properties -- you've also done the work with the DC comics characters -- the Superman, Batman, Shazam...
Well, that's what really made Filmation.
And then the Archie comics characters...
You know all the stuff we've done? Are you one of those guys who knows these things?
Oh, brother, I grew up in front of Saturday morning television. I waited for the spreads to come out in the comic books to tell me what the fall schedule was, and I stayed at Grandma's house that Friday night to get up at the butt-crack of dawn and make sure I saw them all.
Well, we didn't seem to hurt you any. We had people say, "Oh, you're destroying young children's lives." And I'd say, "No, we don't. Just watch the shows." I mean, we had psychologists writing about the stuff, and they had never seen the shows or even looked at any of the scripts.
How do you -- and this might be out of your hands and more in BCI's -- how do you split up the properties when you've got something like Kid's Super Power Hour where you had crossovers. Warner's is releasing Shazam! on their own, but he crossed over into the animated shorts of your independent creation.
Well, you know what, we made arrangements that kept everybody happy. They had the rights originally to Captain Marvel because they sued Fawcett Publishing in the early to mid forties... When we made the deal with DC, I made the distribution deal with Warner Brothers because they bought DC after we had worked with them for a long time. What I did, I made a deal with them when we did Isis, and we retained the distribution on those series that had Captain Marvel in them, and they got distribution on all the Captain Marvel shows. How the hell did we work that out? Because he was in a number of her shows.
Now, who owns Isis?
That's one that we own, because that was an original. And I said, "You know, what would really be nice to somehow have them somehow work together, because it would give the kids who had watched Captain Marvel some more opportunity to see him, because the networks didn't buy that many shows. They would buy 13 or 17 and get one year and the ability to pick up a second year. Of all the time we were on the air with Fat Albert on the networks, we only did 60 episodes.
We did another 50... we ended up with 113 altogether, because we did another -- when we did distribution directly when the show came off the networks, then we did it on a direct basis, so that we had over 100 episodes of that. But a lot of shows that we did was the stuff that came off the networks. It was tough. Fat Albert needed 100 and some shows to be distributed. Archie, we had 200 shows by the time we were off the air with all the different ones -- there was Archie's Jukebox, U.S. of Archie, Archie's TV Funnies.
The reason I asked about Isis, I didn't know if DC had a joint-ownership of the property, because she recently appeared in the DC series 52. And yet, the upcoming DVD set is going to come out with a collectible comic published by somebody else.
I have no idea. (Editor's Note: BCI tells us that Isis is a shared rights character with DC Comics.) When I sold my ownership in the stuff -- when Westinghouse bought it, they were terrific, but that's another story -- but when they were sold to a French company, I said, "Pay me off." I didn't want to have anything to do with it. They had promised me that they would keep people working in this country if I signed up for another fifteen years, and I was delighted. And they ended up, the bastards, closing the studio down and giving me three days notice. I love the shows I did, I don't like the people who owned them for years after that. And it's only recently that anything's happened to those shows that should have happened a long time ago. I'm glad it worked out this way. The BCI people did a terrific job. I have no interest -- when I say that, I have a lot of interest in the shows -- but I don't have any financial interest in the shows.
I had on my list of questions to ask what had happened to Filmation. So that's the story? A French consortium bought it and then closed them down?
They closed it. It's the ugliest day of my life. I had to tell hundreds of people that they were out of work. I had spent twenty-five years trying to keep all the work in this country and training animators. And I'm proud of those moments. And I'm really proud of all the people who worked there too, because they were great people, and they're all doing very well nowadays. It's a different world out there, with all the three-dimensional stuff.
Has all the 3D CGI animation killed off the traditional animation format?
I think a lot of things may have. There are a lot more people doing children's shows on the networks. And there are network after network now -- there were only three networks doing children's shows when we were doing this stuff. And every network has their own studio -- well, CBS made a deal with Dic. But all the work is really done overseas. All that they do here now, again mostly, are the stories, the character designs, the storyboards, and the post production. But anybody talking about doing anything for animation... even take a look at any of the stuff that's done at nighttime in animation. They don't do the animation in this country. The Simpsons was never done in this country. They go through an American studio that does the storyboards, the stories are written by people at FOX, and they send the stuff overseas. So we had the only studio doing all of their work in this country, and those idiots... Well, I don't want to get into that, because it's not very much fun.
I recall in the late 80s there was potential government concern about cartoons that looked like they were half-hour toy commercials.
That was because of us. He-Man started that.
What happened there, and what did you guys do to comply or combat?
