Isadore (“Friz”) Freleng (1904-1995) was an American animator, cartoonist, director, producer and composer best known for making Warner Bros. a worthy competitor of the Walt Disney Studios, as he created and developed characters such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, and many others.
Freleng and his colleague were commissioned to create the opening titles for the feature film The Pink Panther (1963), which became so popular that United Artists, distributors of the film, asked Freleng to produce a short cartoon starring the character, which became The Pink Phink (1964), for which he won his fifth Academy Award. He was nominated for nine Academy Awards in total, and his other four wins were for Tweety Pie (1947), Speedy Gonzales (1955), Birds Anonymous (1957), and Knighty Knight Bugs (1958). His studio also created, among others, the beloved color opening title sequence for the I Dream of Jeannie television series and contributed special effects to the original Star Wars movie (1977), including the animation of the lightsaber blades.
Freleng also won three Emmy Awards for My Mom’s Having a Baby (ABC Afternoon Special, 1977), Halloween is Grinch Night (1978), and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat (1982), and he was awarded a star on Hollywood’s walk of Fame on August 20, 1992. In 1994, the International Family Film Festival presented its first Lifetime Achievement of Excellence in Animation award to Freleng, and the award has since been referred to as the “Friz Award” in his honor. In 1985, the New York Museum of Modern Art honored him (and Chuck Jones) in a perspective that set an all-time attendance record, and his artwork is highly prized and sought by collectors. Exhibited here is an example of his work, an original signed drawing of the Pink Panther.
Freleng was also a classically trained violinist and composer who is credited with mastering the synchronization of movement with music and whose cartoons evidenced a special genius for integrating music and action. As one of very few animators/directors with a musical background, he timed his cartoons on musical bar sheets and he used his creative musical technique in every cartoon he directed over three decades.
Freleng’s father, Lewis Mendel, a Polish immigrant, and his mother, Elka (nee Ribakoff), raised their son in the Orthodox tradition and, unlike many of his Jewish contemporaries, he married within the faith. He originally went by his birth name, Isadore, but after World War II, his studios asked him to stop using the distinctly Jewish name, so he used the name “I. Freleng” for a time until the nickname “Friz” stuck. His work often reflected his Jewish background and, according to his daughter, all his cartoons had a Jewish flavor in that they reflected his Jewish sensibilities, but some are particularly notable.
First, the Jewish history of the famous Bugs Bunny. Although Freleng’s iconic character is usually described as having a Brooklyn accent, most Americans thought of it as a specifically Jewish accent. Ironically, as Freleng’s daughter tells the story, he drew Bugs in a tallit for her son’s bar mitzvah after Warner Bros. refused to permit the drawing for a Hallmark card because it feared that the public might assume that Bugs was Jewish. Freleng’s hysterical response: “Nobody thinks that rabbits can be Jewish, but I’m a Jewish rabbit.”
The stereotypical traits often associated, however inaccurately, with being Jewish are precisely those manifested by Bugs’ character. As David Yehuda Stern, a respected Jewish-British cinematic historian, notes, Bugs settled in a Jewish neighborhood, spoke with a conspicuous New York Jewish accent and, as common to many Jews, used his “Yiddisher kop,” innate intelligence, gift of gab, and comic sensibilities as a survival technique.
In one particularly telling cartoon, Bugs has a flashback to the New York community in which he grew up in the early 20th century and we see that the area was packed with ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. As Stern notes – presumably tongue-in-cheek – deleting the letter “t” from the word “rabbit” would make Bugs a “rabbi” and that, not at all coincidentally, the archenemy of “Rabbi Bugs” is (wait for it): the non-kosher Mr. Porky Pig!
(Cartoon mavens, however, know that Bugs’ chief nemesis was actually the venerable Elmer Fudd – until Freleng introduced Yosemite Sam, as discussed below).
At least one commentator, the allegedly antisemitic Gilad Atzmon, apparently didn’t get the “carrot and shtick” joke, referring to Stern as part of “Hollywood’s indoctrination in the context of Jewish power” – and Bugs, no doubt, as its exemplar. In any event, lost in all this entertaining narishkeit (foolishness) is the fact that a rabbit is not a kosher animal.
In Shuffle Off to Buffalo (1933), which Freleng directed, the celestial Baby Factory where elves prepare babies for delivery to the storks receives a request in Hebrew, and the curly-haired, big-nosed baby who comes back as a rough Jewish stereotype sings “oy yoy” and gets his bottom stamped “Kosher” in Hebrew. In Freddy the Freshman (1932), three cheerleaders are drawn as stereotypically Jewish birds with beak noses and waving pennants also bearing the word “kosher” written in Hebrew. And in Warner Bros. Pigs Is Pigs (1937), he ironically has the mother pig – the ultimate metaphor for a non-kosher animal – speak with a Jewish accent.
