Animation History
April 18, 2020 posted by Jerry Beck

Gene Deitch (1924-2020)

Animator Gene Deitch (August 8, 1924 – April 16, 2020) passed away Thursday of natural causes (unrelated to the current corona virus pandemic). For the last 25 years (or so) I was very proud to have been his friend.

His life’s work and his personal journey was quite incredible. Luckily he documented much of it himself – In a book about his romance with Prague and life with his beloved Zdenka, on this blog in several posts and for AWN, which published his career biography. Deitch posted much about his career himself – and Cartoon Brew has a concise tribute that covers most of the bases.

I can’t recall the exact day and year I met Gene, but I’ll never forget our first conversation. I was at the Museum of Modern Art, probably in the mid-1990s, upstairs in the film programming offices (I think this must be around 1995, it might have been earlier). Gene was visiting someone there and I had heard he was in the room. I introduced myself to him telling him I was his “biggest fan” and he laughed at the thought – and even questioned me (“What do YOU know about my career?”). This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I told him of my admiration of his era at Terrytoons, and that I had screened several of them at MoMA in 35mm CinemaScope – and how they blew my (and the audiences) mind. Although he dismissed that part of his career then, he was as interested in hearing my thoughts about those shorts as I was enthused to have an opportunity to interview him about them.

We stayed in touch ever since. I’d met him at Annecy one year; another year I drove to San Francisco to meet up with him there (and to visit the Disney Family Museum with him); he’d visit LA (staying with his friend (and later mine) Bob Balser (of Yellow Submarine) in Marina Del Rey. I mounted two tribute shows to Gene in Hollywood – one at the Egyptian Theatre (that garnered a huge front page story on Los Angeles Times Calendar), and another at The Cinefamily. I did panels with him when he was Guest of Honor at the San Diego Comic Con. I lobbied for and eventually co-produced the Deitch Tom & Jerry collection for Warner Home Entertainment. My biggest thrill was being able to present him with a Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement at the Annie Awards in 2004.

I told you I was his biggest fan – he kidded me about that for years, but he eventually acknowledged that I earned that honor. Gene felt some kind of kinship with me and stayed in touch regularly, especially over the last ten years. While he had previously dismissed much of his work in the US (pre-1959), I think he came to see and appreciate what others saw. He was an artist who had the rare opportunity to make personal films within the system (Howdy Doody’s Magic Hat at UPA; his Terrytoons, including Tom Terrific), within commercial product (think the Bob & Ray Piels Beer campaign), and a series of shorts in Prague (from Munro on), finding joy in adapting to animation other’s works, other artists styles, for Weston Woods.

He thrived in animation, doing it his way, at a time (the 40s and 50s) when making such films was costly and the equipment wasn’t portable. And at a time (the 1960s, 70s & 80s) when the industry itself was dying off, Gene was a steadfast supporter and advocate for the craft. And seemingly never at a loss for a job.

It sounds like a cliche, but Gene was “full of life”. Enthusiastic about life, art, jazz music – he was an eager first adopter of the latest technology, from tape recording back in the early 50s to the internet in the 2000s. His love for Zdenka was total.

Gene, you did it. You had a great life. Speaking for everyone who ever loved one of your cartoons, your work will live forever. Speaking for everyone who ever met you, you will be missed.


Below are a few odd images Gene shared with me – and in tribute I will share with you.

Gene at UPA in 1946 (!)

Deitch’s layout for the Fox & Crow cartoon “The Magic Fluke” (1949)

Adapting Saul Steinberg for a Jell-O commercial

Color chart for one of his MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons, “CARMEN GET IT” (1962)

Gene and Zdenka leave on their first trip west together (in 1963)

Still teasing me (10 years later) about my initial claim to being his “greatest fan” in his autograph in my copy of his book “The Cat On A Hot Thin Groove” (Fantagraphics)

ABOVE: A tribute piece created by Jeaux Janovsky

(Thanks to Adam Snyder. And all my love to Zdenka)

30 Comments

  • A lot of people knocked Mr. Deitch for His Tom and Jerry cartoons, but I personally love them.
    He was a pioneer in animation and will be greatly missed.💔
    Rest in peace.

  • Did gene ever talk about his Terrytoons experience like with Johnny gent and Jim Tyer?

