Everett Collection
Poster for ‘Terror of Mechagodzilla,’ (aka ‘Mekagojira No Gyukushu,’ aka ‘Monsters From an Unknown Planet,’ aka ‘The Terror of Godzilla’), 1975Everett Collection
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Godzilla’s Jewish Hollywood Friend

The iconic monster owes much of his American success to the savvy, cigar-smoking producer Henry G. Saperstein

by
Andrew Fox
February 10, 2022
Everett Collection
Poster for 'Terror of Mechagodzilla,' (aka 'Mekagojira No Gyukushu,' aka 'Monsters From an Unknown Planet,' aka 'The Terror of Godzilla'), 1975Everett Collection
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.

I became a devoted fan of Henry G. Saperstein at the impressionable age of 6, though I had no idea who he was. I wouldn’t learn his name for another couple of decades, at least, and I wouldn’t truly appreciate his accomplishments until much later. But I was old enough to know that Godzilla and other giant monsters were my passion, and I was already enough of a kaiju eiga (giant monster) connoisseur to recognize that two films in that genre, Monster Zero and War of the Gargantuas, towered above most of their lot, filled with verve, strangeness, and pathos that made their details stand out and linger in my young mind when the repetitious monster battles and dubbed dialogue of other kaiju eiga films blurred together into cinematic tonjiru.

My appreciation for Saperstein emerged not only from my delight with his co-produced kaiju eiga films. Photographs of him, spiffily dressed in a dark suit, typically with cigar in mouth, evoked memories of my maternal grandfather, theatrical manager Frank Lashinsky. Frank, his two brothers Harry and Louis, and their sister Ethel had settled in Charleston, West Virginia, a minor Southern capital with but a single kosher butcher shop to serve its small Jewish community, where they built up a scrapyard business that did very well during World War II. The three brothers invested a portion of their scrapyard profits into a second venture, National Attractions, that began by promoting and managing touring concert artists and legitimate plays and soon began specializing in show-running roadshow versions of Broadway musicals in theaters throughout the South, beginning with Oklahoma! in the late 1940s and continuing with classic runs of South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, and Fiddler on the Roof.

When I visited the high-rise apartment in Sunny Isles, Florida, where Frank and my grandmother Irene retired, he’d take me along as he held court in the building’s social hall. I remember the big room filling with noxious clouds of cigar smoke from waist height to the ceiling and how I hid underneath the table where he and his cronies played cards so I could breathe. In their apartment, I often stared at a mysterious and enticing photo portrait of my grandfather, cigar in hand, smiling bashfully while receiving a hug from a tall blond woman with a dazzling smile and tremendous eyes, dressed in a lavish white gown and a hat crowned with footlong feathers. Years later, I learned this lady was Carol Channing, dressed in one of her Hello, Dolly! costumes.

My grandfather was my first best friend, the center of my young world. He died of heart disease when I was 5 years old, on a Saturday morning. I got the news from my parents while I was watching The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour on my little black-and-white TV; I remember turning off the cartoons, feeling it wasn’t appropriate any longer to watch anvils fall on Wile E. Coyote’s head. Frank was still in his 50s, only a year or two older than I am now; all that cigar smoking played its part, I’m sure. Over the following year, I escaped more deeply into fantasy and horror movies, seeking something to fill the huge hole my grandfather’s passing left in my life. I found Henry G. Saperstein’s kaiju eiga films.

Henry G. Saperstein (the “G” stands for Gahagen, the maiden name of noted actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, not Godzilla, although that flamboyant showman would perhaps have been pleased to have you believe otherwise), also known as Hank, was born on June 2, 1918, in Chicago, the son of Aaron and Beatrice Saperstein. Aaron owned five movie theaters in Chicago, four of them independents, and one of them jointly owned with Warner Bros.’ theatrical division. When Aaron would travel to Los Angeles to attend industry conventions, he’d often take Hank along, and the young boy would play with members of the Our Gang/Little Rascals casts. Pat Saperstein, Hank’s daughter, now a senior editor for Variety, recalls that Hank grew up in a kosher home, but like many American Jews of his generation, particularly those who became involved in Hollywood, he shrugged off what he saw as the shackles of a stifling faith. Pat remembers the primary form of Jewish identification in her childhood home being food, particularly Sunday bagel brunches her father would bring home from Nate and Al’s delicatessen.

