Two Seriously Funny Men

There was something very serious about the two funny men we lost this weekend. Both were well known for their outrageous comedy, but they were so much more. Masters of their craft, both were unique in their incisive use of humor. It’s pretty clear they did a good deal more than simply entertain us.

Dick Gregory appeared on the scene during the turbulent sixties when America was moving through social change and a divisive war in Southeast Asia. Gregory was one of the first black comics to address social change head on, and his style of comedy would resonate with American audiences for years to come. Unlike contemporaries such as Bill Cosby who handled white audiences with kid gloves, Dick Gregory went for the jugular and shoved the countries racial issues in our faces. He did so with his own special brand of humor and before long he was propelled into the big time. Dick Gregory was irreverent, caustic and fearless. Yet, he was always funny. Being black in sixties America was pretty serious business and Gregory never soft peddled issues such as race. Don’t believe me? One of his books was even titled, “nigger.” Every time you say the word, you’ll be marketing my book, said the irreverent comic. Dick Gregory was often compared to his white colleagues, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. The three were masters of modern satire and their humor came from the same place. Reluctant to grapple with its social problems, America chose to look the other way. Dick Gregory knew humor would hardly solve the countries social problems, but at least it would force us to confront them. Humor is a great way to get someone’s attention. As an old cartoonist, I know that to be a fact. I never saw Lenny Bruce perform, but I did have the opportunity to see Mort Sahl. I was a young man considerably naive when it came to politics. Suddenly, I was realizing humor could work on two levels. Dick Gregory knew this as well, and his unique brand of humor began to push America’s consciousness in a new direction. It would be a long, slow journey, but America was finally beginning to change. On an unexpected visit to the Walt Disney Studios last year I was able to get a few moments with Mr. Gregory. No longer the brash young man brandishing a cigarette, the white bearded Gregory looked more like “The Old Wise Man.” What should we watch for in the coming years,? I inquired of the former comedian now turned activist. I still remember his answer. “Russia,” he said. “Keep your eyes on Russia.” Ever the comedian, this time Dick Gregory was not joking.

I payed an unexpected afternoon visit to the set of his latest motion picture shooting on location in Burbank. In many ways, a film crew can be compared to an army with a General or Field Marshall in charge. On this particular day there was no doubt director, Jerry Lewis was in charge. For those of you who love or hate Jerry Lewis movies I can tell you there is no filmmaker that I respect more. Hardly “The Kid,” a character Lewis played in practically all his movies, Jerry was a serious filmmaker who was the ultimate craftsman when it came to making movies. Anybody who has made a comedy knows that humor is a serious business and not to be taken lightly. I consider my being on set great luck because I had the opportunity to watch a master at work. I first became aware of the serious filmmaker when he began teaching a class in cinema at USC. I never took a class from Mr. Lewis but I did have a friend who generously shared his notes and I was amazed how insightful they were. For those who considered Jerry Lewis a lightweight, goofy comic, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Here was a consummate movie maker who took his craft seriously. I still remember his introduction of the Video Playback System that allowed directors to immediately see what they had just photographed without waiting for dailies. Jerry Lewis was continually pushing the boundaries of cinema and sharing this knowledge with young filmmakers.

Jerry Lewis loved big band music and some of my favorite bits in a Lewis film is where Jerry is alone on screen doing schtick to the music of Les Brown or Count Basie. Clearly influenced by Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis could command the attention of the audience throughout the number. Maybe you’re not a fan, but his staging, timing and performance was always dead on and few people could command screen time like Jerry Lewis. Chances are you’re not as old as I am and not able to remember when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were huge. On occasion they would appear on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour on Sunday evenings. I still remember the gigantic full page ads in the Los Angeles Times when Martin and Lewis were scheduled. It was a big deal. A very big deal. Of course, you’ve all heard of the famous split that sent the dynamic duo in different directions. Both continued on, each successful in their own right. And, I still remember Jerry immediately coming to the defense of his old partner, Dean Martin when anyone dared to criticize, Dino. Even apart, Martin and Lewis were very supportive of each other. Of course, Jerry Lewis could be abrasive on occasion, and I remember him tearing into reporters and interviewers should they get on his nerves. What can I say? Lewis was hardly perfect, but the man was a genius, after all. Today, I’m looking at his movies made twenty or thirty years ago and they still make me laugh. Should you not be a fan of Jerry Lewis movies, I completely understand. However, I’m not ashamed to say, Jerry Lewis was my hero and I will truly miss him.

