My New Best Friend

The conversation took place in the rear of the studio theater on the Walt Disney Studio lot. The woman I was speaking with inquired how long I had worked for Disney and I replied, I began working in 1956. Suddenly, I was being mocked by a guy in the seat behind me. The voice was brash and gleefully irreverent as he said, “Man! You must be really, really old!” I tried to continue my conversation, but the wise guy in the seat behind me refused to give up as he continued to razz me. Who was this jerk, I wondered, and why did he seemed determined to pick on me? He was like a character in a movie. You know the type I mean. The kind of smart ass character usually played by actor, Bill Paxton. Finally, I’d had enough. Fed up with the wise guy behind me I turned in my seat to find myself face to face with - you guessed it. Bill Paxton.

First of all, you gotta know I love Bill Paxton and he’s one of my Hollywood heroes. I doubt I’ll ever forget his role as Private Hudson in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” Boastful and full of bluster, Hudson remains likable in spite of his obnoxiousness. In an early battle, Hudson loses all hope when the aliens kick the asses of the space marines and the once brash Private Hudson practically whimpers as he shouts his iconic line - “Game over, man! Game over!” Bill Paxton always managed to allow the audience to connect to his characters. Hardly stellar role models, Paxton often played men who were shady, calculating and weak. My wife still loves his portrayal of “Simon,” the bogus spy who was really a sleazy used car salesman in “True Lies.” However, Bill Paxton could work his magic on the small screen as well. The television show, “Big Love” was made watchable by Paxton’s portrayal of a religious patriarch. Yet, even in this role Bill Paxton managed to give his character a degree of warmth and depth that kept you coming back for more. Finally, in James Cameron’s epic film, “Titanic,” I’ll never forget Paxton’s unctuous smile as he notes that the elderly Rose is his, “new best friend.”

In recent years, Bill Paxton had spent more time behind the camera than in front of it. He was now directing and was getting pretty darn good at it. He was working on a project for Disney but he confided there was another more exciting project he really wanted to do. I could hardly contain myself. “What is it,” I asked eagerly? “I’d love to do a remake of “Swiss Family Robinson,” Paxton smiled. “I think it would make a great film.”As we spoke, I couldn’t help but think of this unique but odd situation. Here I was at the Walt Disney Studios trading ideas with one of my favorite actors. Each of us sharing the same enthusiasm for a Walt Disney movie we saw as kids decades ago. It appears in La La Land anything is possible.

After the studio screening, we stepped out into the chilly, December evening and I reached for my top coat. I appeared to have difficulty putting on my coat, so Bill Paxton immediately stepped in to help. “Look at this,” I said. “I’ve got one of Hollywoods top movie stars helping me put on my coat.” As we headed out into the cool evening I reminded Bill to keep me informed on his proposed remake of Swiss Family Robinson. Much like his character in “Aliens,” Paxton smiled and said, “I’m on it!” It’s still difficult to deal with the suddenly loss of Bill Paxton. The plain, simple guy from Fort Worth, Texas who arrived in tinsel town and made good. Like most good actors, you never saw the work that went into Bill Paxton’s performances. He made it all look spontaneous and effortless. It was as though he suddenly showed up on the set and became the character with no preparation. A good actor always makes it look easy. Sadly, we received the news of Bill Paxton’s passing as we prepared to head for the Oscars. Later, that afternoon, Jennifer Anniston took the stage of the Dolby Theater to speak about the loss of a wonderful actor and director, and his impressive career. It’s still difficult to believe Bill Paxton is gone. If you’re a guy you can’t help but relate to Bill Paxton’s incredible career and the colorful, flawed characters he played. Men who were charming, brash and vulnerable. How can you not? He was everyone of us.

Working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

We had completed our initial thirty days of training and finally deemed full fledged apprentice in-betweeners. The dozen of so young men and women moved into offices in f-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. However, we were not exactly in f-wing. Should you enter the small alcove in the wing there were a series of offices directly to your right. This is where they moved us back in March 1956. I began working for Rollie Crump, an assistant animator working with Bob Carlson on the Jiminy Cricket segments for the Mickey Mouse Club. However, a new assignment suddenly came our way, and it would be a very special one.

Wilfred Jackson had his third floor office in b-wing. Because of health issues, “Jaxon” had moved from feature film directing to the less stressful production of Walt Disney’s television shows. One of the shows “Jaxon” was currently directing would feature the material cut from Walt Disney’s feature animated classics. Every Disney film had a deleted sequence or two. What if there was a show featuring segments of Walt Disney films never used? It would be an opportunity to show audiences that often there was some pretty entertaining stuff left on “the cutting room floor.” As always, The Old Maestro would host the ABC show dealing with the entertaining sequences that were once a part of an animated feature. Sequences cut because of time constraints or story issues. It would be a look behind the scenes of the production of an animated motion picture.

