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Bill Littlejohn (1914-2010)

Word has just reached us that veteran animator Bill Littlejohn passed away in his sleep last night. He was 96.

Littlejohn was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1914. He started his career in 1934 (some dates peg his start as early as 1931) as a cel washer at New York’s Van Beuren Studio where his aunt worked as a camera person. “One of my first jobs was to hand out cels to the inkers,” he recalled. “They were so slippery in their tissue separators that when I first was handed a stack, I immediately let them drop all over the floor!” He soon worked his way up to inking, assistant animation, and later animation. Later, he worked for Ted Eshbaugh in New York.

In the mid-1930s he moved to Los Angeles and completed a degree in aeronautical engineering. “I began work at Lockheed, but the people there were so boring! They would talk all night about the qualities of a rivet.” He returned to animation working for Harman and Ising and MGM (The Captain and the Kids, Jitterbug Follies, Tom and Jerry–he was one of the few people, including Jack Zander, who worked on both the Van Beuren Tom & Jerry series, as well as the more famous Hanna-Barbara cat-and-mouse team).

After serving in the Army as a test pilot during World War II (freelancing for Lantz and MGM during the same time), he struggled to find work in the industry, and in the early-1950s, he worked at a Beverly Hills car garage that was run by Alice Faye, the wife of bandleader Phil Harris. From the mid-1950s onward, with the growth of the TV commercial industry, he never lacked for work and became recognized as one of the fastest and most prolific commercial animators of all time. He animated spots for a multitude of commercial studios including Playhouse Pictures, Jay Ward Productions, Animation Inc., Fine Arts Films, The Ink Tank, and Bill Melendez Productions, where he was a principal animator on numerous Peanuts specials.

One of his most well known associations was with John and Faith Hubley. Over a thirty-plus year association with them, he worked on their short films, commercials and features. He was the primary animator of the Oscar-winning short The Hole, and animated on The Hat, Zuckerkandl, Voyage to Next, Of Stars and Men, People, People, People, Everybody Rides the Carousel, Sky Dance, Enter Life and Amazonia, among many others.

During the production of A Doonesbury Special, Littlejohn went to New York to work with the Hubleys. He recalled:

John [Hubley] called me and said, “Bill, I want you to come out so we can go over some stuff. I have to go into surgery and, in case anything happens, I want this project to get finished.” I did fly out and we went over the schedule and storyboards with John, Faith and Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau. I had done some test animation of Zonker putting flowers in the muzzles of National Guardsmen’s rifles. Trudeau was amazed, he had never seen his characters moving before. The next day, John Hubley went in for open-heart surgery and died on the operating table. We went on with the film and I must have animated about 12 minutes of it myself.

The special went on to receive an Academy Award nomination and won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Littlejohn contributed to Watership Down (1978), Heavy Metal (1981), R.O. Blechman’s The Soldier’s Tale (1984), and Mrs. Doubtfire. A passionate and involved lifelong supporter of the animation art form, he was one of the founders of the International Tournée of Animation in the mid-1960s, as well as a co-founder of ASIFA-Hollywood. He was also a former president of the Screen Cartoonists Guild, and sat on the Academy’s Board of Governors representing short films and animation between 1988-2001. His wife of 61 years, Fini Rudiger Littlejohn, an illustrator, actress, and Disney artist, died in 2004. He is survived by two children–son Steve Littlejohn and daughter Toni Littlejohn–and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Bill Littlejohn’s memory to ASIFA-Hollywood, 2114 W. Burbank, Blvd., Burbank, CA 91506

UPDATE: Charles Solomon has written an obit of Bill Littlejohn for the LA Times.

A look Bill Littlejohn’s Animation Work
Jitterbug Follies, a 1939 MGM cartoon based on Milt Gross’ comics, on which Littlejohn animated.

A photo from a 1956 story session from the production of John Wilson’s TV special Petroushka. left to right: Richard Punnett, John Wilson, Ed DeMattia, Chris Jenkyns, Dean Spille and Bill Littlejohn holding the scissors:
Bill Littlejohn

John and Faith Hubley’s The Hole:

One of Littlejohn’s most famous TV commercials for Uniroyal Tires:

A classic Peanuts scene animated by Littlejohn. “At first Charles Schulz didn’t care for all the Snoopy pantomime,” Littlejohn said. “He felt it was deviating too much from his style. He wanted the whole film to be talking heads, doing his dialogue.”

Some stills are below from a commercial that Littlejohn animated in the 1950s for Sohio Gasoline:
Bill Littlejohn

  • Heckuva a career!

  • Rooniman

    Another legend leaves us.

