Animation director Michael Sporn, best known for his adaptations of children’s stories that were shown on HBO, PBS and other networks, had a childhood that was interrupted. When he was a toddler his father abandoned the family, and although his mother eventually remarried, it left a hole in Sporn’s life.
“His stepfather wanted to adopt him when he was about 12,” said Sporn’s wife, actress Heidi Stallings. “Michael told his stepfather he loved him, but he said, ‘If my father ever tries to find me, I have to make sure my name is still Sporn.’
“I think that’s why a lot of his films were about family.”
Sporn, 67, died Sunday at a hospice care facility in New York. He had been battling pancreatic cancer for nearly four years, Stallings said.
He was nominated for a best short film animation Oscar for his adaptation of the William Steig story “Doctor DeSoto” (released in 1984), and nominated for a prime-time Emmy for his version of another Steig story, “Abel’s Island” (1988).
Other adaptations of illustrated works by well-known children’s authors include “Lyle Lyle Crocodile” (1987) from a book by Bernard Waber and “The Man Who Walked Between Towers” (2005) from a story by Mordicai Gerstein.
“Michael had a great ability to change his style to fit in with those books,” said Oscar-winning animation director John Canemaker. “But when he did his own films, it was with a very distinctive style.”
Those included the sweet-natured “The Hunting of the Snark” (1989), adapted from a Lewis Carroll poem and narrated by James Earl Jones, and the hard-edged “Champagne” (1997), based on a true story and meant for young adults. It’s a dark tale, albeit with a hopeful resolution, about a girl who is neglected by her drug-addicted mother.
“Sporn rightly eschews high-tech wizardry,” reviewer Harlene Ellin wrote about “Champagne” in the Chicago Tribune. “Instead he relies on the strength of his simple, but warmly drawn illustrations and the stories themselves.”
No matter what style Sporn was using, his characters were hand drawn without the aid of computers. “He felt that the computer was once removed,” Stallings said. “To him, it was important that there was a transference direct from the artist to the paper.”
Sporn was born April 23, 1946, in New York. “My mother claims I said ‘cartoon’ a special way when I was 4,” he said in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview. “I was drawing an imitation of Popeye at 7.”
He studied fine arts at the New York Institute of Technology and then spent five years in the Navy where he continued to study art and animation by mail. In 1972, he went to work for famed animator John Hubley and then the London-based Richard Williams. He established his own small studio in New York in 1980.
For budgetary reasons he often had to stick with a limited-movement style. But critic Charles Solomon, in a Times review of Sporn’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” in 1990, said he transcended the limitations. “Instead of inflicting yet another formula ‘Garfield’ special on viewers,” Solomon wrote, “network executives should consider giving Sporn’s work the wider exposure it deserves.”
In addition to his wife, Sporn is survived by his sister Patricia Sherf, half sister Christine O’Neill and half brothers Jerry Rosco and John Rosco.