'X-Men' at 25: The Unlikely Story of the Animated Hit No Network Wanted
In 1992, Marvel wasn't exactly a powerhouse in Hollywood.
Thirty years after writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby had revolutionized comics by creating a universe of characters with human foibles and colorful costumes, Marvel had failed to find steady success on the big screen or on television. Its crowning achievement was the charmingly campy The Incredible Hulk, which ran from 1978-82 on CBS, but other success eluded the company.
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TV executive Margaret Loesch had long championed the idea that there was TV gold to be made with Marvel, and she'd spent years pitching shows to the networks. Loesch was particularly taken with the X-Men, the ragtag team of mutants led by Prof. Charles Xavier, who taught them to deal with their mutant powers, all the while protecting a public who feared and even hated them. She oversaw a failed pilot, 1989's Pryde of the X-Men, (featuring, of all things, a Wolverine with an Australian accent) and vowed not to make the same mistakes again. When Loesch started her role as Fox Kids CEO in 1990, she convinced Fox head Jamie Kellner to let her greenlight an X-Men show, staking her career on its success. She brought in Haim Saban of Saban Entertainment and production company Graz for the show.
X-Men's pilot episode "Night of the Sentinels" aired 25 years ago this week on Oct. 31, 1992 on Fox Kids in a primetime, 7 p.m. spot (it later regularly aired Saturday mornings). But costly production delays would keep the rest of the season from airing until January 1993, a setback that would be just the first of many challenges the series faced. The show, which lives on in DVDs and on Hulu, is largely considered Marvel's greatest animated series ever, and many fans even insist it is the definitive onscreen depiction of the X-Men (sorry, Hugh Jackman).
X-Men weathered competing corporate interests, a cost-cutting obsessed producer, and even the threat from the creative staff to quit over a merchandising initiative gone wrong. Through it all, the show persevered, becoming a critical and ratings hit that paved the way for Fox's big-screen X-Men a few short years later and a slew of other successes, such as Saban's Power Rangers. Below, the key players involved share these memories and more with The Hollywood Reporter.
ASSEMBLING THE X-MEN
Though the writers were in Los Angeles, the team opted to cast Canadian actors, a cost-saving measure to save on residual payments. Meanwhile, Haim Saban championed finding cheaper animation options in South Korea, a move that proved to be part of the show's charm but at times was challenging for the staff.
Eric Lewald, showrunner and author of the upcoming book Previously on X-Men: Our first casting session was awful. It was just worthless. It was like Scooby Doo X-Men. … We sent up sides [sample scripts actors used to audition with] and sent up the casting director and voice director and they 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." They didn’t get it. So we had to send a bunch of people up and completely redo it [the casting] from scratch.
Julia Lewald, writer: There was a time lag that was happening with all of this. It required writing of the sides. Shipping material up north to Canada. Having people audition. Making of the audio. Cassette tapes. It was snail mail back down to Los Angeles and getting those disseminated to the folks at Fox. This isn't something that happened in a matter of days. This is a process.
Eric Lewald: We were starting a month behind, and this made it two.
Haim Saban, founder of Saban Entertainment: The initial launch was the most challenging part of the entire series run. ... My company at the time, Saban Entertainment, was contracted to produce the show for Fox. We quickly hired a small studio (Graz Entertainment) to help us produce the episodes since we did not have sufficient staff at the time to handle this complicated production in-house. ... there were lots of spinning plates, but we somehow met our deadline and got “The Night of the Sentinels" ready to air as a two-part "sneak preview" on October 31, 1992.
A HEROIC OPENING
The kinetic and colorful opening credits to X-Men were key to building character recognition in an audience that would not necessarily know who the characters were. The credits also caused a bit of a fight behind-the-scenes, with X-Men co-creator Stan Lee lobbying to narrate the opening credits, and artist Larry Houston packing more characters into it than Fox was comfortable with.
Will Meugniot, artist/producer: Larry had presented a version of it that was amazing and wonderful and in some ways better than what we wound up with. Because Larry was such a solid fan of X-Men and he knew the show was going to run 65 episodes and eventually everybody was going to show up in it, he put everybody in the title. Fox freaked out. They were already worried we had too many characters in the show.
