The Friz and the Diz

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

August 23, 2006

On August 21, animator and director Isadore "Friz" Freleng would have celebrated his 100th birthday. He passed away on May 26, 1995 at the age of 89, leaving a legacy that included over 30 years at Warner Brothers animation where he was involved in over 300 cartoons including ones featuring Bugs Bunny, Tweety and Sylvester, and Porky Pig. While at Warners, he was honored with four Academy Awards for shorts that he had directed and was nominated for seven others.

In 1963, Freleng teamed up with David DePatie to form DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which produced Saturday morning cartoon series, commercials, and opening sequences for theatrical features including the Pink Panther. That film spawned not only a new cartoon superstar but an entire series of theatrical and television shorts.

In 1980, he returned to Warner Brothers to produce three feature-length films that incorporated classic animated shorts along with new animated sequences.

While these are all incredible achievements, why am I devoting a column to a Warner Brothers animator and the co-creator of the Pink Panther? As some of you may know, Freleng got his start in animation at the early Disney Studios and it was an unhappy story that he frequently shared over the years. When I interviewed him in the late 1970s, the bitterness of the experience was still there in his voice.

While reading this story, it may help for you to remember that the character of Yosemite Sam—a short, fiery-tempered outlaw who was known to shoot himself in the foot—was directly based on Freleng himself.

Freleng was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 21, 1906. In high school, he entered an editorial cartoon contest in the local newspaper and won first prize. Although the second place winner in the contest was Hugh Harman, the two never met until Freleng joined the United Film Ad Service (the same company where Ub Iwerks and Walt himself had learned to animate) shortly after his graduation.

However, Harman was leaving soon to join Walt Disney in Hollywood. Freleng desperately tried to learn as much technique as he could from the animator before he left. Harman also suggested Freleng get a copy of the book Animated Cartoons by E.G. Lutz. Freleng ran down to the library and checked out the very same copy that Walt Disney had checked out years before to learn the art of animation.

"The only thing that saved me was that the people in charge there didn't know any more about animation than I did," laughed Freleng.

With Harman gone, Freleng taught himself animation as he found his responsibilities now included in-betweening, background painting, ink and paint as well as occasional camera work. He studied animated shorts that were shown at the local theaters and developed a special appreciation for the "Alice Comedies" produced by Walt Disney.

He began a correspondence with Walt Disney, who was looking for new animators for his expanding studio. Hugh Harman had told Walt that Freleng had shown a lot of promise when they worked together briefly at the United Film Ad.

Freleng was honest about his level of ability and that he was still learning. Freleng said that if Walt was willing to be patient enough to teach him animation, he would be willing to join the studio. Walt agreed and offered Freleng $10 more per week than Freleng was currently earning. So, in January 1927, Freleng boarded a train and headed to California.

In Los Angeles at Union Station, Walt Disney in his newly purchased Moon automobile picked up Freleng and drove directly to the Disney Studio on Hyperion. Freleng was greeted by Walt's entire staff including Hugh Harman, his brother Walker Harman, Ub Iwerks, Rudy Ising, and Roy Disney.

The studio was finishing up its commitment to producing the final Alice Comedies before beginning work on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Freleng did bits and pieces of animation on at least nine of the last "Alice Comedies" that he didn't remember clearly when I talked with him. He did, however, remember a compliment that Walt had given him in front of the rest of the studio on a scene he had animated in "Alice's Picnic."

The script had said merely a "mother cat bathing her kittens." Freleng came up with the personality animation gag of a little kitten crawling out of the tub to escape the bath and hanging on the edge of the tub before dropping down to the ground and being scooped up by the mother and put back into the tub.

"That's what I want to see in my pictures," said Walt. "I want the characters to be somebody. I don't want them just to be a drawing."

The Disney Studio was so small that Freleng sat right next to animation legend Ub Iwerks. Freleng remembered Iwerks as a quiet person but very helpful. When Freleng struggled with animating an army tank that had to turn and go off into the distance, Iwerks just took a pencil and drew one tank after another in perfect perspective in less than five minutes as a guide for the aspiring animator.

By March 1927, Freleng was listed on the studio records as a top animator and animated a large amount of footage on the very last of the Alice Comedies known as "Alice in the Big League."

Walt Disney had a temper, but so did Friz Freleng. "He would flip a scene to see what was wrong but he was very intolerant. If I made a mistake, he might get very angry and, of course, that would make me angry. I reminded him that I had written him that I was just learning so I was bound to make mistakes. He had written back that he was willing to patiently teach. That's why I decided to move to California, which was a big decision. I had never been out of Kansas City before. I told him that a good teacher points out the good as well as the bad but he always seemed to concentrate on the bad. He told me he appreciated me having enough guts to tell him what was on my mind and for a while things ran smoothly. But days later, he started in on me again," said Freleng.

