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Overview for Ralph Bakshi
Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: October 26, 1938 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Palestine Profession: Director ... screenwriter animation director live-action director painter producer
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BIOGRAPHY

Ralph Bakshi sent shockwaves through the entertainment world as the enfant terrible of cartoons as he ushered a long-fluff-oriented children's medium into new platforms, audiences and cultural relevance. The Brooklyn born Bakshi established a career as an animator of children's cartoons, foremost among them the long-running "The Mighty Mouse Playhouse" (CBS, 1955-1967) and the original animated "Spider-man" (ABC, 1967-1970). Seeking to create a more personal vision reflective of the times, he translated Robert Crumb's underground comic into an adult-oriented feature film, "Fritz the Cat" (1972). A vulgarity-strewn funhouse mirror of American counterculture, "Fritz" drew moralist outrage, blazed new trails for the medium, and launched his sequence of daring, socially critical X-rated features, most notably "Heavy Traffic" (1973) and "Coonskin" (1975). Bakshi veered into fantasy fare with "Wizards" (1977), "Fire and Ice" (1983) and his unfulfilled vision of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. He took fire again upon a return to children's television when a Christian watchdog group took umbrage at an off-the-wall moment in his groundbreaking reboot "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" (CBS, 1987-88). After the ill-received animation/live-action feature project, "Cool World" (1992) and a short-lived HBO series, "Spicy City" (1997), Bakshi mostly bowed out of screen work. Iconoclast-to-the-core and ever at odds with polite society, Bakshi's work transcended his critics' worst aspersions and ensconced him in the pantheon of animated entertainment alongside the likes of Walt Disney, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones.

Bakshi was born in Oct. 29, 1938, in Haifa, British Palestine. The next year, his family moved to New York City to avoid the ravages of World War II. They settled for a time in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and, in 1947, briefly moved to Washington, D.C., where they set up house in the mostly black Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Ralph assimilated into the African-American milieu and even attended a segregated black school to be with his friends - until authorities objected to the young Jewish boy defying the enforced racial divide in American public schools. The family moved back to Brooklyn within a year. Artistic by inclination, Ralph gravitated to American comic books and was creatively inspired by The Complete Guide to Cartooning by early strip cartoonist Gene Byrnes. Ralph attended Thomas Jefferson High School but focused more on art and girls than academics. He developed a rebellious streak and was finally transferred to the School of Industrial Art (now High School of Art & Design) in Manhattan, where his artistic inclinations were nurtured. Bakshi graduated high school in 1956. The next year, he scored a job as a cell polisher for CBS' Terrytoons Animation Studio in suburban New Rochelle, NY.

Bakshi learned the various stages of animation as he moved up through the Terrytoons ranks. He worked on Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle and Deputy Dawg outings, and was directing his first shorts at age 25. Promoted to creative director at age 28, he launched his own concept, "The Mighty Heroes." A loopy send-up of a superhero genre featuring five dysfunctional metahumans, "Mighty Heroes" shorts were folded into the "The Mighty Mouse Playhouse" for its final season, briefly redubbed "Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes." In 1967, Bakshi met Liz Bassett working at a shop that was fixing his car and they began a relationship which culminated in marriage a year later. Also in 1967, Paramount wooed Bakshi away to head up its cartoon studio. He worked there a mere eight months, producing only a handful of shorts before Paramount shuttered the unit. Toronto-based Steve Krantz Productions hired Bakshi and assigned him production duties on its sci-fi update of the classic tale, "Rocket Robin Hood" (syndicated, 1966-69), as well as the second season of its animated adaptation of Marvel Comics' Spider-man franchise.

Bakshi relocated to New York and worked on both series from the offices of his newly established Bakshi Productions, which contracted with Krantz. He had hoped for some years to make a contemporary, adult-themed animated feature film, and that yen found its catalyst when he happened upon a copy of underground comics creator Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Krantz obtained the rights from the curmudgeonly Crumb, and in 1970, secured funding and distribution with Warner Bros. That relationship proved tempestuous and ultimately doomed as Bakshi showed WB brass the work-in-progress. "Fritz" told the tale of a young cartoon cat (and NYU student) on a soul-searching odyssey of sex parties, drug experimentation, African-American urban unrest, extremist plots and martial government oppression. Fritz navigated it all with breezy, naturalistic dialogue, groundbreaking for any feature film, yet laden with curse words. Warners insisted on wholesale cuts and, when Bakshi stood firm, yanked its backing. Bakshi and Krantz found distribution with Cinemation, which specialized in low-budget exploitation flicks, and "Fritz" opened in April 1972 with an X rating from the MPAA. Cinemation exploited this to promote the film, even as positive reviews in major newspapers, magazines and trades lauded the film's whirl of satire and its gritty stylization of New York City.

Further validation came from the film's acceptance to the Cannes Film Festival and a gala screening held at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The buzz effectively drowned out protests of moral watchdog groups that suggested the project was mere pornography. "Fritz" earned over $100 million in box office revenues worldwide, an astonishing figure for any independent movie. Bakshi had meanwhile begun work on his next animated feature, "Heavy Traffic," which he conceived as a more somber, violent and sexually explicit tale of love amid inner city decay. It followed a young half-Italian, half-Jewish would-be comic artist and an African-American bartender who find themselves ostracized and forced into crime after beginning a taboo relationship. The production survived a dustup between Krantz and Bakshi over "Fritz" profits, and, with "Fritz" opening new doors, the film bowed in 1973 on even more screens in spite of another X rating. Bakshi returned to anthropomorphic characters for his next film, "Coonskin." The comic riff on Uncle Remus tales - as well as the recently released epic "The Godfather" (1972) - centered on a bear, rabbit and fox who take over Harlem crime rackets.

