My long-suffering mother and father wanted me to, "Do something practical." I did try "practical", but nothing seemed to "pan out" for me; so, by slow degrees, I sank to a level where I could survive both intellectually and spiritually. People do not usually think of advertising as a spiritual profession. I started at Leo Burnett Advertising Agency in Chicago. Old Leo had been a great copywriter, and intellectual honesty was very big with him. One of the fundamentals of his success, actually. He taught his people to look for the "inherent drama" in his client's products. I am afraid that they do not do that much any more in the business, but even back then, advertising people were looked down on as somehow crippled intellectually. Gregory Peck faces problems in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) that mirror public distrust of the profession. Suspicion rightly earned, I believe.
What did you do at Burnett?
I started in Film Files. Sweeping floors, running 35-millimetre film projectors, and cutting together presentation film reels. They called it the Cub Copywriter Training Programme. It was a great way to study how Burnett thought because you saw all of the commercials over and over again.
So you started writing television commercials?
Actually, yes. It was ten years before I wrote my first print advertisements, and twenty before I wrote brochures, direct mail and all of that.
And on what were you working?
Kellogg's cereals, mostly. Corny Rooster. Snap, Crackle, and Pop. Tony the Tiger ("They're Gre-e-e-eat!"). And Nestle's Chocolates. I wrote a jingle for Nestle's Chocolate Village. With music by Dick Marx, who did lots of music for Burnett back then (the Marlboro theme, based on the theme from The Magnificent Seven, was his). Nestle's Chocolate Village song went:
"They're bringin' 'em down from Chocolate Town. Those Nestle's Bars. They're bringin' 'em down from Chocolate Town. Those Chocolate Bars so golden Brown... 'cause... Nestle's-makes-the verrry best Choc'lit!"And was that spiritually rewarding?
I could not tell you. Actually, I was a little crazy back then. I was six months back from being fired upon at extremely close range by a V.C. terrorist on Le Loi street in downtown Saigon, and here I was in a highrise in Chicago surrounding myself with cartoon cut-out planets, experimental stop-motion finger painting. All sorts of fantasy.
So how does a cub copywriter become immersed into those things?
It was the age of the filmmaker. The Love Generation explosion. The Beatles. Psychedelia. And Antonioni's Blowup (1966), Fellini's Satyricon (1969), and Easy Rider (also 1969). Such films much affected me, as they did that entire generation of filmmakers. When I first saw Satyricon, I felt like I had been jerked back in time, and when at the final scene a character freezes into an ancient portrait on old stone, I was changed forever in ways that I still cannot explain. As for Blowup, what wonderful storytelling! To go from that well-groomed tale to the wildly-spun Easy Rider with its long, off-the-cuff monologues...
Well, it was an age of experimentation, and some of them worked brilliantly. How could one not "get into" those things? Coming out of Film Files, I had learned how to cut sound tape and films and soon was running around with a 16-millimetre Bolex, like lots of the guys. Medium Cool came out of Chicago .
I was just learning, and it was fun. But I will say, my boss, Carl Hixon, was not very pleased. He said, "I want you eating, sleeping, writing, and shitting nothing but Corn Flakes!" I did other things, and eventually he terminated my employment for my lack of creative discipline. In fact, in a shouting, last memorable moment, he dismissed me as the one person whom he had met in the world least likely to "take direction" from anybody. You can see how, as my Creative Director, that would offend him.
In what other things were you involved?
Early at Burnett, I had met artist-reporter Franklin McMahon Sr. when he came in to Film Files to edit his second documentary, The World of Vatican II. And ultimately, I was co-writing, co-producing, and directing his next documentary, Scene Politic: 1968, and that won for us a Chicago Emmy, a Cine Golden Eagle, and lots of other awards. Pretty soon, I was running a Moviola and learning to film on 16-millimetre celluloid.
Who at Burnett had the most influence on you in those days?
