From a Military Draftsman to Director of Tom & Jerry and Popeye – Life of Gene Deitch

Director of Tom & Jerry and Popeye, Gene Deitch worked for the army before he switched. Gene is survived by his wife and three sons from his first marriage, who are all writers and artists for alternative comics.

The Oscar-winning illustrator, Gene Deitch died on Thursday night at his apartment in Prague, it has been reported. His Czech publisher, Petr Himmel, confirmed the news to The Associated Press where he explained that star died ‘unexpectedly.’

Gene was best known for creating animated cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, Munro, Alice of Wonderland in Paris, Tom Terrific, Nudnik, as well as Popeye.

After he graduated, he worked as a draftsman for North American Aviation before being drafted for the military and entering pilot training. He was discharged for medical reasons in 1944 and went back to work in the commercial art world, after which his animation career took off.

From 1945 to 1951, Gene contributed covers and interior art to jazz magazine The Record Changer. In the 1950s, Gene was an early supporter and audio engineer for Connie Converse, one of the first American singer-songwriters. Deitch was nominated for an Academy Award for his film Sidney’s Family Tree. He went on to the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his film Munro in 1960, and was nominated another two times in the same category in 1964 for Here’s Nudnik and How to Avoid Friendship.

During his career, Gene worked as creative director at of Terrytoons, under 20th Century Fox, where he created characters like Sidney the Elephant, Gaston Le Crayon, Clint Clobber and Terrible Thompson. He went on to work with Rembrandt Films through the 1960s to produce a number of Popeye cartoons, as well as a dozen Tom and Jerry shorts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He also co-produced and directed a series of King Features’ Krazy Kat shorts for TV, and created an original kids’ series called The Bluffers.

Animation career
In 1955, Deitch took an apprenticeship at the animation studio United Productions of America (UPA), and later became the creative director of Terrytoons, creating such characters as Sidney the Elephant, Gaston Le Crayon, Tom Terrific, and Clint Clobber. Beginning in 1955, while working at UPA, Deitch wrote and drew the United Feature Syndicate comic strip The Real-Great Adventures of Terrible Thompson, Hero of History, starring a courageous child in fantastical adventures. A skit about Terrible Thompson had been recorded by Little Golden Records, with actor Art Carney and bandleader Mitch Miller participating. That led to the daily strip, which ran from Sunday, October 16, 1955, to April 14, 1956. In early 1958, his theatrical cartoon Sidney’s Family Tree was nominated for an Academy Award. In August 1958, he was fired from Terrytoons and set up his own studio in New York called Gene Deitch Associates, Inc., which primarily produced television commercials.

When client Rembrandt Films promised to fund Munro, an animated theatrical short Deitch wanted to create, Deitch relocated to the company’s base in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in October 1959. He originally planned to spend only ten days in Prague, but after meeting his future wife, Zdenka, decided to settle permanently in the city. Munro premiered in Czechoslovakia in September 1960 and in the U.S. on October 5, 1961, as a short preceding Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1961, the first short created outside of the United States to be so honored. From 1960 to 1963, Deitch collaborated with Rembrandt to direct Popeye cartoons for television with King Features, and from 1961 to 1962 he directed 13 new Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM. Being a “UPA man”, Deitch had misgivings about the latter property, thinking they were “needlessly violent.” However, after being assigned to work on the series, he quickly realized that “nobody took [the violence] seriously”, and it was merely “a parody of exaggerated human emotions.”He also came to see what he perceived as the “biblical roots” in Tom and Jerry’s conflict, similar to David and Goliath, stating “That’s where we feel a connection to these cartoons: the little guy can win (or at least survive) to fight another day.” Contemporary critics often regarded Deitch’s shorts as the worst in the Tom and Jerry series; Deitch said some fans wrote positive letters to him, stating that his Tom and Jerry shorts were their personal favorites.

With producer William L. Snyder, Deitch co-produced and directed a series of TV shorts of Krazy Kat for King Features from 1962 to 1964. The Bluffers, which was based on one of Deitch’s ideas, was also co-produced by him. He directed the 1966 film Alice of Wonderland in Paris. In 1966, he worked with Czech animator Jiří Trnka on a feature-length animated film adapatation of The Hobbit. However, producer William L. Snyder couldn’t secure the funds, and in order to not let the rights for the novel expire, he asked Deitch to produce a short film adaptation in 30 days. Deitch and illustrator Adolf Born made a 13-minute animated film never intended for distribution; the film was long considered lost until it was rediscovered by Snyder’s son and released on YouTube in 2012. Also in 1966, Deitch created a young girl adventurer in Terr’ble Tessie.

From 1969 until his retirement in 2008, Deitch was the leading animation director for the Connecticut organization Weston Woods Studios, adapting children’s picture books. Deitch adapted 37 films for Weston Woods, from Drummer Hoff in 1969 to Voyage to the Bunny Planet in 2008. His studio was located in Prague near the Barrandov Studios, where many major films were shot. In 2003, Deitch was awarded the Annie Awards’ Winsor McCay Award by ASIFA-Hollywood for a lifetime contribution to the art of animation

 

Wisha Adnan
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