One of the sequences “Jaxon” chose to highlight was the famous “Soup Eating Sequence” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Of course, the original animated sketches were still in “The Morgue.” That was the name given to what would one day become the “Animation Research Library.” The scenes were pulled from the morgue, and all the inspired animation sketched back in the nineteen thirties was still intact. However, once Walt Disney reviewed the rough animated footage, he decided the artwork was much too lose and incomplete to be viewed by the nineteen fifties television audience. And that, boys and girls is where we come in. All of us brand new Disney animation artists were given the rough scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to finalize and clean-up. That is, to make the loose animation more acceptable to television audiences not used to viewing rough, incomplete animated drawings. Our young group of animation artists included, Lin Larson, Tom Dagenaise, Jack Foster, Rick Gonzales and Dave Michener. Of course, there were a number of attractive young women on our team as well. They included the lovely, Jane Shattuck and a tall attractive blonde named, Diane Keener. Please remember that Disney was hardly a “Man’s World,” although it's often described as such. In truth, we had our fair share of talented female animation artists.

In time, our work was done, but unlike most Disney animation our work would not be headed for the Ink&Paint department. Walt Disney wanted to showcase this animation in pencil without any additional embellishment. Of course, the original voice and music tracks were still intact so everything synced up perfectly. Wilfred Jackson completed the Walt Disney show and it was viewed on ABC Television back in 1956 or 1957. I honestly can’t remember the year the show was initially aired. However, one thing I can say for sure. Back in 1956, a group of young Disney animation artists had the opportunity to do a little bit of time travel. We were able to return to the 1930s and actually work on the Walt Disney Classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not a bad way to begin my cartoon career, don’t you think?

 We actually worked on the Soup Eating Sequence from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in 1956

We actually worked on the Soup Eating Sequence from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in 1956

The Animator Who Wouldn't Leave

If you worked at Hanna-Barbera Productions back in the day, Supervising Animator, Jay Sarbry might share this funny story with you. I guess it’s because Mr. Sarbry always found this incident amusing and he seemed to enjoy telling the story to anybody who would listen. The story is true by the way, and it’s a perfect reflection of yours truly. It’s the story of a person who has truly never changed even though many years have since passed.

First things first. Let me tell I how I got the job. I was loitering in the hallway of Hanna-Barbera with my pal, Leo Sullivan. Across the studio hallway sat production boss, Victor (Bill) Shippeick speaking on the telephone with the big boss, Bill Hanna. Hanna was chewing out “Bill” because he had failed to hire enough animators for the coming production season. “Get me some more animators!” Hanna shouted to his production manager. “I want more animators and I want them now!” In an attempt to cover his butt, Shippeick quickly replied, “don’t worry, boss. I’ve hired two animators just now, and they’re right outside my door." The two animators happened to be Leo Sullivan and myself. We were hired simply because we were standing in the hallway near “Bill” Shippeick’s office. I still remember the rather lackluster shows I was assigned to animate. One show was entitled, “Dynomutt” and related the escapades of a superhero dog. The other animated show was no better. Hitchhiking on the success of Steven Speilberg’s “Jaws,” the stupid show gave us a talking cartoon shark called, “JabberJaw.”

Here’s where the fun begins. After a number of weeks of production, I was called into “Bill” Shippeick’s office and given the bad news that I was being let go. Apparently, the studio had gotten past it’s animation production crisis so there was no longer a need for my services. That meant no more work and no more paychecks. Hardly good news for a guy who had gotten used to a pay envelope every Thursday afternoon. I suppose I could have simply walked out the door that afternoon, but I decided to do something audacious. Instead of leaving, I began to make the rounds of the animation department asking if anybody needed extra help with their footage. Sure enough, a number of Hanna-Barbera animators did need help and they provided me with a good deal of work. That meant I went back to work in the animation department even though I had been officially laid off. I continued to hand in my time cards every week and collect a Hanna-Barbera paycheck.

This went on for a number of weeks until one day the production manager, “Bill” Shippeick realized what was happening. “Wait a damn minute!” Shouted the exasperated animation boss. “I thought I laid off that guy several weeks ago! What the hell is going on here?!” Supervising animator, Jay Sarbry nearly fell off his chair with laughter. I had managed to continue working even though I had been let go by the studio weeks ago. And this, boys and girls is why Jay Sarbry enjoyed telling this story over and over again in Hanna-Barbera’s Animation Department. It’s just one of the many zany, wacky things that happen while working at Hanna-Barbera many years ago. To be sure, the Saturday Morning Cartoon Studio was not always known for doing stellar animation. Most of the shows we produced were pretty cheesy overall. However, one thing cannot be disputed. Hanna-Barbera Animation Studios was one of the most fun places I’ve ever worked. And, if you don’t believe me, just ask H-B animator, Jay Sarbry.

