An interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray
[To read feedback on this interview from Corny Cole's friend Willie Ito, click on this link.]
Cornelius Cole III was born October 12, 1930, and died August 8, 2011, at the age of 80. Jerry Beck summarized his career in a post on Cartoon Brew (from which I've also borrowed the photo of Cole).
Beloved animator, graphic artist, book illustrator, painter and teacher Cornelius “Corny” Cole has passed away. His close friend, animator Bob Kurtz, confirmed to us that Corny died this morning...
Cole was born and raised in Southern California and was a fine art major at the Chouinard Art School. He entered the animation industry in 1954 as an in-betweener on Disney’s Lady & The Tramp. He went on to work for UPA in the latter ’50s, then for Warner Bros. Cartoons in the early ’60s. He became a production designer for Chuck Jones on Gay Purr-ee (1962) and The Phantom Tollbooth (1969) and designed Super Six (1966) and Ant & The Aardvark (1969) for DePatie-Freleng. Corny designed the Academy Award-winning animated short subject Is It Right to be Right? in 1970 and won a Cleo the same year for his commercial work. He also did production design on John Wilson’s Shinbone Alley (1971) and Richard Williams’ Raggedy Ann & Andy (1977). His other animation credits include stints at Murakami-Wolf, Hanna Barbera, on TMS’ Little Nemo, The Pink Panther Show, Alvin & The Chipmunks, Heavy Metal and was the title designer for the TV series Mr. Terrific (1966) and notorious feature film Flesh Gordon (1974). He served as a faculty member at Cal Arts for 15 years and taught life drawing at the University of Southern California.
Milt Gray and I interviewed Corny Cole about his career, and specifically about his work at the Disney, Warner Bros., and UPA studios, on February 23, 1991, over dinner at a restaurant near Watterson College in Sherman Oaks, California, where Corny was teaching at the time. The interview was one of the last I recorded as part of my research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and it was also one of the most entertaining. I don't think Corny was ever a man to mince words.
I told Corny that I would send him a transcript of the interview so that he could make any necessary changes, and he told me that he wouldn't bother reading it. We were both true to our word, so what you see here is the complete transcript as I sent it to Corny in August 1991, with only the most minor changes, as in punctuation or the spelling of a name or two. The restaurant noise sometimes made it difficult to understand exactly what Corny was saying, so I paraphrased a few of his remarks. In a very few cases I felt I had no choice but to put into the transcript what I thought I was hearing after listening to the tape multiple times, even though I couldn't make full sense of it. Those problematic passages are signaled by question marks in brackets.
A word of caution: explicit language ahead. Mature readers only! Wait—that excludes most cartoon fans, doesn't it? Sorry, kids.
Cole: I was born in L.A. and I was brought up in Santa Monica. My mother grew up in Santa Monica, my dad in Hollywood; I'm a fourth-generation Californian. I grew up in the beach community, so I was a surfer. I did about as much of that when I was young as I did artwork. I studied at Chouinard Art Institute; I never got a degree, but I went there thirteen years, if you include night school. I don't feel any different about art school or going down and drawing than I did then; I'm still trying to learn.
Barrier: How did you get into animation? I know that you and Willie Ito started at Disney's the same day...
Cole: Not the same day. I started ahead of him. When I was real young, from the time I was about ten until I was about thirteen, I had decided I wanted to be an animator. My uncle by marriage worked at Disney's; it was Jim Bodrero. Arthur Heinemann's son went to grammar school with us, so he was drawing; I used to go down to their house in Malibu when I was a little kid. So I was familiar with animation as a kid, and by the time I was ten or eleven I had about fifty characters of my own, and I had stories to go with them. I didn't want to go through high school, so when I was in junior high, my uncle, Jim, was doing artwork during the war, 1944-45; he was in the islands in the Pacific doing artwork for the service. My aunt said, "You want to get a job?" I said, "I want to go to work at Disney's." She said, "OK, come on out, and I'll drive you out there and introduce you to Ken Peterson." I forget who it was now, but I was about thirteen or fourteen, and I went out there with a portfolio with all of my stories, and all my characters. There was another guy applying, and he'd traced Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and all the characters. He was two or three years older than I was. They took one look at me and said, "Jesus Christ, he's just a kid!" The portfolio was bigger than I was. They didn't hire me, they told me to go to art school. They hired the guy with the Mickey Mouse tracings, and I was really upset.
I decided to go to art school, and I started going to art school in the summer, at Chouinard; I was about fifteen. Then I went and worked two summers, doing construction, and then I got a job as a lifeguard. I started at Chouinard in '45 or '46, right at the tail end of the war, and then I went full-time on scholarship; I went to Art Center one semester, and then I went to Chouinard on scholarship for about three years. The Korean War came along, I went into that. When I got back, my instructor wanted me to go back into art school to work on my fine arts, but my mom wanted me to get a job. Being I was living with my mother and trying to help her out financially, I went to work in animation. That's how I got into it; that was about May of '54.
I flunked the in-between course three times; Willie came in on the third time. I got through it that time, but I wasn't good enough to do the characters, so I did effects. Then someone showed me how to do in-betweens without the light, by flipping. So I started doing it by flipping, and I got onto it real quick. So I never use a light; I never have. Once in a while, if it's a traceback, I will; but only if it's a traceback. I always do it by flipping, so I can work on my lap, I can work anywhere. I couldn't trace; I couldn't get the lines in-between the other lines. I couldn't tell where the lines were.
Willie and I got laid off the same day, and it's sort of funny, because Willie loved to collect artwork. He had a huge jacket, and it was summer; it was about 102 degrees. He had this huge overcoat, and he was taking trips out to the car with discs, model sheets, pencils, peg things, backgrounds, animation drawings by all the famous animators—whatever he could find, he had in his pockets. I'd snuck out with a few pencils. Willie kept going through, and they kept letting him through; they caught me and made me take my pencils back. I was so pissed.
We started at Warners the next Monday, in Chuck's unit. I knew Chuck, because I was taking night classes; I'd known him for three years before I went in the service, because we were all in the same drawing classes, with Don Graham. They knew my drawing ability, and they knew Willie's, because we were both down drawing in Chuck Jones's class. That's why we got into Chuck's unit. We were down in the in-between pool for maybe two weeks or so, and then we went right into the animation unit, and I became Dick Thompson's assistant, and Willie went to work for Ken Harris. I think Frank Braxton was working with Benny Washam, and Bob Bransford was working with Abe Levitow. That was the unit, as far as the animation goes.
Occasionally they'd do an art job; they wanted to do something like UPA, and since I was the big designer type guy, they'd let me do some experimental stuff. I never really got paid for this, but I'd do it; I mean, I was still getting paid as an assistant. When we started, I cleared twenty-eight dollars a week at Disney's, and by the time I left Warners I was making 112 dollars a week, so I wasn't making a lot in that six years. But that was average as far as the animation business went. Even the directors weren't making all that much. The animators were making two [hundred], at the most. Ken Harris was the highest paid, because he turned out the most footage.
Barrier: What was it like working for Dick Thompson? He describes himself, and Chuck describes him, as being the sort of a guy who had to work hard at drawing.
Cole: Dick was in the drawing classes at Chouinard, and he admired my drawings, and he wanted me as an assistant because I drew so well. He was OK; he was very particular, very fussy, and very exacting—and sometimes prissy in exacting his way. But what was really funny is he wouldn't know where he was. He'd go into a daydream, listening to classical music in the morning, and he'd forget where he was. He'd think he was home. The assistant before me, he went in and said, "Goodbye, dear," and he kissed the poor guy on the back of the head. He didn't kiss me, but he used to call me "darling" every so often; he'd forget where he was, and I'd look at him kind of strange. He'd think he was home.
They played darts. My desk was here, and the dart board was here, and a lot of times I didn't want to get up.
They had a time when they were doing these science films for Dr. [Frank] Baxter, and because the animators went on that series—it was 1956, it was pretty early; we'd only been there a year or two. We were pretty young. Bransford, myself, and Willie—by this time Frank Braxton had left and gone to work at Shamus [Culhane's], so they had us animate. Because Ken and all the animators were working on this science thing with Chuck. During that time, since we were now animators, we were invited to Friday lunch with Chuck; Chuck would take us out to lunch. Benny Washam would always say, "I don't want to be part of this." Because Chuck would go to his car, and there would be Abe and Ken and Dick, and they'd all be following Chuck into the car; Benny would kind of stumble and say, "I don't like being part of this." Kind of hesitant, you know, thinking, "oh, shit." Then Willie and I would be coming, we'd be falling in. Every Friday, during this time that we were animating, we were part of the group—invited to the dinners, invited to the lunch. Willie and I thought this was really nice, we're really invited into this gang. Suddenly, the science films are over, [after] almost a year. Suddenly, we're back to being assistants; we never got invited back to lunch again. That was the first inkling that Chuck Jones was an asshole.
Barrier: Willie said it was even stranger than that. He said that you were animating and assisting on six-week cycles; that is, you'd animate for six weeks then you'd go back to assisting for six weeks.
Cole: But we had to assist our own scenes. We were animating our own scenes, but then we had to assist our own scenes. They didn't have other assistants. Or we'd assist their scenes, because they needed to have their stuff done. I'd forgotten about that six-week cycle.
Barrier: Willie said that when you were animating, Chuck took you out to lunch, but when you were doing the assistant work—
Cole: Yes, it was sort of a split-personality thing. It was really insulting.
Barrier: When you were doing the assistant work in those six-week cycles, he said that's when Chuck would not take you out to lunch.
Cole: He may have had a better memory on it than I do; but that's sort of what happened. Then, when we'd go back to animating, we didn't want to go. "Do you want to go?" I said, "I don't really want to go." We thought it was a little prejudiced.
Barrier: You say Benny was reluctant to go to these lunches...
Cole: He would go, but Benny was always a little of an anarchist to the whole idea. Benny would look at the reality of it. Abe would go along with it, because Abe wasn't a fighter. Ken would go along with it because he thought Chuck was—he'd get upset if he was in a car and you were in front of him and you didn't take care of your car, but when it came to his work thing, he was loyal to the nth degree to Chuck. And Dick would go along with Chuck because Dick figured if he didn't go along with him, no other person would put up with him; he wasn't the best artist, he was the one considered the least animator of the group. He wouldn't argue with him. But Benny always thought it was phony. And, of course, the story man would go along.
Barrier: Mike Maltese and Maurice Noble, would they be along?
Cole: This Friday thing was always for the animators; during the rest of the time, he'd go out with them.
What was really funny about Chuck, is Chuck would read something at night—he'd read about atomic energy, so he'd come in, in the morning, and we'd have to listen to an hour-long lecture about atomic energy. He became Dr. Einstein; he became whatever he read the night before. He was a great expert on this and a great expert on that, and it was just something he read. He was so much into reading, and my artwork was based on what was actually out in the street. I was drawing people on the street, going down to Skid Row and drawing; my idea of art was to draw what was out there, and his idea was that you had to be well-read. I used to have to drive him home, because I was living in Manhattan Beach at the time; he would go visit his mother on Thursdays and Fridays, and stay with his mother down there. So I would drive him home, down to Manhattan Beach, and he would give me a long lecture about reading, that I had to read. I'd argue with him; I'd say, "The art world is out there in the street." We had arguments on this. Of course, I didn't read that much, and he didn't go out and draw from life that much. He was living in this fantasy; he was like Ralph Phillips. So, we didn't hit it off, in that sense, but I still respected him, because I was in his unit. It wasn't until much later that I had my first problem with him. I got into layout with Maurice; he still calls me his best apprentice. [Corny had assistant layout credit on three cartoons: Lickety Splat, Compressed Hare (both 1961), and A Sheep in the Deep (1962).] Of course, it's a little embarrassing; thirty years later, he's still introducing me as his apprentice. The last time I saw him, he still was asking me if I kept things in the field. They always claimed that I did all my layouts outside the field.
Barrier: Were there satisfactions in working in Chuck's unit that you could tell were not present in the other units?
Cole: We actually were pretty close. Abe and Benny did an awful lot of drinking; morning was fine, we did a lot of artwork in the morning, but some of the afternoons were wasted. My problem was, I wasn't really into it—until I got married and I had to support my wife. To me, it didn't mean anything; I was just in there doing my in-betweens in the morning, and I'd sleep in the afternoon, and go paint all night. I had a studio I shared with three or four other artists in L.A. So I was really involved with my fine art; I wasn't really interested in animation. But occasionally they'd let me create something, and I'd forget, and get all hooked up in it. Eventually, they put me into story, because all the story men went to Hanna-Barbera. Mike Maltese, Tedd Pierce, and Warren Foster all left, and they didn't have a story man, so they made me a story man. I was in this this room next to Chuck, doing story; they told me I could do whatever I wanted, and I did this western with Daffy Duck. I worked on it for six weeks, which was unusual—five weeks [was the norm]. They wanted me to style it, also. So I was doing these way-out [Ronald] Searle-ish sort of things, and I was doing my own kind of drawing. Since I was doing the story, I figured Daffy doesn't have to be really fancy, so I did a stylized Daffy. This caused my first confrontation with Chuck. It caused all my problems with Chuck. It was a storyboard, so I didn't really care what he looked like.
Barrier: Maltese's drawings certainly weren't on character.
Cole: But they didn't draw like I did.
Barrier: Maltese didn't even pretend to be able to draw, and you obviously could draw very well.
Cole: The biggest problem I always had with Chuck was that he was very competitive about drawing; he thought he could draw. I never thought he could draw very well. When you work in a unit, and he's a draftsman and you're looking at it, and you're drawing in the same classes with Don Graham, and [Graham] is paying more attention to you, and I'm catching on to what Don's talking about, and Chuck is still doing elephant drawings... So it was something like that [sketching Daffy Duck on a napkin]; and I had an Alfonso Bedoya guy on a donkey. So I was writing this story, and everybody laughed, everybody liked it. I finished the story, then Chuck takes it in his room to do. Three weeks go by, six weeks go by, and Chuck is looking grumpier and grumpier every day; and he's not talking to me. I don't know why. I'm doing the next story, which is a Martian something, and I'm doing some story followup; either that, or I'm writing a Coyote and Road-Runner thing. He finally peeks in the door—he's in the room right next to me—and he says, "Corny, I've got to talk with you. Come into my room." He's got all this storyboard in front of him; he's got a few of my drawings down, and he's got all these scribbles, scratched over. He's been on this thing for five weeks, and he can't do anything with it. He says, "I can't do this." I said, "What's wrong?" "This is not my Daffy Duck."
After six weeks of doing this storyboard, and getting a response from everybody, laughing, and knowing that the one reason he can't draw is that he's tied down by my drawing—he's not tied down by the story, but he doesn't know how to work to take it from there. There's too much information for him to work with, so he's not happy. He doesn't like it, because it isn't him. He's really angry by this time; he's forgotten who I am. Being quick-tempered and a little annoyed by this time—because I didn't know that he wasn't going to do this story—I looked at him and I said, "You know what, Chuck? You can take your Daffy Duck and you can ram him up your asshole." That's about the time Willie was home, with his wife being pregnant, and I sort of resigned from Warner Bros. It was a mutual thing; he looked for a job for me, he called [Steve] Bosustow, and he was trying to set it up. I was ready to leave anyway; I was married by this time, and my wife was making more as a secretary than I was. So I left and went to UPA.
