At the peak of his fame, Jay Ward (1920-1989) was always being pestered with requests for his biography. But he felt that his life had been so relatively uneventful-for the man behind Rocky and Bull winkle, one of the most groundbreaking and eccentric shows on television-that no one would be interested. To make up for it, he and co-producer Bill Scott created a fictional executive producer, Ponsonby Britt, O.B.E., with a bio to match the impressive name.
Yet Ward's own life was complex and interesting enough for the man who was responsible for the first animated cartoons made specifically for television. He also produced the best television animation in almost four decades and helped create a number of characters that have become a permanent part of the American landscape.
From the beginning, his life was different from most. He was born J (no period, he was to choose his own name later) Troplong (French, his mother's birth name) Ward in San Francisco on September 20, 1920. His parents separated soon afterward, and his father moved to New York. Ward stayed in San Francisco with his mother, a well-known singer and dancer.
Ward's early life was no more eventful than most. He did well in school and, though not naturally gifted, pushed himself to succeed in sports. He received an undergraduate degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1941, then enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. His time there was interrupted when the United States entered World War II and Ward was drafted. He spent the duration in the Army Air Force. In 1943 Ward married a girl he had met while at Harvard. When discharged, he returned to complete his studies.
Some people never figure out that they have chosen the wrong profession. Ward got the message early, dramatically, and painfully. With his fresh Harvard MBA, he opened a real-estate office in Berkeley, California. On the very day he opened the office, he was at the front door speaking to the mailman, as a lumber truck went out of control on a nearby hill and plummeted through the front window of the office, running over Ward and pinning him against a wall. Ward suffered a broken kneecap, and severe muscle injuries in his legs. This incident marked the beginning of psychological problems that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Birth of Crusader Rabbit
It was at this time that Ward's career underwent a major shift. While recuperating from his injuries, he was visited by a childhood friend, Alex Anderson. Anderson was an artist who had apprenticed at his uncle, Paul Terry's Terrytoon animation studio. He had been impressed by a cartoon sequence in a Walt Disney feature that merged narration with storyboard sketches, the static drawings used to determine the order of action and scenes in a film or cartoon. This was in contrast to Disney's usual lush, expensive full animation cartoons, where each frame of film requires a different drawing of the entire character or characters moving only slightly each time, creating a flowing movement for the characters or objects when filmed. This appealed to the writer in Anderson, also a talented and funny animation artist. He saw the "moving comic strip" as a way to produce inexpensive cartoons specifically for television. Scenes could be reused and, when a turn of the head or raising of the arm were necessary, the part in motion could be redrawn and placed over the characters' body. This process became known as limited animation, and is the basis for most television animation.
Anderson had already created the concept he wanted. It was the concept that would become a signature of future Jay Ward productions. He thought it should feature a strong lead character in a small body, partnered with a sweet good-natured friend in a larger, even threatening body. Strong narration and funny writing was needed to offset the limited animation. Ward decided to team up with Anderson. Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger were born.
It was a new concept for television programmers, who were already buying 20-year-old theatrical cartoons cheaply from distributors. Ward and Anderson showed the pilot for Crusader Rabbit to NBC. The network was interested but nervous about dealing with two men with no experience. Ward and Anderson teamed with experienced filmmaker Jerry Fairbanks and formed Television Arts. Fairbanks already had signed an agreement with NBC as the exclusive supplier of filmed shows for the network. NBC ordered 130 episodes; Ward and Anderson got to work. After a few shows were completed, NBC decided not to air the show itself, preferring to offer it in syndication to its affiliates. After the 130 episodes were delivered, NBC decided not to renew.
When Television Arts tried to take its profits from the series and move on, Ward and Anderson learned that Fairbanks had been using NBC to bankroll his own productions and was now in debt to the network. NBC now owned the films, and the Television Arts agreement meant that that they were entitled to their share of Fairbanks' share, which was nothing. In 1953, Television Arts took Fairbanks and NBC to court. The case lasted over three years and, in the end, Ward and Anderson lost.
Once the fight over the Crusader Rabbit cartoons had ended, Ward was contacted by Leonard Key, another high school friend. Key had been on the periphery of the original series, and convinced Ward that he could find the money to produce some new, color Crusader Rabbit episodes. Anderson was involved in an advertising agency and had no desire to continue making cartoons. That was okay, because it seemed that Television Arts no longer owned the rights to the characters. Not able to fight this time, Ward and Key backed out. New episodes of Crusader Rabbit were produced by another company.
In Bullwinkle's Corner
Fortunately, Ward found another partner, writer/voice actor Bill Scott. Scott started in animation with the Army Air Force's First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), creating training cartoons during World War II. He then worked as a writer for the innovative cartoon studio, United Productions of America (UPA). Scott also performed various functions on the televised Gerald McBoing-Boing Show.
