Animation Cel-ebration
March 15, 2024 posted by Michael Lyons

Canine Caped Crusader: The 60th Anniversary of “Underdog”

“When criminals in this world appear/And break the laws that they should fear/And frighten all who see or hear/The cry goes out both far and near/For Underdog!”

When the pounding melody of that theme song was heard, generations knew that both a hero and a favorite show were on their way.

Underdog!

This classic animated TV show celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The popular series began life at the New York advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample when VP Account Supervisor W. Watts Biggers partnered with ad executives Chet Stover, Treadwell D. Covington, and artist Joe Harris to create TV shows that would be sponsored by one of the agency’s clients, General Mills.

One of these shows was Underdog. “We were talking about a character that would be a super dog or a super chicken,” remembered Harris in a 1997 interview. “We decided on a super dog, and one of the guys came up with the idea of Underdog.“

Harris, who we sadly lost in 2017, also remembered how the character evolved from his initial concept: “I sat down and drew Underdog, and he looked very much like what you now see, except that he was a lot more sophisticated. He had white hair in the hero style, and it was combed back, and he was a smart guy. They said, ‘No, we need someone more vulnerable.’ So, gradually, the character’s visual imagery and the writing came together, and, in a few days, we created what is the current Underdog.”

Debuting on NBC on October 3, 1964, Underdog was produced by Total Television (which was co-founded by Harris, Stover, Biggers and Covington) the animation studio behind two other TV hits of the time, King Leonardo and His Subjects and Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales. With Underdog, the studio took the superhero paradigm and made its own, adding touches of parody, reverence, and sharp humor that made the show a favorite.

The show’s title character is the alter ego of the Clark Kent-like, mild-mannered and self-explanatory Shoeshine Boy. But, when a villain threatens Capital City, the meek, bespectacled Shoeshine Boy finds the nearest phone booth and transforms into Underdog. Sporting a blue cape and striking red costume emblazoned with a “U” on its front, he would fly off to do battle, speaking in rhyme: “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here!”

Sweet Polly Purebred, another canine, was a Lois Lane-like TV news reporter who would report on Underdog’s efforts and wind up being rescued by him, especially after singing, (to the tune of “Where oh where has my little dog gone”), “Where oh where has my Underdog gone?”

In most episodes, Underdog would face off against his two main rivals, the villains Riff Raff and Simon Bar Sinister. Riff Raff was a wolf gangster who led a team of thugs, while Simon Bar Sinister was a mad scientist who carried out his plans with his assistant, Cad Lackey.

The multi-talented actor Allen Swift provided the voices for both villains, employing a George Raft impression for Riff Raff and a Lionel Barrymore voice with Simon Bar Sinister. The cast also included actress Norma MacMillan as Sweet Polly Purebread, Ben Stone as Cad, and George S. Irving as the show’s narrator.

The voice of Underdog was provided by comedian Wally Cox, whose meek, mild persona was well known from the popular sitcom Mister Peepers, which ran from 1952-1955. “His voice was perfect for Underdog,” said Harris, in 1997, of Cox. “But, I don’t think that it influenced the character. I think the character was created, and Wally was the perfect avatar for that character. His voice matched the characteristics of the character. I think the casting of the character was done first, and then Wally was the embodiment of the character.”

On the show, the adventures of Underdog were split up into parts, similar to the “cliffhanger” serials of yesteryear. Several of the show’s supporting segments were changed when Underdog eventually transitioned to syndication. Some of the segments included The World of Commander McBragg, where a retired British Commander would relay his outlandish adventures, and Tennessee Tuxedo, who, with his pal Chumley the walrus, found ways to escape from the zoo.

Underdog was extremely popular, running from 1964-1967 and enjoying a healthy life in syndication afterward. The character appeared on numerous pieces of merchandise, and audiences eventually knew the show’s familiar lines by heart.

“By the time Underdog came along, we had already done King Leonardo and Tennessee Tuxedo,” recalled Harris in ‘97. “They were top-rated daytime shows, so we’d gotten our feet wet. When Underdog came along, it didn’t really surprise us that he went to the top 10. What surprised us was the popularity and the way kids picked up on the phrase.”