Barrier: You said they were trying to put you back into assistant work—?
Cole: They asked us at that time, or a little bit before that, if we wouldn't mind going back to assistant work. Of course, we didn't want to, so we both quit. But I was also asked in a way, by Chuck, if it wouldn't be nice for both parties if I left; you don't necessarily tell the director that he can take his Daffy Duck and ram it up his asshole. He's not going to receive it too well.
Gray: Especially Chuck.
Cole: Well, this was the beginning of a great relationship, over the years.
Barrier: If they were going to put you and Willie back into assistant work, who would have been doing your work then?
Cole: By this time, John Dunn had just started, and they were looking for other people to come into the story. John Dunn was working with Chuck, then he went over and worked with Friz. They had another guy they brought in from outside; I can't even remember his name now. He drifted out of animation.
Barrier: Dave Detiege?
Cole: Dave Detiege wasn't there at this time. There was a guy, Carl something [Kohler], that was in there. He didn't stay in animation; he did motorcycle-magazine gag cartoons. They were too cheap to pay for really good story men. John Dunn had wanted to leave Disney, and came over there, and he became sort of a top story man. I did the story on about four [cartoons]. One was for Pepe, going through the Louvre, that was used as a bridge [in the Bugs Bunny television show], and three cartoons. One was a Wile E. Coyote Super Genius; one was the wolf and sheep dog; and one story was a Martian thing that Chuck ruined. I had the Martian end up in Greenwich Village in a rock group—accepted, you know. He didn't like that ending; he said it was too timely and it wouldn't last, so he had it fall in love with some Martian and go off into Mars. He just made it a saccharine cartoon. I think I got credit for that one. But since the one with Daffy was never completed—
Gray: How long did Chuck expect the cartoons to last in those days? Did he expect them to be seen forever and forever?
Cole: I think Chuck expected his stuff to always be rewarding; that he was god-like. Friz Freleng's comment on Chuck was sort of funny; he said, "Chuck Jones brought one thing into the animation business. Chuck Jones brought ego into the animation business."
Barrier: Were there any positive things about the way Chuck ran the unit? Were there things that you could see were better than in the other units?
Cole: Well, I think Friz was by far the best director of the three of them. And much funnier; Chuck's weren't as funny. When Chuck had Mike or Tedd Pierce writing for him, he was funny. But this period when I was writing, and there was time before that when Chuck was writing his own cartoons, and they were real pompous and terrible...
I think he was tremendous at posing, and I learned a lot in setting up posing for animation.
This was another thing that happened that was really kind of funny; it wasn't meant to happen this way. When I was in art school, even while I was working at Warners, I had two shows at the art school; I was considered a pretty good draftsman, night or day school. A lot of the day students knew me because I was sharing a studio with other artists. So I was pretty involved with my fine art. They had a competitive thing of students were making judges of this show [?]. They asked all the artists to submit drawings into this show, and there was an award. I was a night student, and there was a day student, I think his name was Jay; we both got first prize. Chuck was in night school, in these classes with me, and he got seventh honorable mention. So, needless to say, having to go to work for him the next morning—he wasn't very happy about that. There was always this conflict.
When I was working with Dick [Williams] in London, Dick said that Chuck was there, and they were drinking and Chuck was saying, "I want to see if you can draw better than he can." He just wanted to have a competition in drawing.
Barrier: Now, to me, looking at the films, Chuck's work was definitely tailing off in the last half of the fifties, and I've wondered if as a person to work for and with, he was not better to be around earlier. Did any of the guys you worked with, who had been with Chuck for a while, did they seem to think he was less of a pleasure to be around than he had been earlier?
Cole: I heard sometimes that people were disappointed with him earlier. Looking back, I can't say Chuck was all that terrible. He had a good sense of humor, he was witty. He was very sarcastic; he had a mean streak, but he was funny. Friz was a much more grumpy type. I really like Friz; I've worked with him and I've argued with him, I've fought with him. I've done specials with him. I've done a lot of things with him; I still do. I'm doing paintings now for his Sylvester cels. I've always liked Friz; I would like to like Chuck. But I tell you what, I'm not so angry at him now. There's a lot of things that happened over the years after Warners that [gave me] reason not to like Chuck; but if you tell him what I told him at Warners, and it continues—if you're in an elevator, working on Phantom Tollbooth, and he's upstairs, and you see him on the elevator, and he says, "How's it going?" and I say, "Fine, asshole"— I didn't make myself as wonderful for him...
Barrier: I'd forgotten that you worked on Phantom Tollbooth.
Cole: Abe Levitow and Les Goldman were doing this thing; they were going to produce and direct The Phantom Tollbooth. Chuck Jones was doing Dr. Seuss, and he was going to be involved with Walt Kelly, and all that. So they said, "Corny, you don't have to work with Chuck. You can come over here and you'll be the designer and art director for this picture." So I went over to design the whole film and be the production designer; this was 1966. I was doing a really far-out storyboard, and I was designing the whole film. I was going to bring in some fine-arts friends of mine to do kinetic sculptures; this was way ahead of Yellow Submarine. I really wanted to do a way-out design film, and Abe was going to let me do all these things. So I did this storyboard for a twenty-minute thing. Then, suddenly, it stalled, it stalled, there was a slight hiatus, I'd come back, and Abe said, "You're going to be replaced. We can't really keep you on. But you can work here for a little while." I said, "Fine, I'll finish the storyboard." I stayed almost three months, doing the storyboard, and nobody had the guts to come up and lay me off. Chuck didn't want to personally lay me off, because he would then become a villain. And I wouldn't leave; I would just stay there, and go up to the room at the top drinking with Benny and all these people, and saying what an asshole he was, and having arguments with Don Foster. Don Foster would say, "Chuck Jones is not an asshole," and I'd say, "He is an asshole." Right around the corner would be Chuck's booth—and I'm working for him. But he still wouldn't lay me off.
When I finished the sequence, I said to him, "Now it's finished, I'll leave." So Maurice came in, and of course he shelved the board; he didn't want to do it that way. He didn't know what to do with this one sequence; he had this storyboard, he couldn't work on it—again, it was like this Daffy cartoon, it was too much drawing, too much information for him to totally ignore it without himself looking—because it was a good board. For that time, it was really inventive, because there was a Goya-type thing, there was a lot of stuff in it. It was a better board, in a sense, for the period than the Raggedy Ann board. It was the first time when I had total creative control in a sequence, and it was pretty wild. Dick Williams came in, and he walked down to the second floor to see Abe—or the eleventh floor—and he saw this board. He said, "Shit, I can't do any more than this. This is better than I'll ever do." So he went up and told Chuck, "I can't work on this board. It's already done." So he refused to work on it, but what he did is, he said, "You don't want him?" So he called me, and I worked on The Cobbler [and the Thief]; that's how I got involved. I was working at Murakami-Wolf, doing commercials, just free-lancing, so I went over and worked with The Cobbler. Meanwhile, they took that sequence, and they tried to keep some of the stuff—the giant, or some of the stuff—but they didn't, really.
