Joe Barbera

updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

What was it Neil Armstrong said on the moon? "That's one small step..." etc., etc.? Not the kind of thing anyone would say if he weren't on the moon, but let's be fair; when a man's got to come up with a little something for the history books, he's not likely to say what comes naturally—for instance, "YABBA DABBA DOO!" As a matter of fact, Armstrong's fellow astronaut Wally Schirra did say "YABBA DABBA DOO!" on an Apollo 7 mission just a few months earlier, but posterity was not inclined to take note. After all, Fred Flintstone had been saying the same thing for years—and, in fact, he's still saying it nearly three decades later. As for the moon, there are some nights you can't even see it, and you could never say the same for The Flintstones. The Stone Age sitcom, seen in syndication on more than 100 U.S. channels and in 87 countries, celebrated its 25th season last spring, and last fall ABC introduced a spinoff, The Flintstone Kids, to bolster its lineup of Saturday morning cartoons. Joe Barbera, the man behind the hyphen in Hanna-Barbera, is a man whose time has come and keeps coming.

During their 50-year partnership, idea man Barbera, 76 this month, and technical wizard William Hanna, also 76, have produced more than 250 TV series and specials, which have been dubbed into 20 languages and broadcast all over the world. Their company, the television cartoon industry's biggest, presently employs 400 people at its two-and-a-half-acre Los Angeles headquarters and 800 more overseas. "We owe it all to Huck," says Barbera, gesturing toward a cardboard likeness of Huckleberry Hound. Back in 1960, Huck and his raffish co-star, Yogi Bear, were kids' favorites with a growing grown-up following when Barbera began casting around for a prime-time family cartoon show. Borrowing a little from Ozzie and Harriet and a lot from The Honeymooners, he came up with The Flintstones, concerning the domestic misadventures of a suburban cave family circa 10,000 B.C. "We tried all kinds of families," he says. "We drew them as Pilgrims, as Romans, everything imaginable. Nothing clicked until we made them cave people."

"The concept of the characters in animal skins and us satirizing modern technology made it fun," says Hanna. "But the voices we cast and the characterization of Fred Flintstone had a lot to do with it." Barbera agrees. "Voices make or break your show," he says. "When I'm casting a voice, I close my eyes and listen. If you can't smile when you hear that thing, then you haven't got a hit." Twenty-six years later, actress Jean VanderPyl is still doing Fred's wife, Wilma, and Mel Blanc, 78, the original Bugs Bunny, is in his third decade as Fred's neighbor Barney. But it was Barbera himself who had to tease the first smiles from the networks and ad agencies. "Selling The Flintstones was tough," he recalls. "I had to pitch the show by acting out all the parts myself. I did all the voices and sound effects, and sometimes I would give five presentations in one day. Then I would go back to my hotel room and collapse."

In fact, Fred might never have uttered his first "Yabba" if Hanna and Barbera hadn't been fired by MGM in 1957 as an economy move. Barbera, the Brooklyn-raised son of immigrant parents, had gone into cartooning at the old Paul Terry studios in New York after Walt Disney missed the chance to enlist him. "After I saw a Disney cartoon at the Roxy Theater, I wrote him a fan letter," says Barbera. "I sent a picture of Mickey Mouse that I had copied. I got a letter back that said, 'Dear Mr. Barbera, I'm coming to New York and will try to see you.' But he never called, which, all things considered, turned out to be a lucky thing for me."

Lured to Hollywood in 1937, Hanna and Barbera started almost simultaneously with MGM and spent 20 years turning out Tom and Jerry cartoons before the company decided that they were expendable. "I was attracted to Joe right away," says Hanna. "He was and is one of the greatest cartoon artists I've ever met. I was able to do the timing, and Joe with his draftsmanship could make the storyboards. There were things I could do that he couldn't and vice versa."

"Then suddenly we got this phone call saying, 'Close down production and fire everybody,' " says Barbera. "We had seven Oscars to our credit and getting fired was our reward. MGM found out they could make 90 percent of the same revenue just by re-releasing our old cartoons instead of making new ones. It didn't take courage for us to start our own company, it took sheer terror. Bill and I had been making $600 or $700 a week, and suddenly we weren't making anything. What were we supposed to do, sell real estate? We were cartoonists."

Out on the street, Hanna and Barbera broke into the television cartoon market, still in its infancy. They were shocked to discover what it meant to work on a shoestring. "Instead of $45,000 for five minutes like we had at MGM, we got $2,700," says Barbera. "When we first sold Ruff and Reddy [a dog-and-cat series], Bill and I were taking $40 a week for ourselves. I did the storyboards at home. My daughter Jayne colored in the drawings. She was about 12."