Houston: For the initial version of the opening credits I drew focused on being hunted and hiding from the world, lots more moody and shadowy stuff. Both Fox Kids CEO Margaret Loesch and my buddy Will [Meugniot] decided that was too slow and not the direction we wanted. Will came in and redrew the opening two scenes, setting the fast-paced action that it needed to be.
Meugniot: Sidney Iwanter, our Fox supervisor on the show, phoned me and said, "what can we do about this?" We discussed it and we both agreed that Larry had done a great job, we just needed to save what we could. While we were talking, I did thumbnails of the individual character introduction shots. Larry already had the one of Wolverine where he's slashing a Sentinel and sitting on top of a pile of rubble. I built out from that and worked out rough staging from the individual shots.
Houston: From that point on, I drew the rest of the opening in that same style, showcasing the overall theme of the show, billboarding their names with their mutant powers as dynamically as possible, the public persecution they bore, as well as the evil mutants that opposed them.
Meugniot: We thought we'd have the logos fly in so everyone would get an intro. In the end, we ended up using about 80 percent of Larry's stuff. It was just that I was on the phone with Sydney, I did thumbnails and charts of where we'd use the existing stuff Larry had done, where he put in character specific shots and logo flybys. When I gave it to Larry, he totally got it and we were done.
Houston: Some of my favorite easter eggs [in the show] were the unexpected ones that I added for the fans, like Doctor Strange, Deadpool, the Black Panther, all of whom are now superstars in their own feature films. I never added cameos if it distracted from the main story. … The powers that be did stop me from adding a Spider-Man cameo though, so I had to sneak him into another episode, but it was just an arm, shooting webbing to save someone off-camera from falling debris. I never asked for official permission again and I never stopped adding cameos. … That first season, we were operating way below the radar of everyone's concern, unproven, not a hit yet, which was the best place to be, for all of us involved.
KEEPING THE STORIES COMPLICATED
By March 1993, the show's first season has wrapped, and it was a bona fide hit. Throughout the series, there were pushes to make the show more kid-friendly and create storylines that would encourage the sale of X-Men toys. The writing staff balked at every turn.
Meugniot: Our show demonstrated that the Marvel universe, as a whole, had commercial value far beyond what anybody estimated. X-Men was getting primetime numbers on Saturday morning. In our time slot, we were doing business nobody had done since the '70s. Fox had this 1, 2, 3 in ratings. Batman as a daily show lit the fuse for them. They hadn't been doing very well as a network until they got Batman and Animaniacs and those shows. Then X-Men kind of kicked it to the next level, by giving them a big, solid weekend show.
Eric Lewald : The Hollywood normalcy is you provide a number one hit and the money starts flowing. What happened with us was we had a number one hit, but it was four or five companies working on this. One of them was Saban. What he did after the first season was cut $500 off the script fee for the writers.
Julia Lewald: Me being one of the writers.
Eric Lewald: His rationale was, "it's a hit. They want to be part of it, so they'll take less money."
JuliaLewald: "And if not, there's a line out the door of people who will."
Meugniot: There was merchandise threat that almost shut down the production. They had made a deal with a fast food franchise to do some X-Men giveaway toys in Australia. And whoever had negotiated the deal had promised the Australian food franchisee that those toys would appear in the show. They were some of the most God awful designs possible. So I said no, and the situation festered for a few days. At home one night I got a call from Jim Graziano, who was the head of Graz, the production company I was working for. Jim just said, "Look, Marvel is threatening to pull the show from us if you don't cave on this." He goes, "If you think it's important, we'll back you. But think very carefully, because there will probably be consequences." I said, "We can't cave on this, or we are going to have to cave on everything." And Jim backed me and it was a really tense few days and we prevailed.
Eric Lewald: There was incredible pressure to change it around and make it younger, sillier, or give them a pet dog. To dumb it down or make it younger. Luckily, everybody on the creative side banded together and had, "No, you'll have to fire me" moments. [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 pajamas of yourself or would you be calling yourself on your 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 it."
Iwanter: Serialized storytelling had never been attempted before on Saturday morning or if it had, certainly not on this level. A story arc that extends over weeks adds all sorts of new wrinkles to the mix. Will the shows be able to run in sequence? What happens if there is a production problem and show five is ready before show two? How would our young demographic deal with an episode that doesn’t clearly end but leaves the viewer in suspense for a week? How does one bring in a viewer who might have missed the first several episodes into the show’s storyline? Hence the now quite ubiquitous invention of the X-Men’s "Previously on…" recap.
