updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
"That came from my being ignored so much in high school," says Chuck Jones, 77, the erstwhile Warner Bros, animation director who, during the '40s and '50s, turned the one-dimensional house duck into a complex neurotic.
Actually Chuck Jones was overlooked long after high school. Perhaps the greatest of Warner's cartoon directors, he always worked hidden away behind the studio logo, virtually unknown by his public. Yet in his 30-year career at the studio, this master artist created Wile E. Coyote, the Road-runner and Pepé Le Pew, and strongly influenced the development of Bugs Bunny, Daffy, Porky and other American icons. Boundlessly versatile, he also created an Oscar-winning abstract short and mini-epics such as What's Opera, Doc?, which featured a Wagnerian Elmer Fudd on a mountain peak invoking the elements. ("Typhoons! Huwwicanes!")
Fame is finding Jones now, like a late afternoon sun. In 1985 the Museum of Modern Art in New York honored him and his fellow Warner's director Friz Freleng with a retrospective. Steven Spielberg says, "Chuck's originality, humor and pacing have no peer. He's the top Toon in town."
Jones is bemused by the recognition. "Boy, nobody came around for interviews in the old days," he says. Right through the shutdown of Warner's animation studio in 1963, the artists who labored there were thought to be grinding out mere hors d'oeuvres for the movie houses. Nothing timeless. "Each cartoon had a life of about three years," says Jones. "Originally there was no TV, so where could they go?"
Cherubic and goateed, Jones is idling poolside at his home in Corona del Mar, Calif. For a man who devised so many bug-eyed chases, shattering explosions and mile-high falls, he is surprisingly serene. "Chuck has violence within him, as every man has," says his friend Ray Bradbury. "But he put it in his cartoons." Which leaves Jones free to savor his sparkling view of the Pacific, an ongoing love affair with his second wife, Marian, and walls of books. Jones loves discussing literature—the works of Twain, say, or the short stories of Somerset Maugham. "Maugham's prose is so lean and vivid," he says. "Though he couldn't write titles for sour owl s—-."
Today the book chiefly on Jones's mind is Chuck Amuck, his new, extravagantly illustrated memoir. Paraded through its pages is the raucous genius of the whole Warner's workshop. For unlike Disney, which came to represent visual richness, sentiment and corporate bloat, Jones and his fellow rebels at Warner's specialized in satire and slapstick. Their cartoons had attitude—you never find Bugs Bunny wishing upon a star.
Chuck Jones's father, Charles, a lover of language, had a word for President Warren G. Harding's mangled syntax: despicable. Later Daffy adopted it.
Otherwise the elder Jones had trouble making a mark. In fact, he had a gift for doomed schemes: He published a cookbook called Fifty Ways to Serve Avocados and inexplicably tried grape growing during Prohibition. Yet for Chuck, the third of four children, there was an upside. Each of his father's fiascos left him with stacks of useless business stationery to sketch on. His artistic sense was also honed by growing up amid the early dazzle of Hollywood.
"As a kid, I worked as an extra in the movies," he says. "I saw the great comedians work—Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin." It all seemed ordinary at the time. "Never occurred to me other little boys couldn't see Mary Pickford riding down Sunset Boulevard on a white horse."
Jones worked his way through L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute and planned to move to Paris to paint. But the Depression forced him into the embryonic animation industry. In 1933, not quite 21, Jones joined the Leon Schlesinger studio in Hollywood. That was the same year that Disney produced the watershed short The Three Little Pigs. "Disney started it all," says Jones. "It was the birth of character animation—pigs who looked alike but moved differently." Like most cartoonists in the '30s, those in the Schlesinger stable were in thrall to the Disney style at first. Especially Jones. The man who would eventually send the Road-runner rocketing through the Southwest began by directing cartoons that were cloyingly sweet and slow.
Still, there was always a big difference between the Stalinist rule at Disney, where animators peered from dark cubicles—"with little red eyes, like gophers," says Jones—and the anarchy at Schlesinger's squalid little bungalow, nicknamed Termite Terrace. Here spirited directors like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Freleng and Jones were free to concoct cartoons to their own taste and to blow raspberries at the boss.
Starting with Schlesinger, Jones has loathed producers all his life. In the chain of being, he says, "a producer falls between sphagnum moss and a planarian worm. The worm is higher because it seeks the light." Yet Schlesinger (who would sell out to Warner's in 1944) had his uses: He inspired the voice of Daffy Duck. In 1938 the producer made one of his unwelcome visits while the staff was noodling over this new character. "When he finally went off to the races," Jones recalls, "one of the writers said, 'You know, Leon's voice would be good for the duck.' " Everybody agreed—not just because of Leon's lisp, but because of his attitude that the world owed him a living.
