Joseph Barbera, 95; animation giant co-created ‘Flintstones,’ ‘Yogi Bear’
Joseph Barbera, who, with his longtime partner William “Bill” Hanna, created such beloved cartoon characters as Tom and Jerry, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Jonny Quest, died of natural causes Monday at his Studio City home. He was 95.
During the 1940s, Barbera and Hanna were MGM’s blue-ribbon cartoon directors, winning seven Oscars for the “Tom and Jerry” shorts. After MGM closed its animation unit in 1957, they moved to television, where they created a series of hits in the 1960s, beginning with “The Flintstones,” the first animated series in prime time.
By the 1970s, Hanna-Barbera was the dominant studio in Saturday morning cartoons, making shows for the three major networks and accounting for as much as 70% of the so-called kid-vid programming in some seasons.
“Joe Barbera was a passionate storyteller and a creative genius who, along with his late partner Bill Hanna, helped pioneer the world of animation,” Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation, said in a statement. “Bill created a landmark television production model and Joe filled it with funny, original show ideas and memorable characters that will stand for all time as his ultimate legacy.”
During their six-decade partnership, Barbera and Hanna produced more than 300 series for network and syndicated TV. They also adapted comic books and live-action series and made theatrical features, direct-to-video releases and TV specials.
They sold their production company in 1967 but remained involved in the company’s management. In his 90s, Barbera was still helping to shape new projects and was reporting to his office until a few weeks ago, according to spokesman Gary Miereanu. Hanna died in 2001 at 90.
Born March 24, 1911, in New York City to immigrant parents, Joseph Roland Barbera displayed an early aptitude for drawing. Although he graduated from the American Institute of Banking, he intensely disliked his first job at the Irving Trust bank. While employed there, he took classes at the Pratt Institute, Art Students League and New York University and sold cartoons to Collier’s magazine.
A screening of Walt Disney’s 1929 “The Skeleton Dance” sparked his interest in animation. After working at the Van Buren and Terrytoons studios in the New York City area, Barbera moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to join MGM’s cartoon unit.
At MGM, Barbera met Hanna, a story man, and the two became friends. When MGM failed to establish a successful cartoon series, the two men decided to create a film of their own.
Their idea -- which their co-workers dismissed as a cliche -- was a cat-and-mouse cartoon featuring Jasper, a hot-tempered cat, and an unnamed chubby-cheeked mouse. The 1940 short, “Puss Gets the Boot,” earned Hanna and Barbera their first Oscar nomination in the cartoon short category.
In their next short, “The Midnight Snack” (1941), the cat was renamed Tom and the mouse was christened Jerry.
The feuding pair quickly became one of the most popular in cartoon history, winning Hanna and Barbera seven Academy Awards between 1943 and 1952. Tom and Jerry even co-starred alongside such MGM stars as Gene Kelly in “Anchors Aweigh” (1945) and Esther Williams in “Dangerous When Wet” (1953). Barbera and Hanna also animated a sea serpent for the 1956 Kelly musical “Invitation to the Dance.”
In a 1988 interview, Hanna recalled, “Joe would draw the storyboard and plot the actions. I would do the timing and go over the scenes with the animators. We used to make a ‘Tom and Jerry’ short every six weeks and they were about six minutes long, so we were producing about a minute of animation a week.”
The “Tom and Jerry” series came to an abrupt end in 1957 when the management at MGM closed the animation studio. Hanna and Barbera formed a production company and began looking for work in television. Little animation was being produced for TV, but they managed to interest Screen Gems in the series “Ruff and Reddy,” the comic adventures of a big, dumb bulldog and a small, clever cat. It premiered on NBC in December 1957 as part of a package show that included live hosts, puppets and old theatrical cartoons.
In contrast to the lavish “Tom and Jerry” cartoons that cost more than $40,000 apiece in the mid-'50s, the first episodes of “Ruff and Reddy” were budgeted at $2,700 apiece. To cut corners, Hanna and Barbera began using limited animation.
“Instead of the 25,000 to 40,000 drawings we used in a ‘Tom and Jerry’ short, we were able to make a cartoon with 1,200 to 1,800 drawings,” Barbera said in 1988. “But you had to be an animator to understand where to use those drawings and how to use camera moves to give them more life. We learned you can cover a lot of ground with dialogue.”
“The Huckleberry Hound Show,” their first half-hour program, premiered in syndication in 1958, starring a laconic blue dog who spoke in a Southern drawl. Huckleberry was quickly upstaged by “Yogi Bear,” which scored an even bigger hit when it debuted in 1961.
Yogi, who frequently proclaimed he was “smarter than the average bear,” used his devious intelligence to swipe food from campers’ “pic-a-nic baskets” in Jellystone National Park.
Hanna-Barbera’s most popular show of the ‘60s was “The Flintstones,” which ran from 1960 through 1966, the longest-running animated prime-time series until “The Simpsons.” Barbera and Hanna later served as executive producers of the 1994 live-action feature film based on the Stone Age characters.
Securing backing for the cartoon was a struggle at first. Barbera spent two months trying to find a sponsor for the program before the networks would consider it. He appeared in dozens of corporate boardrooms, tacking up storyboard drawings and pitching the series.
“I booked into the Sherry-Netherland in New York, thinking I’d be there for a week,” he once said. “I was there long enough to see the snow melt and the flowers come out in Central Park. My thumbs were bleeding from all the thumbtacking.”
The partners followed the “Flintstones” success with three more prime time shows: “Top Cat” (1961), “The Jetsons” (1962) and “Jonny Quest” (1964).
During the mid-'60s, they shifted to producing children’s series for the burgeoning Saturday-morning market. “The Smurfs,” “Space Ghost,” and “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” rank among the most popular kid-vid shows of the baby boom and Gen X eras.
Taft Entertainment acquired Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1967 for $12 million. The studio was subsequently resold and is now part of Time Warner Corp.
When Barbera and Hanna received the Governors’ Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 1988, Barbera explained how their 60-year collaboration had functioned.
“We never mix socially. It isn’t deliberate; it just happened that way,” he said. “Bill likes the great outdoors -- he goes fishing, boating and on camping trips with sleeping bags. I hate boating, I hate fishing, I hate camping. While Bill is up north at his ranch, I go to Palm Springs.”
Barbera noted that they agreed on the division of labor, which made for an amicable partnership. “I work on creating the ideas for projects and trying to sell those ideas in the various markets,” he said. “Bill oversees the actual production in studios all over the world, which I would hate doing.”
“When Bill’s out of town,” he said, joking, “I turn the light out behind his name on the studio sign, but he does the same thing to me when I’m gone, so we stay even.”
Barbera and Hanna also received seven Emmys, a Humanitas Prize and a Golden Globe, as well as numerous festival and broadcasting awards. They were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1994.
In March 2005, Barbera attended a ceremony at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood at which a 1,200-pound bronze wall sculpture was unveiled honoring the two animators.
Barbera also served as president of the Greek Theatre Assn. and the Southern California Theatre Assn.
He is survived by his wife, Sheila; three children from a previous marriage, Lynn Lombardo of Van Nuys, Jayne Barbera of Encino and Neal Barbera of Sherman Oaks; two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.