OBITUARY: Friz Freleng

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The Independent Online
"Friz" Freleng made the whole world roar with laughter at his baby-like bird, his wisecracking rabbit, his raspberry-blowing cat, his stuttering pig, his daft duck, his pink panther, his irate and red-whiskered cowboy and his fastest mouse in all Mexico. He worked on more than 300 cartoon films, and won five Oscars for his animations.

He was born Isadore Freleng in 1905, in Kansas City, Missouri, that hotbed of artistic and cinematic talent which supplied most of the early cartoon film talent in America. Educated at Westport High School, he was 16 when he entered and won a cartoon contest for kids run by his local newspaper, the Kansas City Star. The runner-up was Hugh Harman, whom he would meet a few years later when he answered an advertisement for an office boy who could draw. The first time he went to the address he was too scared to go in, but a month later, when a second advertisement appeared, he plucked up courage and got the job. The company was the United Film Ad Service, and they made short commercial cartoons for Kansas City cinemas. It was 1924, and their top animator had just left for holiday to strike out on his own - a young cartoonist called Walt Disney.

"Hugh Harman was around my age, but already a brilliant animator," Freleng recalled. "He taught me all I know." Then Harman left to join Disney, and Freleng found himself virtually running the studio. He pencilled, inked, animated, scripted, and even at times operated the camera. It was not long before Harman persuaded Disney to hire Freleng, and out to Hollywood he went. His salary rose from 27 dollars a week to 50. For the first time Freleng was working on proper animated films, distributed around the world and starring a lop-eared hero called Oscar the Lucky Rabbit.

However, Disney's dominating ways did not suit the short-tempered Freleng, and after one blazing argument he walked out, returning to Kansas City and advertising shorts. Here he met for the first time the company's new animator, a young man called Ben Hardaway. Hardaway, nicknamed "Bugs", would later work alongside Freleng at Warner Bros, and would one day design a rabbit who, for want of a name, became known as Bugs's Bunny. Isadore Freleng himself earned a nickname too. At the time he sported a shock of wild hair. Thus the nickname "Friz" (short for Frizzly).

Meanwhile it was Disney's turn to get fired and the new studio set up under Hugh Harman happily hired Freleng back to animate Oswald the Rabbit. It did not last for long, as further business trickery by the bosses meant Oswald was taken away from the producer Charles Mintz and made a Universal Studios property under Carl Laemmle. Freleng and Harman had had enough of this uncertainty, and decided to spend their savings on a trial talkie cartoon.

"Disney had made Steamboat Willie by adding music and sound-effects to the finished picture," said Freleng. "We did it the other way round, recorded a soundtrack and then animated our cartoon to it." The result was a three- minute film called Bosko the Talk-ink Kid (1929). After several rejections it was taken up by Leon Schlesinger, title-maker to Warner Bros films and producer of their low-budget John Wayne westerns. Warner liked it and commissioned a series with Bosko as the star. The first Looney Tune, a title devised as a parody of Disney's Silly Symphonies, was Sinkin' in the Bath Tub (1930), produced and directed by Harman with his partner Rudolf Ising, and animated by Freleng. "Bosko was a black boy, a sort of Mickey Mouse without the ears," said Freleng.

Looney Tunes, which by contract had to feature songs from Warner Bros Musicals, were black and white. Wishing to match Disney's cartoons, which had the exclusive use of the newly perfected Technicolor, Warner initiated a second series to be known as Merrie Melodies. These would all be filmed in colour, but, as the only available system was Cinecolor, a two-tone red and green method, the films did not really rival Disney's. However Cinecolor was cheaper then Technicolor, so Warners were happy.

The first Merrie Melody was Honeymoon Hotel (1934), a tale of life among the insects of Bugtown, but Freleng, busy with the new Buddy series, did not direct one until Goin' to Heaven on a Mule (1934), inspired by the Al Jolson song success. This was Freleng's first work in colour.

