Today, the X-Men franchise is a billion-dollar one, with films, cartoons, TV shows, video games and, of course, comics continuing to make Marvel’s mutants household names. Back in the late ’80s, however, they had yet to permeate the mainstream pop cultural consciousness. In fact, Marvel still had a long way to go before any of its characters had any major Hollywood clout. Apart from the string of Spider-Man animated shows of varying quality, the company’s most recognizable character was the Hulk, thanks to the live-action series that finished in 1982. Luckily, the company had an ally in the form of Fox executive Margaret Loesch. To borrow a Stan Lee-ism, she was something of a Marvel “true believer.”
Even after spearheading the ill-fated Pryde of the X-Men series in 1989, Loesch was still keen to get an X-Men project on the air — in fact, she was even willing to bet her career on it. In 1990, she became CEO of Fox Kids and persuaded the Powers That Be at the network to give the mutants another go. Two years later on Halloween night, “Night of Sentinals” hit TV screens and the resulting series would go on to run for five hugely successful seasons. But, little did we all know that the critical and commercial acclaim was hard won. For the show’s 25th anniversary, The Hollywood Reporter reunited the cast and crew to dish the dirt on all the behind the scenes drama. Read on for the juiciest cuts!
15. WRITERS WERE REWARDED WITH A PAY CUTS, NOT RAISES
It’s usually customary to reward employees for a job well done. Apparently, someone forgot to mention that to Haim Saban. IMDB will tell you that Saban only contributed music to X-Men: TAS, but Margaret Loesch brought him in to oversee much more of the production than that. Saban was instrumental early on in keeping costs down by enlisting cheap Korean animation studios.
But, even after the show become a hit, he still ruled with an iron fist — cutting the writing staff’s fees by $500 per script because he knew none of them would want to leave a successful show, and if they did, replacements would be easy to get. According to showrunner Eric Lewald, “Saban was getting a fee […] If the budget went up, it came out of his pocket. […] For years, his reaction to just about any creative decision was, ‘What’s that going to cost?'”
14. THE SHOW WAS HEAVILY CENSORED
Few shows aimed at kids that try to push boundaries manage to slip as much as they’d like past the censors. X-Men: TAS was no exception. Considering how rich X-Men is with political analogies though, any version that played it too safe wouldn’t have been as authentic. Some censorship decisions were baffling. The Hellfire Club’s name, for instance, was changed to the “Circle Cub.”
But, the secret society’s racy costumes weren’t considered scandalous enough to warrant the same tonal downplay. Meanwhile, the Brood’s design was wildly inconsistent; appearing as something out of The Fly at first before morphing into small, green lizard men and being rebranded as “The Colony.” More troubling was the erasure of Magneto’s origin. Instead of referring to him as a Holocaust survivor, he was a refugee of an ambiguous Eastern European war.
13. SHOWRUNNERS REFUSED TO MAKE THE SHOW TOY-FRIENDLY
Toy sales can be at the heart of a kids cartoon’s life expectancy, especially for superhero properties. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe existed first and foremost as a commercial for action figures, while in recent years, Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series were cancelled because they weren’t shifting enough merchandise. X-Men: TAS was put under constant pressure to do the same.
Showrunner Eric Lewald stood firm against this. “[Marvel would say] ‘Put toys in or give Wolverine some Wolverine curtains.’ ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ If you were a 30-something serious defender of right and justice in your world, would you be wearing pyjamas of yourself or […] calling yourself on the Wolverine phone? No, you wouldn’t. He’s a serious guy. This is not a toy show. Sorry. You’ll have to fire me to change that.”
12. A FAST FOOD TOY DEAL NEARLY SHUT THE SHOW DOWN
The showrunners kept being staunchly opposed to making X-Men: TAS toy-friendly throughout its run, even risking the series’ future because of it. “They had made a deal with a fast food franchise to do some X-Men giveaway toys in Australia,” artist/producer Will Meagniot explained. “Whoever negotiated the deal had promised the Australian food franchise that those toys would appear in the show.
“They were the most god awful designs possible. So I said no […] One night I got a call from Jim Graziano, who was the head of […] the production company I was working for. Jim said, ‘Look, Marvel is threatening to pull the show from us if you don’t cave on this.'” But, Graziano did back up Meagniot’s firm stance and, in the end, Marvel backed down.