That particular thing hurt, because long before that, I worked on Gay Purr-ee, and he blamed me for what Gay Purr-ee was. We were influenced by Chuck; we couldn't break [away even] if Abe wanted to. So I introduced the idea of making it look like the impressionists; and I did that painting sequence. I did the whole sequence, and I did all the portraits. Tom Oreb and I designed most all the characters—with Chuck's guideline. There was a followup, called Barnaby Scratch; Abe was going to direct it, and I was going to design it. I was doing a very English-type thing, really broad; I was ignoring Chuck totally. I just said, "We won't do Chuck." Abe was real happy. But it was Chuck's story. When Chuck came down to see the characters, ignoring Chuck totally was not what Chuck wanted. So Abe did this song and dance, and Chuck, of course, looked at it and said he wanted to give me a drawing lesson in anatomy. Of course, I'd been in drawing classes with him, and I just looked at him and said, "I don't think I want an anatomy lesson, thank you." They went off to lunch, and Chuck said, "I'll get rid of the bastard." That evening, he shelved the film; and I was shelved. In other words, I was laid off. My first kid was born, my second was the way, we'd moved from an apartment, we'd bought a house—and I was out of work for eighteen months to two years. I couldn't get back into animation.
Barrier: You were blackballed?
Cole: In a sense I was, and I wasn't. You do it to yourself; nobody does it to you. You can't say you were blackballed. I don't believe in that; I did it. But Chuck didn't help, because wherever I'd go, they'd say, "Chuck Jones says you have a lot of ability, but you lack discipline." So a lot of the reasons why I don't like Chuck had nothing to do with Warner Bros. They had to do with much later. But when I look back at it, he wasn't any more to blame than I was.
Barrier: This Barnaby Scratch—this was at UPA?
Cole: This was UPA; it was a follow-up of Gay Purr-ee. I worked on it for about four months. I was really having fun; we were doing a real stylized version at that time. A total breakaway.
Barrier: I'm surprised a sequel was being made.
Cole: Well, [Gay Purr-ee] didn't do that badly at first. [Barnaby Scratch] may have been shelved because the picture bombed; but it was shelved the day after he saw my drawings. Abe even said that he was going to get rid of me, that he was really pissed. I did a cartoon of Abe and me doing a song and dance, and Chuck getting [a hook] and pulling us out.
Barrier: You said that at Warners, Maurice called you his best apprentice; how much were you really involved with Maurice?
Cole: I worked on about five pictures where he was doing other things—working on the science stuff. So I was laying out the Coyotes and laying out the backgrounds; he'd come over and approve this and approve that. I was actually doing my layouts very much like his, except mine were much rougher. I couldn't draw as clean as he did.
Barrier: Was that a problem for Phil DeGuard?
Cole: No, no. You couldn't tell the difference between my layouts and Maurice's, except that his were cleaner, he was more precise. I didn't use compasses or—a lot of the things about the field and all that stuff was his comments. At the time I don't think he thought I was his great apprentice, it's just that I've done fairly well in animation; since I started doing layouts under him, he takes credit for it.
I liked Maurice; they're all good guys. I liked Abe, but I loved Benny Washam. Benny, to me, was just terrific.
Barrier: I'm surprised that Benny was rebellious over these Friday lunches, because in later years, he professed as much loyalty to Chuck as you say Ken Harris did.
Cole: He would; because he had no malice in his personality at all. Benny did not have malice against people. He had malice against social injustices, but not against [people]. He left Chuck, many times, and came back.
Barrier: So at no point did he feel any real ill will against Chuck, as a person. I think I've heard that, that in effect there would be things about the Warner studio as an institution that Benny would find disagreeable, the way things were run there...
Cole: The social affairs of it; the unfairness of pay, the caste systems. Benny grew up in Arkansas, and as a little kid he saw lynchings of blacks. It left an impression on him. He was so anti-Ku Klux Klan and all that. He became very socially involved. Frank Braxton started a workshop in south central L.A., right after the Watts riots, and I went down and taught drawing with Frank. As we were doing this workshop, Ben opened up one out of his house. He had people coming in free and doing animation out of his house. In the last ten or twelve years of his life, Benny had a workshop where he was having people work out of his house and learning how to animate; he didn't charge any money, it was all free. Frank got sick, died of Hodgkin's disease, so I took over the workshop and I kept it going for seven or eight years.
Benny was very involved with helping people and teaching without getting paid—he was a giving person. He wanted to give what he knew; he wanted people to have this full-animation background. Benny I always loved; we worked at UPA on Gay Purr-ee together, and we were drinking a lot; the only problem was, we were both drinking too much. We both quit; he quit because if he hadn't, he probably would have died of cirrhosis of the liver or whatever. He quit just like that, and about eight years later I quit just like that. He was strong. Benny never really had a bad feeling toward Chuck or a bad feeling toward anybody that he really worked with, on an individual level. In later years, he worked primarily for Jay Ward; he didn't work for Chuck.
Barrier: I think of Disney's as having a caste system...
Cole: It wasn't a caste system at Warners. It was a caste system of the business, a caste system of in-betweeners—we were all very active in the union thing. I got much more involved in that aspect of it than Willie ever did. Frank Braxton and I closed the studio down almost; we shut the studio from going to Mexico—Ed Graham's, on "Linus the Lionhearted." He and I stopped working; we got the rest of the crew [to go along]. Ed Graham chickened out and didn't go down to Mexico. That's sort of where Benny was. In a way, so was Chuck, when he was younger.
Barrier: When you were filling in for Maurice, you obviously had to be working really closely with Chuck at that stage.
Cole: Oh, yes. On blue sketch. Some of those shorts I did, though, Abe would direct. Abe was directing, some of the other animators would direct a picture occasionally. The science stuff was such an involved thing.
Barrier: When you went to UPA, was it a radical change?
Cole: It was totally disorganized when I first went there, and it was always bad. I worked primarily with Abe; I became very close to him. I worked with Abe a lot, and I always liked Abe. Abe was not the strongest person—he wouldn't confront Chuck, or do things like that—but he was a good friend. He couldn't draw—he didn't have time to direct and draw—so I'd end up drawing most of the stuff, posing the picture and working pretty close with him on the characters. I'd go over everybody's layouts on Gay Purr-ee, and go over everyone's drawings, correct the characters. I worked very close with Abe, in that sense; it became like his drawing extension. Then, over the years, for a pilot he had to do, or a presentation for somebody, I'd go help him at night. Abe drew very well, and we all knew each other since I was about eighteen, in art school. They knew me from night school; they knew me before I ever went in there. Maybe it was a reason why I ended up in Chuck's unit.
Barrier: When you were filling in as an animator, were you taking direction primarily from Abe?
Cole: Chuck. My first scene I ever animated was the Coyote walking across with an anvil on a board; the board gives way [Zoom and Bored]. Ken Harris always had the heat on, in the middle of winter or summer, and Willie would sweat and have his shirt off, and just die, but Ken would be happy. I had to [animate the Coyote carrying an anvil], and I'd never animated, so I took the chair and I carried it up and down the hall, to try to get the feeling of the Coyote. Ken Harris had very little patience; none at all. About the fourth time of doing this, and about the fifth day of doing this, walking down the hall, trying to get this scene right, Ken Harris [exploded]: "Goddamn it, Cole, if you can't get it right by now, goddamn it, you'll never get it right!" And I'd say, "Ah, fuck off, you old fart," and keep walking up and down the hall. It didn't look so bad when it got done, but I really worked on that scene.
Barrier: What was it like when you went in to get handouts from Chuck?
Cole: He was very clear, very good at handouts. There was no doubt what he wanted. He was very specific. The layouts were very well worked-out, the scene planning was well done, the direction was very together. You couldn't help but learn. Whether you like a person always or not, he is a real pro, and a very rewarding pro, in the sense that whatever success he's had, he sure is well-deserving of it.