Hank, a self-described “playboy” while at college, attended the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics and aeronautical engineering while also helping out his father by serving as a part-time projectionist. When Aaron passed away in 1938, he left 20-year-old Hank ownership of his five movie theaters. Hank dropped out of college in order to keep the family’s business alive. After the U.S. entered World War II, Hank realized that, as an aeronautical engineer and licensed pilot (his daughter Pat isn’t sure of the latter, saying her father loved to spin tales about himself), he would soon be drafted, so he sold the theaters. In the Army Air Force, he was put to work making training films; he made approximately 900 of them, learning as he went.

Following his mustering out from the Army, Hank became interested in a new visual storytelling medium—television. Realizing that the new medium, whose stations sometimes broadcast 24 hours per day, seven days a week, would have a voracious appetite for programming, he began purchasing low-budget Western films in 1948 and distributing them to stations. Perhaps more significantly, he realized that television viewing could arouse a boundless enthusiasm for branded merchandise. He established a new business, Television Personalities, Inc., to focus specifically on merchandising opportunities. Soon he was licensing merchandise based on the likenesses of stars such as Debbie Reynolds and Rosemary Clooney and fictional characters including the Lone Ranger, Lassie, and Dick Tracy. Following Elvis Presley’s explosive arrival on the music scene in 1954, Hank worked a merchandising deal with Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, which resulted in Elvis Presley-branded shoes, shirts, wallets, belts, and watches.

Photographs of Hank Saperstein taken during his 40s and 50s show a handsome, nattily dressed man, a bit on the stocky side, dark hair slicked back, with heavy-lidded eyes that resemble those of actor Victor Mature. He saw himself as a businessman and deal-maker first, primarily, rather than a creative type. In a 1963 interview with Variety, he proudly stated, “I am known in this business for my nose. I am known to smell when the time is ripe for a deal, for a trend in entertainment, for a development with dollar potentials.” He moved his family to Hollywood in 1955, and not long afterwards he branched out into producing television sports shows including Championship Bowling from 1958-60 and All-Star Golf from 1958-62, as well as a pioneering children’s TV show called Ding Dong School. During this period he became one of the founding members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

One of his favorite personal anecdotes involved fellow Hollywood mogul Jack Warner. Following the death of his father, Hank had found himself an uneasy partner with Warner Brothers, who co-owned one of Hank’s Chicago theaters. The Warners’ district manager assigned to Hank’s theater stiffed Hank on the costs of several loads of coal required to heat the theater during Chicago’s brutal winters. Hank never forgot this. Decades later, in 1963, when Jack Warner approached Hank to make a deal for Warner Bros. to distribute Hank’s animated musical Gay Purr-ee, Hank stated the price for the rights was $947,000. When Warner asked why the asking price wasn’t a nice, round figure, either $900,000 or $1 million, Hank replied that he’d kept careful records of the costs of the coal Warner’s employee had gypped him out of more than 20 years earlier, and the costs totaled $47,000. Jack Warner blew his top, exclaiming, “Get outta my office! I never heard such a cockamamie thing in all my life!” But Hank ended up getting his long-deferred coal money. He had chutzpah to spare.

And that was a good thing, because it takes a great deal of chutzpah to take the jump from merchandising Roy Rogers toys to owning a Hollywood film studio, even a minor one. Always on the lookout for fresh entertainment properties to license and exploit, Hank’s keen “nose for business” sniffed out the near-sighted but endearing Mr. Magoo, the star property of United Productions of America (UPA), an animation studio formed in the early 1940s by former Disney animators who had gone on strike. Rather than follow Disney’s example of highly detailed animated drawings that attempted to mimic real life, UPA’s artist-animators pioneered the use of limited animation of highly stylized characters and settings, inspired by postwar modern art. Two of their Mr. Magoo cartoons made for theatrical release won Academy Awards, When Magoo Flew (1954) and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956). But great artists are rarely great businessmen, and by the end of the 1950s, UPA, following the disappointing reception of their 1959 animated feature 1001 Arabian Nights (which featured Mr. Magoo), was facing collapse. From UPA’s financial standpoint, Hank’s interest in the Mr. Magoo character couldn’t have come at a more propitious time. The famed Saperstein nose had sniffed out his biggest deal yet.

