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Spyglass Letter :
Last June. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an announcement that Disney plans to make '60s TV cartoon superhero Underdog into a live-action movie. The Internet reveals that you gentlemen are the producers and executive producers of this film.
I was greatly alarmed when I saw this news: I was further concerned that the film is to be live action rather than animated. If the impression is that this will be the first time Underdog is seen live. I must inform and advise you that I have impersonated him live for over twenty years.
As a child I had been attracted to Superman via comic books and the 50s TV series. I was inspired by the heroic and especially the aerial element. In imitation, I tried to fly but could not stay airborne; I did not understand, at that time about special-effect sleights of hand When Underdog came out I knew he was fictional but I saw how. like Superman. he had the power to fly. I felt the call to portray him, with theatrical dance to simulate the flying within mortal limitations.
Unfortunately, my adultfolk forced me to see only shortcomings. The word "underdog" was unknown to me: I was stunned when I was force-fed its negative dictionarial meaning: born loser. My family denounced the character as "strictly a parody of Superman," buffoonish, and half-witted; and the stories as "very poor drama," escapist, and simplistic. Though created as probable children's entertainment, they allegedly were inappropriate unless the hero was an integral role-model and the stories were realistic or enlightening. (The popular but criticized Batman series had many of these same flaws.)
Mortally blown by these criticisms, and having found no positivism toward the character, I felt it was my duty to perfect him by making both him and the adventures meritorious. But no one else ever teamed with me to act out stories. I could not perform in public or contact the networks because I was still a minor.
My first public Underdog appearance was in 1980, using my own self-made costume. I started with science-fiction convention costume contests. I expanded into block parties, carnivals, charity benefits, children's programs, dance recitals, and especially parades. In all of these events, I was on an individual basis. I was not paid: I had no sponsorship or commercial backup. I traveled to many sites throughout the country in the process. (I have enclosed a list of all the sites and events.) I came to be identified with the character.
In 1984, 1989, 1994, and 1999, I toured more intensively in conjunction with the character's 20th, 25th, 30th, and 35th anniversaries respectively. But these anniversaries came and went virtually unnoticed because there was no media or commercial hype connected with them. (Next year will be the 40th.)
Gradually, I came to be on television; sometimes my appearances were interviewed and on area ' news, while other times I was on regional programs. One time I was on national television was in '97 on an Mtv variety show, Oddville. Another time, in the fall of ' 99, the cast of a Manhattan cable-TV show, Checkerboard Kids, acted out (!) an Underdog adventure I had written.
Cable-TV Channel Nickelodeon reran Underdog from '92 to '94-; Cartoon Network reran him from about '96 to '98. But no connections were made to me; I received no increases in appearance offers. I contacted both networks about myself, but received no reply.
In all this time, I heard or saw no evidence that anyone else was portraying the character. I received no communication from anyone claiming to do so. Most importantly: not once was I in trouble with the law for doing a copyrighted character.
Now, because I have not been acknowledged. credited. or supported to the extent I ought to be, I fear that this Underdog movie will spoil everything for me. I am concerned that the movie will bring adverse repercussions for the following reasons:
(I) The movie may not be a quality piece of work. Many ever-popular characters. especially fad characters, are targets of projects which are not the best of their kind. These projects may be rated Fair or Poor rather than Good. I would then be hounded for playing a character presented less than perfectly.
(2) The movie may not do the character justice. Many times, characters originating in either cartoons or comic books were not shown to best advantage when "graduated" to live impersonation. Refer again to the original character and programmatic flaws cited in paragraph four. If these or similar defects are present in the movie' s contents, they would be the final blow to both the character and me.
(3) The movie may be rated so that the characters and contents are no longer quite acceptable for children. Many characters rated G or Y when presented in their original media have ended up being rated PG, PG-13, or even R when they were used for movies.
(4) Whether the movie is a success or failure. the actor who plays Underdog could be idolized so much that he would be credited as the living embodiment of the character, and the first-ever live impersonator, so that I would be completely overlooked. People would forget or refuse to believe that I exist and that I have played the character all these years.
(5) The filmmakers might be lauded and credited so much for reviving the character, or graduating him from animation to live action, that-again-the public will forget or refuse to believe that J have been doing those very things all this time.
(6) The Disney version of the character could be taken as gospel Many other characters popularized but not created by Disney were made to look and act specific ways (different from the original) when perpetuated, and so often. that those treatments became too important and were thought to be the only "right" versions. The result: My Underdog portrayals might no longer be welcomed.
I strongly urge you to meet among yourselves, and with all other personnel involved, to discuss, review, and propagate my story carefully. You might make extra copies of the enclosures. I have been denied access to some nationally/globally prominent events, venues, and facilities. I have been told I had to be a member of unions like SAG. and to have agents, but doing so did not improve my situation. Sometimes I have been put down for doing a character for whom, allegedly, there is no longer interest or a market.
I also urge you to contact Joe Harris, Underdog's creator, about me. His name was not propagated when the character premiered; I did not hear of him until 1999. In that year, the Public Relations Department of Ocean City, NJ informed him about me; he was supposed to come and witness my Underdog impersonation in the town's annual Doodah Parade. Harris cancelled at the last minute, and I was never able to contact him since. But obviously Disney personnel had to meet with him to arrange the film rights.
I also need to be referred to the copyright owners. In 1999, it was Golden Books. I sent the Licensing Department information, including a video, on myself so that I could be licensed to do this copyrighted character at events that called for licensing, notably the Macy's-New York Thanksgiving Parade. But the department never issued the license. I wrote them several times, but they never answered. If another outfit now owns the copyright. I need to be referred to them to get the necessary clearance.
Sadly, any character/theme is considered important only when it's the subject of a movie: performers are considered great achievers only if/when they appear in a movie; the movie more or less determines the fate of both theme and cast. the implication IS that despite all my doings, I am insignificant. the Underdog movie could precipitate my downfall. Please consider my case thoroughly. If you need more info or have questions, please feel free to contact me immediately.