Frederick Bean "Texas/Fred/Tex" Avery (26 February 1908 - 26 August 1980) was an American animator, cartoonist, voice actor and director. He is famous for producing animated cartoons during The Golden Age of Hollywood animation. He did his most significant work for the Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, creating the characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy Squirrel, George and Junior, and developing Porky Pig and Chilly Willy into the personas for which they are remembered.
Avery's influence is evident in almost all of the animated cartoon series by various studios in the 1940s and 1950s. Gary Morris described Avery's innovative approach:
- "Above all, [Avery] steered the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and made cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated Avery's speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney's "cute and cuddly" creatures, under Avery's guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig, or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck. Even the classic fairy tale, a market that Disney had cornered, was appropriated by Avery, who made innocent heroines like Red Riding Hood into sexy jazz babies, more than a match for any Wolf. Avery also endeared himself to intellectuals by constantly breaking through the artifice of the cartoon, having characters leap out of the end credits, loudly object to the plot of the cartoon they were starring in, or speak directly to the audience."
Avery's style of directing encouraged animators to stretch the boundaries of the medium to do things in a cartoon that could not be done in the world of live-action film. An often-quoted line about Avery's cartoons was, "In a cartoon you can do anything." He also performed a great deal of voice work in his cartoons such as Willoughby. Tex did fill in for Bill Thompson as Droopy, although the individual cartoons where Avery did this have never been specified.
Tex Avery was born, to George Walton Avery (8 June 1867 - 14 January 1935) and the former Mary Augusta "Jessie" Bean (1886–1931), in Taylor, Texas. His father was born in Alabama. His mother was born in Buena Vista, Chickasaw County, Mississippi. His paternal grandparents were Needham Avery (Civil War veteran) (8 October 1838 - 20 February 1913, buried at Wehadkee Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Randolph County, Alabama) and his wife Lucinda C. Baxly (11 May 1844 - 10 March 1892). His maternal grandparents were Frederick Mumford Bean (1852 - 23 October 1886) and his wife Minnie Edgar (25 July 1854 - 7 May 1940). His paternal Great-grandparents were John Walton Avery (16 December 1805 - 13 January 1878, buried at Rock Springs Cemetery, Randolph County, Alabama) and wife Elizabeth Brannon Tomme Avery (17 October 1809 - 15 October 1895, buried at Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Stroud, Alabama). Avery was said to be a descendant of Judge Roy Bean. However his maternal great-grandparents were actually Mumford Bean from Tennessee (22 August 1805 - 10 October 1892) and his wife Lucinda from Alabama. Mumford was son of William Bean and his wife Nancy Blevins from Virginia. Their relation to Roy is uncertain though his paternal grandparents were also from Virginia. Avery's family tradition also claimed descent from Daniel Boone.
Avery was raised in his native Taylor, and graduated in 1926 from North Dallas High School. A popular catchphrase at his school was "What's up, doc?", which he would later popularize with Bugs Bunny in the 1940s.
Avery first began his animation career at the Walter Lantz studio in the early 1930s, working on the majority of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons from 1931-35. He is shown as 'animator' on the original title card credits on the Oswald cartoons. He later claimed to have directed two cartoons during this time. During some office horseplay at MGM, a thumbtack flew into Avery's left eye and caused him to lose use of that eye. Some speculate it was his lack of depth perception that gave him his unique look at animation and bizarre directorial style.
Avery migrated to the Leon Schlesinger studio in late 1935 and convinced the fast-talking Schlesinger to let him head his own production unit of animators and create cartoons the way he wanted them to be made. Schlesinger responded by assigning the Avery unit, including animators Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, to a five-room bungalow at the Warner Bros. Sunset Blvd. backlot. Schlesinger placed the Avery unit there so as not to tip off Avery's predecessor Tom Palmer that he was about to be fired. The Avery unit, assigned to work primarily on the black-and-white Looney Tunes instead of the Technicolor Merrie Melodies, soon dubbed their quarters "Termite Terrace", due to its significant termite population.
"Termite Terrace" later became the nickname for the entire Schlesinger/Warners studio, primarily because Avery and his unit were the ones who defined what became known as "the Warner Bros. cartoon". Their first short, Gold Diggers of '49, is recognized as the first cartoon to make Porky Pig a star, and Avery’s experimentation with the medium continued from there.