  • Some of his Tom and Jerry cartoons I even like specifically The Larz Bourne cartoons I also like tall and the trap (Tedd Pierces rejected speedy cartoon) and the Tom and Jerry cartoon kit witch shows that he didn’t like the series (witch was great) in to the best 1960’s Tom and Jerry cartoon I may not like the art but I do have a tremendous Respect for the reboot

    (P.S can you please do an article on his Tom and Jerry and Tom terrific )

  • RIP, Mr.Munro, Tom & Jerry, Mr.Krazy Kat/Ignatz, too… he lived a very long life. And those Popeyes..(thanks for helping Paramount/KFS with all those cartoons..esp.the 212 Popeyes..it took half dozen studios to do those…).

  • The man who actually breathed life into Terrytoons. RIP

  • I “met” Gene through Facebook, and was lucky enough to get a few emails from him over the years. His love of life was always there, and his mind never weakened. We should all be so blessed as to live a life like his.

  • I didn’t know that this iconic layout for The Magic Fluke was by Gene Deitch. It is absolutely marvelous! It is so great that it was used again in UPA’s Giddyap (1950). By the way, the background art in the post here is from Giddyap, not from The Magic Fluke.

    • You are right – the image above is from Giddyap. Gene sent it to me labeled as I have it captioned. As you say, he must have done it for Fluke and it was clearly reused for Giddyap. But in the end, I have no doubt Gene designed it.

  • Gene Deitch was a very lucky man: lucky to have had a career doing what he loved, and to be recognised for his accomplishments; lucky to have had a loving family, many warm friendships and legions of fans; and above all, lucky that one with so great a love of life should have been given such a long one. All of you who knew him mustn’t feel sad now, but should really be overwhelmed with joy that he was, and will always remain, part of your lives.

  • Artists are often their own toughest critics, which I think is why Deitch tended to dismiss his work in the U.S. His Terrytoons always seemed destined to achieve cult appeal.

  • Wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing! I remember how I met you and Gene in Los Angeles all those years ago.

  • I was privileged to know Gene for over 40 years. Duane Crowther, my friend and mentor, introduced us. I tried to help him put a reprint collection of the Tom Terrific Pines comics together, but CBS wouldn’t cede the rights to Gene and the project died. I still have the Canon Canoscan scanner that Gene gave me to scan comic book pages with. He was a generous and kind person, but also could be a harsh critic and taskmaster when it came to his own projects. I love that Terrible Thom’son book that came out a few years ago, reprinting Gene’s comic strip that inspired Tom Terrific. I’ll always have a warm spot for Tom and especially Manfred, who, like Wimpy, was more lazy than stupid. Rest in peace, Gene and my love to Zedenka.

  • What is sad that he was still doing his Facebook page last week talking about the virus. I’ll always enjoy his work in both the U.S. and overseas.

  • A great loss for animation but what a wonderful legacy to explore. Reaching for the bookshelf now to enjoy Gene’s “Terr’ble Thompson, Hero of Hist’ry” reprint book of his 1955-1956 newspaper strip.
    Rest in Peace, Gene.

  • Those people in Japan who were sneaky visiting at UPA with hidden cameras should now more than ever be ashamed for copying Gene’s “Kia-Ora” commercials with Aurora shot-by-shot and stealing the mascot into RIbbon-chan for their own orange drink client, Sappro’s Ribbon Juice.

    I bet every time a new ad that’ll be made for Sappro’s Ribbon Juice with Ribbon-Chan, Gene will roll into his grave:

    https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/more-japanese-animated-commercials/

    When I brought this up to him in his last months, he didn’t know what I was talking about until someone showed him the link. Thankfully, he knows all about it.

    Other memories of Gene include the joke at the end of his T&J short “Switchen Kitten” and i asked whether or not it intended to satirized the then-minority who were afraid of the MGM lion. (I read in Jim Henson’s biography he used to be afraid of the logo when he saw “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time). I wonder if any child of the 40’s-70s were truly afraid of certain production/funding/station IDs logos during the beginning and end of movies and TV shows or if some were hoaxes.

    Anyways, enough rambling. Rest in peace dude!

  • Ah, Tom Terrific and Mighty Manfred (fifty years before Finn and Jake) were my childhood in a nutshell. my pre-school must-see-TV as a 5-year-old in Riverside CA diligent watching on the CBS affiliate (KNXT). Thanks Gene, for giving me one of my first true cartoon heroes.