On New Year’s Eve of 1959, Hank’s Television Personalities Inc. inked a deal with UPA head Stephen Bosustow for UPA to produce 130 Mr. Magoo made-for-TV cartoons.

Hank and Bosustow met often for lunch meetings at The Smokehouse, a restaurant situated next door to UPA, and during one meeting Bosustow, suffering under the pressures of running an ailing studio and hoping to return to more creative work at UPA, mentioned that he was working on a deal to sell his controlling share of UPA’s stock to Seymour Weintraub & Associates. Never one to pass up a lucrative deal, Hank learned that the offer on the table was for $40 per share for 1,471 shares; he trumped that offer by telling Bosustow he would pay $50 per share. Hank turned to his longtime partner Peter DeMet, La Salle National Bank of Chicago, and Kellogg Company, for which Hank’s marketing companies had been producing cereal premiums, to finance the deal. Kellogg ended up backing out, but Hank ended up with a choice deal: For $15,000 up front and an additional $58,550 promised, he obtained UPA’s production facility and the rights to the Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing characters. On June 27, 1960, Hank became president of UPA, with Bosustow staying on as a salaried employee.

Hank quickly imposed business discipline on the formerly freewheeling UPA staff, instituting a punch clock and standardized work hours and enormously accelerating the studio’s production schedule. When UPA had been in the business of producing theatrical shorts, its artists had typically spent five weeks lovingly crafting a single six-minute-long cartoon. Now, with the arrival of Hank Saperstein and his television deals, UPA’s workers found themselves pumping out a five-minute-long cartoon every five days. During his initial meeting with UPA’s creative staff, Hank brusquely announced, “We’re not going to do any more of this fine-art crap,” and he ordered his animators to halve the number of animation cells from 16 per foot to eight. Purists bemoaned the loss of UPA’s former high artistic standards, but Hank’s purchase of the studio gave it an additional lease on life. And it certainly cannot be said that every film UPA produced after Hank gained control of the studio was a hastily cranked-out product that embarrassed the studio’s glory days; still to come were Gay Purr-ee (1962), a charming, Paris-set animated musical that featured the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet, and Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), the first animated Christmas special produced for television, and still considered one of the best.

Beyond overseeing UPA’s hastened production schedule, Hank remained busy with his earlier business pursuits, setting up merchandising and distribution deals through his other companies. In the early 1960s, his television programs distribution salesmen reported that their customers, owners of local TV stations, were clamoring for action films, preferably science fiction or horror. Saperstein went to the research library of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, located in Beverly Hills, and asked the head librarian, Margaret Herrick, who made the best science fiction and horror films. She told him that Hammer Studios in England and Toho Co. Ltd in Japan did. Hank already knew one of the top men at Hammer, Jimmy Sanger, and thought he was “impossible to deal with,” so he decided to try his luck with Toho.

Saperstein went to see a revival of the original Japanese language Gojira at the Toho La Brea Theater in Los Angeles, and came away hugely impressed by the audience’s response to the titular monster; although Gojira was portrayed as a demon of destruction, the audience cheered for the big, radioactive dinosaur. Hank figured this was so because Gojira “was chasing down guys who were stupid enough to set off atom bombs!” Hank reportedly also enrolled in a night course at UCLA in Japanese culture and traditions (his daughter Pat Saperstein suspects this may be a bit of self-embellishment on her father’s part, but we’ll let it slide).