I tremendously respected Carl Hixon's talent. He was a Broadway song-and-dance man and loved to strut down the halls singing Gilbert and Sullivan. But my chief mentor was Nelson B. Winkles Jr., the Burnett Creative Director who wrote the Snap, Crackle, Pop jingle for Rice Krispies. Wink was a creative man for all seasons, the one man at the agency who knew how to create, from concept through execution. He felt that a copywriter had to know first-hand how things worked, and whenever I had a directing, production or editing problem, I went looking for Wink.
So, what brought you to Hollywood?
Lucky chance. Hixon had not known that I had done Scene Politic: 1968, but when it won an Emmy, there was no place to hide, and he dismissed me from his employ. At about that time, Wink had moved to Hollywood to produce The Banana Splits for Hanna-Barbera. Wink's people liked me and I was hired as a writer/producer/director in Hanna-Barbera's Educationals and Industrials Division. The lines were a little blurred in those days, and I found myself also doing new television show development for Joe Barbera, who was the original idea vacuum cleaner. I actually introduced Bill and Joe to the Smurfs and to Lucky Luke (I had seen comic strips of Lucky Luke in Saigon). And a movie of the week concept I created, after several transmogrifications, actually was produced.
So, you worked on cartoon animation?
No. That is the irony of it. I have a wrist a bit like a spastic Thurber, and if one wants to succeed in Hollywood cartoon animation, one has to draw clean circles, nothing jerky. As a writer, it does not matter, of course, and I have written both live-action and cartoon animation practically from the start. And I have always done jingles, which led to music lyrics. Not exactly the same thing but similar, like kissing cousins.
But you worked for Hanna-Barbera?
For less than a year. The work thinned out, and I received layoff, though on good terms, and over the years I maintained good relationships with both Bill and Joe. Every time that I would appear at their offices, even over 10 years later when I was on staff at the Walt Disney Productions lot, Joe would say, "Hey, where' you been? How come you're not bringing us some new ideas?"
And so, you were without a job?
For a couple of months towards the end of 1969. By then, Steve McQueen had heard about my documentary work, and I was hired on by Sid Ganis, who was then at CBS Cinema Centre Films, to create a short documentary about the making of McQueen's racing movie, Le Mans. My partner, Nikita Knatz, and I did everything from running the cameras to cutting the film, and that film is still considered to be a "classic featurette".
Did Steve McQueen like it?
Yes. And the American car industry liked it too; after this, I moved to Detroit for three years. I created a film production company for Grey Advertising and wrote, produced, and directed radio and television commercials for Ford Motor Company. I refused to "scab"; so, they bought me into the Director's Guild, and I directed the Ford spokesmen, people like Rod Serling, Robert Lansing, and Leslie Nielsen.
What brought you back to Hollywood?
My wife and I did not like Detroit; and so, when the job with Grey ended, we upped stakes and moved back. I did not have a job and was freelancing, scrabbling around "gig-to-gig" as a copywriter/producer/director/what-do-you-need? One day, I spotted an advertisement in Adweek; the Kelly/Nason Advertising Agency (in Los Angeles and San Francisco) was looking for a writer. I started freelance and "spun out" a few jingles and pretty soon they hired me as Assistant Creative Director. That lasted until, on the day that he was going to terminate my employment, my own boss lost his job. I became Creative Director, and that lasted for a couple of years until Walt Disney Productions hired me in 1979. And that had to be the job of a lifetime.
Was it as good as it sounds?
Well, I thought so at the time. But the truth was, I did not know myself very well back then. In all of the years since I had returned from Vietnam , I was writing at night, building this stack of unpublished novels, essays, and short stories. At Walt Disney Productions, I had the chance to work closely with people like me who actually did broadcast programming instead of commercials. They did not seem to be of some superior brand of intelligence. I realised that the only thing stopping me from creating more, bigger and better, was me. I figured that Walt Disney Productions was going to be my advanced education. I already knew how unstable the industry was; I regarded each day as a blessing, went at it with a passion, and I manoeuvred through shark-infested waters to outlast five bosses. Not the sixth one, though.