The two left us this weekend, but what a wealth they left behind. Thank you, Jerry and Dick for the laughs and the wisdom.

The two left us this weekend, but what a wealth they left behind. Thank you, Jerry and Dick for the laughs and the wisdom.

Not Just Ink&Paint

If you make the mistake of listening to bogus historians and clueless movie celebrities they’d tell you that Walt Disney was a notorious gender bigot who denied opportunity to young women and kept them cloistered in a “sweatshop” called the Ink&Paint Department. Naturally, the young women would be denied the opportunities given to their male counterparts and would have to settle for second class citizenship in Walt Disney’s cartoon factory. The know-nothing movie stars and ill informed historians would go on to tell you about the misery of being female at fifties Disney where men ruled the roost and women had to accept a subservient role should they want to be a Disney employee. That’s what they would tell you, and more than likely, you’d probably believe they were telling the truth. However, there’s another side to the story and perhaps you might want to hear from someone who actually observed what took place at the Walt Disney Studio back in the fifties.

However, let’s be fair. Clearly, there were young women who thought they were being treated unfairly. Even though Walt Disney wanted to create a utopian community for his artists, there’s no doubt the animation facility was far from perfect. Indeed, I’ve heard complaints from women who felt they were denied opportunity and more than a few felt that being female was hardly an asset in what was often viewed as a “man’s world.” No doubt Walt Disney made his fair share of missteps early in his career and the nineteen forties labor troubles were but one example of the companies’ failings. Yet, before we judge Walt too harshly, let’s remember how incredibly progressive things were at the Disney Studio compared to most of the Hollywood film factories at the time.

First of all, women were not restricted to the Ink&Paint Department and more than a few female artists played important roles in Disney Animation when the feature animated film, “Sleeping Beauty” was in production. Should you take a stroll down the hallway of D-Wing back in the fifties you’d more than likely see a number of young female artists sitting at their drawing tables. It might surprise you to see a nervous young man gently tapping on the office door of a young woman. A woman who was his supervisor. That’s correct. It was not unusual for young women to be in charge of clean-up units on the motion picture, and they be would be the ones calling the shots. I sketched this cartoon drawing of my pal, Ruben gently knocking on the office door of his boss. He had good reason to be nervous, because the young women in charge did not suffer fools, and should your work not be up to snuff, you would hear about it in short order. However, you would find women everywhere at fifties Disney. Evelyn Kennedy in the music department and Ruthie Thompson in scene planning. Naturally, there were talented young women in Walt’s background and layout department. Thelma Witmer, Barbara Begg, Sylvia Romer and Sammie June Landham to name a few. Finally, my boss, Phyllis Hurell was in charge of Walt’s Commercial Film Division at the fifties studio. As I said earlier, women were hardly restricted to the Ink&Paint Building.

This evening, author, Mindy Johnson will introduce her new book, “Ink&Paint, the Women of Disney Animation,” at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. I have no doubt we’ll be playing to a packed house tonight as colleagues, friends and fans of animation come together to celebrate the many talented women who contributed to this amazing art form. And, I encourage you to purchase the insightful book when it comes out later this year. We all know that women worked in Walt Disney’s Ink&Paint Department for many years. What you didn’t know was that these incredible women worked everywhere else as well.

The young Disney artist has a right to be nervous. His boss is a woman and she won't be forgiving. How do I know these things? I was one of those young artists back in the fifties.

