You could hardly call it a competition. But back in the early seventies, two feature films were being developed at the Walt Disney Studios. Ultimately, only one project would be given the green light for production. F-Wing was on the second floor of the Animation Building. And at the far end of the wing, Disney Legend Ken Anderson was developing a project called “Scruffy.” The movie was based on an idea about the Apes of Gibraltar. And - as you can imagine - it featured a zany cast of monkeys. However, the story was set during the Second World War and Nazis were also involved. Monkeys and Nazis. Sounds like a winning combination, don't you think? The guy developing the other project across the hall was new to Disney Studios. Fred Lucky was a syndicated newspaper cartoonist now trying his hand in the animation business. Fred's project was based on a book called “The Rescuers.” And the expansive office he toiled in was filled floor to ceiling with his charming and inventive drawings.
Fred Lucky was born in Toronto, Canada, and he studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Yet in his heart, Fred was a cartoonist who loved the old newspaper comic strips. His favorite strip was “Skippy,” and he would often talk about the good old days when being a newspaper cartoonist was a cool job. Sadly, that time had come and gone for cartoonists like us. Newspaper strips were continually shrinking in size, and the readership for comic strips was shrinking as well. In spite of that, Fred Lucky developed his first feature strip he called “J.J. Yuk.” It was a comic strip about a lonesome Eskimo and was syndicated by Newsday. Though he continued to develop other strips, Fred joined the Disney Studios in the seventies and worked on various projects. His big break came when he launched “The Rescuers,” and Fred Lucky even designed some of the characters. I find it difficult to picture Fred Lucky without a smile on his face. He was the kind of guy who truly loved life and - like most cartoonists - was quick with a funny sketch whenever one was needed. I particularly loved Fred's gentle sense of humor. And it often came in handy during difficult or awkward moments in meetings. It seemed Fred knew when to drop in a clever joke to diffuse the tension. There's nothing like a good laugh to put things in perspective.
Around the same time “The Rescuers” was in production, Fred developed a new comic strip called “The Dumplings,” and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate syndicated it. The strip focused on the lives of a chubby husband and wife, and characteristically, the strip's humor was soft and gentle. In time, “The Dumplings” became a half hour television sitcom on NBC and was produced by Norman Lear. Eventually, Fred left the Disney Studios to begin a new career as a live-action storyboard artist and illustrator. And he worked on dozens of feature films. As creative consultant, Fred traveled to many parts of the world and worked with some pretty big names along the way. This led to his meeting with actor Sylvester Stallone, and Fred worked on the “Rocky” films and many others. Eventually, Stallone convinced Fred to actually appear as an actor in one of his films. If you've ever seen the movie “Cobra,” you can see Fred Lucky playing a police sketch artist. However it's clear that the gentle cartoonist was out of his element, and Fred quickly put his acting career behind him. Of course you can bet Fred Lucky had more than one funny story to tell about working with Sly Stallone. And we spent many an afternoon laughing our heads off about the wacky stuff that takes place on a live-action movie set. Cartoonists may be crazy, but live-action filmmaking is often insane.
In 1999, I was working on “Monsters, Inc.” at Pixar Animation Studios. But I usually made it home on weekends. Fred Lucky was eager for another lunch meeting because he had something he wanted to show me. I arrived back in Burbank, but Fred Lucky was a no show at lunch. Not long after, I learned he had been taken to the hospital with a severe headache. Of course, we were all hoping for speedy recovery. But then the news came that Fred Lucky had passed away. My wife and I attended Fred Lucky's memorial service in West Los Angeles. And upon our arrival, we found the synagogue filled to capacity. Many of us simply stood outside in the warm fall sunshine. There was little doubt Fred Lucky had many, many friends. In recent years, animation humor has continually gotten louder, ruder and brasher. Call me old fashioned, but I miss the days when Disney cartoons were charming, gentle and sweet. Maybe a guy like Fred Lucky was a Disney story guy from another time. But I confess that it's a time I truly miss.