In the late 1950s, the television industry was in a state of transition. For most of the history of network broadcasting, on both radio and television, a sponsor would purchase a specified time period from the network, usually a half-hour or hour. It was then up to that sponsor, usually through their advertising agency, to determine the content, stars, and overall quality of a show. By the late 1950s, the cost of producing a quality television series each week had risen to the point where most sponsors no longer wanted to pay the entire amount themselves. The networks began to produce and schedule the shows, selling advertising time in small amounts-usually 30 seconds or a minute-to sponsors.
Ward's idea for inexpensive limited animation still appealed to sponsors. A pilot was prepared, with Ward and Scott gathering the voices that would make Rocky and Bullwinkle famous: Scott as Bullwinkle, veteran radio and cartoon voice actor June Foray as Rocky and numerous female characters, Paul Frees as every character Bill Scott didn't play, and radio actor William Conrad as the ever-present narrator. The recording sessions directed by Scott, were a lot of fun. Frees would always try to break-up Conrad, the consummate veteran. Ward was always there, the appreciative audience.
The gestation of Rocky was long and sometimes painful for Ward. The pilot was created with almost no budget and therefore featured very limited animation. Ward was not proud of it, but knew that they would do better once someone was willing to pay for it. His friend Len Key had created some capital by forming a distribution company, Partners in Television (PAT). PAT showed the pilot film to an advertising agency, Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample (D-F-S). They showed it to their biggest client, General Mills, who agreed to sponsor the show. General Mills bought time on ABC. Jay Ward, who once looked forward to running his own company, now had to answer to partners, an ad agency, a sponsor, and a network.
It was about this time, in 1959, that Ward suffered the second catastrophic event-after the truck accident-that was to shape the remainder of his life. While on a cross-country plane trip, Ward suffered a panic attack and began to hyperventilate. Unfortunately, someone gave him oxygen, which caused permanent nerve damage. For awhile, Ward's claustrophobia was complicated by agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces. He spent months in his apartment, to recuperate. From that point on, Ward's shyness and diminished physical ability made him less open to meeting with strangers. Just as his name was becoming known, so was the persistent rumor that he was an inaccessible recluse.
Ward might have preferred it that way. PAT and D-F-S had entered into an agreement that gave the agency much production power. One of the demands was that the show be very cheap to produce. PAT set up an animation studio in Mexico City, with mostly inexperienced employees. It was very difficult to oversee production and maintain quality from such a distance, and the look and sound of the first few years of Bullwinkle disappointed Ward greatly.
Rocky and his Friends finally made its first appearance on television and was an immediate hit. The critics loved the humor that could be enjoyed on many levels by many ages, from children to the politically savvy. They overlooked the poor quality of the animation. All of the credit for the show's success was given to Ward, and that allayed his disappointment somewhat. He began to hold big publicity events for Rocky and Bullwinkle and other creations, and was always the genial host, hiding his shyness and illness with a loud bravado.
For the next few years Ward continued to oversee the production of Rocky, as well develop other projects. A new segment joined The Bullwinkle Show when it debuted in prime time on network television, Dudley Do-Right, a parody of Nelson Eddy Canadian Mountie melodramas of the 1930s. Dudley, too, was an immediate success and can still be seen today. The cartoon series Hoppity Hooper and Fractured Flickers, where silent films were dubbed with humorous new dialogue and sound effects, both made it to television for short runs. Ward kept trying to develop live-action series for the networks, but only one of these, Nut House, made it to pilot stage.
In 1967, ABC bought an entirely new show from Jay Ward Productions. Free at last from the demands of partners and sponsors (although never network censors), Ward's studio produced the series that they would be proudest of, George of the Jungle. This was another anthology series, this time featuring the title Tarzan spoof, the witty superhero parody Super Chicken, and the lackluster car racing series Tom Slick. Although designed for a juvenile audience, it still featured tight, witty writing, strong voice performances from Ward's regular crew, and the addition of some of the highest quality limited animation to ever appear on television.
After George of the Jungle, Ward, with his dwindling crew, tried to create some more shows, but nothing seemed to inspire him. He was enjoying semi-retirement and running the Dudley Do-Right Emporium next door to the studios, selling merchandise bearing his characters. He continued to produce Captain Crunch commercials for Quaker Oats until 1984, when the studio closed. Whatever thoughts of returning to the cartoon business Ward might have had ended with the deaths of Bill Scott in 1985 and Paul Frees in 1986. Ward's own health began to fail in 1987; he had cancer of the kidney. He died at home in Los Angeles on October 12, 1989.
Ward's fame was a collaborative effort, and he would be among the first to acknowledge that. The Jay Ward stable of characters really came out of the work of men like Bill Scott, Alex Anderson, and a talented group of writers and performers. But as many of them have said, it was Ward's spirit that motivated them, and the laughter Ward would provide as audience and arbiter that rewarded them.
Scott, Keith, The Moose That Roared, St. Martin's Press, 2000.
"Professor Neon presents" The Jay Ward Animation Special, http://www.vortex.com/av#JayWard1 (January 2, 2001)