Where he got into trouble, for me, was where he would get cute. He was fine when he wasn't cute, when he was doing something like Daffy Duck and Porky, for fun. Coyote and Road-Runners would be funny. But when he'd get into the moral of "Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius," he'd do a pun at the end; or Ralph Phillips would sometimes get too saccharine cute. He never did cute as well as he did the other, but he wanted to be cute. [Corny singled out One Froggy Evening as his candidate for Jones's best cartoon; "Benny animated most of it."] To me, that's Chuck's best cartoon. I hated What's Opera, Doc?; it was pompous. He always liked to do parodies on artists. [Some comments by Corny on the parodies in Gay Purr-ee were obscured here by restaurant noise.]
But when he handed out a picture, it was real clear what he wanted; and Friz was real clear. He'd use Hawley to do the final posing, but Friz's rough drawings were always funny; they were loose, but they were funny. He was funnier than Chuck. Chuck draws more academically, but basically, Friz's cartoons are funnier. Bob McKimson did stupid cartoons, but looking at them in hindsight, I like some of the McKimson things. He really was looked down upon in the unit system, and yet I think some of his cartoons were really good, because he had Tedd Pierce writing; and Tedd Pierce to me was the best writer of all. Though he was a drunk, I thought he was by far the best writer of the three. He'd always base his things off of actual experience. He was a terrible drunk, but he was funny as hell. He and Benny were like social friends, so the three of us used to drink a lot. Benny and he were just extremely close friends, for a number of years there; a lot of it had to do with the drinking. Tedd Pierce would end up drunk in the middle of the ocean. [He'd fall asleep on the beach] and the high tide would come in, and people on the beach would see him coming in with his hat, coming in from the water; he looked like Jesus, walking across from the water. My mom knew Tedd from when he was just a young guy. She told me a story about Tedd Pierce. Tedd's sister was getting married, and there was a reception for his sister; Tedd was about sixteen, and he got drunk. He's dancing with this lady, and doing these kinds of dips and saying, "I think you're wonderful," and "I love you," and all this. She says, "For God's sake, Tedd, I'm your sister." He didn't even know he was dancing with his sister.
Barrier: Now Tedd grew up in Pasadena...
Cole: He grew up in Pasadena, but he had a summer place in Santa Barbara. My mom's stepfather was mayor of Santa Monica, so it was an elite, upper-class kind of thing.
Barrier: They moved in the same social circles.
Cole: In some ways; they knew each other. Tedd had a tremendous reputation as a lover and a drunk, even when he was young, and being very funny. So the stories about him preceded his working in animation as a writer. He was very meticulous and slow in his cartoons, very methodical—and half bombed, half the time. He did such good humor, always based off of reality.
Barrier: And what about Maltese, did you see much of him?
Cole: He'd go over the stories with us, but his contact—when I was writing that story for Chuck, I worked directly with the director. Animators are looking at your stuff, but you're by yourself in there, writing. They'll look at the board, and everybody comes in, there's a jam session. They get all the writers and the directors from the different units, and they all come in, and everybody's kind of going over it all. But everyone is pretty much on their own in the writing. If Mike was working on a story, we'd walk by and he'd say, "C'mere," and go over a gag with you and see if you'd respond. Tedd would do that more than Mike; Mike would be more inclined to stay there and then talk to Chuck about it, knowing that Chuck's the one he's got to satisfy. Whenever we had conference meetings, they'd take the boards in, and we'd have all the creative forces there, and of course Selzer would be there. Ed Selzer would always want to put in his two cents' worth, and everybody would look at him: "Go away." He was just a producer; he didn't have anything to do with cartoons.
Mike was not as openly warm [as Tedd], but he was a tremendous writer, and was really a nice guy. He was much more reserved in the social thing than Tedd was, but not as distant, in a sense, as Warren Foster. Warren Foster was in another unit; we didn't see that unit that much. We saw the animators, we'd all play table tennis together, we'd go out and drink on weekends, but the units were sort of separated. Tedd was upstairs, but Tedd and Benny being real close, we all would go out and drink together. Willie and I did too much drinking; there was a gal that was about six feet, that was real pretty, and she could drink Willie and me under the table. She never drank before, and we got her started drinking; she had a hollow leg. One time, Willie barfed all over Chuck's room and passed out; of course, Chuck's room was a mess, and Chuck couldn't go in there. Fortunately, Willie didn't barf over his drawings. So Willie and I had a tendency, after we were rejected from the Friday lunches, of somehow constantly causing Chuck irritation without meaning to; what you might call passive aggressive.
Barrier: Oh, so this episode of the barfing occurred...
Cole: Much later. This was when we were in the units and we were asked to do assistant work again. We'd all be drinking, and we'd come in drunk. For some reason, Chuck was gone that day, or out, so Willie went in the room and disappeared; his face was green. Barbara out-drank both of us. I was not as bad as Willie, but I wasn't doing too great. But poor Willie—it was summer, and it was hot, and everything just hit his head. We could hear this barfing; I was in the room next to him, doing this story. I went in there, and he was bumping into the walls, and he was in the couch; Willie was real dapper—he was a real be-bopper, and he was all dapper, but everything was off kilter that day. He was just bombed out of his mind. I was laughing like hell, but of course it wasn't funny; we were laughing because Chuck wasn't there. Then Chuck came back, and by this time we managed to guide Willie out of there; nobody had time to clean the room.
Then there was a party that Chuck gave for the science thing; he invited all of us over to his place. By this time, I'd been smoking a bit; since Barbara was real pretty and she offered me cigarettes, I'd smoke. I took this Canadian friend of mine, a real nurse that I knew, to this party; she was a wild gal, and real sexy. I took her to this party of Chuck's, and I was smoking cigarettes and everything. Me and Lou Scheimer's wife—Lou had managed to work on this science film, and they had this party for the finish of the film at Chuck's house up above Hollywood. So here I was smoking cigarettes, but I couldn't get the ashtray; I was bombed, and my ashes were going all over his rug. Of course, this did not go over well with Chuck, who was carrying this ashtray and trying to catch the ashes. Meanwhile, [name deleted] is bombed out of her mind, and she's necking with somebody, and she barfs all over Chuck's couch. So, to this day, Lou Scheimer and I see each other and we say, "Remember the day we made the hit with Chuck Jones?" That was another hostile little move.
Barrier: You seem to have had a knack—
Cole: For not making Chuck happy. Of course, Willie doesn't remember all of this. But just ask him about drinking with Barbara [name deleted], and he'll remember that.
We were the young guys, so the young ink and paint girls that were any good-looking at all were sort of there; but there weren't that many. And there were some pretty ugly ones, too.
Barrier: Do you remember when Norm Ferguson worked in Chuck's unit?
Cole: Yes; this is really a sad kind of story. It was a short period of time. He saw my drawings; he knew of me through Don Graham. So he went to work there, and he was real loose; his animation style was real loose. He was put in Chuck's unit, and he was drawing real loose, so he asked to have me as an assistant. I wanted to work with him as an assistant; I was really looking forward to it, because I knew about him from when I was a kid, through Jim Bodrero. I had been working with Dick; I had been doing layout and character development, and story, but I was going back to assistant, so I figured if I was going to be an assistant, I'd rather be assistant to Norm Ferguson. What happened was, Dick didn't want to let me go. He went to Chuck and said, "I can't have him go with Norm." Being that Dick was an animator, and Chuck was loyal to his animators, he said, "You'll have to stay with Dick." [Ferguson] stayed there, and he animated, but it was so loose that Benny had to follow up his scenes, to clean them up to where the interpretation was—since an animator had to follow Norm, or a good draftsman. Milt Kahl was his assistant at Disney's for a while.
