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Freleng, Isadore (“Friz”)

Freleng, Isadore (“Friz”)

(b. 21 August 1906 in Kansas City, Missouri; d. 26 May 1995 in Los Angeles, California), animator, director, and producer of animated films and one of the creators of the Warner Brothers style of cartoon animation.

Freleng was one of six children born to Louis Freleng, a Jewish Russian immigrant shoemaker-turned-farmer, and Elka Ribakoff, a homemaker. Because of his diminutive size (as an adult, he only stood five-feet, two-inches tall), Freleng could not participate in sports, so he developed an early talent for sketching. He began a career as an illustrator when he enrolled in the Horner Art School, a private art school in Kansas City that disappeared in the 1930s, and won a Kansas City Post drawing contest, which led to a job with the United Film Advertising Service from 1924 to 1927. United Film specialized in making illustrated cartoons on glass slides and film strips to be run between silent film shorts and features, showcasing local and regional advertising. When fellow illustrator Hugh Harmon left for California to join Walt Disney’s new studio, he encouraged Freleng to follow. Disney hired Freleng to work on Oswald the Rabbit, but in 1928 producer Charles Mintz fired Disney and took the character and most of Disney’s staff, including Freleng, back to work at his own studio in New York. Freleng worked there on the Krazy Kat series, but the small budget forced the animators to turn out footage at breakneck speed, and Freleng had little creative input.

Meanwhile back in California, Harmon and Rudolf Ising sold a series called Looney Tunes, which starred Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, to Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers. They hired Freleng as head animator on their first entry, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (1930). When Ising began a second series of cartoons called Merrie Melodies in 1932, Freleng was promoted to animation director. On 4 September 1932 Freleng married Lily Schonfeld, a marriage that lasted until his death. The Frelengs had two daughters.

When Harmon and Ising left for MGM in late 1933, Schlesinger promoted Freleng to head the Looney Tunes series. His first decision was to hire animators such as Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who directed the first Bugs Bunny cartoon, and Tubby Millar. Over the next few years, Freleng coordinated the introduction of animation talent like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett. He introduced Porky Pig, which became his first major success; he hired Joe Dougherty to do Porky’s voice in I Haven’t Got a Hat in 1935 and replaced him with Mel Blanc in 1937. In 1937 Freleng was tempted by a larger paycheck and more creative freedom to join Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera at MGM on their The Captain and the Kids series, but he returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 and stayed as one of the head directors until the animation facility closed in 1963.

During the 1940s Freleng worked with all the existing characters at Warner Brothers and created several new ones. In the 1945 Bugs Bunny short Hare Trigger, Freleng created Yosemite Sam, a short, hot-tempered, redheaded, mustachioed outlaw he based on his own physical traits and personality. When Freleng became director of the Tweety Pie cartoons in 1946, he redesigned the character and added a bird-hungry cat named Sylvester. The success of Tweety Pie in 1947 won Freleng the first of four Oscars for best short subject. He would win three more at Warner Brothers: for Speedy Gonzalez (1955); (or Birds Anonymous (1957); and for Knighty-Knight Bugs (1958). He was nominated for Life with Feathers (1945), Sandy Claws (1955), and Tobasco Road (1956).

Freleng also directed cartoon segments in feature films in the late 1940s for Warner Brothers. Two Guys from Texas (1948) and My Dream Is Yours (1949) both showcase Bugs Bunny performing musical numbers with live-action characters. In 1950 Freleng and Chuck Jones were asked to write the studio’s eleven-minute 3-D cartoon, So Much for So Little, which was commissioned by the U.S. Public Health Service. So Much for So Little was the only cartoon ever to win an Academy Award for best documentary.