Creation of Looney Tunes Stars
Avery, with the assistance of Clampett, Jones, and new associate director Frank Tashlin, laid the foundation for a style of animation that dethroned The Walt Disney Studio as the kings of animated short films, and created a legion of cartoon stars whose names still shine around the world today. Avery in particular was deeply involved; a perfectionist, Avery constantly crafted gags for the shorts, periodically provided voices for them (including his trademark belly laugh), and held such control over the timing of the shorts that he would add or cut frames out of the final negative if he felt a gag's timing was not quite right.
Porky's Duck Hunt introduced the character of Daffy Duck, who possessed a new form of "lunacy" and zaniness that had not been seen before in animated cartoons. Daffy was an almost completely out-of-control "darn fool duck" who frequently bounced around the film frame in double-speed, screaming "Hoo-hoo! hoo-hoo" in a high-pitched, sped-up voice provided by veteran Warners voice artist Mel Blanc, who, with this cartoon, also took over providing the voice of Porky Pig.
Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton and Chuck Jones directed a series of shorts which featured a Daffy Duck-like rabbit, created by Ben "Bugs" Hardaway. As is the case with most directors, each puts his own personal stamp on the characters, stories and overall feel of a short. Each of these cartoons treated the rabbit differently. The next to try out the rabbit, known around Termite Terrace as "Bugs' Bunny" (named after Hardaway), was Avery. Since the recycling of storylines among the directors was commonplace, "A Wild Hare" was a double throwback. Avery had directed the '37 short, "Porky's Duck Hunt" featuring Porky Pig which introduced "Daffy Duck". Hardaway remade this as "Porky's Hare Hunt" introducing the rabbit. So Avery went back to the "hunter and prey" framework, and incorporating Jones' "Elmer's Candid Camera", gag for gag, and altering the design of Elmer Fudd. Polishing the timing, and expanding the Groucho Marx smart-aleck attitude already present in "Porky's Hare Hunt", making Bugs' a kind of Brooklyn-esque super-cool rabbit who was always in control of the situation and who ran rings around his opponents. Avery has stated that it was very common to refer to folks in Texas as "doc", much like "pal", "dude" or "bud". In A Wild Hare, Bugs adopts this colloquialism when he casually walks up to Elmer, who is "hunting wabbits" and while carefully inspecting a rabbit hole, shotgun in hand, the first words out of Bugs' mouth is a coolly calm, "What's up, doc?". Audiences reacted riotously to the juxtaposition of Bugs' nonchalance and the potentially dangerous situation, and "What's up, doc?" instantly became the rabbit's catchphrase.
Avery directed only four Bugs Bunny cartoons: A Wild Hare, Tortoise Beats Hare, All This and Rabbit Stew, and The Heckling Hare. During this period, he also directed a number of one-shot shorts, including travelogue parodies (The Isle of Pingo Pongo), fractured fairy-tales (The Bear's Tale), Hollywood caricature films (Hollywood Steps Out), and cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny clones (The Crack-Pot Quail).
Avery's tenure at the Schlesinger studio ended in late 1941, when he and the producer quarreled over the ending to The Heckling Hare. In Avery's original version, Bugs and hunting dog were to fall off of a cliff three times, milking the gag to its comic extreme. According to a DVD commentary for the cartoon, historian and animator Greg Ford explained that the problem Schlesinger had with the ending was that, just prior to falling off the third time, Bugs and the dog were to turn to the screen, with Bugs saying "Hold on to your hats, folks, here we go again!" It's thought that this was the punchline to a well-known risqué joke of the day. Schlesinger intervened (supposedly on orders from Jack Warner himself, although it's doubtful Warner would be screening cartoons unless alerted to this particular content), and edited the film so that the characters only fall off the cliff twice (the edited cartoon ends abruptly, after Bugs and the Dog fall through a hole in a cliff and immediately stop short of the ground, saying to the audience, "Heh, fooled you, didn't we?"). An enraged Avery promptly quit the studio, leaving three cartoons he started on but did not complete. They were Crazy Cruise, The Cagey Canary and Aloha Hooey. Bob Clampett picked up where Avery left off and completed the three cartoons.
