Gerry Anderson, 83, Dies; Made Futuristic Puppets

December 28th, 2012

Hugo Philpot/Press Association, via Associated Press

Gerry Anderson in London in 2005, with toys inspired by the “Thunderbirds,” whose fans reached beyond Britain.

Gerry Anderson, a British filmmaker who transformed old-fashioned puppets into futuristic action heroes in the 1960s in the hugely popular children’s show “Thunderbirds,” and later cast real people in series including “U.F.O.” and “Space: 1999,” died on Wednesday in Oxfordshire, England. He was 83.

His death followed a diagnosis two years ago of dementia, according to an announcement on the Web site of his son Jamie.

As a filmmaker in the 1950s, Mr. Anderson dreamed of directing sweeping dramas, but he would make his name working in miniature. “Supermarionation,” he called it, merging the words super, marionette and animation to describe this new puppetry for the television age, one with skinnier strings and broader ambitions.

“Thunderbirds are go!” a voice pronounced in the opening sequence of “Thunderbirds.” The series, about an international rescue team, made its debut in 1965 and eventually included 32 hourlong episodes. A generation of British children was in thrall.

Scott Tracy, strong in the jaw and cool in the captain’s chair, led the pilots. Brains, the eccentric genius, stammered but always found a solution. The glamorous Lady Penelope (whose voice was provided by Sylvia Anderson, Mr. Anderson’s wife) cruised in the back of her chauffeured convertible. The Hood, with his evil arched eyebrows and cone-domed skull, never gave up but never won.

More was expected of the imagination back then, of course. Facial expressions were limited and it was rare to see a puppet strolling across the screen. Marionettes were not known for realistic gaits.

“We used to avoid walking like the plague,” Mr. Anderson said in a 2000 documentary made by the British Film Corporation.

“Thunderbirds” was campy and clever, post-Punch and Judy and pre-pre-Pixar, and like so much of British popular culture in the ’60s it took off across the Atlantic to the United States. Toys, comic books and other related merchandise sold briskly. Feature films followed, including “Thunderbirds Are Go” in 1966 and “Thunderbird 6” in 1968.

Other Supermarionation series created by Mr. Anderson included “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” “Stingray,” “Supercar” and “Fireball XL5.”

Mr. Anderson also began working with live actors and aiming at more adult audiences, but science fiction remained the theme. In 1970 he produced “U.F.O.,” about a special security force that fought space aliens. In 1975, he produced “Space: 1999.” That series, which starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, described the adventures of the 300 or so inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, who had been cast into space by an explosion of Earth’s nuclear waste stored on the Moon.

Mr. Anderson said he had been told to create a show in which none of the action happened on Earth. So, he said, “we blew the Moon out of orbit.”

Mr. Anderson was born Gerald Alexander Abrahams on April 14, 1929, in London. In addition to his son Jamie, he is survived by his wife, Mary, and two daughters and a son from previous marriages, Joy, Linda and Gerry Jr. His marriage to Sylvia Anderson, with whom he worked closely on the first season of “Space: 1999” as well as “Thunderbirds,” ended in divorce.

Mr. Anderson worked as a film trainee at the Ministry of Information in Britain before he and some young colleagues formed their own movie company in the ’50s. Soon, a children’s book author, Roberta Leigh, asked them to adapt one of her series, “The Adventures of Twizzle,” for television. It was promising work, except that she wanted the actors to be puppets, not people.

“My heart sank,” Mr. Anderson recalled. “I just wanted to make big pictures — you know, ‘Ben Hur.’ ”

But he put his all into the adaptation — he said he was “quite desperate to make the puppet film reasonable” — and his career took off.

Mr. Anderson benefited from his work years later when there was renewed interest in “Thunderbirds.” The series was shown in England in the 1990s, prompting a new round of merchandising of toys and, later, DVDs and a live-action movie in 2004.

A “Thunderbirds” theater revue was popular in England. The franchise also helped inspire a 2004 Supermarionation spoof, “Team America: World Police,” by the creators of “South Park.”

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