  • I only met him once but he was incredibly generous with his knowledge. His work had amazing clarity.

  • james madison


  • Clearly, an animation Master. So long, Bill.

  • Mike Russo

    I loved his distinctive Peanuts animation. RIP, Bill.

  • Karen

    Outstanding career—we all owe him a lot. RIP.

  • I have some Playhouse Pictures animation cels and these two look like they might be his work[email protected]/5007052132/[email protected]/5007052298/

    • Mike Kazaleh

      Those drawings are from a De Soto spot animated by Bobe Cannon who is also fantastic.

  • Aloha, Bill. Thanks for all you did to elevate our art .

  • The Ghost of Warner Bros. Past

    That Snoopy scene is genius…God bless you, Mr. Littlejohn. Among your many accomplishments, thank you for bringing Snoopy to life.

  • Van Beuren animator makes good!

    I sure remember the Tigerpaws commercial. It’s a shame I don’t know who these people are until they die.

    I’m glad he had a long and successful life.

  • Thanks for teaching me to eat spinach when I was 2 years old and being in my life all these years….I’ll miss our bi-weekly chats! Up Up & away!

  • Bill Littlejohn was a wonderful friend, and a great animator. More than that, he was a helluva union president. As a Guild activist, He probably tweaked more than one nose of the powerful to make conditions better for all us artists. He was an inspiration to me. He taught me that you don’t have to act like sheep to be a successful artist in this business. You can have the strength of your convictions. God Speed you Bill, one of the great animators.

  • Janet Benn

    Bill Littlejohn was an extremely generous and kind man. Not only was he a close friend of the John and Faith Hubley, he animated a part of almost every film that Faith Hubley made after John died. I remember inking and painting his drawings when I worked for her.

    He was part of a contingent of Americans who traveled to the last Varna Animation Festival in Varna Bulgaria in 1989, where he put on a program of his life’s work which included a showing of the “tiger in your tank” animation. The program was received very well, which was a relief to Bill who was not accustomed to doing such shows about himself.

    His tenure on the AMPAS board was key to establishing a separate category for animated features, the first award being given to SHREK in 2001. At the time I heard that he was happy about this and felt that he had made a difference. He will be missed.

    • I remember Bill telling me about that festival, when Russian director Fyodor Khytruk got mad at some Bulgarian party bosses who had put out a nicer buffet for VIPs than everyone else was getting. Fyodor demanded all should be treated equally.
      Bill laughed:” Fyodor was a good Commie! Even to other Commies, he was a Commie!

  • Mike Kazaleh

    I’m crushed.

    Bill was one of the top animators in the field. There was real warmth and honesty to his animation. He was a great guy, and very dedicated to animation. No one will be able to fill his shoes.

  • amid

    One thing I’ve always found hard to believe is that Littlejohn appeared to struggle for work in the late-’40s and early-’50s. Was it his politics? Or was he simply not interested in working in animation?

    He had an idiosyncratic, deeply personal style, and it’s interesting that Hubley was one of the first guys who hired him again around 1954. After that, Littlejohn was unstoppable. In the commercial era, new styles of drawing opened up, and suddenly there was a demand for versatile animators who could animate anything.

    It’s also no surprise that Littlejohn was such a presence on the festival scene and a part of the global animation community. He was an independent animator at heart. When he started in the 1930s, there were fewer outlets for his way of thinking, but he thrived when the animation world opened up in the 50s and 60s. He was truly one of the greats.

    • In the 2007 interview I did with Bill for AWN, he mentioned to me that in the late 40s-early 50s he was doing more Air Force work than animation. They had him training pilots and being a test pilot of newer supersonic jets. He said that kept him from doing staff work, but staying freelance. The Military work probably also kept him safe from the HUAC committee that was going after other animation lefties.

      • amid

        Tom – Thanks for filling in some of the details. What a fascinating and productive life he had!

  • Bill was an original and had an original style. I learned so much from him the many years I worked for the Hubleys. He and Fini were like one, and I can’t believe how much they supported me and the work I did once I set up my own shop.

    I am so sad to hear that Bill’s no longer there

  • Nancy Beiman

    I am proud to have known and worked with Bill Littlejohn. He was a good man, a great animator, and a man who was passionate about animation, who fought for animation, and did a lot of work for AMPAS and the union. Thank you, Bill. Say hello to the other Bill (Melendez) for us, and may all your future projects be heavenly ones.

    • Barry Rivadue

      Alice Faye was married to bandleader Phil Harris.

    • It was indeed a pleasure to work with Bill on so many Peanuts specials. A great talent, may he rest in peace.