Despite his efforts to not come across as an ugly American, Saperstein still encountered the famed Japanese cultural reserve and suspicion of foreigners. In a 1995 interview, he recalled:

“[Toho executives] were wary of any gaijin, it doesn’t mean foreigner, it means outsider. You’re outside of their ‘kingdom of the sun,’ they’re wary of anyone coming in who wants to be involved, in any meaningful way. But I came in, and I offered up some ideas that made the pictures more viable in the international marketplace, and I was willing to put money on the line, this appealed to them, and I guess that’s how I broke through.”

Saperstein offered Toho an arrangement they had never been involved in before: co-producing their films with an American studio to better slant those films toward the expectations of Western (particularly American) audiences. In a 1994 interview, he reminisced about his big new idea he presented in initial talks with Toho: “I told them they could have a worldwide marketplace, particularly a North American one, if they would just slightly change their point-of-view in these Godzilla films … They would shoot the film in Japanese, we would put some Caucasian actors in it (who would say their lines in English), and they would dub the Caucasian actors into Japanese, and we would dub the Japanese actors into English. They thought the idea was so far-fetched they agreed to do it.”

The first project that Hank and his team would co-produce with Toho would be the 1966 giant monster epic Frankenstein Conquers the World (originally titled Frankenstein vs. the Subterranean Monster for its initial release in Japan in 1965). The journey of Frankenstein’s monster from an early-19th-century English Gothic novel to the strangely mutated centerpiece of Toho’s and UPA’s first co-production is a strange and convoluted one, itself as much a paradigmatic example of cross-cultural pollination as is Hank’s partnership with Toho.

The concept that would eventually become Frankenstein Conquers the World was dreamed up by the special effects genius behind the original 1933 King Kong, the animator Willis O’Brien. In the late 1950s, his career having declined greatly since the making of his classic fantasy film a quarter-century before, O’Brien conceived of a second sequel to King Kong, which he titled King Kong vs. Frankenstein. In O’Brien’s treatment, showman Carl Denham, who had rescued Kong following the beast’s surviving his plunge from the top of the Empire State Building, meets Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson, who has been experimenting with body parts of large African animals and has created a living creature as large as Kong. Denham and Frankenstein decide to display their two giants together in San Francisco. Frankenstein’s creature escapes, Kong is sent to battle him, and the two giants perish together after plunging off the Golden Gate Bridge.

O’Brien’s treatment was referred to independent producer John Beck, who hired screenwriter George Yates to write a full script based on O’Brien’s treatment that could be shown to investors. Beck failed to arouse any interest with U.S. studio heads, so, without informing O’Brien, he traveled to Japan to discuss the project with Toho. While executives at Toho expressed interest, they ultimately decided that instead of making a film based on Yates’ script, they would license the Kong character and have him face off against their own monster, Godzilla.

Henry G. Saperstein, at left, and Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould listening to the soundtrack of the 'Dick Tracy Show,' 1961

Henry G. Saperstein, at left, and Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould listening to the soundtrack of the ‘Dick Tracy Show,’ 1961Everett Collection

O’Brien wasn’t aware of the deal that led to the making of King Kong vs. Godzilla until after the picture’s release in the U.S., and his impotent fury over having been defrauded by Beck, who retained U.S. distribution rights to Toho’s film, contributed to the animator’s premature death later that year from a heart attack. (Ironically, the head of Toho’s special effects department, Eiji Tsuburaya, had been inspired to begin his career in Japan’s film industry by his admiration for the effects of King Kong.)

The heads of Toho remained interested in doing something with the public domain Frankenstein’s monster character, however. They decided to make the Frankenstein monster a giant again, as he had been in O’Brien’s original concept, and pit him against Godzilla. They had a script prepared for a film to be called Frankenstein vs. Godzilla that would explain the presence of a giant Frankenstein monster in Japan thusly: Nazi German scientists had extracted the apparently immortal heart of the monster, but with Germany on the verge of defeat by the Allies, they secretly shipped the heart to supposed safety in Japan aboard a U-boat. The heart arrives at a laboratory in Hiroshima shortly before the city is pulverized by an American atom bomb. Years later, scientists studying the effects of radiation on Hiroshima’s survivors discover a strange-looking boy who is growing at a fantastic rate. He turns out to be a mutant who has grown from the irradiated heart of Frankenstein’s monster. When the Japan Defense Forces fear the giant will begin eating people, they decide to free Godzilla from his frozen prison in an iceberg and lure him to Japan to battle the giant.

