Obituary: Henry G. Saperstein

Tom Vallance
Sunday 28 June 1998 23:02

THE PRODUCER and distributor Henry G. Saperstein helped bring the classic science-fiction thriller Godzilla to English-speaking audiences over 40 years ago when he formed an alliance with the Toho Company of Japan, and he served as consultant on the remake issued this year. A high- powered executive in the world of film and television, Saperstein owned or presided over several production companies from the mid-Fifties on. As the owner of UPA Productions, he was the producer and distributor of such animated television shows as Mister Magoo, Dick Tracy and Gerald McBoing Boing, plus the cartoon feature Gay Purr-ee. He was also the executive producer on both the Woody Allen comedy What's Up, Tiger Lily and John Boorman's powerful anti-war film Hell in the Pacific.

Born in Chicago in 1918, Saperstein was educated at the University of Chicago, and in 1943 bought the first of several theatres he was to own in that city. He moved to Hollywood in 1955 as the president of Television Personalities Inc and the following year began a profitable association with Toho Films when he successfully marketed in the United States an artfully adapted version of a monster movie they had produced. Gojira (1954), directed by Inoshiro Honda, had been Japan's answer to the previous year's American hit The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms, and its tale of a prehistoric reptile awakened by an underwater nuclear explosion and wreaking havoc with its radioactive breath and monstrous proportions had been a huge success. The American version, vigorously publicised, had linking footage directed by Terry Morze featuring the actor Raymond Burr, was re-titled Godzilla and scored a great hit, spawning several sequels as well as the current remake.

Saperstein followed the same formula on further Japanese monster films including Honda's Kaiju dai Sonso (1965), given new footage starring Nick Adams and released as Monster Zero, and Honda's Furankenshutain no Kaiju- Sanda tai Gailah (1966), released as War of the Gargantuans with new material featuring Russ Tamblyn as a monster expert.

A different approach was taken with Senkichi Taniguchi's Kagi No Kag (1964), a Japanese imitation of a James Bond movie, which Saperstein turned over to Woody Allen, allowing the comic to have a cinematic field day (as Allen puts it in the film's foreword). By editing and redubbing, Allen converted the film into a Bond parody, with the hero tracking down Shepherd Wong, the villain, who is after a vital egg salad recipe ("He who makes the best egg salad can control the world"). Entitled What's Up, Tiger Lily (1966), and with songs by the Lovin' Spoonful to bolster its sagging moments, the modest production (it cost Saperstein around $66,000), made a big profit.

In 1968 Saperstein was executive producer on the two-character war film Hell in the Pacific, shot on islands in Micronesia and starring Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin as opposing soldiers in the Second World War who form an alliance when separated from their units on a Pacific atoll.

Saperstein entered television as a producer of sports shows, including All-Star Golf (1958-62) and Championship Bowling (1958-60), and bought the prestigious animation studio UPA (United Productions of America) in order to produce cartoons for television. UPA had been formed in 1943 by a group of young animators who had broken with Walt Disney during a 1941 cartoonists' strike. Initially producing industrial and government shorts, UPA pioneered a lean, modern graphic style with flat stylised characters totally unlike Disney's.

Their first theatrical cartoon, Robin Hoodlum (1948) was Oscar-nominated, and the following year they created their first original character for the screen, the near-sighted Mister Magoo (given voice by the actor Jim Backus) in Ragtime Bear. A popular success with critics and public, it was followed by an even greater hit, Gerald McBoing Boing (1951), which had Time magazine hailing the film's fresh style: "Everything about the film is simple but highly stylised: bold line drawings, understated motion, striking colour and airy design in the spirit of modern poster art."

With their flat style - the sense of depth coming from perspective - and sophisticated scripts which often appealed more to adults than to children, the UPA cartoons revolutionised the industry and were the start of a lineage that flowers today in The Simpsons. Just as the latter show frequently takes its inspiration from the movies, Gerald McBoing Boing included a staircase scene directly inspired by a sequence in Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol.

With UPA's success, though, came inner conflicts and by the end of the Fifties only one founding member, Stephen Bosustow, remained. According to the historian Leonard Maltin, when Bosustow sold the studio to Saperstein in 1959, UPA "discarded its reputation for quality in one fell swoop". A little unfair, perhaps, considering the speed with which shows for televison had to be made - Saperstein produced 130 Magoo cartoons between 1960 and 1962 plus the same number of Dick Tracy episodes at the same time, and children loved them. The studio also maintained its flair for innovation, evident in such original series as The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo, in which the character starred in serious adaptations of classic stories from Don Quixote to Moby Dick. Abe Levitow, who directed that series, also made the studio's feature-length cartoon Gay Purr-ee (1962), which, despite the voices of Judy Garland, Robert Goulot and Hermione Gingold, and songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, failed to satisfy adults or children. "There seems to be an effort," said Newsweek, "to reach a hitherto undiscovered audience - the fey four-year-old of recherche taste".

Last year Saperstein served as executive producer of a live action Disney film, Mister Magoo, but the film for which he will be best remembered is the animated television feature Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, which has become a perennial family favourite in American homes.

Tom Vallance

Henry G. Saperstein, film producer and distributor: born Chicago 2 June 1918; married (four children); died Beverly Hills, California 24 June 1998.

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