Speedy Gonzalez was the Warner character most associated with Freleng in the 1950s. Freleng took this mouse character, which first appeared in Cat-Tails for Two in 1953, and gave it a name and personality. When Warner animation closed in 1963, Freleng and his partner, David H. DePatie, leased the former Warner facility to produce their own animated shorts. Their first success came in 1964, when producer Blake Edwards asked them to do an animated title sequence for The Pink Panther, the film that introduced Inspector Clousseau. The title character received such widespread attention that United Artists approved its use in a cartoon series. DePatie-Freleng’s The Pink Phink (1964) won Freleng a fifth Academy Award and a contract to produce one Pink Panther cartoon per month for the next six years. The cartoons, inspired by Freleng’s love of silent film comedies, made the transition to television in 1969 when NBC commissioned a half-hour Saturday-morning series called The Pink Panther Show. The Pink Panther character was so popular that it spun off into other programs including The New Pink Panther Show (1971–1976), The Pink Panther Laugh and a Half Hour and a Half (l976–1977), and Think Pink Panther! (1978), as well as three half-hour specials. When NBC tired of the project, Freleng moved over to ABC for The All-New Pink Panther Show (1978–1979).

Freleng also produced numerous theatrical cartoons featuring characters like the Inspector (1965–1969), the Ant and the Aardvark (1966–1971), Rolland and Ratfink (1968–1971), the Tijuana Toads (later the Texas Toads, 1969–1971), the Blue Racer (1972–1974), and Hoot Kloot (1973–1974). During the 1970s he developed The Oddball Couple (1975–1977), Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975–1976), Baggy Pants & the Nitwits (1977–1978), and The Fantastic Four (1978–1979). In 1977 Freleng was executive producer for an ABC Afternoon Special, “My Mom’s Having a Baby,” which won the Emmy for outstanding informational children’s special. In 1978 he won another Emmy, this time for outstanding children’s special, with “Halloween Is Grinch Night.” Freleng finished his successful television run with an Emmy for the outstanding animated program in the 1981–1982 season for “The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat,” which he coproduced with Theodore Geisel.

In the 1970s the popularity of Warner cartoons was revived with the release of Bugs Bunny, Superstar (1975), a documentary featuring on-camera interviews with Freleng and his animation peers, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, along with clips from earlier works. The success of this program led to a series of compilation features that blended new animation with old film clips. Freleng produced and directed three of these features: Friz Freleng’s Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie (1981), Bugs Bunny’s Third Movie1001 Rabbit Tales (1982), and Daffy Duck’s Movie: Fantastic Island (1983).

Freleng was a workaholic who, despite a Yosemite Sam-type temper, was respected and admired by a great many people in the Hollywood animation community. He was also a devoted family man and a member of both the Masons and the Shriners; he was humble despite the fame and prestige that came to him in his later years. As well as five Oscars and three Emmys, Freleng won the Distinguished Career Award from the Animation Society of International Film Artists in 1976, received awards from the Motion Pictures Screen Cartoonists’ Guild and the British Film Institute, and in 1992 his name was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Freleng’s great loves were his family and his work, and he continued to draw and paint the characters he helped popularize until his death from heart failure at the Medical Center of the University of California in Los Angeles at the age of eighty-nine. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Freleng, who worked during “The Golden Age of Animation,” was a leading architect of animated film for over fifty years. He wrote, animated, and directed more than 300 cartoons, including the most popular and memorable cartoons produced at the Warner Brothers Studio. He created new characters and polished old ones, transforming cartoons from gag-filled strings of loony actions to character-oriented, sophisticated forms of storytelling.

The major work on Freleng is Greg Ford, The Art of Friz Freleng (1994). Additional information about his role in animation is in Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic (1980), and Jeff Lenburg, The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons (1991). Freleng is also mentioned in Maurice Horn, The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons (1980); Danny and Gerald Peary, The American Animated Cartoon (1980); Jerry Beck, I Thought I Saw a Puddy Tat (1991); and Donald Crafton, Before Mickey (1992). Animazine (17 Aug. 1984) features an extensive interview with Freleng. An obituary is in the New York Times (28 May 1995).

Patrick A. Trimble

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