Underdog also soared to new heights of popularity when he became a famous part of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a balloon in 1965. Harris partnered with Macy’s on the design and remembered that this was his first sense that the success of Underdog had exceeded the creators’ expectations: “When Macy’s said, ‘Can you design a balloon?’ I thought, ‘Boy, we hit the big time.’ That was my first inkling that was something beyond what I had been doing before.”

Underdog would remain a part of the parade for almost twenty years and was even the subject of a famous Thanksgiving episode of the blockbuster sitcom Friends in 1994, where the balloon becomes untethered and floats across the city.

It’s just one example of the long-lasting appeal of Underdog, who has rightly become a beloved icon of television animation.

Mark Arnold, author of the books Created and Produced by Total Television Productions and The Total Television Productions Scrapbook, credits Underdog’s popularity to the creative team who initially crafted the series: “I feel Underdog, as with all TTV productions, had a different style and feel to them possibly because creators Buck Biggers, Chet Stover, Joe Harris, and Tread Covington had an advertising background so the impetus was to create characters and situations and taglines that were memorable in the same way as a good advertising campaign sticks in the mind.”

Sixty years later, fans don’t have to worry if they need a nostalgic fix of classic television animation; all they need to listen for is the heroic call: “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”

17 Comments

  • Of everything, I enjoyed the humorous elements of “underdog“. The fact that he was a bumbling superhero was great! He would crash through the wrong buildings to save people that weren’t even there. In the very end, he would crash through the side of a statue or a building to deliver his final line. The animation was very simple, so it was the storytelling and the voiceover work that kept us amused the most.

  • “Underdog” was a terrific show for young children. The narration and dialogue had the relaxed cadence of a bedtime story, and the stories themselves appealed to the imagination yet were well-structured enough that a small child could not only follow them, but become emotionally invested at the same time. The narrator always seemed genuinely worried that things might not work out for our hero, but Underdog always came through.

    It was also a very smart show. I was in college when I learned that a “bar sinister” was a heraldic symbol signifying descent along an illegitimate line, and that Simon Bar Kochba was a false messiah who proclaimed himself King of Judea and led a rebellion against the Romans in the second century. Simon Bar Sinister: a perfectly euphonious name for a megalomaniac bastard, and my bid for the most cleverly named cartoon villain of all time. And then there are all those ribald old English folk ballads about “Sweet Polly”….

    Regrettably, the one foe that Underdog could not defeat was Action for Children’s Television. New FCC regulations put into effect in 1968 at the instigation of the watchdog group spelled the end of single-sponsor Saturday morning shows produced by Total Television, Jay Ward, and Ed Graham. As a seven-year-old I felt their loss keenly, though I did not understand the reason behind it. Now, however, I rather respect Biggers, Stover et al. for deciding to close up shop rather than kowtow to the demands of ACT. Hanna-Barbera was willing to play ball with them, and look what happened.

    I also recall that by 1980, “The Underdog Show” had been pulled from syndication in most markets, because the Super Energy Pill that Underdog kept hidden in the secret compartment of his ring conflicted with the “Just say no” message that had become de rigueur in children’s television programming.

    Nearly 20 years ago I picked up a 15-disc set of Total TV cartoons, incomplete, in random order, without credits or titles. I still enjoy watching them when I crave a nostalgia fix. I have not seen the live-action Underdog movie and have no intention of ever doing so.

    I was heartened when a friend told me that his young son had become obsessed with the Underdog cartoons. I hope that Underdog will prevail in the long run, and that this quality children’s show will survive all the efforts of children’s television activists to obliterate it from the face of the earth.

    Looks like this is the end! But don’t miss our next Underdog show!

  • “Underdog” was as hip as Total Television (Jay Ward with a lobotomy) ever got. The live action feature would have done damage to its legacy if it hadn’t been so forgettable.

  • The show actually debut on NBC in 1964, Two years later, its moved to CBS,

    • Yes. Then it returned to NBC in 1968 and again in 1972.

  • I’ve heard – more than once – the theory that “Riff-Raff”‘s voice is based on actor George Raft. I don’t really “hear” the connection, but maybe Allen Swift used that as a “starting point.” I hear a little more Sheldon Leonard in the voice, actually. Did Swift do the voice of the Underdog “look-alike” villain? I can’t recall his name, but Swift was doing a great Boris Karloff voice for the character. It’s kind of a satire of a less than stellar movie in THE SAINT film series: THE SAINT’S DOUBLE TROUBLE (1940) where George Sanders plays two roles. Not even Bela Lugosi could liven up the poorly conceived plot.