Cost-cutting led Hanna and Barbera to the concept of "limited animation," which eventually transformed the cartoon industry. While at MGM, they had pioneered the use of the "pencil reel," a bare-bones preview film intended to give management an idea of what the finished cartoon would look like. "If a mouse was running, I would do two drawings," says Barbera, "one with the left foot in front, one with the feet reversed. Bill exposed it on film so that the feet were blurring and we got the impression of running." Once they were on their own, Hanna and Barbera simply turned the pencil reel into the finished product. "Instead of 26,000 drawings, we were able to do it with 1,200," says Barbera. "We did it out of desperation, but it looked sharp because it was so explosive with the kind of action we did. Disney's shorts had great technique and quality, but they were too expensive. They would show you some characters walking through a field of flowers, and as they walked the flowers would be swaying slightly in the breeze. Well, to show a character walking you don't have to animate 3,000 flowers."

By simplifying backgrounds and emphasizing action and plot, Hanna and Barbera were the first to be able to complete a five-minute cartoon within television's budgetary constraints. They created their own market and have dominated it ever since—an achievement not everyone chooses to celebrate. In recent years, spurred by parents' groups and by studies purporting to link television to violence in children, the networks have been evaluating cartoons on the basis of their alleged ethical content, not simply their capacity to keep children amused. It is a standard that vexes Barbera. "The world changes and we roll with it," he says grudgingly. "Somehow or other we have to have subliminal moral values. The FCC and the pressure groups who say we're perverting all the children of the world—they come first. The basic thrust of the show, which is entertainment, laughs and fun, comes last. You can't throw a pie in anybody's face anymore because it can be imitated by a child as a violent act. Well, we've been toeing that line for 18 years now and I don't think the world has gotten any better."

Despite network guidelines, detractors don't see much improvement in the quality of TV cartooning. Hanna-Barbera and other studios stand accused of making copycat half-hour "commercials," thinly disguised as entertainment, for products kids are encouraged to buy. " 'We'll be right back after these messages' doesn't mean anything anymore," says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television. "It only separates a commercial from a commercial. Kids have a harder time understanding when they're being sold a bill of goods than adults do."

The very commercialism Charren deplores, says Barbera, enables his industry to maintain its margin of profit. "If someone has a toy, and we can work a show out of that, it helps us to keep the doors open," he says. "Today in the cartoon business you end up with a deficit every season on sales to the networks. One of the things that keeps us afloat is the additional income we get from merchandising." He is irritated, though, by the mechanical sameness of the toys that cartoon shows are selling. "It's a trend," he says with a resigned shrug. "If you sit there on a Saturday morning, you can't tell a Transformer from a Robotix or a GoBot. They all zap and change into something else, but you say to yourself, 'Who's the star? Where's the personality?' I can't go to a closeup of the face of one of those things and get a tear. If you're a child, you don't take one to bed with you to cuddle. But trends come and go. I think some of the network people are already looking to turn back to warmer characters."

Having made its reputation on warmer characters to begin with, Hanna-Barbera Productions has made millions licensing as many as 4,500 products bearing the likenesses of Huck, Yogi, Top Cat and others. But most of these deals were made after Hanna and Barbera sold their company (which they started with $4,000) to Taft Broadcasting for $12.5 million in 1966. Obviously, Taft got a bargain. Today Hanna-Barbera's net worth is at least $300 million, and perhaps much more.

But fear not for Barbera. He and Hanna have management contracts and continue to direct their own studio. Barbera is president, son Neal works for Hanna-Barbera as a story editor, and Jayne, who used to color the storyboards, is No. 2 behind Hanna in the production end. (Both, as well as their sister, Lynn, a Los Angeles housewife, are by Barbera's first wife, Dorothy, from whom he was divorced in 1964.) It is clear, too, that Barbera's other children, his characters, are in no danger of underemployment. If there is more than a little of Jim Henson in Kermit the Frog, and a lot of Charles Schulz in Charlie Brown, there is also some Yogi Bear in Barbera. "He's like my alter ego," Barbera admits. "He's fast on his feet, he gets cornered by the park ranger and he gives these great answers. I'm like a quick-thinking, slightly conning bear, except of course," he adds with a wink, "I don't con anybody. My license plate says YOGI BEAR. My wife's reads MRS YOGI."

Barbera and MRS YOGI, his English-born wife, Sheila Holden, have been married for nearly 21 years. They live quietly near Mulholland Drive and divide their weekends between vacation homes in Palm Springs and on the coast near Ventura. "I admit it sheepishly," he says, "but when I'm not at the office I don't do anything. By the time I'm through there I don't even want to talk." In fact, there are critics who say Barbera's well has run dry, and that it has been years since he's created a character with the charm and staying power of the Flintstones. Still, the idea man isn't calling it quits. "In addition to The Flintstone Kids," he says, "we're fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine—one I've had since I was a kid in Catholic school—doing a series called The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible on videocassette. And we just made a deal for 10 two-hour features for syndication based on some of our most popular characters. Plus I'd like to finish the play I'm writing and get started with the book I'm gonna write. It's a fantasy business. What does age have to do with it?" To a man who has spent much of his adult life consorting with talking cats, bears and bloodhounds, the answer is, clearly, not much.

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