Julia Lewald: The unsung hero behind those precious 20 seconds that were at the beginning of those episodes was Sharon Janis, the editor who took on it herself with no direction to cut together those "Previously on X-Men…" bits.
Dodd: What other animated series had, ‘Previously on X-Men?’ You didn’t get that with Popeye or Bugs Bunny. The storytelling was very adult, it was brilliant.
The series' fifth season saw a cheaper animation house take over, leading to what many on staff considered a decline in quality. As the show neared its 76-episode conclusion in 1997, it became apparent the story wasn't really done. The series had paved the way for Fox to unleash a big-screen X-Men on the world in 2000, a film that has spawned 10 films (with three more coming in 2018) and earned more than $2 billion worldwide.
Eric Lewald: Saban tried a couple of times to get cheaper animation studios with various, huge problems. One caused a two-year delay in two of the episodes. He sent it over to a different studio than we were used to. 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. It doesn't make any sense, but that and another episode were delayed because Saban was trying to find a cheaper way to produce it. In the fifth season he actually found a cheaper place that worked out, so the animation actually looks a little different. Some of the quality controls were lifted. The budgets went down. They were cranked down. It had not happened the first four years, really. The stories didn’t go down so much in the last year, though a couple of the weaker ones were there, but the quality control on the animation went down.
Meugniot: What I think people don't understand is X-Men wasn't canceled. It had actually been scheduled to be 65 episodes and had been extended past the original order. When it was done, it was like "well, contract fulfilled. We did it."
Julia Lewald: [In the series finale] "Graduation Day," the moment with Charles saying goodbye and they are all gathered around him — that still chokes me up. The moment where everything gelled.
Zann: They made X-Men jackets with our character names, which I still have. Leather jackets with X-Men on the back and character names on the back. 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 all ended up in Cal Dodd's house and he had a big swimming pool and an outdoor place.
Saban: Obviously, after I was able to deliver the network this hit series, my relationship with the president of Fox Children’s Network, Margaret Loesch, was very good. I basically had an open door to pitch Margaret any projects in our development pipeline. One project that I was eager to pitch her was the Power Rangers. I had seen the Power Rangers on TV in Japan back in 1984 and tried to sell it in the USA for nearly 10 years. There were just no takers. So I thought that Margaret might be the right executive with the right eye to take a gamble on this project. I presented her with a very rough pilot and she replied:"hmm, this could be interesting." She eventually committed to putting it on air even though her bosses, (including Rupert Murdoch), all told her that she was playing with her career and that she should just cancel the series before it even premiered. Loesch stuck to her gut instinct and during the summer of 1993, The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers premiered on Fox for an eight-week run. School was out and kids were still on summer vacation so ratings expectations were very low. All of the industry figured that nobody would ever watch some crazy, campy kid’s show. Instead, my Power Rangers became a runaway hit from day one! In fact, the series became such a giant success that Rupert Murdoch even extended an offer to partner with me in a joint venture with News Corp. So in some way, my involvement in the animated X-Men series did help open the door for me at Fox.
Buza: I was auditioning for the small parts [in the 2000 X-Men movie] and it came to light that I was the voice of Beast in the original cartoon series, so that didn’t hurt. I played the truck driver and it was really great to be a part of the feature. They were all excited about the cartoon, they took a lot of inspiration from it.
Potter: They didn’t have Gambit in the film, which is really unfortunate because I had the look and I was at the right age to play him. They had me audition for Cyclops, who I really didn’t want to play. When I was at the audition, I remember reading and some young kid, who looked about 15 years old, stuck his head inside and then left. I thought he didn’t know where he was, but it turned out it was Bryan Singer, the director.
Want more from the X-Men? For starters, more information on Eric Lewald's book, Previously On X-Men, can be found here and will soon be available from Jacobs Brown publishing. THR also has a longer interview with Wolverine voice actor Cal Dodd here, as well as an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at 2000's X-Men here. As for the future of the X-Men? THR recently caught up with Hugh Jackman and Logan director James Mangold to talk spinoff plans.
Nov. 2, 3:24 p.m. An earlier version stated that the show premiered in the Saturday morning time slot. It actually premiered in primetime as a special preview, before moving to a Saturday morning spot.
by Georg Szalai, Etan Vessing
by James McClain, Dirt.com