Freleng worked on the first theatrical released Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, "Trolley Troubles." Freleng was a fan of the comic strip Toonerville Trolley by Fontaine Fox that featured a similar trolley. (Freleng would later animate another similar trolley in Warner Brothers' "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile" (1931) featuring a Mickey Mouse clone called "Foxy" and animate similar gags like the trolley confronting an uppity cow on the tracks.)

In "Trolley Troubles," Freleng was given the scene to animate where Oswald pulls off his "lucky" rabbit's foot to rub it. In the days before storyboards, the description was typed but not illustrated. A frustrated Freleng went to Walt to ask how to stage the scene. When the foot was removed, should Freleng show the bone or what? Should it screw off like a table leg or just pop off? According to Freleng, Walt was very dismissive and just said, "Oh, you know what to do," and left.

"At that point," Freleng told me, "I knew he didn't know what to do either and was bullying me to come up with something that would work." (In the final animation, the leg quickly pops off and pops back on.)

Freleng worked on several other Oswald cartoons. In June 1927, Walt split his animators into two teams to help meet the deadlines of producing the series. One team led by Hugh Harman and Ham Hamiliton would work on one cartoon while another team headed by Ub Iwerks and Friz Freleng would work on a different cartoon at the same time. (Freleng co-directed "The Banker's Daughter" and "Rickety Gin" but no copies of those two Oswald cartoons are currently known to exist.)

However, the personality clashes between Walt and Freleng had never been fully resolved and all it took to set off this unstable powder keg was a small boil on the butt.

Freleng woke up with a small but painful boil on his rear end. He realized that sitting in the hard chairs at the Disney Studio would only aggravate the pain so he decided to call in sick. However, it wasn't much better at home so he decided to go see a movie in the hopes that the padded seats and air conditioning might take his mind off the pain.

He was going to catch a movie playing at the Carthay Circle Theatre (where both Skeleton Dance and later Snow White premiered) on Wilshire Boulevard. Since he had no car, Freleng took one of the double-decker buses that ran down the street. The upper deck had no roof and gave a panoramic view of the city. That is where Freleng decided to sit.

At a stop, Freleng noticed that behind the bus was Walt Disney himself in his Moon roadster. (Disney would later sell this beloved car to raise money to record sound for "Steamboat Willie.") When Freleng returned to work the next day, he found that his desk had been cleared off and everything he had been working on was gone.

Freleng went to see Walt, who was angry that Freleng had taken the day off when he wasn't sick. Freleng's explanation to the contrary fell on deaf years.

"I had a boil on my butt!" yelled Freleng over and over, and in a fit of temper offered to give two weeks notice.

"You don't have to give me any notice. You can quit now," Disney supposedly responded.

Walt called Roy and Ub and told them that Freleng wanted to quit. Roy felt that if Freleng was unhappy, he should be allowed to leave. Freleng insisted on getting a $50 bonus that had been promised him because he needed that money to get back home to Kansas City. Walt insisted that Freleng had forfeited the bonus because of his actions, but reportedly with some influence by Roy and Ub, Walt relented. Freleng and his brother (who was working at the studio in ink and paint) took a bus home, where Freleng got his old job back at United Film Ad Service.

Freleng continued to correspond with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. When Charles Mintz took over the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series from Disney and set up a studio run by his brother-in-law, Harman and Ising convinced Freleng to join them in the new studio. Freleng later followed the two over to Warner Brothers and made animation history.

The hard feelings between Walt and Freleng lasted until their deaths. When Walt would screen Warner Brothers shorts at the studio and the name "I. Freleng" appeared on the screen, he would make the same Midwest farmer boy joke that the cartoon had been directed by "I. P. Freely." When Freleng would be asked about his time at Disney, he would bring up the "boil on my butt" story to try and convince listeners of Walt's stubbornness and short-sightedness. He insisted that everything he learned about animation, he learned from Harman and Iwerks.

Shortly before his death, Freleng grudgingly admitted in an interview about Walt Disney that, "Now I know he was a genius, and it's pretty hard to work for a genius because you've got to think and do things like he wants."

An interesting side note is that when Freleng produced the Warner Brothers compilation film, Friz Freleng's Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, (1981) it had a section satirizing the Academy Awards—the famous gold statuettes are called "The Oswalds."