In his 93 years, Bill Littlejohn packed in enough for three lifetimes. Animator/historian Tom Sito sat down recently with the legendary test pilot/social activist/AMPAS governor/animator to talk about his extraordinary life.
When thinking of animation artists in Hollywood's Golden Age, our image is of a nine-to-five studio employee who stayed his entire career at one dream factory. When thinking of Frank Thomas, one thinks of Disney, and Chuck Jones is forever associated with Warner Bros. But even in that more innocent age, life was never that black and white. The career of William Littlejohn is a case in point. Bill was an animator's animator who worked at MGM, Walter Lantz, Bill Melendez and John Hubley's, yet still had time for alternate careers as a test pilot, engineer, progressive labor leader and mechanic.
Tom Sito: What was your early life like?
Bill Littlejohn: I was born in 1914 in Newark, New Jersey. My father was an engineer for Pitney/Bowes. He pioneered the combining of an adding machine with a typewriter, which became a forerunner of the modern computer. Dad took us on business trips and I recall seeing my first movie -- D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation -- in Liege, Belgium. The first cartoon I saw was a Felix the Cat in Jersey, projected on a tacked-up bed sheet on a hand-crank projector with a kerosene lamp.
TS: You started at the Van Beuren Studio in 1934. What made you choose animation?
BL: (Laughs) It was the Depression and I needed to eat! My aunt was a cameraperson at Van Beuren across from Max Fleischer's. Exposure sheets didn't really come into use until sound pictures. On the silents at Van Beuren, many times they left it up to the cameraperson how long to hold a scene, or how many times to run a cycle, in effect letting them direct. My aunt knew John Foster, the director there, and I started as a cel washer on the Tom & Jerry series [not the famous MGM cat-and-mouse team]. One of my first jobs was to hand out cels to the inkers. They were so slippery in their tissue separators that when I first was handed a stack, I immediately let them drop all over the floor! Soon I was inking, then doing inbetweens, assisting, then animating. I saw the first doings of the union there [in 1935], but I kept my nose clean because many guys were getting in trouble and getting blacklisted.
TS: When Van Bueren closed its doors in 1936, you left the business for awhile?
BL: I still was undecided in my career and I wanted to fly planes. So I moved out to Los Angeles and completed a degree in aeronautical engineering. I began work at Lockheed, but the people there were so boring! They would talk all night about the qualities of a rivet. I took a job animating at the MGM [animation] studio, because the money was better and it was close to Culver Airport, where I could get my pilot's license.
TS: You animated on the shorts of famed cartoonist Milt Gross. On Jitterbug Follies (1938), you animated the two dancing penguins.
BL: Milt Gross was a great experience, liberating. Instead of all those tight inbetweens, his style was loose, no straight lines. The other animators looked at his designs for Count Screwloose and J.R. the Wonder Dog and doubted they could be animated because of their loose nature. So I took them home that night and animated a scene. When Milt saw it the next day, he was thrilled. "Thank you!" he exclaimed and went to show the other artists. Fred Quimby and the MGM brass never liked Milt Gross's cartoons and fired him. They thought his brand of humor was too crude for a classy operation like MGM, but the animators loved doing them.
TS: Jack Zander told me about how physically fit you were. That Fred Quimby would open your door to say hello to find you hanging upside down from the waterpipes in your office.
BL: (Laughing) Not waterpipes. It was actually a trapeze I built into the ceiling. Once when swinging upside down, one end came loose and I was lucky I didn't break my neck. I hung on and spun around the room knocking all of the books and cups off my desk and shelves.
TS: By now the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG) had formed and you met Herb Sorrell.
BL: I just saw too many people getting away with a lot, and too few with nothing, and I had to get involved. So we formed a union. Herb was an ex-fighter and a great champion for the little guy. For that he was called a Communist, which he never was. In fact, the Communist Party/USA disliked him too, because he was his own man and couldn't be controlled.
TS: During the Walt Disney strike in 1941, you were union president and you flew your plane, doing victory rolls over the picketing cartoonists.
BL: You can't do a victory roll over a populated area without getting in trouble with the Civil Aeronautics Board. I wiggled my wings and the picketers below on Buena Vista would wiggle their signs back at me. I was flying a Luscombe Phantom two-seater. I tried to get Herb Sorrell to go up with me, but at 300 pounds he was too big for the weight requirement.
TS: When World War II broke out, you became a test pilot?
BL: The Army decided I'd be of better use as a flight instructor than I would going overseas. I loved flying the Grumman F-4U Corsair and I flew an RB-50B, which made the B-29 Superfortress look like an old bucket. I became a test pilot for Pratt &Whitney and eventually got up to flying supersonic jets. Meantime I continued to freelance animation for MGM and Walter Lantz.
