More than five decades ago, Arthur Rankin Jr., a producer-director working in stop-motion animation, had an idea to develop a family-oriented TV special around a popular Christmas song. He hoped a network would like it enough to run it two or three times.
But when “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” aired in 1964, he and partner Jules Bass found they had a blockbuster — one that launched them into TV history as pioneers of the animated holiday special.
Fifty years later, “Rudolph,” with its catchy tunes and charmingly misfit characters, remains the longest-running Christmas TV special, “one of only four 1960s Christmas specials still being telecast,” according to the Archive of American Television. The others are “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and another Rankin-Bass creation, “Frosty the Snowman.”
Rankin, whose projects would later include animated series such as “The Jackson 5ive” and the feature-length stop-motion film “Mad Monster Party,” died of natural causes Thursday in Harrington Sound, Bermuda, where he had retired, said his son, Todd Rankin. He was 89.
“Arthur was the Walt Disney of stop-motion animation,” said Rick Goldschmidt, who chronicled the history of Rankin-Bass productions in books and a website. “He was a great influence on the Tim Burton films and even more so on Pixar.”
Although Rankin-Bass also produced traditional, hand-drawn animation, it was best known for its stop-motion technique called Animagic, which differed from clay motion in its use of small, wire-jointed dolls.
Burton, who told The Times last year that he had “a fond burning feeling” for the Rankin-Bass holiday specials he watched as a child, created movies such as “Nightmare Before Christmas” using the same style of jointed figurines. In homage to his childhood inspirations, Burton even named a character in his 1984 film “Frankenweenie” Mr. Burgermeister, after a character in Rankin-Bass’ “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (1970).
Other well-known Rankin-Bass stop-motion works include “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968), “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” (1971) and “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974).
Following the pattern established in “Rudolph,” which features Burl Ives’ singing and narration, Rankin and Bass broadened the appeal of the programs by using famous voices, including those of Greer Garson, Danny Kaye and Jimmy Durante.
A time-tested theme was also a Rankin-Bass hallmark.
“In all our pictures we had an antagonist who becomes the good guy,” Rankin said in a 2005 interview for the Archive of American Television, “and the underdog fulfills his quest.”
In “Rudolph,” the underdogs were the title character with the flashing red nose and an elf named Hermey, who wants to be a dentist. Among the villains is the Abominable Snowman, who ultimately changes his menacing ways.
“Rudolph” took more than a year to make because of the painstakingly slow pace of stop-motion production, “but the show is not just the technique,” Rankin told the Washington Post in 2004. “It’s the story, the characters, the music. We knew what we needed: warmth. ‘Rudolph’ showed us that.”
Rankin grew up in a family attuned to pleasing audiences. His parents, Mignon Klemm and Arthur Rankin Sr., were vaudevillians, and Ethel Barrymore was a distant relation. An only child, Arthur Jr. grew up on his grandparents’ farm outside Baltimore, where he was born on July 19, 1924. He moved to New York at age 12.
During high school he worked at Radio City Music Hall as a page and backstage hand. At 18 he joined the Navy, surviving two sinkings by enemy forces during World War II.
He returned to civilian life as the television industry was forming. Hired at ABC, he was a graphic designer and art director on dramatic series such as “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Schlitz Playhouse.”
He began making commercials for network sponsors, a sideline that proved so successful that he left ABC in 1952 to form his own company. Bass, who worked for an advertising agency, joined him in 1955, when they formed Videocraft International, later named Rankin/Bass Productions.
In the late 1950s Rankin went to Japan to study the techniques of stop-motion animator Tad Mochinaga, who used figurines and miniature sets to make his films. Mochinaga would later supervise the animation of a number of Rankin-Bass shows.
In 1962, Rankin was trying to come up with a Christmas special for General Electric and thought of his Greenwich Village neighbor Johnny Marks, whose song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” had been inspired by a story written as a department store holiday promotion by his brother-in-law Robert May. Marks’ song, sung by Gene Autry, was a huge success in 1949.
Rankin, Bass and writer Romeo Muller fleshed out a story based on the song, adding a whole cast of characters, including the Misfit Toys. Marks was afraid that his hit could be tarnished if the TV project was a flop, but when it aired on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas, the ratings vanquished any fears of failure.
After that broadcast, “everyone wanted a Christmas film like ‘Rudolph,’” Rankin recalled.
With Bass, Rankin branched out from holiday specials to animated features like “Mad Monster Party” (1967), a tongue-in-cheek mash-up that featured Frankenstein, Dracula, the Werewolf, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and other famous creatures, and the Peabody Award-winning “The Hobbit” (1977), based on the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy.
Rankin, who moved full-time to his home in the islands in the 1980s, is survived by his wife, Olga Karlatos, and his sons from a previous marriage, Todd and Gardner.
Despite the variety of his work, Rankin said he did not mind being most famous for a decades-old fable about a maverick reindeer that still enchants holiday TV audiences.
What did not endure, he once noted, was the role the elves in the story played in commercials for General Electric.
“When the picture was in production,” he told the Washington Post, “we took photographs and placed the elves in positions to be used in GE ads. There was an elf working a hair curler, for example. I don’t think I could get away with that today.”