Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Cartoon Stars on Bill Hanna

Today marks ten years since the passing of William Denby Hanna, a shell of his Tom-and-Jerry-creating former self due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. To his animation staff, he may have been known as the guy who said “Knock off this !?%*!?! crap and get back to work!” To history, he may be known as one half of the founder of television animation as we know it today, with the good and bad that comes from it. And to people who enjoy the silly adventures of blue dogs from North Carolina, overly-confident rhyming bears and clueless cowpoke horses, he was someone who has brought—and still brings—hours of enjoyment.

Many eulogies were written about Hanna at the time of his death. Perhaps one of the cleverest was in Hank Stuever’s column in the Washington Post of March 24, 2001. Hank did something none of the newspaper obituaries did. He let the Hanna-Barbera characters speak.

Bill Hanna, Remembered
Excerpts from an Oral History
By Hank Stuever

Saturday morning cartoon king William Hanna, 90, died at his North Hollywood home Thursday. What follows are excerpts from a never-finished British television documentary, an oral-history account of the glory days of Hanna-Barbera animation studios . . .

JERRY: I wasn't quite sure of the concept. You have to remember this was the 1940s, and I'm just this mouse from the Midwest, right? What did I know? I knew one thing -- I didn't want to work with cats, I didn't care how much they paid me, which was $65 a week, by the way. I was scared. But Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera knew it would work. So I get to the set and the orchestra's ready to go, they've built this enormous kitchen . . . and I'm just petrified. Bill Hanna came over and talked to me, calmed me down. He said, "Jerry, just relax. You're not going to die. The cat is not going to eat you." I know it sounds crazy now, but this was very early in the cat-and-mouse thing. I trusted Bill. Everything was okay.

WILMA FLINTSTONE: I said to him one day, "Bill, you really oughta patent this stuff." I mean, the little woolly mammoth who vacuumed the carpet? I would have bought six of them to give as wedding presents or something! People don't know this, but Bill was king of the modern Stone Age household gadgets. The decor, the look -- that was him. Those houses were solid. He did let me keep one of the boulder sofas. I think he could have been another Rock Lloyd Wright, but he was so brilliant already at the cartoons.

HUCKLEBERRY HOUND: Sometimes we'd all go over to Bill and Violet Hanna's place, on Sunday afternoons. He'd barbecue, put on some jazz. It was nice. North Hollywood was like a small town, people didn't really gossip much then. It was no big deal to have cartoon characters over to the house. He never treated us two- dimensionally.

TOP CAT: He did have his favorites. I don't think I was one. I mean, what am I? A yellow cat with a vest on. I said, "Bill, I can do more than scrounge around and bebop." I always wanted some adventure.

One time Bill caught me hanging out on the "Jonny Quest" lot and called me into his office for a little Come-to-Jesus meeting. I understood. I was grateful to be working, don't get me wrong. I just don't think people appreciate us utility cats, the ones who aren't the stars. Maybe Bill did.

QUICK DRAW McGRAW: It's true, the cartoons we did were cheaper. Over at Warner Bros., they worked those characters until they were exhausted -- day and night. Sure, you could go work for Chuck Jones, and a lucky few got on the Disney gravy train, but sooner or later you would be strung out. Bugs, Daffy, Wile E. -- I'd bump into them at the Brown Derby or somewhere around town and they looked awful, just completely wasted, taking one pill to get out of bed and another pill so they could get an anvil in the head. Sad, is what it was.

This is what I liked about Bill: He knew the value of the nine-hour workday. His thinking was "Why do something in 500 drawings when you can do it in 150?" That's why we all lasted so long. We weren't drawn to death.

YOGI BEAR: People said the cartoons were cheap, that they wouldn't last, that nobody would cherish them. Just the other day there's a cereal bowl with my face on it for sale on eBay. It's going for $325.

So you tell me.

HADJI: Bill hired me to be Jonny Quest's best friend. The guys in marketing said, "Are you sure? The kid's wearing a turban." I mean, it's true, I had to play up the accent a little, but I think Bill was way ahead on this. It was the first time the kids at home saw someone in a turban who wasn't the bad guy. Someone scrawled some kind of slur on my locker, it said, "Go Home, India Ink" or something like that. Bill called a studio-wide meeting and made it clear that his shop was going to be integrated -- white, black, pink, hot pink, purple, humanoid, Herculoid, beast, robot, whatever. This was 1965. This was years before anyone ever heard of sensitivity training in the workplace.

SNAGGLEPUSS: He never once asked me about my private life. He didn't care. Heavens to Murgatroyd, why should anybody care? At his parties, up at the house, I'd bring Sylvester with me and nobody gave a [expletive].

BOO BOO BEAR: The wonderful thing with the cartoons that Bill and Joe did was that they were about us, the characters. It had to be, because too much action was too hard to draw. That's why the same pine trees keep going by as I walk in the forest. The focus was on the acting, not on the backgrounds. Leave that whole Wagnerian forest thing to the snobs at Warner, you know what I'm saying? (Boo Boo has brief coughing fit here.) [expletive] sorry. Got this sinus thing. Where was I? Oh yeah, the trees and stuff. Take, for example, a picnic basket: You had to see the picnic basket, feel the presence of the picnic basket. Whether or not there really was a picnic basket. The magic happens inside of you. Bill taught us that.

ASTRO: Rill ras reat. Ren I ras reeling really rad, Rill runderstood. Re rame to ree me ren I ras at the Retty Rord Rinic. Robody relse did, rot even Reorge Retson. (Begins crying.)

DICK DASTARDLY: Things changed. Little things. I showed up one day at the studio and the Banana Splits were running around. They weren't even cartoons, it was humans in fur suits. I started to worry. Around that time, I was seriously considering going to work for Jay Ward and the "Bullwinkle" crew across town. They were more my speed - tying heroes to train tracks, that kind of thing. Bill said the world needed villains like me, that everything would be okay, so I believed him.

