His X-Rated Fritz (and L.A.) Behind Him, Cartoonist Ralph Bakshi Tries to Make the Grade as a Painter

updated 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Amid the clutter of scrap metal, paintbrushes, sticks and old lumber strewn about his Croton Falls, N.Y., studio, Ralph Bakshi squats beside a large sack of brick dust and runs his hands through the gritty, red powder. Painting, he says, and his use of brick dust for texture, "is very physical, a joy. It just feels great. It's like living in Brooklyn again. That's how it all got started. The sun would come up, and I would see it hit those buildings. It has to do with my tremendous love for the city, America, who we are."

If this sounds a touch too soft for the rough and raunchy cartoonist who first shocked audiences in 1972 with his rascally X-rated feature, Fritz the Cat, then meet the new Ralph Bakshi, 49, abstract painter and small-town family man. Four years ago, after more than a decade in California making such animated films as Heavy Traffic, The Lord of the Rings, Wizards and American Pop, Bakshi gave up Hollywood success, limos and a 40-room house and moved East with his wife and their three children. For years a closet painter of portraits that he showed only to intimates, he was eager to paint full-time and also to steer himself and his family toward a simpler, less glamorous way of life.

"It was tough for a while—the phone would ring a lot," recalls the bearish, bushy-eyebrowed artist. "I mean nobody gives up Hollywood and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to paint pictures that no one may ever look at. But I'm through it now. I'll do movies again, but only very, very special projects. If I'm going to make the most perfect animation film, it will be because of what I've learned in painting, not what I've learned looking at a Disney film."

Though he was born in pre-Israel Palestine to Russian-Jewish parents, Bakshi spent all but his first year of childhood in Brooklyn, later attending high school in Manhattan, and he says he never adapted to the Los Angeles scene. He also feared it would adversely affect his children—Preston, now 17, Victoria, 16, and Eddie, 15 (he also has a 25-year-old son, Mark, from a previous marriage). "It was disgusting," he says with his typical big laugh. "Things were getting out of hand, with the $300 dresses the girls wanted and limousines taking you from point A to point B. The greatest thing for my kids when we came east was learning to do things on their own. If your friends' parents earn only $35,000 a year, that's a whole different set of values. We had big discussions when my son wanted a used car last year. It was a major decision. He got his used Honda, and, my God, he couldn't have got a better present than if Daddy had given him a Ferrari in Hollywood."

In his peak movie days, Bakshi ran an animation company with 800 employees. "I never looked at costs," he says, "never went to the banks [for loans] like Disney did, had no background in business. But the business was 100 percent owned by me—with 100 percent of the aggravation. It wasn't the smartest thing I ever did, but I love working with masses of people. I love to lead. What they loved was a chance for freedom. We weren't talking to children with our animated films. We were tackling different subjects, trying for different styles, different ratings." As for what they accomplished, "it was a breakthrough," Bakshi says. "Disney didn't know what a nipple was."

But those years of making adult cartoons, many with sexy characters that often offended old-guard animators, helped Bakshi "come to terms" with himself. "Amazingly, Hollywood helped me get there," he says. "It's all up there on the screen. It was like going to a psychiatrist, but they paid me." Now, with his first exhibit of colorful, jagged, paint-and-wood assemblages having opened at Manhattan's Phillip Dash Gallery in October, the energetic, largely self-taught painter is uneasy about his new endeavors. "I was never as nervous as having this show," he says. "My sister, Eva, showed up and said, 'What's that? For this you stopped making movies?' A lot of people were surprised. Some expected giant cartoon paintings. But no one laughed."

Glancing about his studio in an old, converted schoolhouse, Bakshi lights a cigarette and admits the encouragement that his wife, Elizabeth, 43, gave him made his new life possible. They now live in a modest South Salem house in a lakeside setting a half hour's drive from the studio. "I don't think I could have done it without her," he says, adding, "I'm not poor by any means, and Hollywood paid for the kids' college. But now I wait in line to see a movie, go to soccer games. I've got teenagers, I'm still a teenager though. We're both leaping for the same car on Friday nights."

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