As I mentioned earlier in my first post ever, the Transformers fandom does not know much about the fifth season of the original Transformers series. It was to the point where the star of the intro segments, the child actor who played Tommy Kennedy, was elusive enough to be considered a “holy grail” by some of the Transformers fandom. All we knew was he was played by a Jason Jansen. People had searched the internet to no avail. He was truly Lost.
Until he was found. Or, in fact, found me. A few weeks ago I received a comment on this very blog stating that he was indeed Jason Jansen. The first logical piece of information was that his birth name was Jason Jankowski and that Jansen was a stage name. That explained why internet searches would come up with nothing. After some inquiries I asked to do an interview and was glad to get an affirmative response. What follows are the responses I got to the questions I asked, for the most part in their entirety.
I’ll start by asking how did you find my blog entry I did with Tim Speidel? Were you googling yourself or did a friend point it out to you. I’m personally curious about that one.
Infrequently over the years, I have briefly googled “Tommy Kennedy” or “Jason Jansen” or a combo of the two, but it was your blog which I stumbled across recently.
When did you start acting? I noticed from your SAG card you have been a member since 1985? How old were you at the time?
I had started doing commercials at the age of 9 – had done around 10-12 commercials, some print work, some voice-overs, and then at the time went to LA and booked a one-time appearance on Highway to Heaven in 1988. I believe some folks in the Fandom had talked about that.
How did you get the job working on Transformers? Being part of the age group, were you a fan of the show before the acting gig or was it just a chance to act?
It was around the time when I returned from LA back to the NY area that I auditioned for the spot on Transformers. When I auditioned and filmed the episodes I was about 12 years old. I cannot remember where exactly the audition was held but it was definitely in Manhattan. I remember auditioning for Transformers in the late spring – and the process moving very quickly compared to other jobs. When I was off from school and had the summer off is when filming began. I figure June was the audition and July was the filming. I remember being inconvenienced because all my friends had attended the area Sports Camp for years and I would be missing a week of it. We filmed the series at Silver Cup Studios in Queens NY. At the time SilverCup was hot from Cosby Show fame, but also it was a kind of an “F YOU!” to some of the more expensive studios just across the east river in Manhattan. I would have to reference back to Tim’s interview for the duration of the filming but it wasn’t more then 1 week for the Tommy Kennedy portions.
My mother’s maiden name is Jansen – it’s a Dutch name and back in 1985 we used it because my fathers name of Jankowski was a bit too ethnic at the time. We almost went with Jason Williams (William is my fathers name and also my middle name). Jansen stuck – I remember casting directors asking me if I knew about “Jantzen” swim wear. As a 9 year old I didn’t. My mom is the one responsible for taking me on auditions, etc. I grew up about 1.5 hours from NYC so it was a grind everyday. I got into the business simply by answering an ad by an acting Manager close to the town I was raised, Middletown NY. We gave it a whirl and after booking some business we simply stuck with it. I was getting some work, and as a middle class family I am sure my parents used some of the earnings for their life or college funds etc. It made sense to continue.
How was it filmed, from your point of view? How realistic did the stop motion Optimus Prime look up close? Was there much green/blue screen used for the background?
The filming was as professional as any production at the time would have been. You are correct when you excuse me for the memory lapse (which is over 20 years) but I can recall a couple of things if I concentrate. First off Tim Speidel, when I read the blog and saw the name I definitely recognized it – I actually sent him a note after finding him on FB but haven’t received a response yet. During the filming my mother and I stayed with a girlfriend of hers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – simply to make the commute easier, and to deal with the schedule of being at the studio by 8am in some cases. Everybody was super cool during the filming. I remember I thought the Key Grips, and Gaffers were younger guys who always were making me laugh. They were “New York City Fahgeddaboutit” type guys. To this day I see Gaffer and Key Grip during credits but have no idea what their real jobs are – basically I think they are a Jack of all Trades type men/women on the set.
On set, I remember filming some scenes on a large, constructed out of wood, Optimus Hand. I remember being instructed to only sit on a certain portion/ or spot as this was the strongest to support me. I was a normal sized kid so nothing strange there. Other scenes were filmed on the shoulder of another larger constructed portion of Optimus’ shoulder. Same deal, watch your step! Other random scenes were built (running through a vast wasteland) backgrounds were usually green screens, claymation for my flipping onto shoulders, and HUGE fans blowing on my face for when Optimus was launching and taking me home.
If you were a fan, how did it feel “talking” to Optimus Prime? Did they have a crew member say his lines off camera to help with timing or was Peter Cullen’s voice prerecorded?
When saying my lines (if i remember correctly) there was mix of things that were going on. At times someone off camera would recite Optimus Primes lines, but I believe it was a member of the crew and not Peter Cullen. Other times, if the scene was shorter and the camera cut away, I would just pause my lines while saying them to account for another voice to be inserted later. I actually just read through the transcripts on the wiki and remember saying every single one of them – I was able to memorize quite a bit – but I my memory serves me correctly I believe I definitely had some large cue cards up there behind the cameras as well. They were color coded to help break up the lines.
Optimus looked great – up close you could tell it was made from wood and plastic, but it was a real dam good job. A little bit of info, we had two puppeteers working Optimus Prime. I believe one guy was inside his head and moving his mouth while another moved his head from side to side. One of the guys was a famous puppeteer and had worked on Sesame Street inside of “Snuffalupagus” not sure if I have spelled that correctly. I remember he was known for his work.
