Ralph Bakshi is chain-smoking Vantages and eating soup from a plastic foam cup.
"I've gotten reviews that would make most directors weep," he says, "and still I'm finding it a battle."
He fidgets and curses frequently as he muses about cartoons.
"It's insane how some people perceive me," he says. "I'm a very square guy. I really am."
Bakshi's dilemma began with his first major success--his 1972 movie "Fritz the Cat" got an X rating for its animated journey through Harlem in search of women and pot parties. A few years later, Bakshi populated his "American Pop" with such unlikely cartoon figures as gangsters and beatniks.
There were a half-dozen additional films that brought sex, violence and social commentary into the kingdom of "Sleeping Beauty." Bakshi earned critical acclaim and a revolutionary's reputation. He also earned public outrage.
Last season he took his art to television, to something as innocent as Mighty Mouse. And he has stumbled into trouble again.
Earlier this month, two media watchdog groups condemned the CBS series "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" for allegedly portraying drug use. During one episode, they say, there is a 3 1/2-second scene in which the Mouse of Steel does something that looks suspiciously like snorting cocaine.
CBS has vehemently denied the allegations and defended Bakshi.
The cartoonist is mystified by this controversy, but says he probably should have seen it coming. Bakshi paces as he talks. He is a tall man with a large belly. The walls of his Van Nuys office are covered with colorful sketches that flutter in his wake.
"I'm paying for my reputation," Bakshi says. "Have I enjoyed it? No. I wish life would be easier."
During an interview, there are only two instances when Bakshi's nervous pessimism eases. First, when he talks about his family. Second, when he talks about cartoons.
"I'm an artist and I'm very passionate about the art of animation," he says. "That's the truth."
Bakshi has his supporters. Critics have been kind. Viacom, an independent distributor, signed Bakshi to a long-term agreement. Action for Children's Television recently honored him for the intelligent scripts and artistic animation in "Mighty Mouse."
"He's a breath of fresh air in terms of his audacity and unrestrained humor and his use of subtle, adult-type satire," said Will Ryan, president of the International Animated Film Society.
If anything, said a CBS official, Bakshi's talent works against him .
"It has a lot to do with being on the cutting edge," said Judy Price, vice president of children's programming at CBS. "You are more open to criticism."
Bakshi seems weary from the latest controversy. In the space of one hour, he speaks several times about quitting animation.
He did that once before, in 1983, after his film "Fire and Ice" opened to lukewarm reviews. It was the last in a string of movies: "Heavy Traffic," "Coonskin," "Wizards," "Lord of the Rings" and "Hey, Good Lookin'."
By then, Bakshi had grown tired of filming on low budgets and fighting his bad-boy image. He moved his wife and four children to New York and spent several years painting.
There were occasional gallery shows, a few sales. Mostly the painter worked in solitude.
"Was it all wonderful? Don't kid yourself," he told The Times in 1986. "There were very bad days. You'd say, 'What're you doing ? What've you done? Nobody cares.' Making marks on canvas isn't romantic. It's hard and it's lonely and you're searching your insides, and I would feel stupid.
"Then there were good days. I played soccer with the kids. The pond froze over in winter and we played hockey. I discovered there was a sculptor who lived and worked in what had been a church right across the street and we'd sit and drink wine and talk about art."
Bakshi might have remained in the East were it not for a group of CalArts animation students. They complained to him that no one was producing adult animation, that no one had taken his place. Bakshi returned to Los Angeles, leaving his family temporarily behind.
The first thing he did was buy the rights to Mighty Mouse. In the 1950s, Bakshi worked as an apprentice on the original cartoon. This time, the mouse was supposed to provide a different apprenticeship--a playful way for Bakshi to return to animation.
Bakshi hired the CalArts students who had goaded him back. They moved into a San Fernando Valley studio and he returned to form--storming through the halls and yelling.
"With Ralph," says one of his animators, "you can never tell what's going to happen."
Mighty Mouse soon returned with definitive Bakshi touches. At the same time, Bakshi created some "Fritz"-like figures to dance around Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones video "Harlem Shuffle."
But he insists that his new animation work is different--"Mighty Mouse" plots don't pivot on the major social issues that marked his earlier films. Bakshi has transferred those feelings onto canvas. He still paints continually in a downtown loft.
"What I did in the '70s were political and social films, very personal statements. 'Mighty Mouse' represents me wanting to entertain people," he says. "This isn't a stance I'm taking for commercialism. I'm allowing myself to have more fun. I want to make people fall on the floor laughing."
The time is right, he says. The success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" proves that movie audiences want animation. Bakshi has a stack of story ideas that he'll shop to studio executives in August.
And he has sold a new series, "Tattertown," to Viacom for next season. It is a story crowded with nostalgic figures--colorfully dressed insects and odd-shaped creatures that go around saying things like: "Gee whiz, we couldn't find a job today." Music for the cartoon has been revived from old-time animation.
As for "Mighty Mouse," the ratings are low despite strong reviews. CBS' Price worries that the show may be too sophisticated for children who are used to watching simplified, modern cartoons.
CBS ordered six episodes for the coming season, half the number it bought last year. The network will try to boost the show's ratings by shifting it from 9:30 a.m.--where it ran opposite "Alvin & the Chipmunks" and "Real Ghostbusters"--to a less-competitive time slot at noon, against major league baseball and "Three Stooges" reruns.
Bakshi recently asked CBS to cut the 3 1/2 seconds of the "cocaine" episode that offended the groups Accuracy in Media and the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Assn. Bakshi still insists that Mighty Mouse is merely sniffing a handful of crushed flower petals--he had been given a flower earlier in the episode by a poor little flower seller and pulled it out of his pocket while thinking of her--but he says he wants to put the matter to rest. CBS reluctantly agreed.
"The network had taken the position that it was not going to cut the scene because there was nothing wrong with it," Price says. "(Wildmon) will claim this as a victory, but it really isn't. We're not admitting that we've done anything wrong."
Bakshi continues to fret over the public's perception of his work. He feels the weight of his reputation.
"In the field of animation, he certainly disturbed people," says Ryan, of the film society. "He was trying to rewrite the rules and he did. He wrote his own rules."
It's like old times, Bakshi says. Again, his mood lightens. He recalls a teen-age love affair with comic strips such as Mutt and Jeff and Krazy Kat.
"In those days, if you were caught reading a comic book, you were a moron," he says. "Your mother hit you on the head."