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:
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: