My Life in 'toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century

Right after its television premiere on September 30, 1960, the prospects for “The Flintstones” didn’t look all that bright. Here was the first prime-time, half-hour, adult cartoon show, a cartoon populated with people instead of the customary talking animals—and the critics absolutely hated it.

The New York Times October 1 review called it an “inked disaster,” complaining in particular that Fred and Barney were “unattractive, coarse, and gruff.” (Hey, they’re cavemen. You were expecting maybe Adolphe Menjou and Marcello Mastroianni?). Variety, five days later, predicted a lack of “staying power.” Yet, by the end of its first season, the show garnered an Emmy nomination and received a Golden Globe Award as an Outstanding Achievement in International Television Cartoons. TV-Radio Mirror voted it the most original new series, and the National Cartoonists Society awarded it a Silver Plaque for “the best in animation.”

Even more important, the audience loved it, and the reviewers, in subsequent seasons, fell into line behind the fans. Buoyed by the success of “The Flintstones,” I started thinking about another half-hour prime-time cartoon show, loosely inspired by “You’ll Never Get Rich,” the hilarious army-life comedy series that ran from 1955 to 1959, starred Phil Silvers as the always-scheming Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, and featured a supporting cast of his devoted motor-pool platoon at mythical Fort Baxter, Kansas. I quickly sketched a single drawing of a smart-aleck cat I dubbed Top Cat and handed it to Ed Benedek, who worked the sketch into a finished piece of artwork.

I walked into a meeting with ABC TV’s Ollie Treyz, showed him the drawing, and said it was a cat who lives in an alley with a lot of other smart-aleck cats, all living by their wits and sheer guile, and all looking to Top Cat as their leader.

“The Flintstones” had taken eight weeks of forty-five to ninety-minute dog-and-pony-show pitches to sell. Now Ollie Treyz looked at me, looked at the drawing, and said: “Okay I’ll take it.”

Unfortunately, the rest of what I had to do was not as easy.

More than any cartoon we had ever done before—even more than “The Flintstones”—“Top Cat” would depend on characters, casting just the right voices, and that process proved to be even more of a time-consuming ordeal than usual. Perhaps it was because “Top Cat” was, in a way, closer to me than any cartoon I had done before. It came out of an urban milieu I knew very well. No, I didn’t grow up in an alley, and, while my family was always short on money, we never had to cadge a meal. But, for me, New York was a place that demanded all your wit to survive, let alone get ahead. It helped if you were the kind of smart aleck who knew all the angles and whose smooth-talking charm would give you the force of personality that made you top cat. Damon Runyon knew all about this. Phil Silvers knew it, too. And so did I.

After auditioning a lot of actors, I ended up, logically enough, with an ex-cast member of “You’ll Never Get Rich” in a key role. Maurice Gosfield, who had played Private Duane Doberman, became Top Cat’s good-natured little sidekick Benny the Ball (if TC resembled Yogi Bear, Benny was the equivalent of Boo Boo). In addition, after much auditioning, I found Marvin Kaplin to play Choo Choo, Leo de Lyon as Spook and The Brain, John Stephenson as Fancy-Fancy, and Allen Jenkins—a veteran Warner Bros. character actor known for his gallery of supremely numbskulled small-time hoods—for the role of Officer Dibble.

But the character of Top Cat himself proved elusive. After months of casting, I settled on Michael O’Shea, who was known for his film roles as the kind of suave, easy-going leading man with a touch of Brooklyn in his voice that seemed just right for Top Cat. O’Shea, married to the glamorous Virginia Mayo, was probably best remembered as Jack London in the 1943 film of the same name, and he also starred between 1954 and 1956 in a successful TV series called “It’s a Great Life,” about a pair of recently discharged GIs trying to adjust to civilian life. My high hopes for O’Shea were confirmed in rehearsals, where he seemed to take to TC very naturally.

Bill Hanna (left) and Joe Barbera, 1961.

Actor Michael O’Shea with wife Virginia Mayo and daughter Mary Catherine, 1961.

The cast of Top Cat. Allen Jenkins (Officer Dibble), Leo DeLyon (Brain and Spook), Marvin Kaplan (Choo Choo), Arnold Stang (Top Cat), John Stephenson (Fancy-Fancy) and Maurice Gosfield (Benny the Ball).

21 October 1961 newspaper feature.

Then came the first night of recording (as with all our cartoons, recording always took place at night, at the end of a very busy, very tiring day). In walks O’Shea, duded up like a dandy from another age: old-fashioned three-button suit, big silk tie, archaic homburg hat, and gray suede gloves. Well, ordinarily, I don’t much care how a man dresses, but something in the way he looked telegraphed trouble.

And trouble I got.

This man, who had been just fine in rehearsal, simply could not handle the rapid pace of cartoon television dialogue. His lines came out flat, or flubbed, or, at the very best, just plain wrong.

All I could think was how I’d just squandered months in casting only to come up with exactly the wrong man. And that’s when I went home, thoroughly drained and dispirited, but just as completely unable to sleep, thinking, as I stared at the shadows shifting across the bedroom ceiling, What have I done? And what am I going to do now?

The answer came in the form of a great little actor with horn-rimmed glasses, pop eyes, a cockeyed smile, and a trademark bow tie. He looked not at all as I imagined Top Cat, but he sounded perfect: a nasal blend of streetwise expressiveness with just a touch of the carnival barker’s whine. His name was Arnold Stang and he had been on radio since the age of ten and was a successful television comedian (a regular on “Henry Morgan’s Great Talent Hunt,” a very early comedy variety series, and on “The Milton Berle Show”) and a great character actor, whose single most memorable role was as a derelict named Sparrow in The Man with the Golden Arm.