Freleng was well aware of the antisemitic atrocities being perpetrated against the Jewish people by the Nazis and, like many of the leading animators of the time, he lent his considerable skills to the anti-Hitler effort by parodying and satirizing the Nazis. For example, he directed both Herr Meets Hare: Donald and Bugs Fight Hitler (1945), in which Bugs takes on Goering in the Black Forest, and Daffy – The Commando (1943), in which Daffy goes behind enemy lines and wreaks havoc on a Nazi officer and his troops. He would also sometimes use Jewish puns in his work, such as in Muzzle Tough (1954) (“Mazel Tov”).
Freleng’s gunslinging, rabbit-hating Yosemite Sam – who he created in 1944 as a more worthy opponent of Bugs Bunny than the milquetoast stuttering Elmer Fudd and who went on to become one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time – may have been “Jewish.”
First, by all accounts, Sam was a dead-ringer for Freleng, who had red hair and commented that “I have the same [stormy] temperament; I’m small (he was 5’4”), and I used to have a red mustache.” Second, his actual name, as disclosed in a 2013 cartoon episode, Daffy Duck, Esquire, is – wait for it – Samuel Rosenbaum. Third, as a commentator once pointed out, Freleng could have used any western-style moniker for the name – and he did try out many such names, including “Denver Dan” and “Wyoming Willie” – and it may not be a mere coincidence that he ultimately settled upon “Yosemite,” which includes the word “Semite” (i.e., a pun on “Yo, Semite”). Fourth, he selected a Jew, Mel Blanc, to voice Sam, and launched his career by also hiring him to voice the first Porky Pig cartoons.
Freleng, who was self-taught and had no formal training in animation, began his incredible career at United Film Advancement Services at age 17, where he met a fellow animator who later introduced him to Walt Disney, who invited him to join the Disney Studio in California. Freleng claims that he was treated poorly at Disney, so he set out with two fellow animators to start their own studio. I have found no evidence to suggest that he was the victim of “Uncle Walt’s” antisemitism but, although the subject is controversial, there is ample proof that Disney was an antisemite.
After moving to New York and finding modest success, including work on Krazy Kat cartoons, Freleng returned to California in 1931 to join the Warner Bros. cartoon department, where his illustrious 30+ year career with the studio began with the introduction of its first true “star,” Porky Pig. The film was I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935), an animation flick notable for presenting one of the earliest examples of characterization in a cartoon. He became Warner’s director of animation in 1935 and, as its most prolific producer, he animated or directed over 260 cartoons. When Warner Bros. closed in 1963, he and an associate formed DePatie-Freleng and produced the Pink Panther television series and other television cartoon specials.
Mel Blanc (1908-1989), “the man of a thousand voices,” was renowned for his remarkable skill, expressive range, and the astonishing number of beloved characters that he portrayed during his work with Warner Bros. during the Golden Age of American animation, and later for Hanna-Barbera television productions. Though his best-known character was arguably Bugs Bunny, he was also the voice of such iconic characters as Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, Woody Woodpecker, Speedy Gonzales, Pepé Le Pew, Tasmanian Devil, Barney Rubble and Dino (Flintstones), Marvin the Martian, and Mr. Spacely (Jetsons). His popularity and fame were such that he became the first voice actor to receive regular screen credits.
He also played Toucan Sam in Froot Loops commercials, the Frito Bandito in Frito’s memorable ads, and too many other characters to list. His range and abilities were such that NBC once held blind voice auditions for five different characters for a new animated series, and Blanc won all five; as Jack Benny once pithily remarked: “There are only five real people in Hollywood – everyone else is Mel Blanc.” The multi-talented Blanc was also an accomplished bassist and violinist who played with the NBC Radio Orchestra and conducted the pit orchestra at Portland’s Orpheum Theatre, making him America’s youngest conductor at age 19.
Born in San Francisco to Jewish parents of Russian descent, Blanc’s family moved to Portland, Oregon, where some of his first performances were with Neighborhood House, which had been founded by the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women to help Portland’s immigrants. After eloping and secretly marrying Estelle Rosenbaum in a civil ceremony, he participated in a Jewish wedding ceremony five months later on Lag B’Omer with his entire family in attendance. His many honors include being named the United Jewish Welfare Fund Man of the Year for his charitable activities.
