Animation has had plenty of unknown geniuses from the directors, artists and storymen of Walt Disney's early features to the sly hands behind the silent pornographic cartoon Buried Treasure but few were more obscure, or more important, than Alexander Anderson, who died Friday at 90 in Carmel, Calif. Anderson created the characters Rocky the flying squirrel, Bullwinkle Moose and Dudley Do-Right, and the vaudeville-style format, for the 1959 animated program Rocky and His Friends and its 1961 spin-off The Bullwinkle Show, known collectively as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
For many who grew up in the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, and for later generations enthralled by reruns, this megafunny enterprise set a standard for wild comic invention, jam-packed narratives and merciless punnery (as in Bullwinkle's alma mater Wossamotta U., or its archrival college Heckwith U.). The talking cartoon animals suggested it was a kid's show; the smart humor, delivered at warp speed, clued in adults that the series was really for them. The trick that The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy try to master 14 to 24 times a year populate a cartoon world with indelible characters Rocky pulled off five times a week. "From watching that show when I was a kid," Simpsons creator Matt Groening told Louis Chunovic, author of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Book, "it was one of my fantasies to grow up and have my own cartoon show. It was a big influence." The middle initial J. in Homer's, Bart's and Abe's names is Groening's tribute to Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose.
With his yellow family and their Springfield neighbors, Groening has earned hundreds of millions of dollars, and the thanks of a like number of kids and adults. Everyone knows his name, if not how to pronounce it (Graining). Similarly, most admirers of the squirrel, the moose and their fellow denizens of Frostbite Falls, Minn., know that Jay Ward produced the two series, and that Bill Scott was in charge of writing and directing. The show's voice actors Scott (who did Bullwinkle), June Frees (Rocky), Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash) and Edward Everett Horton (narrator of the Fractured Fables) have secured their fair share of renown. And some fans surely remember the credit, at the end of each episode, for the executive producer, Ponsonby Britt. He didn't exist: Ward and Scott made the name up.
But there was a real person who got almost no credit, and without whom the characters and the show wouldn't have existed. That was Alex Anderson, and it took a lawsuit against Ward's estate, which was settled in 1996, to make his crucial contribution public. Actually, not that public. I've revered Rocky and Bullwinkle since it came on the air, when I was a kid, and until I read of Anderson's death I didn't know either his name or the acclaim he deserved.
Alexander Anderson and J Troplong Ward were born 15 days apart in September 1920 in Berkeley, Calif. Friends from youth, both men went to U.C. Berkeley; Anderson also studied at the California School for Fine Arts in San Francisco and, on summer vacations, worked for his uncle, Paul Terry, on the Terrytoons animated shorts. During World War II, Ward got a master's degree from the Harvard Business School, while Anderson, his wife Pamela told the Kansas City Star, served in the Navy as a spy. For most of his career in advertising and animation, he would remain undercover as well.
After the war, Anderson went to work full-time for Terrytoons, in New Rochelle, N.Y. Movie attendance was at an all-time high, but Anderson was excited about the infant medium of TV. "I began to think there was a way to do comic strips for television with just enough movement to sustain interest and having a narrator tell the story," he explained. "You use a narrator so the characters don't have to act everything out." In 1948 he dreamed up Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon series made for TV. "I asked Uncle Paul if we could develop some animated characters for television," he told John Province of the online cartoon-history site Hogan's Alley. "He said if the studio had anything to do with television, 20th Century Fox might cancel his releases. They clearly saw TV as a threat. He told me, however, that if I wanted to tackle it on my own, then Godspeed."
Anderson returned to Berkeley and mentioned the project to Ward, who had started a career in real estate. Ward loved the notion, and from 1949 to 1952, using a studio apartment and a duplex garage as their studio, they made 195 short episodes of Crusader Rabbit, which ran originally on NBC and then in syndication. Ward handled the business end, Anderson the creative side. He directed and supervised the scripts and animation what little animation there was; the show was essentially storyboards with bare-minimum movement.