"What we forgot," says Jones, "was that Leon would have to see it. We figured when he heard his own voice coming out of this screwball duck, we'd all get fired. Leon came in and sat on the gold-painted throne that he'd probably stolen from some Theda Bara picture. We rolled it, praying. At the end he jumped up in the air and cried, 'Jethuth Chritht, where'd you get that great voith?' "
Married by then to Dorothy Webster, a former secretary (they were together 42 years, until her death in 1978), Jones hit his stride as a cartoonist after World War II. The smile-button optimism of Mickey Mouse, a morale-boosting product of the Depression, was yielding to the brashness of Bugs Bunny—"a creature of the '40s," he says. Thanks to Jones, the Warner's menagerie developed more resonant personalities. Bugs Bunny became a counterrevolutionary who never started trouble but usually finished it. Porky Pig became a skeptic, and Fudd, for whom it had been a mild victory just to be able to walk and go "hehhehhehheh" at the same time, actually began to think.
"Jones brought an added warmth to the characters," says Mike Peters, an old friend who is the Pulitzer prizewinning political cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News. "I can tell a Chuck Jones cartoon immediately by how it's drawn. He's got that sly, droopy eye he puts in all of his characters. Really, they're all caricatures of him. He may not know it, but they are."
Daffy was Jones's richest subject. Originally a flat-out wacko, hopping around a lake on his head, the duck became in Jones's hands a resilient, greedy, insecure dynamo with big plans. Jones often cast him in heroic roles, like the Scarlet Pumpernickel, for which the duck considered himself fabulously well suited. Greeting each challenge with a volcanic surge of ego, he suffered endless humiliations.
In the mid '40s, Jones began inventing important characters such as Pepé Le Pew, the amorous French skunk. But his crowning achievements were Wile E. Coyote and Road-runner—Carniverous vulgaris and Acceleratii incrcdibilus—first introduced in Fast and Furry-ous in 1949.
When he was 7 years old, Jones had read Mark Twain's Roughing It. Twain's description of a coyote ("slim, sick and sorry-looking...he is always hungry") sent the boy, who suddenly identified with coyotes, to the encyclopedia. "I found the coyote weighs about 45 to 50 lbs.," says Jones, "which I did. Stretched out he might be 4½-feet long or so, which I was. Hair sort of dirty brown and bleached on top, like mine. And at night he made mournful yelps and cries. Just like me." From this seedling sprouted Wile E. Coyote and his nimble quarry some 40 years later.
Naturally the producers hated them. For one thing Fast and Furry-ous had no dialogue, and "They were paying Mel Blanc to do voices," says Jones. For two years Jones wasn't allowed to make another Road-runner picture—until the studio learned that Navy fliers in Pensacola, Fla., were going "Meep, meep" over their radios. The bird was catching on.
Jones made 26 cartoons about Wile E. Coyote—the luckless predator who defines failure, whether he is raising a forlorn umbrella in the spreading shade of an incoming boulder or falling victim to Acme products through his own ineptness. ("Certainly that reflects my own trouble with tools," Jones says.) Why doesn't Wile E. give up? "Santayana defines a fanatic as one who redoubles his effort after he's forgotten his aim," says Jones. "That's him."
Cinematic in scope, the Road-runner series is also renowned for its brilliant timing. Using full animation's 24 frames a second, Jones created his gags with a jeweler's eye. "Say the coyote is falling off a cliff," he says. "I might decide he should hit in 18 frames—not 17, not 19. Often I've felt one frame was the difference between funny and not."
That precision impresses Steve Smith, director of the Ringling Bros., and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, who uses the Road-runner series as a teaching tool. "We study them in our gag-development class," says Smith. "Clowning by the numbers, we call it."
Jones also believes that cartoon characters need soul. That's why he hates Roger Rabbit. "He's not an individual," he says. "He's just frenetic. Believe me, when you have an animated character onscreen with a live actor, and the actor is the sympathetic one, there's something very wrong."
Still, he is delighted to see the survival of the labor-intensive art of full animation, which had seemed on the verge of extinction. Like monks in the Dark Ages, who kept art alive with their illuminated manuscripts, a few true believers persevere in the craft. Meanwhile, children's TV has largely been lost to jerky "limited animation"—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the rest—that often uses only one-fifth as many drawings per second.
In the '60s, Jones made some Tom and Jerrys at MGM and won an Academy Award for a short called The Dot and the Line. (Two of his Warner's cartoons had won Oscars; the producers took them home.) Thereafter he directed beautiful animated TV specials such as The Phantom Tollbooth in 1970 and Kipling's The White Seal five years later. He also worked with his old friend Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, on the TV versions of Horton Hears a Who and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Now Jones is putting together a second book about drawing. He has built a brisk business creating original art works featuring Bugs and company, which are sold for $600 to $1,200 by his only child, Linda. It is slight compensation for being left out of the revenues reaped by Warner's cartoons. As at Disney, none of Warner's house directors has ever profited from TV residuals or product licensing for these characters, which are now owned by Time Warner Inc.(the corporate parent of PEOPLE'S publisher). In fact, Linda must pay a license fee to sell her father's work.
"I walked out of the Warner's studio as naked as the day I walked in," says Jones. Yet this hasn't affected his sunny disposition. Jones seems to take a cartoonist's view of catastrophe: Even the damage from one of the coyote's precipitous falls lasts 18 frames, tops.