So Norm Ferguson's animation was not in the style of Warners. All the Warner animators would follow Chuck's layouts, and they were real clean and precise; but Norm wouldn't. He let Norm go. He was kind of down; when those people left Disney, they were not treated right. You'd been there a long time, and it was sort of a defeat. He went to work for Ray Patin, and he was there, and he was frustrated and everything, and he had a heart attack and died. I was upset, because I really wanted to be his assistant; I idolized his animation. [But] they let Norm go. They didn't think it through, that his rough animation would have been a good plus for the studio. If a guy worked loose, or worked in a different system, they wouldn't make the adjustment. He had to fit Chuck's unit.
Barrier: I've heard that he worked on one cartoon, To Itch His Own, with the flea, the Mighty Angelo.
Cole: That's right; that's the scene that I was going to follow him on. But Benny had to go through and clean up all of his drawings.
Barrier: He did just one scene?
Cole: He did more than one scene, but it was that particular picture. He may have done three or four scenes.
Barrier: Was he hired to take the place of somebody in the unit who left?
Cole: That was the period of time when Abe was directing. Abe had started directing with Chuck, and there was a brief moment, or there were science things. They brought [Ferguson] in; you're not going to turn down one of the best animators in the world. They were trying to help him get a job, but he didn't fit the system. Why would he? And they wouldn't make the adjustment for him. He was a wonderful person—really warm. There were three animators I really loved at that time. I didn't know Bill Tytla that much, but he was my idol—still is. Emery Hawkins is, to me, the greatest animator who ever lived—him and Bill Tytla.
Three people that I really liked, that were so warm, were Norm Ferguson, Bobe Cannon, and Dave Hilberman. Dave Hilberman has been one hell of a friend of mine. We worked together on a commercial at Hanna-Barbera; I went in and laid it out with him. He was real helpful. And Bobe was real warm; just before he died, I went over to [Hanna-Barbera], and he was real nice looking through my portfolio; and I'd been out of work for a while. He was just such a nice guy. And Emery Hawkins, and Benny Washam—I'm thinking of giving animators. Marc Davis has been one hell of a friend over the years. I never liked Milt Kahl; I didn't like what he did with people. I loved Ken Harris's animation, but Ken Harris was an asshole sometimes. We used to argue, because he was terribly right-wing; he was almost a fascist.
Norm Ferguson was one of those really warm, wonderful, soft-speaking, really pleasant persons. I used to talk to him, but I didn't really know him that well. He was there maybe two to three months—maybe four months.
Gray: If Norm Ferguson's animation wasn't fitting the studio style, it was so far off they felt they couldn't use it at all, how did he last even four months?
Cole: It wasn't his animation; it was the way the drawing was. They used his animation, it was that they had to get Benny to clean it up, or me. He wanted me as an assistant, and it would have worked out fine, because I knew the characters. It wasn't his animation that was the problem; he was a tremendous animator. It was the fact that he worked loose. I think animation should be done loose; Chuck's unit was too tight, the animation was too controlled. Benny said, "Jeez, this stuff is wonderful to go over. I'm learning a great deal." Benny appreciated working on Norm's stuff, but it wasn't fair [to have another animator going over Ferguson's work]; so they let him go. He went over to Patin's, he did a few commercials. He was so down because of what happened at Disney's; he was like a defeated man. He just died of a heart attack.
Barrier: Tell me about this apprentice and A and B system that you mentioned [off the tape].
Cole: You're an in-betweener; that's the lowest at any studio. And at Disney, you can go to the in-between school and learn that. Then you go to breakdown, and there's assistant and clean-up. There's beginning in-betweener, and then there's effects in-betweener, and then there's the character in-betweener. This really good friend of mine I went to high school and grammar school with was over at Disney, and he had the greatest job of all. He was a good assistant, but he loved doing mobiles. I'd left, I was working at UPA, I think, at the time. I was driving down the street and I saw Roland—it was Roland Crump. He was on the street doing construction work. I said, "What the hell happened, Roland?" "I won't go to work there"—he had to do the spots; he was animating the spots on the dalmatians. They put him in charge of the spots on the dalmatians. He quit; he said, "I'd rather be out here in the street doing construction than do that." He ended up being really good in developing parks and designing WED.
Ken [Harris]'s assistant left to go to work in commercials—I think went over to Patin or Quartet or Playhouse. That was Al Pabian. So Willie went to work for Ken, and then I went to work for Dick Thompson. They figured that since I was a good draftsman, and Dick was the least strong, that I would be able to help him. So I was in that room until I started doing story. When I started doing story, they put me in this room that Mike was in, next to Chuck. But I never was officially a story man; I never was officially a layout man; I was never officially an animator. Because you go through the apprentice time—sixteen weeks—then you go through six months of B, before you become a normal [animator]. You're now an animator, but you're not a Class A animator; you're still considered a beginning animator before you become through the unit [?]. So, in the structure of Warner Bros., they take you—they had me do a couple of things with Friz. They wanted a way-out design thing; they hired this guy Aurelius Battaglia to do some little colored cut-outs for a Snow White cigarette commercial, [but] they couldn't get him to come in and lay it out. They didn't have anyone there that could do that style. So I laid out this cartoon for Friz, and I did it in that sort of style. Much later, someone showed me a magazine [that identified drawings for that cartoon as Battaglia's], and they weren't his drawings at all, they were mine. I'd taken things from his little sketches and made the layouts for this film.
|Cole's version of SnowWhite's Wicked Queen, as drawn for Friz Freleng. This layout drawing and three others for the same cartoon were published in Funnyworld No. 22 and identifed there, per Freleng, as by Aurelius Battaglia. But Battaglia said later he didn't think they were his, and Cole said they were definitely his. The drawings were published in Funnyworld as part of a feature on unfinished cartoons, but according to Cole, the layouts were for a cigarette commercial rather than a theatrical cartoon.
So, I would go over and work with Friz; they had me doing story over there. Friz thought I had a good sense of humor and was sort of wild. I did a big football [?] that ended up huge and took over this huge football field; he didn't want to play football, he wanted to play the train [?] in the band. He kept getting bigger, and he took over the fraternity house, and it was a story. Warren Foster and Mike Maltese—not Tedd—were upset, because I was getting apprentice story, which meant less than an in-betweener. They were premium story, so they figured [Warner Bros. was] getting a story done too low. Friz says, "We can't use it," so I went back in Chuck's unit, as an assistant. Then I started doing layout with Maurice, so I was an apprentice layout. I was an apprentice animator on the animation that Willie and I did. They kept you on just long enough so that you would get through the apprentice, but then they'd put you into story, and you'd be back to the beginning apprentice again. They could get a year and a half's work out of you, and never pay you more than an apprentice. So we got paid less for doing story, less for doing layout, less for doing animation, than we were as assistants.
Barrier: They actually reduced your pay?
Cole: They reduced our pay.
Barrier: When you were doing these more responsible jobs.
Cole: Yes, because we were apprentices.
Barrier: Was this a deliberate policy?
Cole: I think it was that they were so cheap, they figured, hell, we can get this guy to do stories, and we don't even have to pay him. They loved the idea of your doing stories when they didn't have to pay you as much as they paid Mike Maltese or Warren Foster or Tedd Pierce. So you went through that B apprentice thing. Sometimes they'd be nice; when I did layout for Maurice, they let me get the same pay. I got a little less, but not that much less. Also, as a B animator, I got a little bit more than an assistant. The money wasn't different; and if you went down [an income tax bracket] , they deducted less from your paycheck, anyway. I made less salary, but I [got paid] more [in take-home pay].