What specifically were your responsibilities?
My job title was originally Creative Director. But my boss created so many enemies when he tried to put that on my business card that he reverted to a designation for me of Creative Director in Charge of Broadcast and Cinema Advertising. My main responsibility was the television "spots", the radio "spots" and the cinema "trailers" that had to be manufactured for each movie moving through the system. Maybe three or four new live-action movies, one new animated cartoon movie, and one animated cartoon movie re-release. In all, it amounted to supervision of over 150 projects at any one time, everything from marketing films and commercials to film clips furnished to actors for their promotional tours. Beyond that, I was "in charge" of the "plug" television shows, put-together shows for The Wonderful World of Disney like "Disney's Greatest Villains" that "plugged" whatever new item that was being released. And the seasonal specials for The Wonderful World of Disney, one hour episodes like "Mickey's Valentine" and "A Haunted Disney Halloween" that were created with old cartoon shorts cut together with linking inserts and some sort of idea to create a "paste-up special", another way to freshen and re-release the classic cartoon shorts in the film vault. And any other episodes that anyone could think of that nobody else wanted to do. Like a one-hour special on the building of Epcot, a half hour documentary on black holes, and "Disco Mickey Mouse", a 15-minute cartoon short to run with The Black Hole (1979).
The documentary on black holes I did for Phil May. Phil produced a "Major Effects" episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. The black holes documentary as I remember was science fact about black holes, what was known scientifically about them at the time (1979). Fascinating stuff, from a scientist's point of view. I think that it was scheduled to be run in syndication and as an educational documentary. I do not know if it ever ran anywhere.
And "Major Effects"? Were you involved in the production of that?
Again, Major Effects was produced by Phil, who was the previous "trailer guy" of whom I was successor. I was at the Walt Disney Productions studio for most of it, but that was "Phil's show". In some ways, it was important for me, because I met Mike Jittlov, the genius behind the stop-motion scenes (the dolls and clocks coming to life and the camera tripods and film cans marching around). And later, we did some projects for Epcot and the Disney Channel. I completed a Black Hole documentary for that project, and was largely responsible for the "green grid" animation that we used in the commercials. It was so successful that it was used as the opening for the movie itself.
"Major Effects" is also listed as a documentary at the Internet Movie Database, but it was actually what we at Walt Disney Productions called a "TV plug show special". I do not know that it ever did actually run, but it was scheduled to run on television network on The Wonderful World of Disney (Interviewer's Note: It did, at least in Canada.). "Major Effects" was sold as a Walt Disney Productions special about the wonders of special effects. As Joseph Bottoms, who plays the character of "Major Effects" also plays the role of Lieutenant Charles Pizer in The Black Hole cinema release movie, one starts to have the idea of how Walt Disney Productions (at least in the years when I was there) used its long-running television series to promote its movies.
Mike Jittlov proceeded to produce a full-length feature movie of his short film, "The Wizard of Speed and Time". Hollywood being what it is, this did not go well for him, but that is another story.
My position at Walt Disney Productions was great. And I did not want to leave it. But when they pointed me to the door, they gave to me three or four cable television shows and an NBC special to produce; so, I went away without a fight.
So, how did Warner Brothers learn of you?
I was doing Sam the Olympic Eagle, a cable television show for the Disney Channel. Walt Disney Productions had contributed the eagle mascot for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; and so, I was surprised that Warner Brothers held the television rights to Sam. I established contact with Steve Greene, and Warner Brothers was most gracious in granting to me the right to do the television show about "the inventing of Sam". Steve knew that, at that time, I was finishing work on the new opening for Disney's Wonderful World, and so he proposed that I might help Warner Brothers with a new look for The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show.
How did you approach it?
