It was the day of the big university oral examination, and the unnamed student was understandably flustered when the phone rang. When she picked up, there was a deep, sonorous voice at the other end, a woman she had never met but who still somehow sounded familiar. She introduced herself as Amy Howard Wilson, the actress who had provided the voice of the student’s childhood hero, Nova the radar operator in Star Blazers. And she was, she said, a person who had just happened to hear, on the fandom grapevine, that a love of astrophysics that had begun twenty years earlier with a weird Japanese TV cartoon was about to turn into something very special. And she had just called, she said, to wish her good luck in her PhD defence that afternoon, and every success in her career in real space science.
Born in Detroit, Amy Howard originally hoped to be a flight attendant, but at a school she drifted into acting. “I was in the annual shows,” she recalled, “and I liked this applause stuff! You know? This is cool! I like this.” She became one of many hopeful young performers who tried to make it big in New York. She went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Pace University, and soon joined the coterie of would-be actors struggling to make it in the city. She took any job she could get related to the creative arts – she worked for a casting agent, she repped a jingle writer, she appeared as a contestant in The $10,000 Pyramid, and by the time she was approaching her mid-twenties, she was answering the phones at the Weist-Barron School for TV and Commercial Acting. Originally founded above a Chinese restaurant in 1956, Weist-Barron had gone up in the world, priding itself on being the first institution to prepare actors for the lucrative but unglamorous below-the-line world of voice-overs and TV spots.
Kit Carter, a casting agent, contacted the school looking to hire “non-union” talent for an obscure dubbing job, four blocks away at the pokey Film Sound studio at 41st and Lexington. Howard passed the auditions and found herself playing the female lead in a sci-fi show, Space Cruiser Yamato, snatched up and polished up in the post-Star Wars environment as Star Blazers. At a break-neck schedule that aimed to bank up to five episodes a day, she would wait for the three beeps in her headphones that told her the time was coming up to speak, and then say her character’s lines, hoping that the lip-flaps from Japanese would match, or her grumpy sound engineer would have to rewind, and they would have to come up with some filler.
And then, after a few weeks, it was over. “We didn’t see the whole series until it started to air,” she told Gregory L. Norris. “And then they changed the air times!” You needed to be something of a devotee to catch the first run of Star Blazers. “It came on at three in the afternoon, and then 6:30 in the morning. I was out auditioning for other stuff. That’s the nature of the business — you go on to your next set of auditions.” In an age when a VCR cost a thousand dollars, the uncredited Howard didn’t even get to keep a copy of the show she was in. It was somewhere on-air, then it wasn’t, then it was in re-runs. She forgot about it and moved on.
Nearly twenty years on, the video industry turned anime into one of the growth areas of retail and rental, and the internet turned fandom from scattered pockets of nerds into a growing convention business. Hearing that Aunt Amy had once been in a cartoon, her nieces Googled it and discovered that Star Blazers was one of the cornerstones of anime in America, one of the most cherished shows among the generation of otaku now running the con-scene.
I first ran into her in 2001, four years after anime had changed her life. Swept up in the nascent US con scene, she had landed another voice-acting job as Miranda in Irresponsible Captain Tylor, as well as a husband, David Wilson III, who she’d met at one of her first events – David Merrill, then the con chairman of Anime Weekend Atlanta, was the best man at their wedding. In fact, I ran into her at every American con I ever went to, where she and her husband were unfailingly friendly and charming, welcoming and familiar faces in a sea of snooty slebs. Amy was a fierce champion for fandom, ever grateful to it for what it had brought her – recognition and love in her fifties, a taste of the stardom that so many in the creative arts reach for but never gain. Many voice-actors saw the convention scene as a jobbing responsibility – Amy saw it as a social occasion. She shocked me once with her ardent denunciation of actors who charged fans for autographs. “SHAME ON YOU!” she bellowed in earshot of a bunch of repeat offenders in Texas. “These people made you! Sign the thing!”
I saw her once on a panel, asked what her favourite convention memory was. “There are too many,” she began, building up to what I expected would be a reminiscence of meeting her husband, or the time that Noboru Ishiguro, the director of Space Cruiser Yamato, once serenaded her with “You Are My Sunshine” on the ukulele. But no, her favourite convention memories were not hers; they belonged to other people. She cherished every time that a fan told her that they rushed home from school to watch Star Blazers, that they dressed up as Nova, that Nova was their heroine and their inspiration.
We didn’t talk much in the last decade. Suffice to say that we turned out to be polar opposites politically, and I spent much of the Trump administration setting her to another 30 days snooze on Facebook. But I could never cut her off, because I always remembered her as a lady with such a great heart, and such a devotion to her fans, who were literally her friends. My enduring memory is of the support she showed me, always showing up in the front row of my American events, often weeping with laughter and yelling: “MAKE HIM STOP!” Her enthusiasm was infectious; sometimes I thought she was my one-woman US warm-up act.
“Life is too short,” she once said. “Everybody just be happy, and let everybody else be happy, too.”