  • Yet another example of an animator living to a very old age after a lifetime devoted to doing what he loved. (Disney probably would have lasted longer if he hadn’t turned his back on the genre.) And what an honor that he spent his last days addressing these very blogs.

    Goodbye, Gene Deitch (I even defended your early 1960s Popeye cartons–well, some of them), and thank you.

    • Disney would have lasted longer if he had reduced his smoking.

  • Ten years ago I sent Gene a casual e-mail telling him how much his work meant to me, in the face of a lot of negative reviews from others. To my surprise, he sent me a nice reply:
    “…things are rough all over, and all of us who make movies, and try our best, under whatever conditions we have to work, [have] to be ready for harsh words from critics. Of course our job is to do, and we are not usually allowed to criticize the critics, or even say, ‘Here is my pencil, why don’t you try to do better than I?’
    Such is life. I know that I’ll never make a perfect film. I just try to make pretty good ones.”
    Animation has lost a humble, gracious, and talented elder statesman. Rest in peace Gene

  • Talking about Gene’s Popeyes,,, Was the cartoon where the Sea Hag assumes the identity of “Rose of the Sea” based on the Segar strip? And the one where Popeye lands at Lilliput based on an early proposal for the Fleischers’ Gulliver?

  • Thanks for posting such a loving remembrance, Jerry.

  • His Popeyes (and the 60’s show as a whole)?are pretty cool by being faithful to the Segar strip and since his background with upa and late 50’s terrytoons brought a cool look to the characters

  • May he Rest-in-Peace. Love his cartoons.

  • Gene Deitch was a animator that never got any respect due to how people look down on his Popeye and Tom and Jerry cartoons as inferior to the originals

    His animation catalogue isn’t perfect but it has it’s gems like Munro, Alice of Wonderland in Paris and his contributions to the Weston Woods library including a personal favorite of mine, his animated adaptation of Rosemary Wells anthology “Voyage To The Bunny Planet”

    He will surely be missed
    Now if only we can get a HD remaster of Alice of Wonderland in Paris as a tribute in his memory that would be nice

  • I loved his cartoons, I loved his wit, and his life story was fascinating. Gene was kind enough to accept me as a Facebook friend, even though I was nothing more than a fan. I always looked forward to his humorous posts, and will miss them.

    I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Prague last year. I took some pictures of his beautiful neighborhood, including of the lovely park on the hill that was the subject of so many of his photos, and I posted them. In return, he posted a picture of himself and Zdenka on the Charles Bridge in 1962, when then-Czechoslovakia was ruled by the communists and there were no tourists on the bridge! Prague is now, deservedly, a tourist magnet.

    His memoir “For the Love of Prague” is a must-read.

    Interestingly, his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, was a block away from the longtime home of my aunt, uncle, and cousins! But not at the same time, by the time their house was built, Gene was already in Prague.

    RIP Gene Deitch. You’re back in the company of your buddies Allen Swift and Pete Seeger.

  • May He Rest In Peace.

    I love his Tom and Jerry’s despite their reputation, and his work at Terrytoons was great.
    Sorry for your loss Jerry.

    May God bless Gene and his wife Zdenka.

  • Tom Terrific.That was enough. Boomers like me had the luck of the decades of theatrical cartoons available everyday and twice on Sundays. New animation created for TV,showing the time & financial restraints but still delivering new treasures. Tom Terrific. My Pop had a drug store and through the years I read more more comic books in real time than probably anyone visiting this wonderful site. A new load,every Trues. & Wed. I knew it was time for a new load when I got to the Katy Keene,Millie the Model and Western books. I read them,but it was verboten to take one home. They were all read while sitting on a pretzel can,in between possibly waiting on a customer and getting in my Pop’s hair(and he was as bald as Peter Boyle Jr.-and resembled Peter’s father). But I may have been sick.I did have a broken arm by falling off of a doghouse. Anyway,Pop may have noticed how much Captain Kangaroo I consumed and brought a Tom Terrific home. For keeps. I read that comic 100s of times. Looking at Gene’s Wiki page and he’s holding that Tom Terrific comic. A smile through the sadness.R.I P..

  • Thank you for all good entertainment, Gene!

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