William Charles Littlejohn
January 27, 1914
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||September 17, 2010 (aged 96)|
Malibu, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Animator, union organizer|
(m. 1943; died 2004)
William Charles Littlejohn (January 27, 1914 – September 17, 2010) was an American animator and union organizer. Littlejohn worked on animated shorts and features in the 1930s through to the 1990s. His notable works include the Tom and Jerry shorts, Peanuts television specials, the Oscar-winning short, The Hole (1962), and the Oscar-nominated A Doonesbury Special (1977). He was inducted into the Cartoon Hall of Fame and received the Winsor McCay Award and garnered lifetime achievement awards from the Annie Awards and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Director Michael Sporn has called Littlejohn "an animation 'God'."
Littlejohn co-founded and served as the first president of the Screen Cartoonists Guild Local #852 in 1938. He led the effort to gain recognition for the union at the major Hollywood animation studios. When Walt Disney refused to negotiate with the union and fired 16 pro-union artists, Littlejohn led the union in the 1941 Disney animators strike. The strike lasted nine weeks and resulted in Disney's recognition of the union, substantial salary increases, a 40-hour work week and screen credits. The Disney strike has been recognized as a watershed moment in the movement to unionize the animation industry.
Littlejohn was an active advocate for the art of animation, becoming a co-founder of ASIFA-Hollywood in 1957 and of the International Tournée of Animation in the mid-1960s. He also served on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors representing short films and animation from 1988 to 2001.
Littlejohn was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1914. His father was an engineer for Pitney Bowes who worked an early combination of the adding machine and typewriter. In either 1931 or 1934 (sources differ on the date), he began working in animation at the Van Beuren Studio in New York. His aunt was a cameraperson there, and he was hired as a cel washer on the original "Tom and Jerry" series (not the Hanna/Barbera series). He recalled: "One of my first jobs was to hand out cels to the inkers. They were so slippery in their tissue separators that when I first was handed a stack, I immediately let them drop all over the floor!" Littlejohn worked his way up within the Van Beuren Studio to inking, assisting and then animating. In a 1985 interview, he recalled: "Fear of starving led me to animation — those were Depression days. I had no art training, but learned animation from a do-it-yourself kit." While at Van Beuren, he worked on "Toonerville Trolley" (1936), "Parrotville" (1934) and two animated Amos and Andy shorts, "The Rasslin' Match" (1934) and "The Lion Tamer" (1934).
When Van Beuren closed its doors in 1935 or 1936, Littlejohn moved to Los Angeles, completed a degree in aeronautical engineering, and worked for a time at Lockheed. He recalled, "I began work at Lockheed, but the people there were so boring! They would talk all night about the qualities of a rivet."
In 1937, Littlejohn returned to animation, working for Harman and Ising and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio. While at MGM, he worked on the "Happy Harmonies" shorts and the new "Tom and Jerry" series. Littlejohn was one of the few people who worked on the "Tom and Jerry" series both at Van Beuren and at MGM. In 1938, Littlejohn worked on Milt Gross' Jitterbug Follies" and was responsible for animating the two dancing penguins. He also worked in 1938 on "The Captain and the Kids," an MGM animated series based on The Katzenjammer Kids comic strip.
He left animation work during World War II to work as a test pilot and flight instructor. He also continued to do freelance animation for MGM and Walter Lantz.
While working at Van Beuren in 1935, Littlejohn saw the origins of the efforts to unionize the animation industry. At that time, he recalled, "I kept my nose clean because many guys were getting in trouble and getting blacklisted."
In 1938 Littlejohn met union organizer Herb Sorrell, and together they formed the Screen Cartoonists Guild Local #852 with Littlejohn as the president. Littlejohn later explained his decision to become involved in the union movement: "I just saw too many people getting away with a lot, and too few with nothing, and I had to get involved. So we formed a union."
Sorrell and Littlejohn began organizing animation workers, and MGM, Walter Lantz and George Pal quickly recognized the union. Leon Schlesinger's Looney Tunes Studio followed after a six-day lockout, but Disney refused to sign a union contract. After collecting enough members representation cards, Sorrell, Littlejohn and Disney animator Art Babbitt met Walt Disney and his attorneys. Disney angrily refused to negotiate and insisted his animators were represented by the Federation of Screen Cartoonists, a sham union set up by Disney that was declared illegal by the National Labor Relations Board. After the meeting, Disney fired Babbitt and 16 other pro-union artists. The 1941 Disney animators strike began the next day. As animators marched in front of the Disney studio in Burbank, Littlejohn, who was a pilot, flew overhead and, in his words, "wiggled my wings" at the picketers, who "wiggled their signs back at me." The strike lasted for nine weeks and ended following pressure on Disney from federal mediators, nationwide boycotts, the Bank of America and Roy Disney. On September 21, 1941, the strike ended and the union was recognized by Disney.