    What I liked about the show (but didn’t really think about it for many years) – and even more so for TENNESSEE TUXEDO – was that the writers “played by the rules” as far as adding the newly required “educational aspect” into the stories, but it was done iwith loads of creativity and imagination!

    • The Underdog lookalike was Tap Tap the Chiseler, voiced by George S. Irving.

  • My favorite Underdog element was its ominous and unforgettable theme song. There were a couple versions with different verses, both highly singable. The voice work was top notch too, even tho it was just Wally Cox being himself. Kudos also to the great Allen Swift as Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff (based on Lionel Barrymore and supposedly, George Raft, but I never could hear any “Raft” in that character). I’m so glad no one’s ever rebooted this classic toon, other than that horrendous “dog” of a live action movie.

  • Old enough to remember when Underdog was new. It was a few years before I got his very name was a joke, since “underdog” hadn’t yet filtered into my vocabulary via sports news. Among his other villains was, inevitably, the brawny Overcat.

    When it got to local channels in syndication, we’d sometimes see an odd self-contained Underdog short. Underdog fights some giant alien robots, using an ultra-sonic howl to break their computer brains. He also breaks every window in town, so he quickly exits to avoid outraged citizens and Sweet Polly’s insistence on kissing him. Was that a pilot? A later experiment to remove the serial format?

    Didn’t know George S. Irving narrated, but do recall his voice quavering with exaggerated emotion in contrast to the usual confident gravitas of narrators. A busy voice man, and also a featured player in Broadway musicals.

    The balloon showed up in Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose”, for some reason inflated inside a warehouse. A stray bullet resulted in everybody shouting in helium-pitched voices. And the short-lived Bullwinkle pizza parlors featured Underdog and other Total Television properties, Underdog himself included in the robotic floor show.

  • What state is Capital City in?

    • The same one Springfield’s in! But seriously, as I recall the cartoon only referred to its setting as “the city”, as in “One of the city’s most humble and loveable characters was Shoe Shine Boy.”

  • This article inspired me to look up the Underdog theme on Youtube. The video included an opening for “Commander McBragg” that shows him leading a safari accompanied by Black natives carrying supplies. The song promises that the Commander’s exploits will make your hair curl, and on cue, curly hair sprouts from the bearers’ heads as two rhinos charge. The natives run for cover, but McBragg defeats the rhinos. Yay!

    Even though I was a kid in the 60s and watched “Underdog,” I don’t remember this opening at all. I do remember the other clips. I wonder how long it lasted before they changed it. Does anyone know?

    • The Commander McBragg cartoons had three different openings, each one set to a different verse of the theme song. The first is the one you describe (which I remember very well). The second showed the Commander in wartime, capturing a hill singlehandedly with a hand-held cannon. In the third, McBragg is exploring the desert when a tornado comes along; he defeats it by blowing another tornado out of his pipe smoke.

      The musical intros, not only of Commander McBragg but of the other Total TV segments as well, were later cut in syndication, presumably to allow more time for commercials.

  • Paul, thanks on spotting George S. Irving doing the Karloffian voice. I probably read that somewhere and forgot it. When I read your post about Irving also doing the narration as well for UNDERDOG, the “voices” clicked in my memory! Thanks again!

    Do you know if the current UNDERDOG DVD sets are uncut and restored? I’ve seen some syndicated prints over the years that looked like they’ve been altered a bit (not just the “energy ring” business).

    Are the HOPPITY HOOPER series ever going to be available? Who owns those? Jay Ward Productions or Total Televison (or whoever TTV sold their film library to)?

  • Who drew Underdog in the top picture? The style looks familiar but I can’t place it.

  • Wasn’t Go-Go-Gophers a supporting segment as well? Or did that come later? Watching episodes on YouTube, the expected initial aghastness of characters acting in heap-big-Injun stereotype takes a back seat to the premise of the gophers always winning over the coyote soldiers forever trying to vanquish them.

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