What’s Up, Doc? : Bugs Bunny’s 50th Birthday, That’s What


If you think Bugs Bunny is just another cartoon character, you’re looney tunes.

Bugs Bunny is no hare-today-gone-tomorrow screen star, no hopped-up, hype-heavy advertising ploy aimed at kids’ piggy banks. And he is certainly no silly rabbit.

For most of his 50 years in show business, he has been an American original, an icon.

One of the last of the cartoon greats--second only, perhaps, to Mickey Mouse, and far more mature--Bugs has done it all. He is a wenaissance wabbit. A 1958 Oscar winner (for “Knighty Knight Bugs”), he is a carrot-chomping Chaplin; a versatile, canny actor who has worked with the greats such as Bogart; a master of disguises (he even does drag well); a physical comedian par excellence ; a legend in his own timeless time with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. He has even done opera. His oeuvre is a fun-house mirror of film history: “Bugsy and Mugsy,” “The Rabbit of Seville,” “Napoleon Bunny-Part,” “The Big Snooze.”


And yet, for all his confident bravado and fame, he has never strayed far from his humble beginnings--a simple rabbit hole.

So if there is anybody in Hollywood who deserves a prime-time birthday bash, it is Bugs.

CBS will do the honors with an hourlong special Wednesday, “Happy Birthday, Bugs: 50 Looney Years.” Among the admirers and stars paying homage are “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart, who will take a look at this playboy bunny’s private life; Maury Povich of “A Current Affair,” who looks into a hare-raising hoax, and Bill Cosby, who will introduce a special tribute to the late Mel Blanc, who was the voice of Bugs and many other Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” greats.

Animator Chuck Jones is one of the people who knew Bugs when. Though it was Tex Avery whose 1940 theatrical short “A Wild Hare” evolved into the weally gweat wabbit we know today, Jones--the creator of the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote and Pepe Le Pew--was there at the creation. Along with Avery, it was Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Robert McKimson who directed between 1941 and 1964 the bulk of the nearly 200 theatrical shorts that make up the Bugs Bunny legacy.

Unlike Blanc, who liked to think of Bugs as “a little stinker,” Jones says Bugs was anything but.

“I always thought of him as a cross between Errol Flynn and Dorothy Parker,” said Jones, in a recent telephone interview from Newport Beach.

Jones joined Warner Bros. in 1933 and directed more than 50 of the six- and seven-minute Bugs adventures for the bijou. At 77, he is a three-time Academy Award winner.

In the beginning, Jones recalled, Bugs “was very crouchy, actually. His knees were bent, he was more like a kangaroo in terms of his stance.”

But Bugs Bunny was always a stand-up guy, confident, a hero, Jones said.

Jones said those who saw Bugs as a wise guy are mistaken. And despite what mishaps may have befallen hunter Elmer Fudd, who stalked but never caught that “wascally wabbit,” Bugs was not mean-spirited, just smart--too smart to be anyone’s prey.

“In a Bugs Bunny picture you have to be certain he doesn’t become a bully because he’s such a strong character,” Jones said. “So you always start out with him in a natural habitat--down in a hole or out in the forest or a carrot patch, someplace like that, and then somebody comes along and tries to do him in or cook him. . . . Now we have sympathy for him because he was minding his business and that way a strong character can become a sympathetic character.”

Bugs, of course, never really needed our sympathy because he is a comic hero, an individual.

That is a lot different than the kind of cartoon fare cluttering Saturday mornings these days.

“Most of the stuff on Saturday morning (such as the Smurfs) . . . not one of those people can handle anything by themselves. They have to call everybody together in a big gang to fight against evil. That’s hardly what we would like to teach our children. It’s a fascist concept. I don’t like to use the term, but it’s true. It’s the triumph of the individual that makes us,” Jones said.

And there is no arguing that Bugs was never cut out for a care-bear kind of chorus line. He is too singular a sensation. And, ebedeebedee, that’s all folks.