Wednesday’s Heroes: Lou Scheimer

Call him the Man Who Was Not Joseph Barbera. Lou Scheimer was taking cues from such creators on how to do memorable animation on the cheap, but what he produced as head of Filmation from 1966 to 1988 was memorable in a whole different way — something you might call “frozen kineticism.” His show concepts were seldom his own creations, instead adding a new animated dimension to existing properties. Yet when one of his characters opened a minimally-animated mouth, there was always a chance Scheimer’s own voice would come out.

Scheimer launched the upstart Filmation company with former Disney artist Hal Sutherland, applying first to build a proposed new Superman show for CBS. When the network agents dropped by the Filmation studio, Scheimer and Sutherland put friends and family at the desks to give the impression of a busy, thriving creative space. The deception won them The New Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1966 to 1970.

Like most Filmation ventures, it served to introduce a new generation of kids to a character that already existed in some other entertainment medium, or to augment the adventures those children had already built in their heads. The Filmation crew, with Norm Prescott soon joining as an exec, created a power pack for the National/DC comics line  — Aquaman, Batman, Superboy, Green Lantern, the Atom and the like. Character movement was minimal, to save costs, and those segments that did feature lots of motion were frequently recycled over and over.

“Filmation pioneered the use of what’s called stock system where they would reuse various components, not just backgrounds,” former Filmation writer Robby London said. “… You’ll see lots of specific pieces of animation that are reused against different backgrounds, like a walk cycle and things like that. It was borne of necessity. They are absolutely not to be faulted for that. It was actually a very clever way to make the best of a very limited budget that you have on a children’s television show. Lou, to his credit, came up with very clever ways to sort of maximize what he could do with the dollars he got.”

The superhero storylines were almost entirely steered by writers of the actual DC comics. In serving the promotional needs of larger creators, and doing so cheaply, Scheimer had found a worthwhile niche. The Archies of “Sugar Sugar” fame got animated life in Filmation’s The Archie Show. His 1973-74 cartoon series was the only source of new Star Trek TV content — again, with Gene Roddenberry retaining control and with original series scriptwriters on board — between the live-action show’s 1969 cancellation and its 1987 Next Generation spinoff.

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.”

(In case you’re not familiar with what Scheimer is talking about, this is Cannon: )

Speaking of fat kids, Bill Cosby owes Scheimer a debt for helping to smooth his path to ultimate family-friendliness. The demographic that advertisers wanted in the 1980s was the one that had grown up on Filmation’s moralistic Fat Albert. That made The Cosby Show (1984-92) an easy sell at NBC.

In the 1970s, the decade of Ralph Bakshi, rotoscoping entered Filmation’s lexicon. So did live-action. “We had the rights to Captain Marvel (Shazam!) and I presented it to CBS in the early ’70s and they said they’d buy it,” Scheimer says. “They loved it. They liked the idea except we’d have to do it in live action and they said, ‘Can you do it live-action?’ and I said, ‘Of course we can!’ Then I figured, ‘Now what are we gonna do?'”

Shazam! begat The Secrets of Isis begat Ark II begat Jason of Star Command — the latter three among Filmation’s few original properties. All this — the taste for adventure, the ethical lessons that capped most episodes, the budget animation that nonetheless featured artistically striking backdrops — was to yield Scheimer’s two most enduring shows in the 1980s, and a new model of bypassing the networks and selling cartoons directly into syndication.

Teleprompter had sold the company to Westinghouse, and so we suddenly had an arm of the company that distributed stuff. I went to Westinghouse and said we have an opportunity to do something interesting here. Mattel has this toy line that they’re not sure what to do with. They want to release it the following year, but nobody knows about it, and they didn’t know how to get it on the air. We went back to Mattel and told them if they let us develop it the way we think is appropriate, give us a shot at it, we would try to sell it into syndication and, on top of that, I got Westinghouse to finance it! Mattel was in seventh heaven. I did not know what a great deal it was for them. I thought, wow, we could end up doing 65 of these a year, and keep people working all year, the way it should be, and do something for the industry! I went back to Mattel with the concept of Prince Atom, a father, son, mother, a family. Well, they didn’t know what to do with it, but we made a deal with them to give us creative control … We ended up doing about 223 episodes. That’s a lot of stuff!”

At Comic-Con there was a girl that showed up at the booth dressed as Frosta. She had the blue hair and the whole outfit. She looked great. It’s on the DVD I think….The names all came from the women over in the girls department at Mattel. I said what the hell am I going to do with a character called Perfuma!! Flutterina… who the hell is going to believe that?!”

If the shows had Scheimer’s voice, sometimes that was as much literal as figurative. Under the name Erik Gunden, he voiced characters on Fat Albert (Dumb Donald), He-Man (Orko, Fisto, Man-E-Faces), and The New Adventures of Batman (Bat-Mite), and acted as narrator for a dozen or more series.

Daring as the He-Man and She-Ra distribution deal had been, it burned bridges for Filmation. “The networks got pissed off at me,” Scheimer said. “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.” The company’s last show was also its last in-house idea. The space Western Bravestarr got into syndication shortly before Filmation was bought by makeup giant L’Oreal, in one of those ’80s acquisitions that makes no sense to anyone, which then shuttered it. Scheimer’s ethic of uplfting, American-grown animation — however static its constituent parts — was quickly supplanted by offshoring.

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.”

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