11. COST-CUTTING LED TO YEARS OF DELAYS
Haim Saban’s pursuit of cut corners over quality was relentless, and it didn’t stop even after the show struck TV gold following its first season. Though Saban’s efforts helped sustain the show, it also backfired on him a few times, too. His sudden switch to a cheaper animation studio led to two episodes being stuck in production limbo for two years.
“[Haim Saban] sent it over to a different studio than we were used to,” showrunner Eric Lewald said. “We tried them out. It came back unusable and it was a two-year fight to get the materials back. That’s why the episode right after the “Phoenix Saga,” where Jean is found alive, she’s not found alive until two years later.” Both episodes did eventually air — but out of order.
10. THE ANIMATION QUALITY SUFFERED IN THE LAST SEASON
By the fifth and final season, Haim Saban’s cost-cutting methods started to visibly show in the series. There was a noticeable drop in animation quality as production was passed onto even less costly overseas studios. This was something the staff were acutely — and frustratedly — aware of. “Some of the quality controls were lifted,” said showrunner Eric Lewald.
“The budgets went down. They were cranked down. It had not happened the first four years, really.” Marvel was filing for bankruptcy by that point (1996) and Saban was, as usual, unwilling to pick up the financial slack that the company left him with. So, X-Men: TAS had much less of a good-looking exit than it deserved, with characters like Beast and Jubilee’s appearances becoming significantly less detailed.
9. JEAN GREY’S VOICE ACTOR HAD A ROUGH TIME
Like a lot of voice actors, X-Men: TAS’ cast had a few other irons in the fire while working on the show. For Catherine Disher, the voice of Jean Grey, this also meant she had an absolutely gruelling schedule. “I was doing a vampire series that shot at night, and we would record X-Men on Friday mornings, so I would just work all night and show up without going to bed.”
Knowing that just makes her performance even more impressive. Disher also worked through a pregnancy — and the father was none other than Professor X’s voice actor, Cedric Smith. “I remember […] when I got pregnant, I had to ask people to not smoke when I was in the room. It just boggles my mind now, that we were allowed to light up in a recording studio.”
8. GAMBIT’S VOICE ACTOR KNOWS HIS ACCENT WAS OFF
X-Men: TAS is infamous for some of its charmingly hammy and dodgy voice performances. Chris Potter, the voice of Gambit, knows full well that what he pulled out of the bag wasn’t exactly the most authentic of Cajun accents. “I was in Toronto at the time filming a Kung-Fu series with David Carradine, who was a big comic book fan. I didn’t know anything about X-Men at the time [..]
“The Cajun accent, I cobbled together, and they liked it enough to keep me around for the next five years.” In fairness, some of the things he had to react to were a stretch. “I was delivering dialogue in very extreme circumstances that the X-Men would find themselves in. I was often asking myself, ‘How would a Cajun sound when he’s hit in the chest by a laser beam and slams into a parked car?'”
7. FROM WOLVERINE… TO JACK NICHOLSON?
It wasn’t all bad behind the scenes of X-Men: TAS. Cal Dodd (Wolverine) and Norm Spencer (Cyclops) had a lot of fun in the recording booth — including an impromptu Jack Nicholson impression-off. “On animated shows, you get to go up for alternate voices, which pays about half your normal rate,” Dodd recalled. “There was this bar scene where Cyclops and Wolverine were playing pool and getting picked on.
“The producers wanted one of the tough guys to sound like Jack Nicholson. It just so happens that I’m literally the only person in Canada […] who can do a spot-on Nicholson impression. Before I can react, Norm raises his hand and asks to give it a shot […] So, they let him audition, then I raise my hand […] They give me the go-ahead and I do my spot-on Nicholson. Norm just looks at me and shakes his head.”
6. THE ORIGINAL OPENING TITLES “FREAKED” FOX OUT
Almost every aspect of X-Men: TAS seemed to incite tension between the production staff and those pulling the strings at Fox. Even the opening title sequence caused a lot of backstage drama. According to artist/producer Will Meugniot, artist Larry Houston went a little overboard with his original idea for the titles. “Larry was such a solid fan of X-Men and he knew the show was going to run 65 episodes [so] he put everybody in the titles.