It wasn't that big a difference. When I went to work there, I made forty-eight dollars a week; when I left I made a hundred and twelve. We're not talking about a big hike in salary. Six years, I made a hundred and twelve dollars a week. My wife was a secretary when we got married; I was making a hundred and two, and she was making a hundred and thirty, as a secretary. She thought I was making good money when she married me, because I worked in show biz. When she found out I made less, she quit her job and said, "You're going to have to get better money." So I was getting hostile, and that's why I left, and that's why Willie left. Willie went over to Snowball and made three hundred a week. I was dumb; I signed a contract with Steve Bosustow and Hal Elias, so after six years I was going to make a hundred and sixty-five. I went home with that contract, and my wife just about killed me. Willie was much smarter; he was always free-lancing and taking in extra money. We always called Willie "the provider" when we were all working at Warners.
Barrier: Were there other guys who were being moved around at the studio the way you were, into other classifications?
Cole: A little bit. Art Leonardi, in Friz's unit. A little bit Jerry Eisenberg. And there was another guy named Lee Holley that came in a little after Willie and I and ended up doing Hank Ketcham's comic strip. He had his own comic strip for a while.
Barrier: I don't recall hearing stories earlier about their shifting people around like that to save money...
Cole: They never said it was to save money. But looking at it in hindsight, I realize that was part of the reason. That time I did the story with Friz, Friz called me in and said, "We can't do this. The writers are complaining because you're not in there as a writer, and it's not fair that you're doing a story and getting paid as an assistant animator. You're cutting into their income." They weren't against my doing the story, they were against the fact that they were getting me to do it [without paying the higher salary for a story man]. And, actually, Friz was doing it because he thought I'd do a good job on it; he wanted to see what I could come up with.
Barrier: But the classifications, the kinds of pay scales that you were subject to, would have been specified by the union, wouldn't they?
Cole: Yes, but in all classifications they have apprentice, in all classifications they have B's—apprentice story man, B story man. The union structure is where that thing came in.
Barrier: I just can't imagine that the union really had in mind that the studios would be allowed to use those classifications...
Cole: The union set it up. Before the union—Ken Harris was really proud of this one—he went to work for Warner Bros., back in the early thirties. He wasn't a kid; he'd worked pool halls, he'd worked selling cars for Felix Chevrolet, or something. And he wasn't young; he was in his middle twenties when he went to work at Warners. He went there, and the first month he was there, he paid them six bucks a week to work there. He then got real good, and they let him work for nothing. Then he was so good that he went up to an A animator; he never went through getting six dollars a week. But he started [by] paying them money. This was during the time when there was no union. Disney was doing the same thing, hiring people for six dollars a week.
Barrier: But when you were working as an apprentice, you weren't really being an apprentice. You were temporary help, essentially. It seems as though the categories were being abused to save them money. But that was not the way it was regarded at the time?
Cole: Warner Bros. was the cheapest company in the world. At all those big studios, those guys who were the big wheels [owned] the sweatshops in the garment district in New York. They went to L.A. and became producers, and they took the garment-district mentality into the film industry.
Barrier: One thing I want to clear up is what happened when you and Willie were going to be put back into assistant work, near the end when you both left.
Cole: We weren't making that much bigger salaries. They said they were going to pay us the same and even give us a raise. But they wanted us to go back because they needed to have us to key the assistants; the animators wanted us back. And they didn't have to pay us any more. They didn't have work for us; they were cutting back. Johnny Burton had left, DePatie had come into the studio, there was a huge change. They were re-setting up things. Johnny Burton's the one who called us in, but he was ready to leave. So they asked us to go back and be key assistants. But we would be top key assistants. Well, we were key assistants anyway; we were assistants before. It was just a big scam, so we just quit.
Barrier: This was just after you'd had your blow-up with Chuck.
Cole: It was maybe a month later. That was the last story I did.
Barrier: After that episode with Chuck, what were you doing for that last month or so?
Cole: They had me doing another story with Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny. He didn't take me out of the story thing; he didn't have anyone to replace me with. So I was doing that, but my time was running out; I knew I was going to go back to assistant work. John Dunn was coming in.
Barrier: Chuck never made that story—or did he?
Cole: He didn't make the stories that I worked on. When I left and went to UPA, I'd come by and visit, and Abe had that Daffy Duck storyboard in his room; Chuck wouldn't let him finish it. And he left and went over to UPA. He came in about three or four months after I did.
[Before taping resumed, Corny mentioned that Abe had based his animation of Porky and Daffy in Robin Hood Daffy on Willie Ito and Corny himself, with Willie as Porky and Corny as Daffy. At studio screenings of new cartoons, Corny said, "Willie would laugh as soon as the lights were off. He loved cartoons. I hated cartoons."]
Barrier: Can you tell me again, for the benefit of the tape recorder, about you and Willie, and Abe's animating you for Robin Hood Daffy?
Cole: On Friday, they'd have screenings, and Willie would always laugh any time we'd go in there. As soon as the lights would go out, Willie would start laughing. He was programmed for cartoons. He still is. I didn't like them; I thought they were horrible. I wanted to do my fine arts. I wanted to be Picasso, I didn't want to be Chuck Jones. Occasionally, they were funny, so I'd laugh; but it would be very seldom. Abe was pretty observant; he did caricatures of me all the time, because I looked like a skeleton, sort of. I was a slob, a surfer slob, and Willie was real dapper and neat. The contrast was sort of funny. So I was Daffy Duck and he was Porky Pig in Robin Hood Daffy, when they started to laugh. It was just the play on the two in that scene.
|A Chuck Jones layout drawing for Robin Hood Daffy (1958).
Barrier: In the screenings, would you have to respond to Willie's laughter, as Daffy did to Porky's?
Cole: Occasionally I would, but not too often. Willie would laugh immediately, and continue laughing, and Don Foster—the two of them were the biggest laughers. It could be a lousy cartoon, and they'd still laugh. Willie wanted to be a cartoonist, he wanted to have his own comic strip, from the time he was little. He never wanted to be anything but a cartoonist. I wanted to be a cartoonist until I was thirteen and I got rejected from Disney's. Then I found fine art. But I had to get a job, so I went to work in animation, because I knew I could do it. But I didn't want to do it, necessarily. Then I got to liking it. I always liked doing cartoons; but unlike Willie, I liked doing cartoons for the fun of it. I was serious about my fine art, but I'd do cartoons for the fun of it. But I ended up making a living doing cartoons, and having fun doing fine art. It ended up the opposite of what I wanted to do.
Barrier: Tell me about the clothes you would wear...
Cole: Pretty much what I'm wearing now: beat-up jacket—but the hair was short; nobody had real long hair. I had a car; the hood broke off it, the car had no top, fungus was growing in the back seat. And I had a paycheck I lost in the car; three years later I found the paycheck. It was a mess. Every car I had was a total disaster. Willie had this black 1956 Chevy, and I had a 1957 Chevy, a year later. Ken Harris went down to get me to buy it, and they almost sold me a car with no back seat; and I almost bought it. Ken bought Willie a car, and he got a Chevy from the year before. Willie's car never looked bad; he had it for ten years, and it never looked bad. I had mine for five years, and in five years it looked like a mess. The difference in cars was just the difference in personalities.
Barrier: You said sometimes you'd go without shaving several days...
Cole: Shaving, or maybe bathing, sometimes. I was painting at night, so I'd have turpentine, and paint; then I'd go in and take a sponge bath in the morning. Dick Thompson never would complain that much. Of course, we'd go out and booze at lunch, so I guess we stunk quite a bit in the afternoon.
Barrier: I wanted to ask you about the rooms you were in. You said you were in the same room until you started doing story.
Cole: They had these little rooms—
Barrier: This was on California Street.
Cole: Yes. We worked in what they called Termite Terrace for six months, almost eight months before they tore it down and moved us over to the other place. Willie and I worked there for about a year, maybe. That final day, they just totally demolished the building. They tore down all the pipes, they tore down all the walls. We had a huge party; everybody got bombed out of their minds, and we tore up the whole building, inside out.
