Ralph Bakshi recalls ‘Wizards’ and a controversial career

March 11, 2012 | 3:19 p.m.
"Fritz the Cat."

Ralph Bakshi's "Fritz the Cat" was groundbreaking.

Groundbreaking animator Ralph Bakshi, who caused a sensation with the first X-rated cartoon feature — 1972’s “Fritz the Cat,” based on Robert Crumb’s comic strip — is 73 now. For the last decade, he has lived in a home on top of a mountain in New Mexico. He has a website created by his daughter, teaches animation and makes a good living selling his paintings.

“I am very happy,” Bakshi said recently in a phone interview.

But that wasn’t the case for a long time. “I was working seven days a week keeping an entire movie in my head,” Bakshi said. “It was just so hard. I thought I had failed. Let me be perfectly clear: When I left the business I was burned out. I was exhausted from the fights. So many of my films were cut up, chopped up.”

Bakshi suddenly got emotional when he talked about the thousands of emails he gets from new fans of his films, including his 1977 family fantasy film, “Wizards,” as well as his more urban, anti-mainstream productions such as 1975’s “Coonskin,” about an African American rabbit, fox and bear who become heads of a crime organization in Harlem, and 1973’s semi-autobiographical “Heavy Traffic.”

Characters from Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards." (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Characters from Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards." (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

“I can show you email from black audiences, black intellectuals and black rappers that defy description on how great ‘Coonskin’ is, and the same thing with ‘Heavy Traffic,’” he said. “I am going to cry because I didn’t expect this.”

Bakshi is coming down from his mountaintop to appear Thursday at Film Independent at LACMA’s screening of “Wizards” at the Leo S. Bing Theater. (“Wizards” will be released Tuesday on Blu-ray.) Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell will talk with Bakshi after the screening.

Made for just $1 million, the post-apocalyptic “Wizards” revolves around a battle between two wizard brothers — one who believes in the force of magic and one who believes in the force of industrial technology. It was 20th Century Fox’s first animated film. “The entire ‘Wizards’ movie was done for [the same budget] of the first minute and half of a Pixar film,” Bakshi said, laughing.

In fact, it was so low budget that Bakshi and his animators couldn’t afford to do pencil tests of scenes, which is considered a key step in the animation process. “I did the storyboards at my desk,” he explained. “Every day I would come into the office and do the day’s storyboards. I would time the storyboards with a stop watch — that was old school — and I would give the storyboards to the layout man. The animators animated it and we went to ink and paint. We didn’t have money to redo anything.”

Bakshi believes that although the quality of animation has improved over the years, artists and studios are less willing to take chances because the films are so expensive.

“My interest is content,” he said. “I grew up with Jackson Pollock, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac. Ideas were important. What was important was what was being said.”

Bakshi worked for a decade as an animator at Terrytoons in New Rochelle, N.Y., which supplied such cartoons as “Deputy Dawg,” “Heckle and Jeckle” and “Mighty Mouse.”

“The first thing that happened to me was tremendous depression and boredom at Terrytoons,” he said. “I just fell apart. I just heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and Bobby Dylan was starting to sing, and people were marching to get blacks the right to vote. Here I was doing ‘Deputy Dawg’ and ‘Heckle and Jeckle.’”

So he left it behind and began his own studio at 57th and Broadway in New York City. He hired fellow animators from Terrytoons and began “Fritz the Cat,” which revolved around anthropomorphic animals, notably a wily con artist named Fritz who was a sexually active tomcat. The film earned more than $100 million worldwide.

But the animation union in New York kicked him out because it thought Bakshi’s work was pornographic. “The union shows up and says I can’t be doing this stuff in this town,” he recalled.

Ralph Bakshi.

Ralph Bakshi. (Courtesy Ralph Bakshi)

He was welcomed by the union in Los Angeles with open arms. “The union leader said, ‘Come out, we want your films. We want your business,’” Bakshi recalled. “When I came out to Los Angeles all of these great animators were out of jobs and I was going to hire them.”

Bakshi acquired the “greatest animators in the world” for “Wizards” “because I had the old guys who had done all the MGM shorts and Warner Bros. shorts,” he said. “I had Irv Spence. I had Manny Perez. I had so many of the old guys who were let go from Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM. Those guys made me proud because they were so professional. They knew what I was up against. I was a kid and they were pretty much behind me. And here 35 years later, we are still looking at ‘Wizards.’”

