Paul Dini (kingofbreakfast) wrote,

He's the Chief, he's the King...

The heading above is taken from the opening theme song to the classic cartoon series TOP CAT. The same attributes ascribed to T.C. in the song also apply to his co-creator, Joe Barbera. Mr. B. died early this afternoon at possibly age 95, possibly age 96, possibly older. All anyone knows for certain is that he had one of the longest, most distinguished and honored runs of any animation producer, second only to Disney in terms of his characters pop cultural impact.

I wrote a couple freelance Scoobys for Hanna-Barbera back in the early eighties, but I never had the experience of working one on one with Joe. I got to know him later when H/B was conglomerated by Warner Bros. in the mid-90's. At the time Joe and Bill were given a suite of executive offices inside the Warner Animation building and were treated with much-deserved creator emeritus status. Though Joe kept working on a variety of new projects right up until last month, he was never too busy to shoot the breeze if you dropped by his office. Mark Evanier, Alan Burnett and I would join him for lunch every so often at La Pergola, a favorite dining spot of his in Sherman Oaks, where Joe would hold court and tell tales of his days of directing with Bill at MGM and the early days of Hanna-Barbera. (A further, more detailed account of one of our lunches can be found on Mark's site, http://www.newsfromme.com/ ) Joe sold many, many cartoon shows of varying quality to the networks over the last 48 years, and if you asked him a question about HAIR BEAR or WHEELIE AND THE CHOPPER BUNCH, I doubt you'd get more than a blank stare from him. He gave me the impression that a lot of the stuff that latter-day H/B produced was generated to keep the studio doors open and the staff working and little else.

However, one day I started the lunchtime conversation by saying, "You directed the only cartoon that ever upset me as a child" and Joe responded immediately with "Ahh, 'Povre, povre poosycat'." He knew instinctively that I was referring to "The Two Mouseketeers," a lushly produced period piece TOM AND JERRY and perhaps the only one where Tom is depicted as really dying at the end. Sure, he was flattened, mauled, run over and shot in just about every cartoon, but the ending of "Mouseketeers" is different. Tom, the King's guard in pre-revolutionary France, is told in no uncertain terms to make sure the Mouseketeers don't get into the King's dinner or "Off comes ze head." At the end of the cartoon we see the triumphant Jerry and Tuffy toting home a load of the royal goodies, Tom's mission apparently a failure. The mice suddenly stop as they watch the distant image of a guillotine blade drop with a final and fatal thump. Tuffy gulps, then shrugs as he adds "Povre, povre poosycat," a small salute to their unfortunate foe.

Joe said that he and Bill ended the cartoon like that because they felt they were making a historical mini-epic, and in any event, why not give cartoons a tragic ending now and then? Joe further explained that if viewers felt any sympathy at all for Tom (the bully in most of the cartoons) it just made him a more successful character. I also think that's what made Joe a more successful director, especially in terms of his MGM work. Joe had a special affinity for the cat and mouse, much more so than for Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw, Scooby, and maybe even the Flintstones. I once presented Mr. B. with a copy of his then just off the presses autobiography and asked him if he felt like drawing something on the title page. "Sure." He said, taking the book and proffered pen. I expected a small head sketch of Fred, or maybe Huck. What I got was a beautiful rendering of an impish Jerry waving at a scowling Tom, just as full of life and animation if he had drawn them in 1950. Spectacular.

Mr. B. was in any ways, animation's answer to Sinatra, a larger than life Italian who left his own mark on popular culture for several decades. Further cementing the Sinatra image in my mind was that he took to calling me "Dino" over the last couple of years I was at Warners. I'm not sure if that was his way of bestowing a chummy nickname on a fellow Italian, or that he coudn't remember exactly what my name was and Dino was close enough, or that he had me confused with Fred's pet dinosaur (there is a frighteningly close resemblence). I never asked, I just took it as a friendly nod from a man who had already given me a lifetime of things to smile about.

I have many other Joe stories, and I'll post a few once the holiday madness dies down. Right now I think I'll throw on a copy of "The Two Mouseketeers," "The Truce Hurts" or something from the first season of HUCKLEBERRY HOUND and enjoy the work of the man at his best.

Ashes to ashes, meeces to pieces.
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