35. Lionel Wilson

“Terrific” voice-man.

Many great actors contributed their voices to my films.  I’ve remembered Allen Swift, who became my closest friend until his life so sadly ended. Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Arthur Treacher, Boris Karloff, were among the well-known stars who lent voices to my films, but there were many professional voice actors who were less known but equally brilliant. Among those, few could top Lionel Wilson.

Lionel came to an audition at UPA/New York, and displayed an almost unbelievable range of hilarious voicings.  He recorded many voices for our TV commercials, which I can’t for sure nail down from memory, but it was he whom I called in right from my beginnings at CBS-Terrytoons, because of his great versatility.  Interestingly, Lionel was especially good at catching eccentric female voices. He did marvelous parodies of Ethel Barrymore, Goldie Hawn, Eartha Kitt and Carol Channing! For those who follow such things, I can tell you that Lionel did all the voices for my Silly Sidney, the elephant series, and the hilarious readings for the John Doormat 20th Century-Fox cartoon, ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DOORMAT, my only Dinky Duck film, IT’S A LIVING!,  and the satirical A DOG’S LIFE.

But without a doubt, his tour de force was his performance of all the voice’s for the entire TOM TERRIFIC series!    I wish he was here to get my eternal thanks for the job he did for me on TT. The last time I spoke with Lionel, on the phone, long distance, his voice was only a raspy echo.  Sad.  During the Terrytoons days of the mid-1950s, Lionel was at his peak.  With our poverty-level budget and warp-speed delivery deadline, he was utterly dependable to deliver in one take!  To meet our goal, I had devised a then new method of recording a cartoon soundtrack.

The idea was to edit together all of the prerecorded standard music cues and sound effects on separate reels of ¼” audio tape, with a one-second length of blank tape between each music and efx cue, edited in the order of our script for the episode we were to record.

Lionel Wilson wore earphones, and with the dialog script in hand, he listened, responded to, and also cued the music and sound effects on the cue tapes.  We, in the control room operated the two cue tracks. We were in effect producing what I called “live mixes.” We cued Lionel, and he cued us, back and forth at performance tempo. After a couple of run-through rehearsals we managed to produce complete mixed sound tracks in one “performance,” skipping over the traditional process of recording the dialog separately, having to choose and edit voice takes, and then having to edit all three tracks together, and then mixing.  It was basically how they did the old time radio dramas, only without the team of live sound-effect men and musicians in the studio.

The trick in all this was to hit the precise length.  In writing the episodes, we all were all playing it in our heads to get close to our required length.  I would personally act out each script, reading the dialog, and imagining the action, the sound effects and music accents, until I knew it would play.  Amazingly, it usually came out very close.  Our ace-in-the-hole was that the spaces left for action could be expanded or cut back as required, We were quickly able to get the precise required length. The animation would then be done to fit these mixed-in-advance, precisely timed soundtracks.

That is how the Tom Terrific soundtracks were produced. It was so successful, that I continued the idea of mixing tracks in advance, even for our 20th-Fox cartoons, and later also for many of our early Weston Woods films.  I realized clearly that this technique depends entirely on the timing skills of the director – me.  I was in effect limiting the input of the animators, who had to fit their action exactly to my pre-mixed tracks.  It was a conscious attempt at the lesser of two evils.

In doing this at Terrytoons, I was hoping to achieve a sharper pace, and clearer understanding of my goals for a new Terrytoons image.

In Prague, it was a language problem.  In the early days here, when I had little grasp of the Czech language, and coping with the cultural differences, it was the only sure way I had to get what I wanted on film. Czech directors and animators had a quite different concept of timing than what we needed for our American audiences. Giving the animators the exact timing avoided problems for both the Czechs, in terms of having to do a lot of reworking, and for me, by giving me what I wanted virtually on the first try.

I can understand the arguments about limiting creativity by tying the hands of animators, but my problems were extremely low budgets, and that the Czech animators had not yet assimilated the American concept of cartoon timing.  Most of my critics were not aware of the difficulties I had to overcome. I take some satisfaction that virtually all of my Weston Woods films were prize winners in all the festivals in which they were entered. As time went by, and the Czech animators became sharper and sharper, I was able to return to a more traditional way of film construction.