Walt Disney later testified before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities that he believed that Sorrell was a Communist, but his testimony was based on hearsay, "I believed at that time that Mr. Sorrell was a Communist because of all the things that I had heard ..." Littlejohn recalled Sorrell as follows: "Herb was an ex-fighter and a great champion for the little guy. For that he was called a Communist, which he never was. In fact, the Communist Party/USA disliked him too, because he was his own man and couldn't be controlled." Despite his involvement in the union movement, Littlejohn was not a target of McCarthyism or the Hollywood blacklist. He later recalled, "I regularly went over in my mind what I would say when the FBI came a-calling, but they never did, strangely enough."
The Disney strike has been recognized as a watershed moment in the efforts to unionize the animation industry. According to one account of the strike, the strike resulted in substantial salary increases, a 40-hour work week and screen credits for animators. Tom Sito, president emeritus of the Hollywood Animation Guild Local No.839, said, "Bill Littlejohn was the last of the dynamic Hollywood union organizers of the 1930s and '40s. His activism did much to build the standard of living studio animators have today."
In the 1950s, Littlejohn worked at several commercial studios, including Playhouse Pictures, Jay Ward Productions, Animation Inc., Fine Arts Films, The Ink Tank, and Bill Melendez Productions. His animated commercial for Uniroyal's "Tiger Paws" tires remains a popular and often-played piece.
While associated with Melendez, he worked as one of the principal animators on the "Peanuts" televisions specials. His most popular scenes from the "Peanuts" specials included "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965) where Snoopy dances on the piano while Schroeder plays a jazz riff, the Snoopy-Lucy prizefight in "Snoopy Come Home" (1972) and the Snoopy-Red Baron section in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" (1966). Littlejohn recalled that the scene of Snoopy dancing on Schroeder's piano met resistance from Charles Schulz: "At first Charles Schulz didn't care for all the Snoopy pantomime. He felt it was deviating too much from his style. He wanted the whole film to be talking heads, doing his dialogue." One of Littlejohn's personal favorites was a scene in the 1972 film, "Snoopy, Come Home," in which a little girl ties up Snoopy, changes his name to "Rex" and gives him a bath. In the sequence of "A Boy Named Charlie Brown", Snoopy is skating for the Ice Figure Skater and the Ice Hockey Player at Rockefeller Center.
In 1962, Littlejohn was the principal animator on the Hubleys' Oscar-winning short, "The Hole" where two New York construction workers, one voiced by jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, use improvised dialogue to debate the possibility of nuclear war. In one scene, Littlejohn animated Gillespie's character performing dance steps. At the after-party, Gillespie told Littlejohn, "Man, I'm glad you did that section yourself, because I can't dance!"
Littlejohn also worked with the Hubleys in 1977 on "A Doonesbury Special," which won a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar. Littlejohn did initial test animation of Zonker Harris putting flowers in the muzzles of National Guardsmen's rifles. Garry Trudeau was amazed at Littlejohn's work, having never seen his characters moving before. Littlejohn animated about 12 minutes of the special. John Hubley died during open-heart surgery while the Doonesbury Special was in production.
Littlejohn also worked with the Hubleys on "The Hat" (1963), "Of Stars and Men" (1964), "Zuckerkandl" (1969), "Voyage to Next" (1974), "People, People, People" (1975), "Everybody Rides the Carousel" (1976), "Sky Dance," "Enter Life" (1982) and "Amazonia" (1990).
Director Michael Sporn has called Littlejohn "an animation 'God'" and cited his work as among the best in American animation. Of his work on the 1964 film "Of Stars and Men," Sporn said, "Bill's work on Of Stars and Men has completely entered my vocabulary of great animation. The walk cycles for the many animals are just so majestic and regal that I watch them over and over."
Littlejohn worked with John and Faith Hubley for more than 30 years. In his later years, Littlejohn also worked on several animated features, including "The Phantom Tollbooth" (1970), "Watership Down" (1978), "Heavy Metal" (1981), R.O. Blechman's "The Soldier's Tale" (1984), and "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993).
In 1957, he joined with Ward Kimball and Les Goldman in founding ASIFA-Hollywood, a non-profit organization formed to promote and preserve the art of film animation. Since 1972, the organization has presented the annual Annie Awards for outstanding work in animation.
In 1965, Littlejohn and other ASIFA-Hollywood members organized the International Tournée of Animation, a program to show quality animation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Prior to this, it had been almost impossible to see quality animation in the United States. The Tournee became affiliated with the American Film Institute in 1969 and conducted a multi-city tour for many years.
In 1984, Littlejohn and his wife, Fini, helped organize the Olympiad of Animation for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.
From 1988 to 2001, Littlejohn was also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors representing short films and animation. He was on the advisory board of the Los Angeles Student Film Institute.
Littlejohn was married for 61 years to Fini Rudiger Littlejohn, an actress and artist from Vienna, Austria that did art design for American Airlines and Disney. The two married in 1943 and lived together in Malibu, California. Fini died in 2004 followed by Littlejohn in September 2010 at age 96. He was survived by two children, Steve and Toni, and three grandchildren.
In October 1981, ASIFA presented Littlejohn with a special Annie Award, "honoring his 50 years as an animator." He also received the Winsor McCay Award in 1987 and has been inducted into the Cartoon Hall of Fame. In May 1999, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and UCLA Animation Workshop hosted "An Evening With Animator Bill Littlejohn" and presented him with a lifetime achievement award.