Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery (February 26, 1908 – August 26, 1980) was an American animator and director, known for producing and directing animated cartoons during the golden age of American animation. His most significant work was for the Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, where he was crucial in the creation and evolution of famous animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Droopy, Screwy Squirrel, The Wolf, Red Hot Riding Hood and George and Junior.
He gained influence for his technical innovation, directorial style and brand of humor. Avery’s attitude toward animation was opposite that of Walt Disney and other conventional family cartoons at the time. Avery’s cartoons were known for their sarcastic, ironic, absurdist, irreverent, and sometimes sexual tone in nature. Avery’s cartoon focused on sight gags, surrealist humor, rabid pacing, racial stereotypes and violent humor, with wacky characters that broke the fourth wall.
Early life and education
Avery was born to George Walton Avery (1867–1935) and Mary Augusta “Jessie” (née Bean; 1886–1931) in Taylor, Texas. His father was born in Alabama and his mother was born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi.
Avery, nicknamed “Tex”, “Fred”, and “Texas”, was born and raised in Taylor, Texas, a small town in the vicinity of Austin. Avery graduated in 1926 from North Dallas High School. A popular catchphrase at his school was “What’s up, doc?”, which he later used for Bugs Bunny in the 1940s. Interested in becoming a newspaper cartoonist, he took a three-month summer course at the Chicago Art Institute but left after a month.
On January 1, 1928, Avery arrived in Los Angeles. He spent the following months working in menial jobs. According to animation historian Michael Barrier, these jobs included working in a warehouse, working on the docks at night, loading fruits and vegetables, and painting cars. He began his animation career when hired by the short-lived Winkler studio (named after producer Margaret J. Winkler). He was only an inker, inking cels for animated short films in the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Avery then moved to a new studio, Universal Studio Cartoons (later known as Walter Lantz Productions). He was again employed as an inker, but moved rapidly up the studio’s hierarchy. By 1930, Avery had been promoted to the position of animator.
Avery continued working at the Walter Lantz Studio into the early 1930s. He worked on most of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons from 1931 to 1935. 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.
Accident to eye
During some office horseplay at the Lantz studio, a thumbtack or paper clip flew into Avery’s left eye and caused him to lose sight in that eye. Some speculate it was his lack of depth perception that gave him his unique look at animation and bizarre directorial style, but it did not stop his creative career. The incident is described in some detail by Barrier, based in part on old interviews with Avery. Part of the typical crude horseplay at the Universal studio was using a rubber band or a paper spitball to target the back of a colleague’s head. An animator called Charles Hastings decided to take the game one step further, by using a wire paper clip instead. Avery heard one of his colleagues telling him to look out. He reacted by turning around. Instead of the back of his head, the paper clip hit Avery in his left eye. He instantly lost the use of his eye.
From inker to storyboards
As an animator, Avery worked under director Bill Nolan. Nolan reportedly delegated work to Avery, whenever Avery had to animate a sequence. Nolan’s instructions for a scene involving Oswald being chased by bees were reportedly simple. He would describe in which direction Oswald was running (“right to left”) and for how many feet. The rest of the details were left up to Avery. Avery started handing out work to other animators working under Nolan.
Avery wanted still greater control over the creative process and served as a de facto director for a couple of films. Based on Avery’s recollections, there is a description of how this happened. He was submitting sight gags for use in the short films. Some of them were used in the actual films, and some funny ones were left out. He wanted to somehow get all his gags in the finished film. So he asked Nolan to let him create the entire storyboard for a film. Nolan instructed Avery to not only draw the storyboard but to work on the timing and the layout on his own. Avery completed two films using this process. An older Avery recalled that both films “were terrible”, though they got accepted for release.
Avery was reportedly displeased with his salary and had started giving up on his work. After about six weeks of substandard work, his superiors let him go. In April 1935, Avery lost his job at the Universal studio.
Later in 1935, Avery applied for a job at Leon Schlesinger Productions (the company later known as Warner Bros. Cartoons). Avery reportedly managed to convince producer Leon Schlesinger that he was an experienced director, a false claim. In Avery’s own words:
‘Hey, I’m, a director’. Hell! I was no more a director than nothing, but with my loud mouth, I talked him into it.
By 1935, when Avery was hired, the Schlesinger studio had only two full-time, regular film directors: Friz Freleng and Jack King. Avery became the third regular director. The staff of the Schlesinger studio had become too large to be housed in a single building, at the Warner Bros. backlot in Sunset Boulevard. The new Avery unit of the studio was granted their own building, a five-room bungalow. The unit staff 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.”