The young Disney artist has a right to be nervous. His boss is a woman and she won't be forgiving. How do I know these things? I was one of those young artists back in the fifties.

Stealing Sleeping Beauty and Other Art

Should I apologize again? Sure, why not. I deeply regret if I’ve offended my Italian colleagues and the nation of Italy. Okay, that’s done.

Way back in the nineteen fifties, my pal, film composer George Bruns speculated on how he would handle the music score of our feature film, Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Eventually, we decided to simply appropriate the beautiful music Peter Ylyich Tchaikovsky had written for the famous ballet. George said, “They’ve been stealing from Tchaikovsky for years. We might as well steal from Tchaikovsky” too. It would appear that Walt Disney is guilty of theft, doesn’t it? After all, he never received Tchaikovsky’s permission to use his music.

When a group of young artists arrived at the Walt Disney Studios back in 1956 we wandered the offices, hallways and story rooms soaking up everything we could. Finally we had access to the work of the Disney Masters and we were determined to learn everything we could. Did we steal from them? You’re damn right we did. We wanted to draw like them, we wanted to paint like them. We wanted to BE them. Not surprisingly, young artists would check the wastebaskets in the evening looking for Milt Kahl sketches or the paintings of Eyvind Earle. On occasion, a background artist would discard a painting and toss it into the trash bin. You can bet there was an aspiring background artist who couldn’t wait to get his or her hands on this remarkable painting. After all, this is what young artists do. This is how we learn. As a young story artist I roamed the upstairs story rooms in a attempt to soak up everything I could from the old Disney storytellers. I studied the storyboards of Al Bertino, Milt Banta, Joe Rinaldi and Bill Peet. I wanted to know how these guys thought. I wanted to know how these guys drew. I, along with my colleagues attempted to “steal” everything we could find from these Disney Masters.

I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with the late Steve Jobs some years ago, and Steve was fond of quoting the famous artist, Pablo Picasso who said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal!” Steve Jobs knew the importance of being aware of great ideas and quickly folding them into whatever you were doing. He encouraged the Apple employees to look for the best and appropriate those ideas when creating new products. “Use them. Borrow them. Steal them,” if you have to. That’s what great artists do, and Steve was known to admire the best of the best. When Apple was developing Macintosh many years ago he continually pushed this idea of the best. That’s why he had a German baby grand piano and an Italian motor bike in the lobby of the Apple facility. These items were not part of their work. They were a constant reminder of good design. Steve Jobs believed this was critical to their products success. Steve had this unique design esthetic. He appreciated good ideas and great design. It was evident in every Apple product under his supervision.

A few months ago, I was working on a comic story involving a group of preteen boys and girls who were off on an adventure. While searching for design ideas, I stumbled across an Italian comic story under a pile of books in my studio. I so admired the design sensibility of the artist I wondered if this particular style could be folded in to the idea I was working on. Because of the availability of digital technology, I was able to sketch and print out the pages I created to see how the style would look in print. The pages were never published. The work was never sold. It was simply a part of the design process all artists go through. It’s pretty clear because of the fire storm I started, this was a poor decision and I will remove any trace of the artists work from my comic should I do it. I was not trying to steal from the artist, I simply admired his work and was hoping to emulate his wonderful drawings. I have only the highest respect for my fellow colleagues and it was never my intention to steal from anyone.

Some years ago, our talented mentors at the Walt Disney Studios encouraged us to learn from each other. Of course, we were encouraged to learn from the aging Disney Masters as well. That’s what we do as artists. Much the way my talented wife, Adrienne learned to paint by copying the work of the talented, illustrator, Drew Struzan. When meeting Mr. Struzan for the first time, my wife was eager to tell the gifted illustrator she copied his work and that was what helped her become a better artist. Artists have always borrowed from each other. Copied each other, and “stolen” from each other. It’s what artists do. And, much like musicians, such as the talented composer, George Bruns once said while composing our score for Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty, “If you find something good, use it.” Finally, our mentors encouraged us to be the very best. “Work to become a better artist,” they said. “If you do that. If you finally reach that level of excellence then guess what will happen next? Other artists will steal from you.”