Speaking of Animals
While at Schlesinger, Avery created a concept of animating lip movement to live action footage of animals. Schlesinger was not interested in Avery's idea, so Avery approached Jerry Fairbanks, a friend of his who produced the "Unusual Occupations" series of short subjects for Paramount Pictures. Fairbanks liked the idea and the "Speaking of Animals" series of shorts was launched. When Avery left Warner, he went straight to Paramount to work on the first three shorts in the series before joining MGM.
Avery at MGM
By 1942, Avery was in the employ of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, working in their cartoon division under the supervision of Fred Quimby. Avery felt that Schlesinger had stifled him. At MGM, Avery's creativity reached its peak. His cartoons became known for their sheer lunacy, breakneck pace, and a penchant for playing with the medium of animation and film in general that few other directors dared to approach. MGM also offered him larger budgets and a higher quality production level than the Warners studio. Plus, his unit was filled with ex-Disney artists such as Preston Blair and Ed Love. These changes were evident in Avery's first short released by MGM, The Blitz Wolf, an Adolf Hitler parody which was nominated for the 1942 Oscars/Academy Awards.
Avery's most famous MGM character debuted in 1943's "Dumb-Hounded". Droopy (originally "Happy Hound") was a calm, little, slow-moving and slow-talking dog who still won out in the end. He also created a series of risqué cartoons, beginning with 1943's "Red Hot Riding Hood", featuring a sexy female star who never had a set name but has been unofficially referred to as "Red" by fans. Her visual design and voice varied somewhat between shorts. Other Avery characters at MGM included Screwy Squirrel and the "Of Mice and Men"-inspired duo of George and Junior.
Other notable MGM cartoons directed by Avery include "Bad Luck Blackie", "Cellbound", "Magical Maestro", "Lucky Ducky", "Ventriloquist Cat" and "King-Size Canary". Avery began his stint at MGM working with lush colors and realistic backgrounds, but he slowly abandoned this style for a more frenetic, less realistic approach. The newer, more stylized look reflected the influence of the up-and-coming UPA studio, the need to cut costs as budgets grew higher, and Avery's own desire to leave reality behind and make cartoons that were not tied to the real world of live action. During this period, he made a notable series of films which explored the technology of the future: "The House of Tomorrow", "The Car of Tomorrow", "The Farm of Tomorrow" and "TV of Tomorrow" (spoofing common live-action promotional shorts of the time). He also introduced a slow-talking wolf character, who was the prototype for MGM associates Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound character, right down to the voice by Daws Butler.
Avery took a year's sabbatical from MGM beginning in 1950 (to recover from overwork), during which time Dick Lundy, recently arrived from the Walter Lantz studio, took over his unit and made one Droopy cartoon, as well as a string of shorts with an old character, Barney Bear. Avery returned to MGM in October 1951 and began working again. Avery's last two original cartoons for MGM were "Deputy Droopy" and "Cellbound", completed in 1953 and released in 1955. They were co-directed by Avery unit animator Michael Lah. Lah began directing a handful of CinemaScope Droopy shorts on his own. A burnt-out Avery left MGM in 1953 to return to the Walter Lantz studio.
Avery's return to the Lantz studio did not last long. He directed four cartoons in 1954-1955: the one-shots "Crazy Mixed-Up Pup", "Shh-h-h-h-h", "I'm Cold" and "The Legend of Rockabye Point", in which he defined the character of Chilly Willy the penguin. Although "The Legend of Rockabye Point" and "Crazy Mixed-Up Pup" were nominated for Academy Awards, Avery left Lantz over a salary dispute, effectively ending his career in theatrical animation.
He turned to animated television commercials, most notably the Raid commercials of the 1960s and 1970s (in which cartoon insects, confronted by the bug killer, screamed "RAID!" and died flamboyantly) and Frito-Lay's controversial mascot, the Frito Bandito. Avery also produced ads for Kool-Aid fruit drinks starring the Warner Bros. characters he had once helped create during his Termite Terrace days.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Avery became increasingly reserved and depressed, although he continued to draw respect from his peers. His final employer was Hanna-Barbera Productions, where he wrote gags for Saturday morning cartoons such as the Droopy-esque Kwicky Koala.
