Is there any doubt that Mike Maltese was the best cartoon writer of all? Not for me, there isn’t. Some of the funniest stories ever concocted at Warners Bros. were his, and he somehow managed to pump out 79 cartoons (all in the Quick Draw series and one Huckleberry Hound) in his first year after being hired at Hanna-Barbera. Variety announced on December 4, 1958 his arrival at H-B to be the head of its new story department.
From the collection of former H-B writer Tony Benedict comes this picture of Maltese with another of the greats of the cartoon writing business, Warren Foster. Both of them were native New Yorkers, both worked for the Fleischer studio in the 1930s and it was on Maltese’s recommendation (the story goes) that Foster was hired at Warner Bros.; Maltese was an assistant animator at the time. Foster was hired at Hanna-Barbera on April 14, 1959, so it seems likely Maltese hired him there, too. Foster had left Warners in November 1957 for John Sutherland Productions.
The insightful critic John Crosby interviewed Maltese toward the end of 1959 when the Quick Draw McGraw Show was on the air. We reprinted it some time ago but you can click HERE to read it.
Another indispensable interview with Maltese is in Joe Adamson’s essential book Tex Avery, King of Cartoons. We await the day when historian Michael Barrier publishes his in-depth interviews with Maltese, snippets of which appear in his book Hollywood Cartoons.
Hanna-Barbera was in the Kling Studios (the former Chaplin Studio at 1416 La Brea) when Maltese arrived but he apparently worked from home until the company opened its own building easily recognisable by fans at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd. in August 1963 (plans were announced in March 1962).
Maltese’s “The Flintstone Flyer” episode of The Flintstones, co-written with Joe Barbera and Dan Gordon, was the first to air in September 1960. His name can also be found on the first Yogi Bear Show to air in January 1961. Whether Maltese was freelancing for Chuck Jones at Warners at the time is unclear. His name can be found on “The Mouse on 57th Street,” released in 1961. It’s hard to believe the story was completed before Maltese left for Hanna-Barbera in 1958, but it is possible. Maltese was listed as a writer on “five new half-hour animation projects” for H-B (Variety, December 13, 1961). What they were is unknown. The trade paper the following September mentioned Maltese was assigned to work on The Flintstones and The Jetsons, but I don’t believe he worked on any Jetsons episodes.
It appears Maltese came and went from Hanna-Barbera several times. Variety of August 30, 1963 revealed that he would be working with Jones again, this time on the Tom and Jerry theatricals to be released by MGM. Two days earlier, the trade paper announced Norm Prescott was producing a four-part satire called “How The West Was Lost (Almost)” featuring characterisations of the Marx brothers with Maltese handling “pictorial layouts.” The project languished until February 1966 when Variety mentioned Prescott’s Filmation had found a distributor for the series, Groucho Marx would be a technical advisor, and Maltese was credited as a writer. It never did air.
Maltese was back at Hanna-Barbera in 1965, his name appears on screen as a co-writer on a Secret Squirrel/Atom Ant special, then on the Secret Squirrel Show itself. His last Tom and Jerry short for Jones was released in 1967 and his last project for Hanna-Barbera appears to have been in 1971 when he put together stories for the Funky Phantom, an unfortunate mixture of Snagglepuss and Scooby Doo. Toward the end of the decade, Maltese reunited with Jones for pale carbon copies of their Warner Bros. cartoons and, as the story goes, had his storyboard for the Duck Dodgers sequel tossed out by the director. Fortunately, Maltese lived into the era where old theatrical cartoons were written about and praised, and he was awarded by his peers before he died on February 22, 1981.
Picking a favourite Maltese cartoon, even a favourite Maltese moment, at Hanna-Barbera is pretty much impossible. El Kabong bashing a bad guy with an out-of-tune guitar, Snuffles’ self-love and leap into the sky after eating a dog biscuit (made by sponsor Kellogg’s) are things the most casual cartoon watchers of a certain age remember, even if they don’t know the writer responsible. And people still quote the line Maltese handed to Snagglepuss: “Exit, stage right.”
Here’s another shot of Maltese outside the concrete brick bunker studio at 3501 Cahuenga, where Hanna-Barbera was housed by August 1960. On the left are layout artist Dick Bickenbach and production supervisor Howard Hanson. On the right of Maltese is someone whose picture I don’t recall seeing before. He’s Paul Sommer, who was a story director at the studio. He would have been about 50 at the time this photo was taken and died in 2011 at the age of 99. The photo was provided by Tony Benedict, who was writing at Hanna-Barbera at the time.
Mike’s daughter Brenda told the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “He was always funny . . . he had charisma . . . He would walk in a room and take over . . . He took a lot of [his ideas] from our animals. We had dogs and cats, and he would pick up on anything . . . I was that obnoxious girl [in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Little Red Riding Rabbit].” (Brenda used to shout “Ta have!” as a girl. Mike put it in the story).
Wherever he got his ideas, they were brilliant at times. And he somehow coped with the huge workload at Hanna-Barbera. He really was the greatest of them all.