HOLLYWOOD — Pioneering animator and director Chuck Jones –who, for over a half-century labored over some of the best animation in Hollywood history and helped create such enduring cartoon legends as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew — died Friday of congestive heart failure at his Corona del Mar, Calif., home. He was 89.
The Oscar-winning Jones is, in part, responsible for some of the most sophisticated feature and television animation ever produced by Hollywood. His feature work for Warner Bros. during its animation heyday became a staple on television for more than a quarter century afterward.
Animators considered Jones “the father of contemporary animation,” said Terry Thoren, a longtime friend and president-CEO of animation studio Klasky Csupo, which produces the “Rugrats” cartoons.
“He was the true leader of our industry after Walt Disney passed away,” Thoren said. “The fact that he is gone creates a big void in our industry.”
Jones’ legacy of more than 500 films spawned three Oscars, nine nominations and such television classics as 1966’s “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Horton Hears a Who.” His influence on generations of animators and filmmakers including Steven Spielberg is virtually incalculable, particularly in the anthropomorphizing of animal characters in his animation. In 1996 Jones was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.
Jones was born in Spokane, Wash. His parents moved to Southern California soon after his birth. He attended the Chouinard Art Institute (later California Institute of the Arts) and worked in a variety of jobs before becoming a cel washer for animator Ub Iwerks and later Charles Mintz and Walter Lantz. He soon graduated to animation with Leon Schlesinger, who had just split from Harman/Ising to form his own studio.
When Schlesinger was sold to Warner Bros., Edward Selzer took command and assigned him with Bob Clampett to the Tex Avery unit, where their early work included Porky Pig and a creature who would later evolve into Daffy Duck.
Studying the work of his idols Avery and Fritz Freleng, he was soon co-director with Clampett on a series for Iwerks called Gabby Goat. His first solo credit was for “The Nightwatchman” in 1938, and in 1940 he won an award for the patriotic “Old Glory.” During the war he worked for the first time with Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) on a satirical military character named Private Snafu, producing a dozen training films; in 1941 he directed “The Dover Boys.”
With the Warners group he began the slow development of the studio animation style, distinct from Disney’s in its unsentimental wit, vivid color and peripatetic movement.
The next few years produced “Fox Pop,” “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears” and “The Aristo-Cat.” In 1944 he directed “Hell Bent for Election,” the first full-length UPA short.
But only after WWII did the WB animation unit kick into overdrive. A group including Mike Maltese, Maurice Noble, Phil DeGuard and animators such as Ken Harris, Phil Monroe, Abe Levitow and Dick Thompson turned out the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes series –literally hundreds of shorts utilizing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, new characters such as Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe Le Pew, and more characters including Michigan J. Frog and Minah Bird.
In 1950 Jones picked up two Oscars, one for Pepe Le Pew cartoon “For Scenti-Mental Reasons,” the other for docu short, “So Much for So Little” –the first time such an honor was bestowed on an animated production.
Warners, however, never fully appreciated its animation unit. In 1958 the unit was closed down temporarily, and Jones moved over to Disney. Studio head Jack Warner recanted but in 1962 closed the shop down permanently.
With his first wife Dorothy, Jones wrote the feature length “Gay Purr-ee,” which used the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet. The 1962 film was directed by Levitow. Jones devoted himself to serious painting for a while, and some of his work was sold at the Cowie and Manhattan Galleries.
Then MGM asked him to take over production on the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons (created by Hanna/Barbera). At MGM he also made Frank Tashlin’s “The Bear That Wasn’t” and “The Dot and the Line,” which brought a third Oscar. Also for MGM, Jones directed full-length feature “The Phantom Tollbooth,” which was not a box office hit but later developed a strong following.
After working as an executive at ABC for children’s programming briefly, he produced “Curiosity Shop,” a Canadian animated series for children. Leaving the executive suite behind, he formed Chuck Jones Enterprises and created primetime TV specials including “The Cricket in Times Square,” “A Very Merry Cricket” and “Yankee Doodle Cricket” (all for ABC). For CBS he adapted three “Jungle Book” tales — “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” “The White Seal” and “Mowgli’s Brothers.” He also supervised Richard Williams’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Also during this period came the now classic Dr. Seuss specials. All his TV work featured the quality of feature animation and not the “illustrated radio” that Jones saw as prevalent on children’s television.
In 1980 he returned to WB with such shorts as “Bunny’s Bustin Out All Over,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rabbit,” “Soup and Sonic” and “Duck Dodgers in the Return of the 24½th Century.”
By the ’80s, Jones’ art was widely heralded and known to several generations of filmgoers and TV watchers. Retrospectives of his work were mounted around the world, and he taught and lectured at higher learning institutions such as Stanford and the U. of Kansas. Tim Hunter conducted an accredited course on his work at UC Santa Cruz.
In 1989 he wrote his autobiography, “Chuck Amuk: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist.” In recognition of his work, the Academy gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1996, which he accepted with characteristic sardonicism: “What can I say in the face of such humiliating evidence?”
With his daughter Linda, Jones established Chuck Jones Film Prods. in 1993 to create a cartoon for the film “Mrs. Doubtfire” and then such shorts as “Chariots of Fur,” “Another Froggy Evening” (as part of a revival of Michigan J. Frog), “Superior Duck,” “From Hare to Eternity” and “Pullet Surprise.” The company was housed at Warner Bros., which has revived its animation unit to compete with Disney.
In 1990, Jones was asked how Bugs Bunny got his name. Jones said: “Back in 1937, we had a writer named Bugs Hardaway, who was working on a picture called ‘Porky’s Hare Hunt.’ Bugs wanted a rabbit for the picture, but he didn’t draw very well. So he asked an animator named Charlie Thorson to draw a rabbit. Charlie made up this drawing — it didn’t look anything like the Bugs of today, but it looked like a rabbit. He sent it back, and because it was for Bugs Hardaway, he put ‘Bugs’ Bunny’ on it. If it has been for me, he’d have said ‘Chuck’s Bunny.’ Anyway everybody saw it, and we realized that this was a good name.”
Jones said the real-life historical character who reminded him most of Bugs was President Franklin Roosevelt. If he was casting a live actor in the role of Bugs, he would use Steve Martin, and if not him Robin Williams. But he’d never let Jerry Lewis play the role because “he’d just go running off with the gags.”
Jones is survived by wife Marian, two daughters and a son, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.