Avery died of liver cancer at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, California at age 72. His funeral was attended by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Bill Melendez, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, Virgil Ross, and most of the surviving Warner Bros. animators. He is buried in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery.
Although Tex Avery did not live to experience the late-1980s renaissance of animation, his work was rediscovered and he began to receive widespread attention and praise by the modern animation and film communities. His influence is strongly reflected in modern cartoons such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ren and Stimpy, Bonkers, Oggy and the Cockroaches, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, SpongeBob SquarePants, Phineas and Ferb, Hotel Transylvania, and the Genie character in Disney's Aladdin. In fact, an Averyesque cowboy character bore his name in the otherwise unrelated series The Wacky World of Tex Avery. His work has been honored in shows such as The Tex Avery Show and Cartoon Alley. His characters (particularly Bugs Bunny and the risqué antics of Red Hot Riding Hood) were referenced in the Jim Carrey film The Mask. In the mid 1990s, Dark Horse Comics released a trio of three-issue miniseries that were openly labelled tributes to Avery's MGM cartoons, Wolf & Red, Droopy, and Screwy Squirrel. It should also be noted that Tex Avery, unlike most Warner Brothers directors, kept many original title frames of his cartoons, several otherwise lost due to Blue Ribbon Reissues. Rare prints and art containing original titles and unedited animation from Avery's MGM and Warner Bros. cartoons are now usually sold on eBay or in the collections of animators and cartoon enthusiasts. In 2008 France issued three stamps honoring Tex Avery for his 100th birthday, depicting Droopy, the redheaded showgirl, and the wolf.
Today, the copyrights to all classic color cartoons directed by Avery at Warners and MGM are owned by Turner Entertainment, with Warner Bros. handling distribution. (WB owns the black-and-white cartoons directly.) Turner and WB are both units of WarnerMedia. The cartoons he directed at the Lantz studio are owned by their original distributors, Universal Studios. A few of Avery's WB and MGM shorts are in the public domain, but WB and Turner hold the original film elements.
All of his MGM shorts were released in a North American MGM/UA LaserDisc set called The Complete Tex Avery. While one cartoon on the set was an edited version, this being the blackface gags in "Droopy's Good Deed" and "Garden Gopher", others, including the "politically incorrect" "Uncle Tom's Cabana" and "Half-Pint Pygmy" were included intact (although these were removed from the Region 2 DVD release, now out of print). Several of his cartoons were released on VHS, in four volumes of Tex Avery's Screwball Classics, two Droopy collections, and various inclusions on MGM animation collection releases, with many gags edited out for television showings left in. Avery's Droopy cartoons are available on the DVD set Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection. The seven Droopy cartoons produced in CinemaScope were included here in their original widescreen versions (albeit letter-boxed), instead of the pan and scan versions regularly broadcast on television. Also, some of his works could be found on home video releases (from VHS to Blu-ray) of Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts, and the same is true of his few Lantz Studio cartoons.
His complete collection of MGM cartoons were released by fans on DVD as bootlegs. On 18 February 2020, Warner Archive released several of his MGM cartoons on Blu-ray followed by another release on 10 December 2020.
- Main article: List of cartoons supervised by Tex Avery
Avery's career as director begins reputedly during his employ at Walter Lantz Productions in the early 30s, a spell in which he claims to have directed two animations. His directing credits span the time from his tenure at Warner Bros, to his creative peak at MGM, and finally his return to Walter Lantz studios (although after this short-lived period Avery turned to directing some well-known and notable advertisements).
- Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age p.329
- Adamson, Joe, Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.
- Parks, Scott K. (February 21, 2010). North Dallas High murals pay homage to animated alumnus Tex Avery. Dallas Morning News. Retrieved on February 22, 2010.
- Haile, Bartee (January 20, 2010). Nothing Funny About Sad Life Of Daffy Duck Creator.
- International Aminated Film Society.
- Warner Home Video product information for Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection (DVD). WarnerHomevideo.com. Retrieved on 2007-06-15.
- Sigall, Martha (2005). Living Life Inside the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation. University Press of Mississippi, page 119. ISBN 9781578067497.