Warner Brothers cartoons always impressed me as pure classic, which went back to the original Walt Disney roots as well (rather than what Walt Disney Productions' cartoon animation became). In pure cartoons, you immediately see the pratfalls and squish-squash of things, but what most do not recognise is the absolute emphasis on brilliant and unforgettable characterisations. Where Disney cinema release cartoon animation became more "life-like" starting with Fantasia and Snow White, over at Warner Brothers, they continued to rely on wonderfully unique characters that struck a universal chord, and great storytelling that stayed fresh and new over time. I guess the same could be said for the outings for the "fab five" from Walt Disney, i.e. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. Anyway, I saw the challenge, and Warner Brothers was a chance to do something bright and new and yet in character with Bugs and the Road Runner, Porky Pig, Daffy, Tweety Bird, and so on. I scribbled out some lyrics on the back of scraps of anything that was handy, and contacted Steve Zuckerman, with whom I had done lots of jingles, television show openings, and song lyrics over the years, and we went to work.
You really scribbled out lyrics on scraps of paper?
Yes, I did. That is my usual way. And worse, often while driving on the freeway. And then I sit down with a little pile of torn pieces of newspaper, the backs of envelopes and business cards, and try and decipher the scrawls. That is how I come to a first draft. "It's Cartoon Gold, for young and old..."; that came to me as I was leaving the Warner Brothers studios, heading west for my home in Woodland Hills, just about at the junction of the 134 and the 101. In our meeting at Warner Brothers, Steve Greene had been talking about how Bugs and the Road Runner were like gold in the bank, and how everybody loved the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters; that is why they were classics. I was new from Walt Disney Productions, and there is that rivalry. He wanted to be sure I "got it". Hey, I was thinking, "It's Cartoon Gold, for young and old..." I remember scribbling that bit of lyric down on a scrap of the Yellow Pages and just about "getting wiped out" by a semi-truck on the left. I was driving a 5 series BMW with plenty of jump but I could not move over because there was a yahoo in a bread truck on my right, and the semi-truck pounded its horn.
Was the remainder of it a somewhat smoother process?
Well, the lyrics were not much of a problem. I believe that it was Steve Greene who suggested we insert a snappy line from each character, and we solved that with great help from Greene's main guy, a Warner Brothers film editor who knew the film library backwards and forwards and was the main cutter on the television show. Steve was not happy with the bright and unsophisticated, unabashedly happy lilt of "It's Cartoon Gold", but I was reluctant to change it as I felt that very lilt was the heart of that for which we were trying. And this was when he went out and hired somebody else to do something different. A touch of disco or early metallic... I do not remember. But when I heard it, I just knew that we had a winner with our own song. They tested both, and that was the way that it "proved out".
What was the reason stated to you by Steve Greene for wanting to overhaul the opening to The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show? Did you also meet Executive Producer Hal Geer and Associate Producer Kathleen Helppie?
The early-to-mid-1980s seemed to be a time of transition at the television networks regarding classic animated cartoons. The studios (Warner Brothers, Walt Disney) still wanted to rerun their cartoons, but they felt they had to do something to "freshen up" the presentation. Doing a new opening was like wrapping the same (great but old) gift in new wrapping paper with a fresh bow. At least, that was what Steve Greene said. I did not work with Hal Geer but had a lot of respect for Kathie Helppie, who (in my observance) was long-suffering under Greene and well-deserving of her promotion when it came.
What about voice talent for recording of the song?