Avery was granted exclusive use of four animators: Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Sid Sutherland and Virgil Ross. The first animated short film produced by this unit was Gold Diggers of ’49 (1935), the third Looney Tunes film starring Beans. Beans was also featured in the film’s title card, signifying that he was the intended protagonist. The film had a Western setting and cast Beans as a gold miner. Also featured in the film was a redesigned Porky Pig, making his second appearance. The Avery unit was assigned to work primarily on the black-and-white Looney Tunes instead of the Technicolor Merrie Melodies.
Avery stopped using Beans following Gold Diggers of ’49, but continued using Porky as a star character. According to Michael Barrier, Beans was more of a straight man. However, Porky had to be redesigned again. The early Porky was decidedly “piglike” in appearance. In Michael Barrier’s description: Porky was very fat, had small eyes, a large snout, and pronounced jowls. He was like a porcine version of Roscoe Arbuckle. Starting with Porky the Rainmaker (1936), his fourth animated short starring Porky, Avery introduced a cuter version of Porky. The new design gave Porky more prominent eyes and a smaller snout. The jowls were replaced by chubby cheeks. Porky’s body now had a rounder shape; its defining trait was not fatness but softness. Barrier notes that the new design by Avery departed from the “Disneyish” realism in the previous drawing style. Porky became a less-realistic pig and looked more like a cartoon character.
According to Martha Sigall, Avery was one of the few directors to visit the ink and paint department – she avers that he liked to see how his cartoons were turning out. He would answer questions and be always in good humor. When some of the artists humorously criticized the wild action in his animated shorts, Avery would take time to explain his rationale. He recalled that while working at Warner Bros., the animators had a great deal of liberty, and were subject to very little censorship of their work.
Creation of Looney Tunes stars
Avery, with the assistance of Clampett, Jones, and the new associate director Frank Tashlin, laid the foundation for a style of animation that rivaled The Walt Disney Studio as the leader in animated short films, and created a group of cartoon characters that are still known today. Avery, in particular, was deeply involved. He crafted gags for the shorts, and sometimes 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 crazy “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 the voice artist Mel Blanc, who, with this cartoon, also took over providing the voice of Porky Pig. Avery directed two more Daffy Duck cartoons: Daffy Duck & Egghead and Daffy Duck in Hollywood. Egghead was a character inspired by comedian Joe Penner which evolved into Elmer Fudd and first appeared in Avery’s Egghead Rides Again.
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. So each of these cartoons treated the rabbit differently. The next to try out the rabbit, known around Termite Terrace as “Bugs’s 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 also 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’s mouth is a coolly calm, “What’s up, doc?” Audiences reacted riotously to the juxtaposition of Bugs’s nonchalance and the potentially dangerous situation, and “What’s up, doc?” instantly became the rabbit’s catchphrase.
Avery ended up directing only four Bugs Bunny cartoons: A Wild Hare, Tortoise Beats Hare, The Heckling Hare and All This and Rabbit Stew,. 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 Crackpot 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 the hunting dog were to fall off a cliff three times, making it an early example of the wild take. According to a DVD commentary for the cartoon, the historian and animator Greg Ford explained that the problem Schlesinger had with the ending was that, just before 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!”, a punchline to a potentially risqué joke of the day. However, Barrier uncovered a typewritten dialogue transcript of the cartoon that mentions the three falls at the end, but the “Hold on to your hats” line is absent, with the rest of the dialogue in the cartoon transcribed accurately, meaning that Avery either misremembered or embellished the story and Schlesinger made the cut not because of any risque content, but because he didn’t think that it was funny that Avery was killing Bugs three times and the ending simply dragged on for too long. The Hollywood Reporter reported on the quarrel on April 2, 1941. Avery was slapped with a four-week, unpaid suspension.
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 the Schlesinger studio in mid-1941, he went straight to Paramount to work on the first three shorts in the series before joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The series continued without him, lasting seven years.
Avery at MGM
On September 2, 1941, the Reporter announced that Avery had signed a five-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he was to form his own animation unit and direct shorts in Technicolor. By 1942, Avery was in the employ of MGM, working in their cartoon division under the supervision of Fred Quimby. Avery felt that Schlesinger had stifled him. When asked if he missed the Looney Tunes characters, he responded: “Sometimes, but I don’t miss anything else. MGM is a heck of a better place to work, in every way, and the people here are just as great.”
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 talented 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 of the “Three Little Pigs” story which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) in 1942. Avery’s cartoons at MGM somewhat felt like Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons done during that same period at Warner Bros., two cartoon series that Avery himself had worked on back then, albeit the Warners’ series gained more popularity than Avery’s MGM cartoons.
