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Big Bill Littlejohn

by June Foray

Hey! I jumped at the opportunity to write about my friend, animator Bill Littlejohn and his beautiful wife, Fini. Heck - until I met the everyday working cel artist, I didn't even know that there were 24 frames per second in film. In the early Sixties, I asked my husband if he would object to my attending an animation festival in Annecy, France. Of course, he didn't, so off I flew to meet animation artists from all over the world, even Hollywood. And who was there? Bruno Bozzetto was. Norman McLaren was. Ward Kimball was. And most of all, Bill and Fini were. It was a purely accidental meeting. At a picnic, either thrown in or dared, I plunged into icy Lake Annecy and swam shivering toward a raft and its occupants. Who was there to pull me up? You guessed it. Bill Littlejohn.

Bill Littlejohn. Courtesy of the UCLA Animation Workshop.

Over those wonderful European beers between screenings, we all sat by the lake in front of the theater and discussed not only films but our personal lives. Bill has now been animating for over sixty years. I've never asked how old he is 'cuz I'm of the "don't ask, don't tell" school, but he started animating probably before he learned to shave as a youngster at the Van Buren studio in New York in 1934 and for MGM in 1938. However, much as he loved his profession, duty called during World War II. Thus, in 1943 he left animation to become an aeronautical engineer and pilot. Mercifully the war ended two years later in 1945. William C. Littlejohn, being the thoughtful person that he is, left the east coast and returned to Hollywood in 1948 and discovered to his chagrin that animators were slaving at their desks for a few bucks a week, just enough to fill our gas tanks today. So what did he do? He became one of the founders of the Screen Cartoonists Union 852. As one of the union's presidents, he helped solve the inequities of the biz. He also met with the famous and infamous union leaders outside of our industry. (Bill, you gotta write a book about them. Your stories are mesmerizing.) Apparently, times changed during the Disney strike with his union being transmogrified from 852 into another in existence today, but Bill wanted to return to his profession anyway, animation. So in 1952, he went back to the drawing board. Wouldn't you have thought that Bill and Fini met during the Disney strike? Nope.

Fini had been an extraordinary screen actress in her native Vienna where, as a matter of fact, she was honored just a few short years ago; naturally, she and Bill hopped a plane to Vienna to participate in the glory. Fini's real love however was art. Consequently, when she left Austria, the place to be was in Tinseltown, where the up and coming Walt Disney was hiring competent artists -- Fini being one of them. Dozens of them were summarily dismissed during the strike in 1941 though and freelancing was the only way to go. That was Fini's solution, since she was one of the down-sized. Somehow, because it's such a tight-knit profession, animation people get to meet and know each other. In this case, handsome William and gorgeous Fini met in Malibu and were married in 1943. I wonder if it was the same place in Malibu where they've been living for decades.

Anahoo, Bill resumed his drawing in earnest in 1952. Although I hadn't met him yet, my being a neophyte in recording for the cel profession, I had heard about him. Of course, Annecy changed all that. The Littlejohns and the Donavans (my husband and I) became fast friends, giving parties for festival returnees, as well as our visiting foreign counterparts: Bruno Bozzetto, John Halas, Gyorgy Matolcsy, Renzo Kinoshita, Frédéric Back, Bob Stenhouse. Scores of them. It was the International Animation Film Society (ASIFA) which started the festivals in Annecy and Zagreb that inspired Bill with Ward Kimball and Les Goldman to form an ASIFA chapter in Hollywood, the hub of animated features, shorts and television series. Now ASIFA-Hollywood is one of the largest ASIFA branches in the world. As if that weren't enough, they created the Tournee of Animation attended by artists all over the world.

The International ASIFA executives were no fools. They voted him an international board member for countless years. They knew that Bill always had time for preserving and promoting animation besides working like crazy at his craft. Commercials galore. As a matter of fact, I worked on one of his for Tiger Paws tires awoooing as a lonely wolf. If you've ever seen some of John and Faith Hubley's films, the major animator was Littlejohn, and he continues today on all of Faith Hubley's award winning films. Everyone knows the animated Peanuts. Well, if you notice the credits, Bill's name is there, because he's still working for Bill Melendez on the series, specials and commercials. Also, if you're still wont to study credits, you'll find his name on Jay Ward's George of the Jungle, along with mine in a different capacity of course. Ever see the 2000 Year Old Man? Bill did because he worked on it. And what about him being the prime animator on the Doonesbury short which was nominated for an Oscar!?! No wonder UCLA decided to honor him for his lifetime achievement. I tell ya. That man's a workaholic to this day. But wait. There's more.

The short film, feature animation branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences claims as its membership hundreds of U.S. and world-wide artists, and they're no dummies, either. In 1988, they voted Bill onto the Board of Governors to represent them. Hallelujah! We other two governors had another articulate, caring partner to protect and defend the short films. It was he who initiated the idea of creating an Oscar for theatrical animated features. We're all still working on it, and we feel that fruition is just around the corner. Also, it doesn't hurt his being on the rules committee as well. In addition, for years, he has been an indefatigable volunteer in judging foreign language, student and short films. Another thing -- he's always on time for the scrumptious dinner board meetings.

Busy, busy, busy! You can't keep the Littlejohns down for a minute. For years, Fini has labored in the vineyards for the Free Clinic in Santa Monica and the Malibu Library -- food for the body and mind. With all that, she hasn't lost her knack, talent or love for drawing. Her birthday and Christmas cards are a delight. I really don't know if Bill plays tennis anymore, but the court which they own next to their home, is generously available for charitable causes . . .tented over, it compares to the Governors Ball at the Oscars. At times, Bill will miss an Academy screening because of environmental commitments or Malibu civic obligations, which are more significant in his life than seeing I Married an Apparition II. What isn't?

Ah, then there are the grand-children. There's Alessondra, an artist like her mother Toni, the Littlejohns' daughter, herself an artist and sculptor. This thirteen-year old Alessondra has just won a scholarship on entering high school. How many kids attain that? You've probably seen Jesse, a consummate actor in commercials, television dramas and feature films. In fact, he's performing in a feature now, and at thirteen, has more screen credits than many adult wannabes in Hollywood. Perish the thought -- Jesse still doesn't allow his acting career to interfere with his playing soccer. How many kids can flap over to Europe to watch World Cup soccer matches? The youngest and third grandchild is eleven year old Zoe. She sings like the proverbial bird and will do so at the drop of an orchestral note. Besides, she plays the flute as well. I mean, how much talent can manifest itself in one family? Well, the three of those kids are first in the hearts of Fini and Bill, and I'm sure that they'll be just as successful in life, love, compassion and the arts as their grand-parents. How could they not? It's in the genes.

Bill Littlejohn will appear in person at UCLA's James Bridges theater Saturday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m. Call the Archive at (310) 206-8013 for a complete list of the titles to be screened. Ticketholders will be admitted to a post-screening party.

June Foray has provided memorable voices for many cartoon characters including Granny in Warner Bros. theatrical shorts and TV series, Rocket J. Squirrel for The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, and even a doll for the classic Twilight Zone episode, Living Doll, with Telly Savalas.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.