Be aware I'm stealing the work of Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Tom Oreb, Ken Anderson and Eric Cleworth. I totally confess it all on this blog post.

Be aware I'm stealing the work of Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Tom Oreb, Ken Anderson and Eric Cleworth. I totally confess it all on this blog post.

The Force Was With Us at D23

Exhausting, exhilarating and amazing. That was Disney’s D23 2017, and I gotta admit it was the best D23 Expo I’ve attended. We arrived early in order to get a jump on the show and prepare ourselves for the whirlwind that would filled the next three days. 

Having been through this drill before we pretty much knew what to expect so we prepared ourselves accordingly. The Anaheim Convention Center was still fairly quiet because the coming onslaught had not yet begun. A handful of eager, early arrivals milled about the convention area and a few were even in costume. We were meeting friends for dinner at Disneyland, and being early we decided to kill some time in the Grand Californian Hotel. As expected, I was stopped a few times by Disney fans who recognized me as we made our way through the park. I still find this weird because I hardly consider myself a celebrity. Yet, I’m well aware of the power of Disney magic and if you’re at the Disney Studios long enough, a few grains of pixie dust will eventually land on you.

As always, the Disney Legends Ceremony launched the Expo and this years inductees were a diverse but well deserving group. With his casual coolness, Disney CEO, Robert Iger hosted the event. Though a number of the talented inductees were no longer with us, the awards were accepted by their kids. In the case of the late, Garry Marshall, it was like seeing Garry as a young man. His son was the image of his dad. After a moving tribute to his old partner, Jack Kirby, Marvel creator, Stan Lee received a standing ovation from the cheering Disney audience. Yet, it was a morning for exceptional women as well. Media producer, Oprah Windfry, entertainer, Whoopie Goldberg and director, Julie Taymor were welcomed into the exclusive Disney club. A moving performance by the cast of The Lion King wrapped up a star-studded morning.

The lobby of the Hilton Hotel was suddenly filled with the screams of young women as actor, Mark Hamill (now a Disney Legend) made his way up the escalator to the Legends Lunch. And, what a lunch it was as everybody who was anybody at the Walt Disney Company gathered in the Hilton for a delicious lunch. It was an opportunity to meet with old friends and make a few new ones as well. Meeting motion picture director, Ava Duvernay was a delight, of course, and I’m so looking forward to her new movie, A Wrinkle in Time. However, another very special woman dominated the room. I’m speaking of the truly legendary, Oprah Winfrey Whose infectious enthusiasm lit up the space. Of course, the highlight of the lunch was posing for photos with my three lovely ladies, Anika Noni Rose, Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Legends all!

Because of a pretty full D23 schedule I knew I would be missing a good deal of the show. However, every now and then we were able to catch a few panels and they were always delightful surprises. One such, “Eat Like Walt,” was a cook book revealing the Old Maestro’s taste in food. Who would have thought that a cook book could be so fascinating? However, this book detailing Walt’s favorite foods turned out to be just that. An added treat was having Walt Disney’s granddaughters onstage to “spill the beans” firsthand. Jenny and Tammy Miller shared their childhood experience in grandpa’s kitchen and even provided a few insights such as a list of Walt’s favorite dishes and a view of what was contained in the Disney home refrigerator. Finally, John Lasseter dished up a few tasty stories about the yummy treats in Disneyland and the Disney Studio Commissary.

Of course, there are more stories to tell such as the introduction of our new book, “A Kiss Goodnight,” which we were able to share with a very responsive D23 audience Saturday evening. However, let’s end it with that, shall we? It was a great D23 Expo and I’m already looking forward to the next.

What's better than D23 and Luke Skywalker?  

What's better than D23 and Luke Skywalker?