For more information on the screening, go to www.filmindependent.org/lacma.

— Susan King


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13 Responses to Ralph Bakshi recalls ‘Wizards’ and a controversial career

  1. Gene H. says:

    I saw this movie on my 10th birthday the year it was released. I had a party. To this day, my friends I took along to see it still mention that birthday as a linchpin cinematic experience. To say it was a formative influence is an understatement. Thank you, Mr. Bakshi.

  2. Mark Collins says:

    You might ask about how a lot of the ideas of Wizards were lifted from the works of Vaughn Bode, including his "Cheech Wizard" and "Cobalt 60" characters.

    • sarah says:

      Bode and Bakshi drew together and were great friends in NYC. They inspired and supported each other as any friends would! Not everything in this world is so negative – they were so psyched for each other ! You can see Bakshi's original Necron drawings, that they both created over bottles of wine and Pizza on 7th street in NYC on his site or blog or something. They are great!

  3. @regmizell says:

    I remember watching Wizards a few months before I saw Star Wars. I fondly remember being blown away by the animation way back when. I have been a follower of Bakshi's work ever sense. I got spoiled by his work, because I want animation to be more than singing animals. Unfortunately there isn't a lot of hope of seeing animators with the drive and imagination as Bakshi because audiences would rather praise Toy Story or Little Nemo rather than Coonskin, Wizards or Fire and Ice.

  4. Sophie says:

    Wasn't Ralph Bakshi responsible for The Lord of the Rings (based on the first book THe Fellowship of the Ring) animated film? Still remember watching that and getting creeped out by the Ring Wraiths. But it was brilliant.

  5. David Konow says:

    I grew up with Wizards on the Z Channel, and still recall seeing American Pop at the Avco in Westwood when I was a kid, my father took me and my friends to see it because it hadn't gotten down to the smaller cities yet. Bakshi is a great artist, he really tried to take animation to a new level, and I still love his work to this day.

  6. Joe Woods says:

    Ralph might have been bored drawing “Heckle and Jeckle” but at least those cartoons were funny and now considered by many as classics of the Golden Age of Television animation.By the way, “Wizards” is not a family film.

  7. Alan Dean Foster says:

    Ask Bakshi if he "recalls" Vaughn Bode. Those of us who knew Bode and his artwork sure do. So did the energetic gremlins who when the film came out thoughtfully replaced the logo on a Westwood theater with the words "Wizards…A Film by Vaughn Bode". And it's R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat.
    I'd post relevant artwork here if there was a way to do it. Meanwhile, the curious can google Bode's strip NECRON 99 and other artwork.

    • sarah says:

      In Response to Alan – Bakshi and Bode and their wives were great friends in NYC. They would spend hours drawing and hanging out over bottles of wine. Bode and Bakshi inspired each other and greatly supported each other towards each of their paths. At no time to Bode say – Hey Ralph man – you cant do that! In fact… quite the opposite…

      • Alan Dean Foster says:

        Real friends at least credit the work of others when they use it…I don't care if Vaughn told Bakshi, "Hey, you can use anything of mine you want and I don't want any credit for it" (which I doubt he would have said). Everyone in the SF community who was familiar with Bode's work knew exactly where the designs for the characters in WIZARDS came from.

  8. Sarah says:

    In Response to Alan – Bakshi and Bode and their wives were great friends in NYC. They would spend hours drawing and hanging out over bottles of wine. Bode and Bakshi inspired each other and greatly supported each other towards each of their paths. At no time to Bode say – Hey Ralph man – you cant do that! In fact… quite the opposite… And no kidding… Of Course it's Fritz the Character is Crumbs creation!

  9. Tracy says:

    Nice to see this wonderful comments. I still have my Cheech Wizard and Cobalt comix. I have a T-shirt Bode once tired several different prints on as a test. When, in the early 70's undergrounds came out, I realized that they were a unique and wonderful art form, saying things some didn't even dare to think. I have a stack of them about a foot high, that I gathered up back then.

    I was right back then: it's still pretty amazing stuff.

  10. @jobtejas says:

    Ralph Bakshi is, no doubt, one of the unsung heroes of the 2D Animation renaissance.

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