However, Toho’s bosses feared Japanese audiences would fail to accept Godzilla as a national savior; the big radioactive dinosaur had been depicted as a villain in every appearance thus far. So they decided to pit Godzilla against Mothra next, instead, and rework the Frankenstein script to feature a brand new monster opponent, the tunneling monster Baragon. At this point, Hank Saperstein made his proposal to co-produce a series of films with Toho. Frankenstein vs. the Subterranean Monster, to be called Frankenstein Conquers the World when shown in the U.S., was chosen to be their initial project. Hank’s most significant contribution to the film was his proposal to have American actor Nick Adams play the protagonist, the American medical researcher who discovers the mutant Frankenstein child.

In the midst of a difficult separation from his wife, Adams fell in love with co-star Kumi Mizuno and asked her to marry him; she was already engaged and so had to turn aside his advances, but his passion for her and her fondness for him is vividly on display in both Frankenstein Conquers the World and the subsequent Monster Zero. Adams also became close friends with Yoshio Tsuchiya, who portrayed the deliciously duplicitous Controller of Planet X in Monster Zero. Tsuchiya recalled the practical jokes the two friends would play on one another on the set; Adams was constantly dieting while in Japan, so when he asked Tsuchiya how to say “good morning” in Japanese, Tsuchiya instead taught him the Japanese phrase for “I’m hungry!” Tsuchiya also teased Adams about his Actors Studio Method acting, and in return, Adams learned the Japanese words for “You’re overacting!” and yelled them at his co-star during Tsuchiya’s kubuki-inspired performance as the alien overlord.

When asked what sorts of changes he requested Toho make to the scripts of their co-productions, Hank responded:

“Every Japanese monster film starts with a conference. Either of the press or government officials or scientists, and they lay the foundation for the story ... This goes on for five minutes, by which time every American viewer tunes it out, particularly on television ... We edited almost every film we distributed here so it would play better. This is a monster movie. (The audience is asking) ‘Where’s the monster?’”

Hank’s next co-production with Toho, known in Japan as Great Monster War (1965) and released in the U.S. as Monster Zero (1970), may have been the film he considered to be his greatest achievement during his partnership with Toho. He claimed that with Monster Zero (an improbable boast, given the box office success of earlier Godzilla films in the U.S. such as King Kong vs. Godzilla), “We turned Godzilla from being an art house film that only played in four theaters in the United States into an icon.” He took at least partial and better-deserved credit for the transformation of the Godzilla character from a mindless engine of destruction to a heroic defender of Japan and of Earth. Monster Zero is one of a handful of Godzilla pictures that continues to enchant me even as an adult, far removed from the undiscerning monster worshipper I was as a child.

Hank was full of praise for his collaborators at Toho, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and director Ishirō Honda. But he reserved his greatest admiration for special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya: “The master of special effects. ... I worshiped the man. I used to love to just sit and listen to him and look at what he was doing ... Felt like Paul Bunyan! He had a stage that was a block and a half long. And when you walked in there were—in miniature—cities, mountains, and highways; the traffic lights worked, the cars moved, water flowed in the river. Fascinating to see!”

One collaborator Hank could not spare a good word for was Russ Tamblyn, the American star of UPA’s third co-production with Toho, The War of the Gargantuas, the sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World. For reasons he never explained in an interview, Hank decided not to stick with Nick Adams for the third co-production, a decision he came to regret.

Fortunately, Tamblyn’s performance is not the main attraction in The War of the Gargantuas. The giant twin monster Gargantuas are unusually anthropomorphic for a Toho kaiju eiga, and a well-written script granted greater pathos and drama to the monster action.