Avery’s best known MGM character debuted in Dumb-Hounded (1943). Droopy (originally “Happy Hound”) was a small, calm, slow-moving and slow-talking dog who always won out in the end, whatever difficulties he was presented with. He also created a series of risqué cartoons, beginning with Red Hot Riding Hood (also 1943), 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 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 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 featuring 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 the Avery unit animator Michael Lah. Lah began directing a handful of CinemaScope Droopy shorts on his own. On March 1, 1953, Avery’s unit was given the axe and he was fired from MGM. Fred Quimby spoke of bringing back the unit, however, in December of that year, Walter Lantz announced that Avery would be working for him.
Avery’s return to the Lantz studio did not last long. He directed four cartoons in 1954–1955: the shorts Crazy Mixed Up Pup, Sh-h-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. Avery left three new Chilly Willy storyboards which were later made into cartoons by Alex Lovy.
He turned to animated television commercials, including the Raid ones 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 Looney Tunes characters he had once helped create during his Termite Terrace days. During the 1960s and 1970s, Avery became increasingly reserved and depressed due to the suicide of his son and the break-up of his marriage, 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.
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 babes, 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 a 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, usually throwaway bits. He also occasionally filled in for Bill Thompson as Droopy.
Avery’s cartoons have been released on home video:
|1985||The Adventures Of Droopy||VHS||features 7 animated shorts|
|1988||Cartoon Moviestars: Tex Avery Screwball Classics||VHS||features 8 animated shorts|
|1989||Tex Avery Screwball Classics Vol. 2||VHS||features 8 animated shorts|
|1990||Here Comes Droopy||VHS||features 6 animated shorts|
|1991||Tex Avery Screwball Classics Vol. 3||VHS||features 6 animated shorts|
|1992||Tex Avery Screwball Classics Vol. 4||VHS||features 6 animated shorts|
|2007||Tex Avery’s Droopy – The Complete Theatrical Collection||DVD||features 24 animated shorts|
|2020||Tex Avery Screwball Classics Vol. 1||Blu-ray||features 19 animated shorts|
|2020||Tex Avery Screwball Classics Vol. 2||Blu-ray||features 21 animated shorts|
Personal life and death
Two days after being fired from Universal in Spring 1935, Avery married his girlfriend, Patricia. She was also employed at Universal Studios, as an inker. The newlyweds spent a long honeymoon in Oregon, but had to return to Los Angeles when they ran out of money.
On Tuesday, August 26, 1980, Avery died of lung cancer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, California at age 72. He is buried in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery.
Influence and legacy
Avery’s influence can be seen in modern cartoons such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Animaniacs, and SpongeBob SquarePants. An Avery-esque cowboy character bore his name in the otherwise unrelated series The Wacky World of Tex Avery. Avery’s work has been featured on shows such as The Tex Avery Show and Cartoon Alley.
Many references related to Tex Avery have appeared in various animated television series or animated films. One reference appeared in the basketball-themed film Space Jam. In this film, Lola Bunny demonstrates her basketball skills and then the film makes use of the “Tex Avery-style” gag concerning the libido of males: Bugs Bunny, who was smitten by her, floats up into the air and then crashes back down onto the floor. The scene is reminiscent of “Wolfie” from Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), a character defined by his lust for females. This effect serves to reduce Bugs and his fellow characters to stereotypical “guys”.
In the mid-1990s, Dark Horse Comics released a trio of three-issue miniseries that were openly labeled tributes to Avery’s MGM cartoons, Wolf & Red, Droopy and Screwy Squirrel, which other characters make appearances in the comics such as George and Junior, Spike, and the one-shot characters. Tex Avery, unlike most Warner Bros. 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 postage stamps honoring Tex Avery for his 100th birthday, depicting Droopy, the redheaded showgirl, and the wolf.
All of his MGM shorts were released in a North American MGM/UA laserdisc set called The Compleat Tex Avery. While two cartoons on the set were edited versions, these being the blackface gags in Droopy’s Good Deed and Garden Gopher, others, including the controversial Uncle Tom’s Cabaña 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 VHS 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 included in the DVD set The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection.
In February 2020, Warner Archive released Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1 on Blu-ray containing 19 of his MGM cartoons. The shorts are not presented in chronological order, because according to Jerry Beck, most of MGM’s pre-1951 cartoons had their original negatives destroyed in a 1965 vault fire – causing massive difficulties in terms of restoration. However, using the best surviving archival elements, all 19 shorts on the set have been digitally restored in HD and are presented completely uncut. In March 2020, Warner Archive announced they were working on Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 2 and it was released in December 2020 and it contained 21 restored and uncut shorts as well as Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons – an archival documentary as a special feature.