When talking with Tim Speidel, he mentioned a story about a camera crane falling right into the Optimus Prime hand that you were sitting in moments earlier. Do you remember that happening and if you do can you share your personal feelings?
My mother and I both remember the camera crane falling – I believe I do remember seeing it close up – but I also feel like I was off camera with a buttered bagel in my hand watching stuff when I was “off duty”. I still remember seeing the guy who was on top, he didn’t fall off the crane bc i believe he was strapped in (like with a seat belt) and he kind of rode the collapse about 40 feet or so down to the ground and landing on his side. Again – all very fuzzy but yes it did happen. As for me not being on my mark and being severely hurt or possibly killed – can’t recall that either. If Tim said that was the case, it was the first I had heard about it during your interview. In other words, I never overheard my mother telling my father back at home that this thing narrowly missed me. I hope that guy is ok though.
Are there any other on-set stories you can share with the Transformers fandom?
While on Optimus, I’ll tell you, it was pretty cool. If I wasn’t a fan then, being able to be a part of something like that turns you into one pretty dam quick. I mean – I would go home and tell [my friend Rob] what happened that day and I could tell he was like – “Dude you own like 4 transformers!” He was cool about it, and made sure to tape everything. I remember a younger woman was my stand in – had to stand in certain spots where Tommy would be and they tested lighting, angles, camera positions etc. She was in her 20s? and hung with my Mom a lot in a smaller back room they gave us to chill out when not needed on the set.
I wish I could share more on set stories, but I’ll promise you this, I’ll check through my mom’s old files and see if there are any scripts or anything worth sharing with the Fans. If so i’ll be sure to reach back out to you guys on that stuff.
Over the years fans have done internet searches looking for you and have found little information. Have you moved away from acting? If so why? What have you been doing since then?
Personally, Transformers was one of the last big jobs I did , I believe at the age of 13 I had done a Frosted Mini Wheats commercial (if you remember the lumberjack guy turning into the little lumberjack guy) but after that – I was a late 1975 birth and entering High School I had told my Mom that I think I wanted to concentrate on school, sports, and probably girls 😉 I remember gradually stopping acting completely by the age of 14. So in this regards, some of the fans are correct. Just an actor who got on with his life. Some of the kids I would regularly see on auditions have made it big, Joey Lawrence, Leo Dicaprio, and then later on Elijah Wood. don’t regret a minute doing it. I believe it helped mold me into what I am today. Nobody in my life now really even knows about the Transformers or the commercial jobs I used to have. I work at ABC Television so I am still very much in the entertainment business. I work in the Sales department so you could say I can’t get away from these commercials!
Once in a while a colleague will bring it up with clients (about our age) and a guy or girl will say “holy shit! that was you!?” and its always a fun experience to reveal yourself to a fan but it’s never the first thing that comes up.
One major site dedicated to Transformers minutia, www.tfwiki.net, has labeled information on you a “holy grail.” As in, we know very little. You’re up there with Brazilian Transformers packaging, a limited edition Go-Cart giveaway, and translations of Japanese radio plays. What do you think about that?
Each year, Transformers fans from around the world gather at the official convention, Botcon (www.botcon.com). Would you ever be interested in attending in some form of official capacity?
When asking a few of my friends for addition questions, a few of them came back to me with this “Does he still have the sweet mullet and denim jacket?”
If the fans think that seeing Tommy Kennedy would be cool I would do it (at like a Botcon) – officially, but of course I wouldn’t do anything which is going to turn off the fans. The sweet Mullet and jean jacket! hahahahah the mullet is gone – I think perhaps you saw a couple of pics on Facebook. The jean jacket – have to ask my mom about that one – I don’t believe I have it – it may have been an official “prop” or I probably gave it back when taping was done. I usually got out of “wardrobe” at the end of the day and wore my street clothes home.
All in all – it was an awesome experience. I hope I answered some questions, or rustled up some new ones, if so I am happy to answer more. I think its great that you guys still keep it alive and just talking to you (over email) has really conjured up some memories I haven’t thought of in a while.
Currently – I live in The Bronx, NY. As I mentioned I work at ABC, and have a girlfriend. I went to Fordham University in the Bronx and played soccer there. I graduated, began working for Grey Advertising/Mediacom in the Media Buying department. Actually worked on the Hasbro business for a brief time. In 2003, left for a job at ABC Ad Sales. Still here – but my parents still live in Middletown NY, I have a new place in Woodlawn in the Bronx (near Yonkers), and basically spend my time working, traveling, and up until now, not really talking about the kid Tommy Kennedy. I enjoy visiting family in Europe (when I can afford it), listening to Pearl Jam, and am a big NFL/MLB fan.
Totally happy to keep the info coming, happy to help be taken off the Holy Grail. Again – very proud to be even mentioned in the same capacity as some of the other sought after pieces. As for my thoughts on them? I am going to ask Rob if he has anything which we can remove from there as well. Again it’s pretty cool.
I hope you enjoyed this read. It was quite lengthy, but with a revelation such as this I didn’t want to leave a single thing out. I’m happy to have done my small part for the Transformers fandom in bringing this mystery to light.