After moving to Portland, Blanc became enchanted by the strange dialect spoken by an elderly Yiddish-speaking Jewish couple who ran a local grocery and whom he befriended. He learned to imitate their vocal idiosyncrasies and, by his own account, it became the first voice he ever impersonated, which was soon followed by a voice he mimicked from the owner of a Japanese produce market. His multi-lingual immigrant community, a paradigm of the American melting pot (including Russian Jews), provided a virtual cornucopia of languages, dialects, accents, intonations, and vernaculars that supplied a rich and abundant source of material for the prospective voice actor.
Every voice has its story, and my personal favorite is how Blanc came to do his distinct Woody Woodpecker laugh. Once, while cutting a high school class, he noticed that the school halls had a perfect echo, and he performed an assortment of deranged cackles to test their echo effect. Though the principal who caught him was not amused, untold millions of people would later be highly entertained when he used that very piercing zany cackle for Woody. At that time, he changed the spelling of his last name from Blank to “Blanc” in a defiant response to a teacher who told him that his life would follow his name – i.e., “Blank” – because he would never amount to anything.
Blanc’s first major voice was Porky Pig (1937) who, though originally introduced two years earlier by Freleng, was deemed by studio officials to be in urgent need of an upgrade. When Blanc was first offered the role by Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s Jewish head of animation, he famously responded, “What a fine thing to ask a Jewish kid.” He later told David Letterman that he went to a pig farm, where he “wallowed around with the pigs in order to be authentic.” Blanc did not invent Porky’s famous stutter, which was originated by the man who formerly voiced Porky – who had an actual stutter – but he accentuated the stutter, made it funnier, and turned it into an iconic characteristic of the legendary pig.
In the first feature in which Blanc was the voice of Porky, Porky’s Duck Hunt, he also created the voice of the sputtering Daffy Duck and, a year later, he gave voice to Bugs Bunny. Bugs’ cultural importance simply cannot be exaggerated: he has officially appeared in more films than any other cartoon character; he was the first cartoon character to appear on an official United States Postal Service stamp (1997) (see exhibit); and he received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1985), where Blanc and Freleng are also honored.
Bugs’ carrot munching presented a very interesting challenge to Blanc, who reportedly hated them and could not swallow them and recite his next line. This was a particularly serious problem because Bugs’ legendary line, “What’s up Doc?” had to always be accompanied by the sound of the character nibbling on a carrot. The sound engineers devised an interesting solution to the problem: after Blanc chewed the carrots, they would cease recording, wait for him to spit it out, and only then resume taping. One commentator noted the inherent irony of mothers all over America telling their children to “eat carrots, like Bugs Bunny.”
Ironically, Blanc credits Bugs Bunny with playing an important role in saving his life.
On January 24, 1961, Blanc was hit head-on in a near-fatal car accident on Sunset Boulevard in which he suffered a triple skull fracture that left him comatose for three weeks, with newspapers declaring him dead. The accident prompted over 15,000 get-well cards from anxious fans, including many addressed only to “Bugs Bunny, Hollywood, USA,” but the post office knew exactly to whom they were addressed and where to deliver them. In this November 24, 1985, correspondence, Blanc explains who was responsible for his recovery:
It was “Bugs Bunny.” The Doctor came to see me every day to see if I was going to come out of my coma. He would say – “How are you feeling today Mel.” I could not hear him. Then one day he said – “Hey Bugs Bunny, how are you?” When he said Bugs Bunny, I answered him – “just fine, Doc – How are you?” When I said that, he knew I was going to come out of my coma.
Blanc says that one night, while recovering in the hospital, he tried to count all the characters he created; “by midnight, I’d reached 400, but then I fell asleep.”
Blanc’s radio career began in 1927 as a voice actor on the KGW program The Hoot Owls, where his ability to create voices for multiple characters first attracted attention. After working at several other stations, he became a regular on The Jack Benny Program in various roles, including violin teacher Professor LeBlanc; Benny’s pet polar bear Carmichael; Polly the Parrot; and the popular “Sy, the Little Mexican,” who spoke only one word at a time (watch it on YouTube; it is hysterical). He earned his first steady role with Benny after he came to the rescue when the pre-recorded sound failed to play on cue because the TV sound engineers had forgotten to plug in the record player. His instantaneous ad-lib sounds for Benny’s automobile, a 1926 Maxwell in desperate need of a tune-up, proved so popular that Benny discarded the recording and had Blanc continue to make the sounds himself.
Blanc’s success with Benny led to his own radio show on the CBS Radio Network, The Mel Blanc Show, which ran 1946-47, and he also appeared on such other national radio programs as The Abbott and Costello Show and as the Happy Postman on Burns and Allen.
His gravestone bears the famous “Loony Tunes” legend: “That’s All, Folks!”