Tuesday 10 November 2020

Ken Spears

They were partners in animation for years—and they died about three months apart.

Ken Spears passed away last Friday of lewy body dementia at the age of 82.

We mentioned in our post about Joe Ruby the two met at Hanna-Barbera about the time the studio was expanding into prime time. They were sound cutters to begin with and then wrote some of those little cartoons-between-the-cartoons on the Kellogg’s syndicated shows while Mike Maltese and Warren Foster busied themselves with bigger things. You can read more in the Ruby post below.

“The usually silent Spears” is how columnist Vernon Scott referred to him in a 1984 article. But we’ve found a story where he did all the talking about a TV special he and Ruby brought to the small screen. It’s little off-topic for this blog, but you might find it of interest. And the blog has pretty much been put to bed anyway. The special was produced by Larry Huber.

This appeared in papers starting December 11, 1987. The special mentioned was on-line at last check but things get pulled so often, I won’t link to it; you can search for it on the web.

Animator/director Scott Shaw sent me a succinct note saying “He was a really nice man.” That’s an epitaph anyone would like to have.

Spears brings his cartoons to TV series
By Mike Hughes
Gannett News Service

On a day like this, Ken Spears was glad that most of his cats are cartoons.
“A cartoon cat will do whatever you say. It will jump off a cliff, spin like a propeller, flatten like a pancake. It has a wonderful attitude. But a real one? “A cat has to be the toughest animal to train in the world,” Spears groaned. “It's so independent that it only does what it feels like.”
As half the Ruby-Spears cartoon team, he's always had a grip on his characters. He could even give orders to Thundarr the Barbarian and to Rambo the semi-civilized.
But he entered new territory with "A Mouse, A Mystery and Me," a pilot film that runs at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC.
The "Mouse" (played by Donald ' O'Connor) is a cartoon; the "Me" (played by newcomer Darcy Marta) isn't. She's a teen-aged author who gets all the credit for solving crimes and writing books, while he does the thinking. The result is sort of a kiddie "Remington Steele."
This idea of putting a cartoon character in a real setting is new for a TV series and keeps the special-effects people busy. “There are no limits to what the character can do,” Spears said. “We have him landing on a pillow, typing on a keyboard, you name it.”
The actors "reacted" to a character who would be added later, but the feline scenes were another matter. “That cat was a nightmare . . . We had to get him to chase after something that essentially wasn't there.”
The big scene involved a chase through a department store. "We'd set off the little fire engine and he'd go about two steps and then run the other way . . . We were there until 4 in the morning.”
Then why bother? Why not just stay in the whim-free comforts of cartoon-land? “We're trying to stay at the edge. We're trying to stay ahead of the trends.” That's almost a necessity as the cartoon business changes wildly.
Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were editors for the Hanna-Barbera firm before starting Ruby-Spears a decade ago. Their first big success was "Thundarr," which led to a string of muscular cartoons.
But Hanna-Barbera countered with the Smurfs and a deluge of cuteness followed, almost driving Ruby-Spears out of business. The company recovered with "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and a string of syndicated cartoons of the sweaty sort, including "Rambo" and "Chuck Norris."
But that trend also died. With nothing left but Alvin, Ruby-Spears needs a fresh direction.
Movies have been mixing cartoons and live people for six decades, but no TV series has done it. “This would be a real breakthrough,” Spears says.
Ruby worked out the design for the lead character and Spears raves. “He's a warm, loveable, cute, spunky little mouse who's been very well designed.”
And unlike other stars or cats, he does exactly what you tell him to do.


  1. RIP Ken..heard on local news..of coiurse we all loved him for his earlier HB cutting..

  2. Spears (and Ruby) both worked on H-B's The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so his - and the reporter's - assertion that a TV series combining live-action and animation had never before been attempted is a real head-scratcher.

    1. TNAOHF had one thing in common with "The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo"; they both usually had the primary villain fit a visual template.