 Yes, it's true. I was laid off at Hanna-Barbera and simply refused to leave. It's become a pattern with me, I guess.

Yes, it's true. I was laid off at Hanna-Barbera and simply refused to leave. It's become a pattern with me, I guess.

Panic Jobs and Old Age

People often speak about the multiple movie and television projects I’ve worked on and seem to regard my entertainment career as something stellar. In reality, the work I did was often challenging but they were simply jobs. Assignments taken to pay the mortgage, a car note and get the kids through school. Often, the jobs were unexpected. They were last minute assignments because a TV show had to be aired or a movie needed to wrap. It would appear that the desperation of a client sent these jobs my way. I’m always looking for a new challenge and I eagerly accept these crazy last minute panic jobs. They pay the rent and they keep me on my toes.

My first panic assignment was a troubled, network television show that failed to make its airdates. Back then, television producers were punished by fines should they not deliver, and the fines were not cheap. In order to save the production house from a total meltdown, the producers came up with a last minute solution. They would hand off the remaining shows to independent producers to accomplish what they clearly could not. For my partner and I it was a challenge and an opportunity. We could demonstrate to our industry partners that we knew our stuff and could be counted on to deliver the goods. Thankfully, things went well and we delivered our shows on time and on budget. However, our professionalism failed to send any additional work our way, and we reluctantly returned to earning a living as employees.

On another occasion, an art director invited me to an unexpected meeting at a television studio in Hollywood. A new network show had been sold to the ACB Television Network and was about to go into production. They needed someone to create a series of funny little signs that would be moved past the camera during the course of the show. I regarded this lackluster assignment as dull and mundane and would have much preffered to be doing something more creative. One afternoon, while visiting an actor friend onset I learned the shows producer had a problem. And, it was a problem I could help solve. Because of this chance meeting, one thing led to another and one day I found myself on the writing staff of the show. Of course, this was totally unexpected and the last thing I thought would happen when I first joined the project. I was now a member of the writing staff of a network sketch comedy show and was beginning a new career path. However, with the programs abrupt cancellation I became soured on television writing and returned to cartoon animation where production procedures seemed to make more sense. In any case, I put my writing career on hold for several years.

Back in the seventies a television pilot was being filmed in a Hollywood studio and the producers needed an animated title for the show. Late one Wednesday afternoon I was summoned to the set by the shows director and quickly told what was needed. Apparently, it was important that the teen dance show have cool, dancing locomotive to open the show. Naturally, the completed cartoon title needed to be animated, painted and photographed in a couple of days. Moving into panic mode, my partner and I delivered the footage to the producers on a Saturday afternoon and the successful television pilot was sold. Not long after, “Soul Train” became a television hit. Should you ask me I’d tell you I find this little animated segment somewhat cheesy because it had to be cranked out in limited time and with a severely limited budget. However, as the years passed, I’ve been told that my animated locomotive has become, iconic. Honestly, I still consider the animated show opening, embarrassing.

Of course, there are times when I’m proud of the work I’ve done. Some years ago, while attending a Comic Book Convention I received a panic phone call from a producer whose film was in trouble and his director was hopelessly behind schedule. He begged me to fly to the location and join the production team making the movie. Once arriving on set I began to scope things out and I began creating a series of storyboards in order to expedite filming. My years of making movies on the cheap truly paid off as I found ways to move the film forward without spending a lot of money. Before long, we had the shoot back on schedule and after completing another panic assignment, I returned home to my usual life of “working retirement” because at my age I can’t seem to find a real job. Certainly not at any mainstream studio, in any case. 

I guess I can’t complain. People seem to like what I do and they value my skills and experience as a writer and an artist. On occasion, they’ll even invite me to jump in and help them solve a problem. However, the one thing they’ll never do is hire me. It’s not because I’m not liked or respected. It’s not because I don’t have the skills to do the job. It’s because studios don’t hire “old people,” and I just happen to be one of those who fit that description. There is an upside to all of this, however. If things get truly bad enough on a project they just might call me. And, that my friends is how this old timer keeps working in todays animation business. A business that venerates its knowledgeable veterans but only hires children.

 Keeping busy in panic mode. At my age, it's often the best way to stay sharp.

Keeping busy in panic mode. At my age, it's often the best way to stay sharp.