The experiment had a great effect on my own timing ability, and I am grateful to Lionel Wilson for whole heartedly going along with my first experiment with the “live-mix” technique, an extremely difficult discipline.  Most voice actors expected the freedom of trying individual lines over and over, laying down many takes, and leaving it to the film editor and director to choose and edit takes together.  We put Lionel in the position of a stage actor – to get to know and understand the characters and story perfectly and to do a complete performance from beginning to end!

I salute him for helping to overcome whatever other weaknesses we had, and to make TOM TERRIFIC my greatest and most lasting success, even though it now exists mainly in memory and Google listings.

The result of all this was “Terrific.”  54 years later there are hundreds of Tom Terrific references on Google, and I am still getting a stream of letters from the Baby Boomers who were weaned  on Tom Terrific. Here is one of the many, many letters , the newest one, from August 2011:

Dear Mr. Deitch.

Hopefully a message from a stranger is not the equivalent of spam.  You may have tired of these, yet I have told this story to many many people over the years, as it was a big part of the memory of my childhood.  I thought you might enjoy it – since you and your staff were pretty much responsible for it – and I’m sure the multiplicity of influences for many kids of my age way back then, for I was a post WWII baby and I believe about 3 on the cusp of 4 when Tom Terrific made his appearance on my TV. This was my weekday morning…

I’d wake up in a small town in the middle of a cornfield called Mattoon, Illinois – with my stuffed rabbit – Joe – that I thought was a dog.  I had loved the stuffing out of the middle of him as he went everywhere I went (think Manfred).   I’d go into the kitchen, and make my own toast in the old Sunbeam toaster, pour some cereal, go into the living room and turn on the old black and white – it was early – the first show … was the Test Pattern – Mom and Dad and my older brother were asleep  – then I’d wait…  The National Anthem was next… then the Son’s of the Pioneer’s would sing ‘Clear Water’…  followed by the weather – the camera would zoom across dials and clocks as I recall – there may have been a talking head – I’m not sure anymore… then – Rough and Ready – followed by Captain Kangaroo – the main attraction – and then – what I got up for…  Tom Terrific…  ‘Evil Doer’s Beware!’

Gene – in the mind of a 3 year old it was genius!  Funny, with a point…  Of course – the good guys win.

While my brother remains, some have disappeared – and this little cartoon is a fond memory of those years as they both play mostly as fragments of those years in my mind.  The Tom Terrific animation remains a template that other animator’s should continue to study, for you and your staff created an enduring world with stick drawings.  A terrific storyline.  And for a few minutes – each weekday – I – was Tom Terrific.

Thanks for that Gene.  It is a toon that should be renewed with new storylines – and of course the old toons should be found, preserved, and made available for distribution.   I worry some about that.  I’m glad you’re here with an address where I could tell one of its author’s of your good and lasting effect on my little life.  I’m glad you were there, then.  It is a terrific legacy.  It had an effect.

 Your most appreciative 58 year old Professional Forester working in the reclamation and restoration of drastically disturbed lands.

Bradford Janes

Not to end this chapter on too lofty a note, here is Jules Feiffer’s famous Tom Terrific parody, rescued from his Terrytoon’s room wall in 1958.

3 thoughts on “35. Lionel Wilson

  1. Tom Terrific must have been my first exposure to Terrytoons, which was a perfect way for a small child to be shown that there was more to animation than Bugs Bunny and Bullwinkle – not to denigrate either of them. I must have been very small, and Tom Terrific was in reruns (I was born in 1963) but the memory remains vivid.

  2. Wow! The recording method you used must have required everyone to be so focused on their craft during the session. This was a very innovative for you to solve the budget and time issues you faced. Did you record all of the scenes with each character in a session so that Lionel could focus on each voice one at a time? Or did you switch between scenes and voices and record in in the sequence of the story? As you know I am a big fan of Tom Terrific and having know and worked with Lionel Wilson, I share your respect for his artistry! Your book of credits is looking good and I do check in and read it for inspiration. Thanks for writing and sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment, David. Yes, we actually did each complete Tom Terrific episode recording in one continuous take, from beginning to end, as if it were a live radio broadcast. There was no post editing at all.
      However, as with a live broadest, we did a couple of run-through rehearsals for timing and refinements of voicing. Lionel was able to change his voice “on-the-run,” instantly switching from one character to another!
      This experimental method was the only way we could make the schedule and the budget, eliminating completely the expensive and time-consuming voice track editing process. It was difficult, but also fun, and we all cheered
      at the end of each successful recording! And as I wrote, we also even used the technique in several of our theatrical cartoons!

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