Neither Bosko, who had left Warners with his creators, the Harman-Ising team, nor his successor Buddy, were particularly bright as stars, and Freleng now determined to develop new characters that would catch the cinemagoers' fancy. First was, of all things, a stuttering pig, who tried to deliver the famous old monologue "The Ride of Paul Revere" at a school concert. Created by Bob Clampett, soon to become one of Warners' top directors, the pig, named Porky by Freleng after an overweight playmate from his schooldays, was voiced by a film actor who had a genuine stutter. Unfortunately this was impossible to control and a multi-voiced actor from Warners' own radio station was tested. He was both perfect and hilarious, so Mel Blanc was set upon a new career that would change his life, as the voice of Porky Pig and eventually every other character in the Warner cartoons. The film was I Haven't a Hat (1935).

Hugh Harman again sent for his old friend, and in 1937 Freleng left Warners for the big new animation studio set up by MGM. Here he directed Poultry Pirates (1938), starring the famous newspaper comic-strip characters "The Captain and the Kids". Although excellently animated, the series failed to catch either the public's enthusiasm or Freleng's, and unhappy at the big studio he returned to Warners on a new contract that paid him $250 a week.

You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940) starred not only Porky Pig but the brash newcomer Daffy Duck and the producer Leon Schlesinger himself. This was achieved with an excellent combination of animated and live action, something that would eventually lead Freleng to supplying cartoon sequences for two of Warners' major musicals, Two Guys from Texas (1948), in which Bugs Bunny co-starred with the comedy team of Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, and My Dream is Yours (1943), starring Doris Day and Tweetie Pie. This was the little canary with the baby-talk ("Ooh, I taut I tor a puddy cat!"), originally by Bob Clampitt but brought to perfection by Freleng when he teamed the bird with Sylvester the alley-cat in Tweetie Pie (1947), which won Freleng the first of his five Academy awards.

Whilst using all of the Warner cartoon cast from time to time, Freleng created several of his own. "I tried to combine the smallest character I could possibly draw with the loudest voice I could get," he said. The result was Yosemite Sam, the Horm-Swoggliest Dang-My-Britches, Cowpoke- Cum-Pirate west of the Pecos, whose volcanic eruptions contrasted so delightfully with the ultra-cool Bugs Bunny. First teamed together in Hare Trigger (1944), the duo would eventually win Freleng another Oscar in their period piece Knighty Knight Bugs (1958). Meanwhile he had won Oscars for Speedy Gonzales (1955), starring the Fastest Mouse in All Mexico, and Birds Anonymous (1957), in which Sylvester tried desperately to kick his Tweetie-eating habit.

Television began to loom large in the Sixties, and Freleng joined another animation genius, Chuck Jones, in producing The Bugs Bunny Show, combining extracts of old cartoons with new animation. However, three years later Warners suddenly closed down their studio. David De Patie, son of one of the companies' vice-presidents, came to the rescue. Using his influence he leased the studio as it stood, from superb film-making equipment down to half-used pencils, for a token $500 a month. Together they formed De Patie-Freleng Enterprises and produced a new series of cartoons for Warner Distribution, 60 shorts in five years. Blake Edwards then suggested they might like to design the opening titles of his new comedy film starring David Niven and Peter Sellers, The Pink Panther (1964). United Artists not only approved this, they loved it so much that they commissioned a full-blown series of cinema cartoons starring Freleng's super-cool but silent hero. It began well; the first, Pink Phink, won Freleng his fifth Oscar.

With De Patie as his moneyman Freleng was his own boss at last. Many television specials followed, including Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starring Bing Crosby and his entire family as the voices. A television series was made starring the Pink Panther, and another was created around Hugh Lofting's children's hero Dr Dolittle.

A modest and amusing man in his later years (the fat little fellow who always loses out to the panther is said to be a self- caricature), Friz Freleng told me: "I seemed to have the knack of giving cartoon characters human qualities. They looked like they could think and act, where before they could just move. I put in attitudes, gave them believability."

Denis Gifford

Isadore "Friz" Freleng, film animator: born Kansas City, Missouri 21 August 1905; married (two daughters); died Los Angeles 28 May 1995.