Invoking broad stereotypes of both African-Americans and Italians to lampoon racist institutions, Bakshi again courted controversy with the film's 1975 release and drew accusations of trading in racism himself. The film suffered from a heavy lobbying campaign by Congress of Racial Equality. It prompted Paramount to withdraw from its distribution deal, which severely limited the run. Settling into what would be his later, signature rotoscoping animation style, Bakshi made a shift to more commercial fare, particularly fantasy, starting with 1977's "Wizards." It told a post-apocalyptic tale of humanity and magical beings seeking to regain social balance after witnessing the destructive might of technology. He followed that with an ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bakshi secured a green light from United Artists for a two-film project and did full live-action shoots in Spain for the rotoscoping process of the first installment. The film was released in 1978 with much fanfare, but UA made a critical misstep. Worried audiences would be reluctant to pay for what was only a "Part 1," the studio released the first film as "J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings" as if it was the adaptation of the trilogy in its entirety. Audiences came away feeling shortchanged and UA, unsatisfied with the film's $30 million box office take, bailed on the sequel.

Soured to epic adaptations, he returned to his familiar turf, New York and ethnic culture. That manifested in 1981 as "American Pop," a critically lauded saga of a family of Russian-Jewish musicians. It tracked their assimilation into American culture generation-by-generation as they adapted to its dynamic new waves of music styles. Bakshi visited far-flung fantasy again in collaboration with his friend, fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, creating the sword-and-sorcery tale "Fire and Ice," but the 1983 film received tepid reviews in limited release. After pursuing a run of projects that never came to fruition, Bakshi took a hiatus to concentrate on personal art. The Rolling Stones lured him back to animation in 1985. Bakshi created a mix of his distinctive caricature-heavy animation and live-action for the band's video for the single "Harlem Shuffle." Collaborating with new protégé John Kricfalusi, Bakshi returned to his cartoon roots and sold CBS on a reboot of the Mighty Mouse franchise. "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" premiered in CBS' Saturday morning lineup in September 1987. It marked a little-heralded milestone for cartoons: the merger of three generations of animation talents to create a visually stunning, funny, sometimes bizarre, multilayered show that appealed as much to adults as to children.

Hatching daffy new villains such as bovine-rights extremist The Cow and the maniacally self-conscious Petey Pate - and even reviving The Mighty Heroes for one adventure - Bakshi and Kricfalusi let the show's animators go hog-wild with sight-gags. This resulted in an innocuous visual bit in which Mighty inhaled the powdered remains of a fragrant flower. Months after its initial broadcast, the scene brought a new moralist fusillade to Bakshi's door. The reactionary American Family Association accused CBS and producers of promoting drug use and recycled bygone accusations that Bakshi was a "pornographer." Bakshi responded acrimoniously and accused his accusers of what he saw as revived McCarthyism. In spite of critical praise and laurels for "Mighty Mouse," CBS balked at renewing the show for a second season. Kricfalusi went on to garner his own buzz - and his share of controversy - with his MTV series "Ren and Stimpy" (1991-98). Bakshi finally made a much-anticipated return to features in 1990, when he sold Paramount on "Cool World," a meta-concept involving the crossover of real life and cartoon planes. It starred Gabriel Byrne as an artist who becomes mixed up with a cartoon world of his own creation and particularly with his sexiest character (Kim Basinger), which runs them afoul of a hardboiled cop (a young Brad Pitt) determined to enforce non-fraternization between cartoons and humans.

Another production clouded by clashes with studio brass, the 1992 release suffered from its clumsy merger of animation and live-action and negative critical comparison to the more successful execution, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988). Bakshi did his first live-action-only telefilm for Showtime's nostalgic "Rebel Highway" film series, "Cool and the Crazy" (1994). The retro-style tale centered on an unfulfilled housewife (Alicia Silverstone) whose affair with a bad boy leads to an escalating cycle of violence. He followed that with some one-off projects for Cartoon Network and an adults-only series for HBO, "Spicy City." Preston Bakshi, one of Bakshi's four children with Liz, contributed two scripts to the anthology show, which collected six violent, risqué crime stories all set in a cyberpunk/noir future. The show lasted one short season. Bakshi again withdrew from screen work to focus on painting and, in 2000, began teaching a class at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Two years later, he moved with Liz to Arizona. In 2003, he reunited with Kricfalusi for a casting stunt in Kricfalusi's short-lived reboot, "Ren & Stimpy 'Adult Party Cartoon'" (Spike, 2003). Bakshi took a dual voiceover role as both a bombastic version of himself and a psychopathically boorish fire chief making life hell for the title characters.

By Matthew Grimm

Contributions

thingfish ( 2006-05-25 )

Source: Official Ralph Bakshi website.

In 2005, Bakshi announced that he would begin working on a new film project, eventually titled "Last Days of Coney Island." The film is currently being animated.

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