TS: Around this time you met Fini, the love of your life for 60 years.
BL: I already had this house in Malibu in 1943 and I met Fini down the street. Disney artist Art Heinemann had a party and introduced us. Fini Rudeger emigrated from Vienna and got out to Hollywood by doing commercial illustration for American Airlines. She was hired by Joe Grant to work in the Disney models department. Her first job on Fantasia was to design floral brassieres for the bare-breasted Centaurettes in the Beethoven "Pastoral" sequence.
TS: During the Hollywood Blacklist period you were never bothered? Even though you were a test pilot flying secret aircraft while you associated with union men accused of Communism and had an exotic German-speaking wife?
BL: I regularly went over in my mind what I would say when the FBI came a-calling, but they never did, strangely enough. In 1952, I was asked by Bill Hurtz to come back to the SCG and be its business agent. The previous one -- Maurice Howard -- had been blacklisted and I guess they felt, with my military credentials, I could hold my own against the [House Un-American Activties Committee]. That's when the guild split between us and the IATSE. At that time, enough animation work had dried up that I had a job for awhile at a car garage in Beverly Hills. It was owned by Faye Harris, the wife of bandleader Phil Harris, who would one day be the voice of Baloo in Disney's Jungle Book. Ironically, the land the garage was on would become the site of the headquarters building of the Motion Picture Academy! [Bill was on the Board of Governors of the academy with June Foray, representing Short Films and Animation from 1988 to 2001.]
TS: Your work is most closely associated with director John Hubley.
BL: In 1953, John Hubley had left UPA and moved to New York to do television commercials. I was first contacted when he was casting animators for his feature film version of the musical Finian's Rainbow. They had already recorded talent like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra for the voices. But John had his own troubles with the blacklist. It followed Hubley and scared off his backers. [Hubley was made to appear before HUAC in 1956.] Finian's Rainbow was never made, and John and Faith were shut out of mainstream filmmaking. So they devoted their energies to independent films. I continued to work for John from L.A. through the mail.
TS: You animated on most of Hubley's award-winning shorts -- The Hole, Cockaboody and The Adventures of an *.
BL: John and Faith were wonderful to work for. They were great artists. I animated straight ahead the dance steps for the construction worker voiced by jazz great Dizzy Gillespie [in The Hole]. At the after-party, Dizzy said to me, "Man, I'm glad you did that section yourself, because I can't dance!"
When we were working on A Doonesbury Special (1977), John called me and said, "Bill, I want you to come out so we can go over some stuff. I have to go into surgery and, in case anything happens, I want this project to get finished." I did fly out and we went over the schedule and storyboards with John, Faith and Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau. I had done some test animation of Zonker putting flowers in the muzzles of National Guardsmen's rifles. Trudeau was amazed, he had never seen his characters moving before. The next day, John Hubley went in for open-heart surgery and died on the operating table. We went on with the film and I must have animated about 12 minutes of it myself. [A Doonesbury Special was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Jury Prize at Cannes.]
TS: How did you get to animate Snoopy in the classic Peanuts specials?
BL: I had been doing commercials around L.A. and I met Bill Melendez at Playhouse Pictures. We were doing some commercials involving the characters. Later, Bill teamed up with Lee Mendelson to create the special A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Thereafter I did many of those shows. I did a lot of Shroeder playing the piano, even though I don't play myself.
TS: You did one of my favorite scenes in all animation there, where Shroeder is playing a jazz riff, and Snoopy starts dancing up on the piano. Linus and Lucy notice, stop the music, and stare down the hapless pup until he slinks away.
BL: Interestingly enough, at first Charles Schulz didn't care for all the Snoopy pantomime. He felt it was deviating too much from his style. He wanted the whole film to be talking heads, doing his dialogue.
TS: The Snoopy stuff is many people's favorite. You also did the Snoopy-Lucy prizefight in Snoopy Come Home (1972) and the Snoopy-Red Baron section in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1967).
BL: It's a good thing Bill [Melendez] fought Charles Schulz for that. (laughs)
TS: What are you doing now?
BL: Learning the Internet, so I can email my friend Jack Zander [age 99].
TS: Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into animation?
BL: GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN AND DO SOMETHING ELSE!
Bill smiles broadly with that special twinkle in his eye that shows he is kidding. Everything Bill did, he did to the fullest. He put passion in everything he pursued. His career has certainly been full. Full enough for four or five careers.
Tom Sito is an animator and author who has taught at USC, CalArts and UCLA. His new book, Drawing The Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions From Bosko to Bart Simpson, is out from University of Kentucky Press. Visit www.tomsito.com for details.
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