SHAGGY: Like, man, the late '60s got pretty wild. Hanna-Barbera ruled Saturday morning, it was really the high point. The parties would get crazy. Scooby and I would get there and I'd be zoinksed out of my mind already -- and starving.

I remember one night, Josie and the Pussycats were performing out by the pool. Magilla Gorilla picks up that hot Pussycat drummer - what was her name? Melody? -- and just throws her into the pool, drum kit and all. At first we thought Bill was gonna be really P.O.'d about that. But he paused a beat, with that stern look on his face, holding a drink in his hand, and then burst out laughing. Then we all jumped in the pool. The party went on till at least 4 a.m.

I'll never forget that night, you know why? It was the same night as the Tate-LaBianca murders. It was only about a mile away from where the party was. Jinkies, that Charlie Manson [expletive] freaks me out. We spent the whole next day, hung over, driving around in the Mystery Machine, looking for clues. Bill helped.

AQUAMAN: When it came time to re-up for another season -- I think this was in '74, maybe '75 -- all of us Super Friends went into Bill's office to talk about our contracts. We each wanted a million bucks per episode, and we knew we had to stick together. We knew they couldn't keep the show going without all of us Friends.

I gotta hand it to Bill, he was tough. I mean, we're freakin' superheroes, and he never flinched, never backed down. We all got raises, but nowhere near a million per. Bill was crafty, too. When we started the new season, he'd added the Wonder Twins and that little super-chimpanzee thing. I noticed in some of the scripts that the Legion of Doom was kicking our butts a bit more. I think it was Bill's subtle way of letting us know we could easily be replaced.

SCRAPPY-DOO: People hated me. I mean, hated. The last thing Scooby-Doo needed was an obnoxious nephew. Bill was very protective of me, though, and I appreciated that. When my contract wasn't renewed, he gave me a good severance package. He knew it wasn't my fault.

YOGI BEAR: You could tell that they were cutting corners here and there. The studio couldn't keep up with the workload, and folks were getting bored. I saw the script for the all-star "Laff-a-Lympics" and thought, oh, brother. I called my agent. I said, "I'll do it, but only because Bill's asking me to." Before I know it, I'm paddling a raft in a relay race against Captain Caveman and Hong Kong Phooey. To tell you the truth, I was drunk.

PAPA SMURF: We were taking a break from a big song-and-dance number, and word came down that the whole operation had been sold to Ted Turner. I think we all knew that Bill and Joe were getting tired of the day-to-day stuff. Bill came down and told the staff what was happening. It turns out he was making sure we'd all be taken care of in our old age. They were talking about a kind of "cartoon channel" on cable TV. We'd be on 24 hours a day, and yes, there'd be royalty payments. We'd go on forever. I'm sure that's what Bill wanted: For us to go on smurfing and doing our thing.

11 comments:

  1. Boy, did Papa Smurf get hoodwinked on the last part...

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  2. Ten years without William Hanna...
    And today we lost Elizabeth Taylor, the eternal Cleopatra, who also did the role of the Wilma Flintstone's mother in the first movie from the Flintstones live-action version (1994).

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  3. Yogi's last 'comment' on LAFF-A-LYMPICS is the funniest thing I've read all year, and quite reflective of the creative desparation that marked the studio in the 70s and 80s.

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  4. Man, How time flies. Hard to believe it's been a decade. I remember I was reading " A Cast Of Friends " at the time of his passing. Also love Yogi's " LAFF-A-LYMPICS " comments. " Called my Agent "...Good job, Yowp

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  5. LOL....well, Papa Smurf, sorry, but H-B has that Belgian publisher who created you to pay royalties [don't worry, your group's not the only group of HB characters that were leased that way--Josie, Sinbad Jr., and others were adapted properties..]..Anyway, good article

    Steve

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  6. Yogi Bear, acting as Johnny Weissmuller, at the moment in which he would jump from the trampoline to the swimming-pool from a hotel in Miami, in the Yogi Bear episode Threesome Gleesome (1960), originally shown in the classical Yogi Bear Show (Hanna-Barbera/Columbia Pictures, 1960-62).
    Ranger Smith, which was seeing the Yogi's prowess, attempted to alert him:
    "Yogi, don't jump!"

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  7. Nice job, Yowp. Hard to believe it's been 10 years since that article was first written. Pretty funny stuff.

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  8. This is Hank Stuever, the author of the piece. THANKS for re-posting this; one of my favorites. I wrote it on deadline and my editors were somewhat skeptical, until they read it.

    I never met Bill, but I met and interviewed Barbera once, in the mid-90s, at the old H-B compound, while reporting a piece that never ran -- a profile of Hoyt Curtin. Regrets all around about that one. (I wrote an appreciation of Curtin when he died, circa 2000.)

    Anyway, what a treat to find this site. It's GREAT. So much to read! Kudos.

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  9. When I found this last night, I'm like "Wow, whoever researched that is a genius! If I want interviews or something, this is it."

    Thanks!

    Ryan

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  10. Ahem...

    "Hank did something none of the newspaper obituaries did. He let the Hanna-Barbera characters speak."

    Read this:

    "Saturday morning cartoon king William Hanna, 90, died at his North Hollywood home Thursday. What follows are EXCERPTS FROM A NEVER FINISHED BRITISH TELEVISION DOCUMENTARY, an oral-history account of the glory days of Hanna-Barbera animation studios."

    If the article says that those quotes are from a British television documentary that was never finished, then I'm pretty sure it's right. I really don't think Hank Stuever made it up, but it was a clever idea. Very interesting to read.

    Gotta go.

    Ryan

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