With the casting hurdle successfully cleared at last, we plunged headlong and happily. Recording sessions would not usually break up until 11:30 or even midnight, and we’d go across the street to the Naples Restaurant on the corner of Gower and Sunset, where I’d buy the cast dinner. Seven or eight of us would sit there, talking about the show and talking about our lives. I remember Maurice Gosfield—Bilko’s stubby Private Doberman and now our Benny the Ball—consuming a huge plateful of clams on the half shell.

It was not a pretty sight.

He’d pick up clam after clam, suck in the solid contents and slurp in the buttery juice—or at least a portion of it. Much of the stuff never reached his mouth, running in rivulets down his wrist, over his wristwatch, into his sleeve, and onto his shirt. And through this all, he’s talking, and always sounding in character, sort of an urban version of Andy Devine.

“I used to go with Anita Ekberg,” he told us, amid exuberantly animalistic sci-fi slurping effects, fingers coated in butter, pausing to discard one spent shell and retrieve a fresh one. “But, you know, something was wrong with her.”

Then a long interval of sliding and slurping until one of us finally said, “What, what was wrong with Anita Ekberg?”

“She had no class.”

Then, dumbfounded and open-mouthed, you’d watch this little guy get up from the table, go out, get into his car, which was parked on Sunset, and pull out of his space. This he did in much the same way as he ate, throwing the car into reverse, stomping the gas, banging into the car behind him, making a little more room there, shifting into drive, stomping, banging into the car in front of him, making a little space there, repeating the process in reverse and in forward, then pulling back for one final impact before speeding off for a home without Anita Ekberg.

It was all a lot of fun, and I thought the show was going just great. Then, at about show number seven, Screen Gems’s John Mitchell and Jerry Hyams came out to look at the material.

They did not like what they saw.

John pulled no punches. “What the hell is going on here? Where are the laughs?”

I was stunned.

But his next comment was insightful and a lot more helpful. “This isn’t a cartoon. You’re missing the cartoon laughs.”

He was right. In one respect, we had made “Top Cat” look more like the traditional theatrical cartoons than, say, “Huckleberry Hound” or even “The Flintstones.” Limited animation, of course, was still the order of the day—but, in “Top Cat” it was richer, fuller, more complex, and the backgrounds, too, were more detailed and elaborate. Yet, in another, more important way, I had taken a fatal detour from cartoon tradition. The great mix of urban alley cat characters had generated a lot of nifty dialogue, and I got carried away with it at the expense of the purely visual humor that must be a part of any successful cartoon. We might as well have been doing live action. There were no cartoon sight gags. I had committed the very crime for which I had earlier junked the “Flintstones” scripts by that ex-“Honeymooners” writer.

I had seven shows in the can, and, believe me, I had no desire to do any part of them over again. But I was honest enough with myself to know that John Mitchell was right, and if I let these shows go as is, “Top Cat” would evaporate in a single season or less. So I went over each cartoon and put in the kind of material that should have been there in the first place.

For example, there was one scene in which TC lays out a con game for the gang. As I had originally written it, it was just straight dialogue: talk, talk, talk. Now I went back in and gave Top Cat a golf club. With “The Flintstones,” we had discovered the laugh potential of props that grew out of the show’s major premise: a stone-age boulder for a bowling ball, a Stoneway piano, a mini-mastodon as portable vacuum cleaner, and so on. The prop premise of “Top Cat” was that, suave urban sophisticate that he was, TC would possess all the finer things in life—but translated into terms of the alley. His best-known prop was the telephone, indispensable to every wheeler-dealer, but in this case it was the official police call box mounted on a telephone pole and conveniently appropriated by TC whenever the need arose. Thus the golf club I gave Top Cat was a piece of pipe with an elbow joint screwed onto the end. Now, like many another self-respecting top exec, TC briefed his lieutenants while practicing his putting. Benny the Ball, as caddie, held a stick with a rag flag attached to mark the hole, and each time TC hit one his entire entourage would work like mad, laying pipe, screwing in angles and elbow joints to guide each and every ball to a hole-in-one. This was a cartoon gag—and all the while it went on, the necessary dialogue proceeded.

Even with the traditional cartoon gags installed, “Top Cat” for me, always seemed strangely close to life in the real world. One of the early “Top Cat” episodes was called “The Maharajah of Pookajee,” and in it Top Cat and his gang disguise themselves as the maharajah and his retinue in order to gain access to a real maharajah, fabulously wealthy and ensconced in an elegant hotel, famed for casually dispensing rubies and diamonds. This was based entirely on an incident that had taken place at Hollywood’s celebrated Ciro’s restaurant. A local prankster circulated a rumor about an obscure Middle Eastern potentate known for tipping waiters not with coins, but with priceless gems. He then costumed himself and retinue appropriately, telephoned Ciro’s, secured a prime table, and received the royal treatment generally.

After dining, on the way out of the restaurant, the potentate claps, his retainer produces a pouch, the maharajah reaches in, withdraws a handful of gemstones, and presses several into the palm of the openmouthed maitre d’. In the process, a few jewels fall to the floor. A member of his retinue springs forward to retrieve them, whereupon the maharajah wordlessly raises a finger and shakes it dismissively, as if to say, “Don’t bother with such trifling trash.” With that, the potentate and his retainers leave Ciro’s, and, in Three Stooges fashion, a dozen waiters, headwaiters, and Ciro’s customers pounce on the fallen jewels.

Of course, the gems proved to be glass, the newspapers later revealed the prankster’s con, and I sketched it out as the basis of a very funny TC episode—just one of many that, in terms of script, made this show probably the most sophisticated cartoon series Hanna-Barbera ever produced. Most of the very impressive scripts were written by Barry Blitzer and by the team of Harvey Bullock and Ray Allen, in addition to others.