The main stars of the film were the monster costumes that allowed the suit-actors’ eyes and mouths to be seen, which allows for more expressive performances by the two monsters—Sanda, the Brown Gargantua, who benefited from affectionate interactions with human scientists as a toddler and grew up in Japan’s forests, is a defender of human life, whereas his evil twin Gaira, the Green Gargantua, grew from a bit of flesh that ended up in the ocean and develops a taste for human flesh. Although Sanda loves his brother, he is forced to battle him to the death in order to protect his human friends—a setup that grants the film a kind of bargain-basement Shakespearian gravitas that elevates it above the run-of-the-mill kaiju eiga picture.

I’m not the only one who thinks so; in an interview at the 2012 Oscars ceremony, Brad Pitt declared that his love of films and desire to pursue an acting career had been sparked by watching The War of the Gargantuas as a kid. As for changes to the film that Hank insisted on, he asked Toho to include American singer Kipp Hamilton, sister-in-law of comedienne Carol Burnett, in a nightclub scene where Hamilton’s character would be picked up, Fay Wray-style, by the Green Gargantua following her performance of the lounge song “Feel in My Heart.” Better known as “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” the delightfully cheesy, campy song would be covered by alternative rock band DEVO decades later.

The next UPA-Toho co-production had a highly amusing genesis, almost as funny as the film itself. Without originally intending to, Hank launched the film career of comedian Woody Allen, saving himself from an expensive debacle in the process. Regarding the genesis of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Hank recalled:

“I had to buy this Japanese James Bond film (International Secret Police: Key of Keys) to preserve my relationship with Toho. They showed it to me in Tokyo and when it was over asked me what I thought. I said, ‘I thought you had agreed you weren’t going to make any Western world films without talking to me about it,’” he recalled. “And then I made the all-time mistake, I said to myself I don’t want to buy this but I can’t turn them down—I’d lose face. I’ll name a figure so ridiculously low that they can’t take it, but at least by doing so I showed a willingness. I named this low figure—and they said, ‘Deal.’”

Stuck with the picture, Hank imagined marketing it as a spoof. He decided to approach Lenny Bruce, who recommended that Hank approach his fellow stand-up comic Woody Allen. This turned out to be an inspired suggestion, according to Hank: “I went to New York to see (Allen’s act) and I said to myself, ‘This is the guy.’ I went backstage and he flipped over the idea. Little did I dream (the film) would turn into a classic.”

Regarding his work with Allen and Woody’s team of joke writers, Hank recalled, “Woody would look at the picture and say, ‘He’s going through a door! Gimme door jokes!’ And then they would fire machine gun-style jokes, and you had 30 or 40 door jokes. The character onscreen would sit down, and Woody would say, ‘Gimme sit-down jokes!’ and there would be lots of sit-down jokes.” Hank only regretted not recording all the behind-the-scenes discussions and improvisations, which he felt would’ve made for a classic comedy album.

By the end of the 1960s, having suffered financial setbacks with Gay Purr-ee, What’s Up Tiger Lily? (UPA was sued by Woody Allen for a share of the profits), and Hell in the Pacific, Hank decided that producing films was too big of a headache. He also felt that the Godzilla films that followed Monster Zero, most directed by replacements for Ishirō Honda, failed to measure up to the quality of the original Gojira and the earlier sequels, and he declined to co-produce or co-finance them. Instead, he focused on distribution deals and merchandising. Eventually, he would come to acquire television and home video distribution rights for a dozen Godzilla and other Toho kaiju eiga films. He would handle U.S. merchandising for Godzilla and associated monsters for a quarter-century.

Hank’s television syndication efforts on behalf of Toho arguably meant more to Godzilla’s enduring and ever-growing popularity in America than the original theatrical releases of the kaiju eiga films. No new Godzilla movies were aired in U.S. theaters between The Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1978 and the first in the Heisei series, Godzilla 1985 (released in 1984 in Japan as The Return of Godzilla), seven years later. During that period of absence from theaters, Godzilla garnered millions of new young fans in the U.S., who watched the Showa series Godzilla movies over and over again on the syndicated TV program Creature Double Feature, which typically aired on Saturday afternoons. Hank also distributed his Toho properties as packages to independent TV stations’ late-night horror and science fiction movie programs (my local show in Miami was called Creature Features; I watched every Saturday night beginning at 11 p.m.).

