Unsung Creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle Dies

Animation has had plenty of unknown geniuses but few were more obscure, or more important, than Alexander Anderson, who died Friday at 90 in Carmel, Calif.

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Alexander Anderson, creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle, died Oct. 22 in Carmel, Calif.

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Anderson's parodic intent was evident from the start, in the slightly fuller animation that opened each show: a gallant armored figure rides a steed toward the camera and, as a dust cloud evaporates, our hero removes his helmet to reveal a runty, nearsighted hare. In the inaugural 4-min. episode, signs outside Crusader's hutch proclaim his expertise ("Specialist All Types of Crusades," "Crusading Rates by Week or Month," "Bargain Prices to Widows and Orphans"), but he's no Superman: attempting to stop a speeding train with his outstretched hand, he's flattened into a bunny carpet. Embarking on his first mission to "wipe out the whole state of Texas" (because, a Walter Winchellish announcer reports, the locals are "chasing the jackrabbits out of Texas"), the underbunny enlists an ally: a pacifist tiger named Rags. The series' premise — of a little guy (his lines spoken by a woman) and his oversize sidekick (with a deep, dumb, Mortimer Snerd voice) in continuing, comic, cliffhanger episodes with faux-stentorian narration — was an unmistakable rough draft for Rocky and Bullwinkle. Crusader often battled a sneering villain, Dudley Nightshade, whose name suggests both Dudley Do-Right and his nemesis, Snidely Whiplash.

"The operation was a success," Anderson told Province, "but the patient died. NBC didn't renew, and we went on hiatus. It appeared we were ahead of our time, or at least the money wasn't there. I went into advertising and Jay went back to selling real estate." Left on the drawing board was another Anderson idea that would become Rocky and Bullwinkle. "We had called it The Comic Strips of Television, and the concept was to have a program of three or four segments, just as the later show had a potpourri of different segments. In 1948, I had developed Bullwinkle and Rocky and other characters. I understand Jay later took credit, but he didn't do it. My concept was to have a larger group of animals than just Bullwinkle and Rocky producing a television program from Frostbite Falls that would parody shows that were on television at the time." As groundbreaking as Rocky and Bullwinkle would be, Anderson's idea was even more avant: the 1980s' SCTV as a cartoon show.

In Anderson's mind, Rocky (an update of Terrytoons' Mighty Mouse) would be the genial host, and Bullwinkle the French-Canadian moose who dreams of being a star. The Canadian climate also birthed Dudley Do-Right, an inanely stalwart Mountie based on the character played by Nelson Eddy in the 1936 MGM operetta Rose Marie. Scott and other Rocky and Bullwinkle writers continued Anderson's trope of creating figures who were parodies of movie stars: the Slavic spy Boris Badenov, based on the Armenian character actor Akim Tamiroff; his partner-in-crime Natasha Fatale, based on Greta Garbo's Ninotchka; and the duo's boss Fearless Leader, based on Conrad Veidt in Casablanca. Two other favorite characters, the brilliant canine Mr. Peabody and "his boy Sherman" (think Bill Gates as a 9-year-old), were created by Hazel cartoonist Ted Key, another Berkeley boyhood friend; he also sued Jay Ward Productions and won.

So why wasn't Anderson in creative control of Rocky and Bullwinkle, as he had been with Crusader Rabbit? "I didn't want to move to Los Angeles and elected not to get involved in production," he said to Province, "but NBC would not make the deal unless I was involved. So I agreed to act as a creative consultant and to review scripts and make suggestions." Whatever his legal disputes with Ward's estate, Anderson was generous — and accurate — in describing the show he conceived but didn't command. "Jay moved to Southern California and, blessed with a great appreciation of talent, assembled an extraordinary team of writers and actors, and he produced the Rocky and Bullwinkle series."

Anderson's partnership with Ward bears a ghostly resemblance to another midcentury relationship of creator and enabler: that of Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor of Mad, and EC publisher William M. Gaines. Kurtzman had the idea for a satirical comic book, and then a bimonthly magazine, but left after four years when Gaines would not make him part owner. Over the next 30 years, Mad was known as Gaines' magazine, not Kurtzman's; the entrepreneur was mistaken as the artist. Like Gaines, Ward had a grand persona that attracted attention and affection. And nobody's saying that Ward didn't get this terrific show on the air. But without Alex Anderson there would have been no Rocky, no Bullwinkle, no Rocky and Bullwinkle. And 50 years' worth of precocious kids would have missed some of the best afternoons of their lives.

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