There’s currently a pizza commercial on TV that makes me laugh every time I see it. It features a little red-headed boy talking about his vocational aspirations of making the perfect pizza. It’s his dream. Then, suddenly, a C.E.O. of a major pizza chain pops in and says, “It’s already been done, kid.”
Such is the case of Tom Terrific. Much of what pioneering animator Gene Deitch established from 1957-58 subsequently began to show up in other TV cartoons. Before Sherman and Peabody, Tom and his dog Manfred traveled back in time. Before the likeness of Simon Bar Sinister appeared in Underdog, there was Crabby Appleton. Before Mr. Whoopie taught Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumly about science and history, Tom was explaining it.
“It’s already been done, kid,” is not a problem when you are the one who invented the perfect pizza.
I grew up watching Tom Terrific on the Captain Kangaroo show. I always was always excited to see what Tom would change into next. During his 26 episodes, he transformed into something 129 times. (18 of his transformations are pictured below – all 129 are pictured in my new book). Each transition called for Deitch and his staff of animators to create something new wearing the Tom funnel cap.
Gene Deitch, who turned 93 on August 8, was hired by Terrytoons in 1956 to develop cartoons for television. Tom Terrific originated from a syndicated comic strip he created titled Terr’ble Thompson. Two seasons of Tom Terrific were produced airing in 1957 and 1958. The cartoons, developed for inclusion in the Captain Kangaroo program, continued to rerun until the mid-1960’s.
Paul Terry, the founder of Terrytoons, had sold the company to the CBS television network in 1956. Sadly, due to the hostile practices of producer Bill Weiss, Deitch only survived a couple of years at Terrytoons. Weiss fired him due to his insecurity. Weiss was about as creative as a wet sponge.
Deitch was a master at character development creating real personalities for Tom Terrific and his supporting cast. His stylistic art and use of transparencies gave animation a new, streamlined look. Voice artist Lionel G. Wilson was a stellar addition to the cartoon series. Wilson did every voice.
One of the best attributes of Tom Terrific is that it was family friendly, and appealed to both kids and their parents. Deitch was a pioneer in creating villains that were likable.
Tom routinely gave his sleeping companion, Manfred, credit for many things, when no recognition was due. That’s because Tom encouraged others. He called himself “the greatest hero ever” in his opening theme, but never bragged. Tom was all about helping others against insurmountable odds. The show was about values and fellowship.
The cartoon was filmed in black and white. It’s appropriate. Tom was just that way, no gray area for him. He is is clearly defined without any room for confusion. You knew where he stood. Tom was righteous.
Regarding animation, Gene Deitch is a living legend. He won an Oscar for his 1960 animated short, Munro. He also was nominated for an Oscar in 1965 for his Nutnik cartoon short. He was also a recipient of the Winsor McCay award in 2003 for lifetime achievement in animation.
All 26 Tom Terrific episodes, which have stood the test of time, are on YouTube for everyone to enjoy. My new Cartoon Research mini-book, The Amazing Transformations of Tom Terrific is now available via Amazon.