“Fox freaked out. They were already worried we had too many characters in the show.” Fox was (as always) concerned over two things: the tight budget and the even tighter deadline for getting the show made. As well as network executives breathing down the artist’s necks, Stan Lee also lobbied pretty hard to provide voice over narration, something he was eventually denied.
5. THE SHOW WRAPPED WITH A WOLVERINE POOL PARTY
One of the things that helped X-Men: TAS was the great rapport between its cast members and staff. “[In] ‘Graduation Day,’ the moment with Charles saying goodbye […] that still chokes me up,” writer Julia Lewald reminisced, demonstrating how much the show ended up meaning to all involved. According to Lenore Zann (Rogue) the cast had quite a send-off.
“They made X-Men jackets with our names […] Leather jackets with X-Men on the back and character names […] They’d give us cels of our characters and frame them for us. They’d have little parties each year. At the final one, they had a great big party for us. We went all night. We ended up in Cal Dodd’s house and he had a big swimming pool and an outdoor place.” A pool party at Wolverine’s place? Now there’s a great sentence you never thought you’d hear.
4. CASTING THE X-MEN WAS AN “AWFUL” PROCESS
The creators’ commitment to getting Fox’s second attempt at an X-Men animated show right paid off in spades. At the time, however, with no indication of a worthwhile outcome, it was a frustrating process, particularly when it came to casting the main characters. “Our first casting session was awful […] It was like Scooby-Doo X-Men,” showrunner Eric Lewald said.
“[…] The casting director and voice director […] picked a bunch of people and sent them down and they had three or four [actors picked out] for everybody. They were really, really wrong. We tried to convey to them what was different about X-Men, and they didn’t hear it. They thought, ‘They want to do something goofy and childish.’ [..] So we had to […] completely redo [the casting] from scratch.” The pilot took four recording attempts to get right.
3. FOX WAS DEADSET AGAINST SERIALIZATION
X-Men: TAS did something unprecedented for a kids cartoon at the time: serialization. But, the serialized story format was something that Fox didn’t allow to continue beyond the show’s first 13 episodes, and, didn’t believe that kids would be able to follow, either. Showrunner Eric Lewald explained, “If it’s live action, by the end of the day […] you know if you’ve got the scenes or not.
“But, when you wait three or four months to get the animation back […] if something is wrong with one [episode] then the whole schedule is screwed. It was one of the reasons the show was delayed until January for the actual premiere [a preview of the pilot aired Oct. 31st.] Then, [Fox] looked at us and said, ‘Do you know how much it cost us to delay this thing? We’re not going to do stories in a row again.'”
2. LETTING WOLVERINE GO
It’s easy to see how letting go of a character you’ve been embodying for many years can be hard. Cal Dodd became so attached to Wolverine, he described the end of the show as being like “losing my right arm. I loved the guy. He was like a brother.” But, there was no bad blood between Dodd and the man who’d be stepping into his mutton chops, Hugh Jackman.
“I love Hugh Jackman,” Dodd said. “I met him before he was going to shoot the first (X-Men) movie […] Because he had no other reference for a Wolverine but the animated series […] he had to listen to [my] voice and try to emulate it […] He said, ‘It’s a great voice. I don’t know if I’ll be able to nail it or not but, I’ll give it a whirl!’ […] He’ll never forget that role. You can’t. That’s a huge part of his life.”
1. NO X-MEN: TAS, NO POWER RANGERS?
According to Haim Saban, then-Fox Kids head Margaret Loesch not only got X-Men on TV, but Power Rangers, too. “After I was able to deliver the network this hit series (X-Men: TAS), I basically had an open door to pitch Margaret any projects in [Saban Entertainment’s] development pipeline […] I had seen the Power Rangers on Japan back in 1984 and tried to sell it to the USA for nearly 10 years.
“There were just no takers […] I presented [Margaret] with a very rough pilot and she […] eventually committed to putting it on air even though her bosses all told her that she […] should just cancel the series before it even premiered. Loesch stuck with her gut instinct [and] my Power Rangers became a runaway hit from day one! […] So, in some way, my involvement in the animated X-Men series did help open the door for me at Fox.”
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