Hank would occasionally regain the itch to work on a film project with Toho, and keeping Godzilla in the public eye was never far from his mind. In the early 1970s, Hank and UPA writer Reuben Bercovitch pitched a script treatment for a film called Godzilla vs. Gargantua to Toho, but the studio did not green-light the project. In 1988, Hank announced to Variety that he planned to reassemble much of UPA’s old team of veteran animators to work on a new animated Godzilla film with Toho, explaining that this would be a cost-effective alternative to live-action, since filming a live-action Godzilla film with all its special effects would cost around $25 million. The project never got underway.

In the twilight of his career, with the UPA offices housing only a small fraction of the number of employees they had at the company’s zenith, Hank continued to evince a zest and passion for deal-making. In the 1990s he approached superstar filmmaker Stephen Spielberg to produce a live-action version of Mr. Magoo. When that effort went nowhere, Hank decided to hire a screenwriter to come up with a script that might entice investors or a studio. Rather than discreetly reaching out to acquaintances within the industry, he decided to place a full-page recruitment ad in a Hollywood newspaper, and it was a doozy. Oozing with the aging mogul’s outsize personality, the ad read, in part: “I don’t care if you are white, black, yellow or green; or if you are hetero, homo or neuter; or if you are suffering from Alzheimer’s, AIDS, Emphysema, Diabetes, Gastritis or Flatulence ... or if you use a word processor, IBM, L. C. Smith or write with a quill. ... Don’t worry if you are a pain-in-the-ass; I am the worst curmudgeon you ever met.” Ironically, the studio that took the bait and produced Mr. Magoo in 1997, a year before Hank’s death, was UPA’s old nemesis, Walt Disney Pictures.

In a 1994 interview with film scholar Stuart Galbraith IV, Hank sounded a bit regretful about the limitations of his relationship with Toho and wistful that he had never been fully accepted as a member of the tightly knit Toho family. “We’ve had a 30-year love-hate relationship. No matter how much money I deliver for them, I’m still an outsider, and that’ll never change. Kipling was right: East is east and West is west, and the ’twain ain’t never gonna meet.”

His ambivalent feelings toward Toho did not extend to Godzilla, a property he genuinely loved, and he remained determined to see that an American version of Godzilla be made. He finally secured his cherished goal by setting up negotiations between Toho and American studio TriStar.

When asked about Godzilla’s enduring appeal, Hank offered a simple explanation, one directly connected to the character’s shift to heroic defender of Earth, as seen in Monster Zero and subsequent films. “It’s a morality play. It’s the classic story of good vs. evil, white hat vs. black hat. Godzilla is knocked all around until the tenth round, then comes out swinging.”

Pat Saperstein related that one of the last activities she shared with her 80-year-old father prior to his death in June 1998 was watching a private screening of the TriStar Godzilla at his home. I myself remember being very disappointed in the film when I saw it on its theatrical release; TriStar had turned Godzilla into a computer-generated giant iguana that demolished New York City while lacking any personality apart from mindless fury.

I asked Pat what her father had thought of the film. She said he was seriously ailing when they’d watched the movie together, and she couldn’t recall his having said anything. Perhaps it was just as well. Had he been in decent health, Hank might’ve raged over how badly TriStar had regressed his beloved Godzilla. On the other hand, he always considered himself more a businessman than a creative auteur. Maybe his more likely reaction would’ve been to frown a bit, shrug his shoulders, and then get Sony/TriStar heads on the phone to negotiate a piece of the marketing deals for this new Godzilla character — what red-blooded American boy could do without his Godzilla toothbrush, pajamas, and breakfast cereal?

The author wishes to express his thanks to Pat Saperstein for kindly responding to questions regarding her father.

Andrew Fox is the author of, among other titles, Fat White Vampire Blues.

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