Voice talent for the song was entirely in Steve Zuckerman's hands. "The Z" was/is a musical genius; I would hand to him the lyrics, have a few words about mood and tone, and the rest was "Z", all the way. He would send to me some sort of "scratch track" for my approval, and it was almost always right on the money. He had a small group of vocalists on whom that he liked to rely. They were "spot readers", could pick up a song "on the fly", could shift on a dime and had worked well together for some time. I must have done two dozen jingles, show openings and show songs with "the Z", and he never disappointed. Not once. The only real arguments I ever had with "Z" were about the mix. After my years at Walt Disney Productions, I became hyper-sensitive that the lyrics had to be up front and clear. If one follows music, one knows that this is quite often not the case. I was and am a real stickler about this; and so, what I was insisting on came to be known as "the Disney Mix". I would say, "Well, we're not quite there..." "Z" would give to me that knowing look and say, "No, that's already a Disney Mix." And I would have to say, "No, it's not," over and over again until the words were clear enough for the client. From his end, "Z" would make sure that the words never totally overpowered the rest of the song.
Were you disappointed that it only ran in 1984-5?
Financially, I suppose. After all, it is a quarter-century later, and I am still receiving tiny ASCAP royalty checks when Disney's Wonderful World plays in Eastern Europe or Chile or some place like that. But it is way more than the money; when one creates something like the opening for The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, there is a great satisfaction in just doing it and bringing it on the air. And, of course, the audience, both young and old, seemed to love it.
Did your involvement go beyond just the song?
Actually, it did. I was surprised to find that Steve Greene expected my opinions throughout the creation of the entire look for the television show. The visuals for the opening and the bumpers, as well. He had hired an animator to do some visuals, and, in typical Hollywood fashion, as that guy was being paid directly by Warner Brothers, he looked to Greene as the boss. Greene, on the other hand, kept coming back to me and telling me that I should be telling this guy what to do. I did not think much of any of this, particularly as I was not being paid extra for it, until Warner Brothers rejected the first of some of the new animation, and Greene pointed the accusing finger at me. It seems that the cartoon animator wanted just a line-circle 'reflection' of the old WB look, an assumption that Greene hated, but which the cartoon animator now said that I had approved. And, I guess I did, not realising that my opinion that it probably did not matter had somehow become the critical decision. I learned a big lesson on that one. Always make sure your responsibilities are crystal clear, and on paper, no less.
Was that the last of your work for Warner Brothers?
No, I actually passed through that one somehow, and I did some new television show development and new idea pitches for Steve, the same sort of thing that I had done over the years for Joe Barbera and Walt Disney Productions.
And did anything develop out of that?
Well, Steve called me in to direct some live action videotaping of some live-action kids interacting with the cartoon characters. But then Walt Disney Productions called about doing a network television special featuring Sport Goofy, and I busied myself doing that. Years later, when I saw some of the work that they were doing with Michael Jordan, I could see where they went with combining live action with animation, but I wasn't really there for that. In a way, it is fun to be "in on" formats when they are crystallising, because one is sort-of "trying things out" to see what works and making the rules as one goes along. At Walt Disney Productions in 1983, I did some highly experimental stuff with a life size Goofy (I have a short film clip somewhere called "Goofin' Around" that shows the potential of that sort of thing, where one records audio first and then moves the characters to the audio), and the knowledge we gained from that eventually morphed into Pooh Corner.
And did you go on to work for other studios?
Actually, I did not. I finished off my cable specials for the Disney Channel and my network special (The All New Adventures of Sport Goofy) in 1987. I went back to straight advertising by day (I worked on the introduction and roll-out of DirecTV), and writing screenplays and novels by night. My first novel, Crazyhead, was published by Ballantine/Ivy Books in 1990. In 1994 my biography of Deacon Jones, Headslap, was published by Prometheus. I usually have one or two screenplays actively optioned around town. Other books have come along, and earlier this year Tinsel Wilderness: Lessons on Survival as a Creative Person in Hollywood and Other Extreme Climates was published by Double Dragon Press.
Last year, in 2006 I wrote and directed a ten minute live action short, "Extinction", with my son, Matt Klawitter, as the producer. Lately, I have entered into podcasting, and my science fiction novel, Devils, was number one on podiobooks.com in September, 2007.
So, no, I did not go back to work for the studios, but life has been and continues to be very, very good. I never know what opportunity is going to come along next, and that is the way I like it.