Sprung from the cel block

Toon house nurtured the careers of top TV talent

“Andy is the nattiest straight guy I’ve ever come across. Who else sports eyeglass frames that match his socks?”

So quips Kevin Murphy, a writer on “Desperate Housewives” who worked for several years at DIC under its founder and current CEO Andy Heyward in the 1990s.

What HBO was to the cable biz — a training ground and launching pad for innumerable execs who have spilled out into the larger media world — so DIC has arguably been for the animation ranks.

In the 25 years since DIC’s inception, a notable array of talents — designers, writers, producers, salespeople, business types — have cut their teeth on the company’s toons.

Take Chuck Lorre, the producer of CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” whose short stint there in the 1980s is still vivid in his memory.

“I can’t quite remember the dates, but DIC back then had offices over Baron’s beauty salon on Ventura Boulevard. I was a musician at night and a door-to-door salesman by day. I happened to pitch them some Christmas gifts, some little FM radios, I think. They even bought some.”

Lorre went on to ask them what they did up there in that cramped space.

Animation, they said.

“Do you do ‘funny?'” Lorre hazarded to ask. “I guess I was arrogant, young and stupid, but anyway, after the holidays, theyasked me to pitch them some stories.”

It was like the Wild West working in indie TV back then, Lorre says.

DIC later moved to an abandoned supermarket, still on Ventura Boulevard, where the air conditioners that were bolted onto the windows would blow out the computers the staff was working on. Haim Saban (he of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” fame) was down the street, in a ramshackle recording studio.

“It was insane, overnight, exciting. I still remember my first script — ‘An Officer and an Alley Cat’ — for which I got $500. I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Lorre recalls.

At that point, Heyward found it cheaper to take Lorre on as a full-time editor.

And the company was humming. Co-founder Jean Chalopin was selling shows to the networks or into syndication right and left.

“He was this charming, charismatic Parisian, and he’d walk into a network meeting with women buyers, and he’d come out with six or seven commissions,” Lorre remembers.

Before a year was out, Lorre says he got an offer from Marvel. “I tried to refuse. And I probably would have stayed at DIC. I went to Andy, but he was too hard-nosed a businessman (to make a counteroffer).”

Still, Lorre insists, it was a terrific opportunity being at DIC: “I was eager, and they let me break into the biz. You have to write that I am still grateful for the opportunity.”

Several other execs contacted by Variety concur that DIC-dom was demanding, even character-forming — but also fun.

“It was a great learning environment, especially since I and my then-partner were fairly new to the business,” Murphy says.

The curve began at their very first pitch session to Heyward and his team in the early 1990s.

“Our agents sent us on a meeting with Heyward and Robby London, the then-head of production. We did our thing, our storytelling seemed convincing, and they responded, ‘Your pitch is fantastic — but we’re not going to buy your show.'”

What they tried to get across to us, Murphy explains, is that DIC was, even then, bent on identifying projects that could become franchises or brands, that could extend themselves through other ancillaries.

Nonetheless, the relationships initiated that day blossomed. Murphy went on to work on a number of DIC shows, including the hit “Sabrina.”

“DIC is a place where you do your work on a budget — but they’ll let you be as imaginative as you have the energy to be,” Murphy remembers. “Robby and Andy were incredibly open to whatever — there was never any creative interference.”

Disney’s senior VP of animation Lisa Salamone remembers how much of “a total immersion” in the biz working at DIC was.

“It was my first real job, and we’d work really late, lots of pizza, and had chances to do just about everything.”

That “everything” included even donning a Dennis the Menace costume to participate in charities on behalf of the company. Rising in the ranks to associate producer, Salamone says working on shows like “Madeline” — “so true to the original, still one of my favorites” — was great fun.

Similarly, Richard Raynis, who is one of the longest-serving writer-producers on “The Simpsons,” came up through the halls of DIC, working for several years in the mid-’80s at the Burbank-based shop.

“The good thing about indies in that period,” Raynis recalls, “is that you could get to move up fast.” He segued from junior designer to art director, then from director to producer to VP of production all in a half-decade span.

“What most impressed me? Probably how hard, intense, but fun it was,” Raynis says.

As for most indies trying to make it in a fast-changing, and shrinking, animation biz back then, there was not a lot of time or money.

“We had to improvise. And it was hard. Working on things like ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ and the ‘Alf’ series, we nearly killed ourselves. But we were young and we wanted to be proud of what we did,” says Raynis.

Eventually, Raynis ankled and soon got hired on a fledgling Fox tooner called “The Simpsons.” As challenging as working for that long-running primetime hit has been, Raynis says DIC was “an ideal training ground.”

“It’s all about wrangling a production, and Andy was as passionate and determined a guy as they come,” he says.

On the business front, DIC morphed into a unit of CapCities/ABC in the early 1990s, but then after the acquisition of the Alphabet network by Disney, Heyward & Co. decided to take the company solo again.

Part of the team putting together that deal was Brad Brooks, who was president of DIC from 2000-06. He recently left the company to return to the financial world, working for the investment firm Imperial Capital.

“The partnership with ABC had worked well,” Brooks says, “but DIC just didn’t seem to fit well within the Disney fold: They were two different brands, with different agendas and needs.”

In November 2000 DIC was taken private again with an equity investment from Bain Capital.

Brooks says DIC managed adroitly in the last few years to turn itself from a producer of TV shows into a brand management company. As part of that metamorphosis, Brooks last year spearheaded the public listing of the company on the London stock exchange.

“I think a lot of the success of the deals (landing a programming block on CBS is the latest coup for the company), has to do with Andy himself,” Brooks maintains. “He has a willingness to adapt to change. DIC as a result is very flexible: You have to do that if you want to compete these days.”

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