  • Stacey Feuer

    Cheers to you Bill! The animation world is a better place..thanks to you.
    Have that martini.. rest in Peace… and say hi to Fini!

  • About the Uniroyal Tires Ad:
    I Love how back in the day, cartoons served as
    advertising in a very respectful way, those commercials were truly creative, and not so obvious as todays!

  • Bob

    Did you mean Alice Faye, who was Phil Harris’ wife?

    • amid

      Thanks. I’ve corrected that.

  • Jeffers

    Is Jitterbug Follies available on legitimate DVD?

    • It’s a bonus cartoon on the Marx brothers Room Service/At The Circus DVD: Side B (it was part of a box set, but is sometimes available as a separate DVD).

  • Doug Nichols

    I’d love to make a positive comment on this great artists’ work, but I have to run out and buy some Uniroyal tires right now.

  • Zartok-35

    No one could make a dancing sydicated comic stirp character into more of a spectacle than Bill Littlejohn and his curvy arms and legs. Snoopy and Garfield alike were a joy to watch.
    Thanks alot, good luck and goodbye, Mr. Bill ‘Curvy apendages’ Littlejohn.

  • Wonderful! Just wonderful.

  • bob kurtz

    bill was an original and amazing talent and dear good friend. to use bill’s our words “he was an all around good fellow”. i can’t imagine not talking to bill about life and animation. he loved both with a passion. bill, you will be missed. rest in peace.

  • pappy d

    He’ll always be a hero to me.

  • A brilliant animator, a great guy. The iron man of animation has left the building. He will be missed.

    Bill was a friend to me when I first arrived in Hollywood knowing nothing and nobody (me, not Bill). Thanks for all your help, Bill.

  • David Breneman

    I *loved* that scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when I first saw it as a kid, and I still like it today. Schultz has a very static style and it’s amazing that Littlejohn and the other animators could breathe so much life into it.

  • Bob Stenhouse

    Our children, Peter and Jennie, grew up from ages of 7 and 4 knowing Fini and Bill Littlejohn after my first visit to Los Angeles in 1987. Fini wrote frequently, and she and Bill keenly followed our lives and supplied us – Cathie and myself, as well as the kids – with Calvin and Hobbes strips, clipped each day from the LA Times, because our papers didn’t yet run them here in New Zealand.

    Thank you, Bill, for everlasting cheerfulness and generosity of spirit, your support and encouragement.

  • Eli

    I apologize for commenting late, but this is some really sad news for the animation community. While I don’t know too much about Bill Littlejohn, it seems that he was a very fine animator in his own right, and I give his family some words of condolence while they are thinking about the great things this man did.

  • Charles K

    I’ll be honest – I read the headline and at first thought, “I know that name as one of the classic animators, but I can’t recall what he did.”

    -oh, THAT’S what he did. God bless you, Bill, for all your amazing contributions.

    I teach animation and will be sending all my young students (who almost certainly won’t recognize his name) to this site today. Thank you also for all the links to his work.

  • Martin Juneau

    I didn’t have the idea who is but it’s surely a other big lost of veteran animator who dies unfortunately. But his filmography is amazing as well he contribute so much to animation as a medium, not just a genre.

    God bless you, Mr. Littlejohn and thank you!

  • Bill was an amazing talent whose passion for animation never waned. He and Fini were wonderful together. They initiated the Olympiad of Animation for the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. It was part of the Olympic Arts Festival.

    When they visited Washington D.C. and did a gig for ASIFA Washington. We showed commercials, hubley films and the 2,000 Man. The next morning, I had breakfast with Bill. I wanted to glean so bit of information from this animation sage. I asked him for a “jewel” of animation advice. Bill looked at me and replied,”If you ever get in trouble with your animation – make your character blink!

    Thanks, bless you, Bill, keep blinking.

  • Luda

    A memorial site was created for Bill Littlejohn! Honor his memory by contributing to his memorial site

  • It looks like that he is one of the last of the original animators in that era! Nowadays we have very few people still with us…

  • Polyvios

    What an outrageous piece of animation that Bill did for the tire company! That tiger car got paws instead of tires.

    And as for the other animation with snoopy dancing, well, I care for so much of him being a pantomime character. I have sympathy for him that once he stopped dancing as he reacted to Shroeder stopping from playing the piano.

  • Would like to obtain this photo for publication:

    A photo from a 1956 story session from the production of John Wilson’s TV special Petroushka. left to right: Richard Punnett, John Wilson, Ed DeMattia, Chris Jenkyns, Dean Spille and Bill Littlejohn holding the scissors:

    Can you advise?

    Jane Martin
    Military Officer Magazine
    [email protected]