Burns was born in Baltimore, Maryland on May 18, 1935. He attended the University of Oregon from 1953 to 1957, then spent three years designing and drawing greeting cards. “Meantime I’d visit all the animation houses seeking writing jobs — UPA, Disney, Filmfair, Pantomime,” he is quoted as saying in Keith Scott’s book The Moose That Roared: The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a Flying Squirrel, and a Talking Moose. “But I was never successful at a full-time job.”
While watching tv one afternoon, Burns saw an episode of Rocky and His Friends. Enthralled by its satirical humor, which seemed pitched to adults as much as children, he looked up the address of Jay Ward Productions and turned up at the Hollywood studio unannounced, portfolio of drawings in hand. In the lobby, he came across Ward himself, who looked at his work and hired him on the spot.
Watch Burns talk about his discovery of “Rocky and Bullwinkle”:
Ward assigned Burns to a marketing campaign built around the Rocky and Bullwinkle characters, ahead of the show’s relaunch on NBC (some of the material he created with George Atkins can be seen on the Art of Jay Ward Productions blog). Burns went on to co-create the show’s Dudley Do-Right character, who would later get his own spin-off series, and to “originate” the titular character in the studio’s George of the Jungle (according to The Moose That Roared).
In 1962, Jay Ward Productions was invited to pitch a mascot for a new cereal from Quaker Oats. Burns came up with Cap’n Crunch, an old-world naval captain, and various accompanying characters. His pitch was successful and the character became a huge hit, but Burns received a mere $1,000 for his efforts. “When you’re an animation writer, you have no rights,” he told the Television Academy Foundation in 2004. “There’s no union for animation writers, even today. Animation writers are the most underpaid, over-utilized people in the business.”
Burns left Jay Ward Productions in 1964 and embarked on his stellar career in live action. Yet he would recall his time at the studio as “the seminal one of my life.” As he told Scott, “It was the first time I realized you could write to please yourself and not somebody else. Not only was it unusual for a producer to trust your judgment and your sense of humor implicitly, but when you’d write something and have absolutely nothing edited, well this was unheard-of. Jay’s conviction — that the audience is smarter than the decision makers reckon — was the most valuable thing I’ve ever learned.”
Burns is survived by his wife Joan, sons Matt and Eric, their wives, and several grandchildren.