Barrier: Willie said they were rolling big trash cans down the hall.
Cole: Oh, God! It was horrendous. Somebody came for a job interview, and we were hanging off the pipes like apes.
They had a hole on the top floor, and you could drop things on people down below. These guys used to pee on top of the guy below them. Some of the jokes—Chuck Jones did a terrible joke on me that last day. We were in there, and I was doing work; I'd come in bombed after lunch, and then I would work in the afternoon. He took my chair and he sawed it, all the way down and all the way up to the top; and he put it all back together. Everybody was sitting there and they were waiting. When I sat in the chair, it collapsed. Well, I could have broken my back. It pissed me off. You can see that even though I had just started off as an assistant in the unit, there was this sort of hostility toward my drawing.
I went to Hawaii to surf in the big waves one winter. Instead of staying three weeks, I stayed four weeks; we took what we called the rubber-band flight, which was a slow plane. When I came back, they were going to give me a cake; they had a cake to present to me, and it sat on my desk. It wasn't a cake—it was horseshit, with candles in it. The trouble was, it stayed there for two weeks, because I was coming in two weeks late. When I got back, and I opened up this cake—it was all sealed and everything—there were lice crawling in it and everything; it was awful. So the gag sort of backfired; because poor Dick Thompson had to go into that room and work. They never thought to remove the cake; they just left it on my desk. We weren't the brightest group.
Barrier: So when you were on California Street, you and your animator worked in one little room?
Cole: Yes; this is how it was set up [sketching the studio layout, with the Jones and Freleng units on the first floor and Bob McKimson's unit on the second floor of one of the arms of the "U."].
As much as Chuck was a great director, Friz Freleng was considered the top director. In all essences of cartoon success—humor, consistency—Friz was considered the top director. I don't know if he got paid more.
Another thing that happened with me is that I did a whole bunch of things for record albums; I got involved doing certain things for the main lot, simulating record albums and things for live films. They saw my work, so they ended up giving me the L.A. Times TV section. Every time there was a Warner Bros. live show, I did the covers for this TV magazine. Two-color process things with all the actors. I'd get two weeks' salary for that one job. I was making a hundred and twelve there, and I'd make three hundred dollars for each one of these illustrations. At that time, in the fifties, that was a lot of money. It was right before I got married, and my wife really appreciated these: "Now you're getting paid what you deserve." It was done through, I think, a live-action art director; I did maybe twelve of them.
So I was doing other things: I was painting, I was entering shows, I was handled by a gallery—I was doing a lot of different things, fine arts stuff, at the time I was working at Warners.
Barrier: One last thing...you mentioned, before I put the second tape in, what you were going to make if you and Willie had stayed and become key assistants. You said that the hundred and twenty-five that Willie mentioned was what you were actually going to get paid if you had stayed.
Cole: I don't think I was making that much. When I went to work at UPA, I got a raise to a hundred and twenty-four. That was a ten-dollar raise; so I think I was making a hundred and fourteen. I may be wrong; but Willie may have been making more than I was. He was working in Friz's unit, and he was asked to go back into Chuck's. It was funny—the idea that we quit in the same hour, the same time. He was calling in, with his wife pregnant, from home, and I quit in the office at exactly the same time. And we both started the same day. And we both got laid off at Disney's the same day. Porky could walk through a line, and carry all sort of equipment out and not get seen; but Daffy Duck couldn't go out with one pencil, right? That's exactly what happened. He made eight trips, and he was such a cool cat that they just [thought] that was his uniform. He was a real early homeboy. I made five trips with Willie; he didn't want to do it alone.
Both Willie and I, in our marriages, used [Bob] Bransford as the great excuse. Poor Bransford got blamed for every time we did anything. Every time I was late, out boozing or something, "Oh, we were out with Bransford." Whatever it was, Bransford got blamed.
Barrier: You mentioned how casually you dressed; how did people generally dress at the Warner studio? The pictures you see of Chuck, he seems to have worn a tie a lot.
Cole: He had a little bow tie that he'd wear once in a while, and a sweater. The thing is, he's much shorter than I am, but I never looked down on Chuck. He could be sitting, and you'd look up; because no matter where he was, he was always like this. If you were looking down at him, you were still looking up, because his head was always tilted back. He didn't want to look up at you; you had to look up at him. I don't know if he meant to do it, but I've never seen him straight on, I've always seen him looking up. I saw him at Grim's thing [Grim Natwick's hundredth birthday party], and he said, "You know, you're looking more like Abe Lincoln every day." I ddidn't want to tell him he's looking more like [the] Grinch; I didn't say that, but I almost wanted to. Then I thought, no, I can't do that.
I don't have the warm feeling toward animation to the degree that I think Willie does; Willie loves it. I have a love-hate thing about it. Some of the people I'll always love—I learned a lot, I got a lot of help—but I don't like the politics, I hate Disney studios with a passion, I hate Hanna and Barbera. As far as I'm concerned, they could take those two and do what they did to Mussolini. Yet, I love Friz. I have a thing about Dick Williams, but I still have a hell of a lot of respect for him, and I think he's one hell of an animator. And I really do like the stupid guy, even though we can't work together. I have a lot of respect for Chuck Jones, even though I don't always agree with him. I have so many friends [in animation] that I can't knock it; but I never really felt like that was what I wanted. I always wanted my fine arts, I always wanted to be an artist first and an animator second. I don't look at animation as an art form by itself.
[Corny recalled an episode—his account was partially obscured by restaurant noise—when he was vice president of the union and Bill Tytla "was on the downtrend" and couldn't even get work at DePatie-Freleng. Art Babbitt took the lead in raising money so Tytla could return to the East Coast to be with his wife.]
Cole: Toward the end of his being in L.A., [Tytla] was very sick. Being financially low, being depressed with going through whatever he was going through, he still had to work. But he couldn't really do Pink Panthers. It was hard for him. When you're so good, it's hard to make those adjustments. Now I understand what that means. He worked on [The Incredible Mr. Limpet]. They didn't give him the credit that [he deserved]; but I went over one day to visit, and he [?] was in Chuck's old room; Chuck wasn't there any more. I walked into that room, and I looked at these beautiful drawings of fish, all over the table and all over the place. I said, "Who the hell did these drawings?" He said, "Oh, those are just some by Bill Tytla." They didn't know. I looked at these drawings and I said, "God, these are good drawings." "They're not that—what do you mean `good'?" They didn't know how good he was. They were so much better than anybody else's drawings, they were like night and day. Dave Hilberman was working there with him; to me, those two are real giants. Bobe Cannon, Emery Hawkins, Rod Scribner, Phil Duncan...I mean, there were a lot of animators that weren't big guys at Disney's that were powerful animators.
Barrier: Where did you encounter Rod Scribner?
Cole: It's just that I've seen a lot of his animation and I appreciated it. It's not so much knowing them, but just their work. Knowing their work, and knowing the difference between creative animators' work and somebody else's animation. Some animators just blocked in and did what they were told. Dick Thompson was a great mechanical animator; Ken Harris was a great animator. There's a difference. You don't want to take it away from Dick, because he worked extremely hard. Ken Harris just wrote it off; it didn't mean anything to Ken Harris, he wanted to play pool, he wanted to play tennis, he wanted to go out and drive his new car. It meant everything to Dick Thompson; he just didn't have the skills.
[As the interview was ending, Corny said: "I'm very competitive. I have a twin brother—we're six minutes apart—and I've always competed in athletics, everything. So for me, life is competitive, and I just enjoy the involvement with other people to do the best you can do."]
[Posted August 11, 2011]