Well, we didn't. Number one, we had total control over the content when we made the deal with Mattel. And we made sure that there was nothing we felt was wrong. They would come up with all kind of characters, and those that seemed to work within the basis... We created the show. They came to us with a concept that was basically Conan. The father, the mother, the relationship between the two and young Adam -- that was all created by Filmation. I went to the networks with it, and everyone turned it down. We had recently been sold to Westinghouse Broadcasting by the original owners, Teleprompter, and they had a distribution arm. And I told them, "Fellas, you own an animation studio. We have an interesting concept that I'm sure will get on the air if you use your sales people to go out there and make them a daily five-day-a-week show. No kids have that." We did sixty-five episodes that first year, but this was after the networks turned it down. The networks got pissed off at me. I never sold another network show after that. We almost put them out of the business on Saturday morning because we were getting larger numbers of children watching the programs.
So what did ever happen to Saturday morning? It used to be a real event.
I'll tell you one thing that happened to it. The people who were programming it were not very competent. And I don't mind saying it. I don't want to mention any names. One of the people, for instance, one of the networks, said to me, "If you ever come to us with another one of those goody-goody shows of yours, we're just gonna throw you out, because we don't want any of that shit." And I said, "Well, I won't come to you with anything." I mean, I just didn't want to hear things like that. I mean, we had two areas that were important to me: to make sure that the shows we did were appropriate for the youngsters who were watching them, and the other thing, to make sure that we kept the work as much as we possibly could in this country, because I don't care what you say, when Americans are working on that stuff, they live here, they know what the people are like here, and the work comes out with more zest and heart than it does when those companies just making them someplace... I don't want to get on a soapbox, because it's dull.
What is your favorite memory of working with Filmation?
The last one. (Laughs) Not really. I'll tell you, the one that I thought would do tremendously well was disappointing, and that was BraveStarr. I always wanted to do a space western, and it had all of those qualities in there -- except I think we got a lot of placement in the wrong time slots, I don't know. My favorite, and more fun because I was a science fiction nut and I like westerns. The one that I think was the most meaningful was Fat Albert, for lots of reasons. Number one, kids were exposed to shows with kids' problems that were the basis of the shows. Everybody started taking off and doing little stuff at the end of their shows, like "Be a good kid and drink milk." Our shows, we tried to make them work where they were basic to the shows that the comments at the end of the show meant something. Fat Albert, I think, changed a lot of things on network shows. And they were getting worried about the people from Action for Children's Television. There was a lot of shit on the networks, and there was a lot of stuff on that was really not great for kids. And we fought for the right to do good shows.
Fat Albert definitely impacted me, and I'm a Caucasian kid from the farm country of the Midwest. About five years back, I had to go in for surgery for the first time in my life, and running through the back of my brain was that little Fat Albert song, "Don't be Scared at a Hospital".
Really? See, you're living proof of some of that stuff working. That's really... that's very touching for me. I love hearing that.
The old saying goes "Give me a kid until he's five and I'll have him for life." And, well, you had me.
I guess we still do. I've got to tell you, we've still got me, but I'm a little old to watch the stuff. But you know what's interesting? Some of it I have not watched in thirty years. Damn, they're a lot better than I thought. Now, some were a lot worse...
That's true with everything, but the old shows still hold up.
The ones that were toughest, because we had so little money, were the first shows we did. And that first network show was Superman, and they looked like they could have used a little more production value.
You were working with Ted Knight on that project.
Ted and I were collecting unemployment together when I knew him. We did presentations, and Ted and I had known each other for years before I could hire him for anything. And he did -- not the first batch of Supermans, the first batch of Supermans were recorded in New York by another guy... and the stories were written by the guy who was the representative working with us, a lovely man named Allen Duchovny, and it was the second year of working with him that we took over. It was difficult. We were doing the voices here, the stories there -- it was not a good way of producing a show. Although it was extraordinarily successful as a show, I think you can handle that by saying, "He was Superman." But the other shows that were put on the air that first couple of years -- and the guy really responsible for the whole concept of Saturday mornings being all for children was a guy named Fred Silverman, who later became president of CBS, and after that he went to ABC, and after that he went to NBC. He was the only guy who's ever been president of all three networks. And the thing he did better than anybody, even the stuff he bought for his nighttime shows, was the stuff he bought for Saturday morning. He had a feel for what was successful -- not always the best, but usually successful.
Saturday morning needs a Second Coming of guys like you and Fred Silverman.
Yeah, but it ain't gonna happen.
Time didn't permit us to go beyond scratching the surface of Filmation's long history of titles like She-Ra and the live-action adventures like Space Academy. But the French company -- a makeup manufacturer, of all things -- did audiences everywhere a true disservice.
Most of the Filmation library is being transferred to DVD by BCI, who have consistently turned out a better boxed set product than any other major distributor, of either children or adult shows.
Lou's babies are in good hands.