But one day in September, 1991, I was perusing an issue of Comics Scene magazine at a local drugstore and found therein an article entitled, "Robert McKimson's Legacy". Surrounded by sketches of the Tasmanian Devil, Hippety Hopper, and Speedy Gonzales was a photograph of McKimson in his forties, and in the second paragraph of the article, it was revealed that McKimson was dead. Long dead.
At age 66, his approach to ageing was comparable to that of Dorian Gray, and he was still working with his colleagues from his Warner Brothers days, including Friz Freleng, at DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. His doctor examined him on the morning of September 27, 1977 and declared him healthy and chipper for a 66-year-old man. Naturally, he was in mood for celebration. While lunching with Freleng and fellow animation artists at a Burbank restaurant on that fateful day, McKimson suffered a massive coronary and died in seconds.
I have looked at microfilmed newspapers for September 27 and 28 of 1977, including The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and McKimson's rather ironic demise was never reported. Despite the fact of his contributions for more than four decades to animated cartoons, his death was not considered newsworthy.
But 1977 has always been a critical year in my life, the year in which a move to a totally different community split my childhood life experiences into two distinct phases, and which already fascinated me for the other show business notables who, that year, departed this world: Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone; Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Jack Benny's valet; Freddie Prinze (Chico and the Man); and, of course, Elvis Presley. Now, McKimson's name was added to the list.
I learned why McKimson's death had not been considered worthy of mention. He was not regarded to be anywhere near as capable a director of timelessly funny animated cartoons as Jones and Freleng, and certain experts of the short-cartoon genre have invalidated all of McKimson's work post-1950, save for a few of his Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. He is described as having had a "squarer" style.
While I can understand the argument that McKimson's work tended to repeat itself, in stretching a formula story into seemingly endless sequels, like the "giant mouse" gag of Sylvester's tussles with baby kangaroo Hippety Hopper, or Daffy Duck the gumshoe versus a formidable villain, or Foghorn Leghorn's incessant lecturing of pint-sized Henery Hawk, his cartoons, to me, are nevertheless worthy of praise. They vary to include such imaginative one-cartoon characters as Moe Hican, the wealthy Indian, Prof. Calvin Q. Calculus, inventor of the portable hole, Robert(a), dog of uncertain breed and gender, and Junior Possum, the hang-by-his-tail, lazy son of yokel parent possums. Other McKimson creations are the lame-brained Pete Puma, the equally slow-witted buzzards, Pappy and Elvis, the amiable but easily angered Smoky the Genie, a beanie-capped, wise-cracking crow, the forgetful Big Bad Wolf, the hyperactive, chick-thieving weasel, French-Canadian rogue Blacque Jacque Shellacque, a cute, wheel-detesting canine named Bartholomew, the Gambling Bug, Rapid Rabbit, and Bunny and Claude.
McKimson pre-dated The Flintstones with an early-1960 cartoon, "Wild Wild World", concerning the "modern" lifestyle of the Stone Age. He created such immortal characters as Speedy Gonzales, Sylvester Jr., Hippety Hopper, the Tasmanian Devil, Foghorn Leghorn, the barnyard dog, Miss Prissy, and Egghead Jr.. He adapted The Jack Benny Programme and The Honeymooners in cartoon form, with the characters appearing as mice. He drew the look of Bugs Bunny that would become world-accustomed for generations. Most of the character poses for title cards on The Road Runner Show and The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour had the McKimson appearance. And most of his Bugs Bunny cartoons, with an exceedingly bold, sassy Bugs, are visually hilarious, including "Hillbilly Hare", "Acrobatty Bunny", "No Parking Hare", "French Rarebit", "Gorilla My Dreams", "Rebel Rabbit", "A-Lad-in His Lamp", "Wideo Wabbit", and "The Windblown Hare".
And, anyway, what is so objectionable about formula stories? Do not most successful television and movie series tend to establish and maintain their own formula? And it could be argued that just about every cartoon short ever made adheres to some formula. Cat chasing elusive mouse in a house. Formula. Serious character with some objective (e.g. hunting, building something, relaxing) being heckled by wacky character. Formula. Character bullied by a swaggering character retaliates. Formula. The important thing, it seems to me, is how creative are variations on the formula. And McKimson's Hippety Hopper cartoon series did do some creative things with its prospectus, situating Sylvester's tussle with the "giant mouse" on a ship, in a lighthouse, and in a museum, or integrating specific notions of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" into the proceedings of one of the cartoons. McKimson also was inventive with his Tasmanian Devil character, pitting the voracious, spinning juggernaut against both Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and moving the encounter of Bugs with the Tasmanian Devil from an American woodland to Tasmania and thence to a city dockyard and subsequently to a jungle medical hut.
McKimson's cartoons are, by and large, faster-paced than those of the other directors, and more graphic, with Foghorn Leghorn pounding the barnyard dog's rear with lightning speed, with the Tasmanian Devil moving like a tornado through jungles and forests, with Hippety Hopper kicking Sylvester in the face over and over in a matter of seconds, and with people in a road traffic jam punching each other in rapid succession. Thus, McKimson's characters are more inclined to be in bandages or arm or leg casts. Rather than wink or raise an eyebrow, his characters, especially Bugs and Foghorn Leghorn, often speak aside to the audience, while another character is about to suffer some painful indignity.
In comparison with the characters as drawn by the units of the other directors, McKimson's Bugs has droopier eyes and in earlier cartoons squatter and fatter legs, his Daffy has a wider beak, and his Sylvester has fluffier, white cheek hair.
Situations like Daffy Duck on a desert with a gold nugget and desperate for water only providable by a pack rat that wants the gold, or Daffy as a somewhat less than deft doer of super-heroic deeds, or an unlucky cat being bitten again and again by the Gambling Bug that forces him to play cards for violent penalties, or Bugs imitating Groucho Marx, Liberace, and Art Carney all in one cartoon whilst escaping Elmer Fudd's hunting rifle in a television studio, are vintage McKimson. And McKimson's Foghorn Leghorn cartoon series, formulaic in as much as it puts Foghorn Leghorn in a barnyard battles of brawn, brain, or wits with other characters, kept its range of situations quite broad with a diverse array of antagonists. He even successfully brought peddler Daffy Duck into one of his Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. Personally, I find the Pepe Le Pew cartoons of Chuck Jones more redundant and indistinguishable from each other than I do any of McKimson's work.
It is an injustice that no videotape was ever released in honour of McKimson. In the 1980s, there was, on VHS and Beta videocassette, A SALUTE TO CHUCK JONES, A SALUTE TO FRIZ FRELENG, and A SALUTE TO MEL BLANC, and that, alas, was all. McKimson's cartoons continue to entertain people by the millions, and his Tasmanian Devil character alone has become a signature character for the Warner Brothers company, second only to Bugs. And some of his cartoons were nominated for Academy Awards.
Robert McKimson has been one of the principal contributors to the entertainment of my youth and later life. Actually, many of his cartoons I saw for the first time in the 1990s, during my mid-to-late-twenties. And the fact that he died when I was 11 years-old, during possibly the most significant year of my entire life, will always in my mind be a sort of association. He passed-on just weeks after a part of my life essentially ended.
Robert McKimson, wherever you are, you are missed!