SUSPENDED ANIMATION
May 17, 2019 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Don Morgan

Don Morgan

Suspended Animation # 215

Thanks to the kindness of writer Mark Evanier, I accompanied him as his guest to the Hanna-Barbera Studio in 1980 where I met Don Morgan who I got to briefly interview while I was there.

Don Morgan went to apply for a job at Bob Clampett’s studio only to find that another animation studio had opened in the same space operated by Dave and Phyllis Bounds Detiege to produce The Man from Button Willow (1965).

He was hired as an assistant animator to Ken Hultgren and, due to his background in industrial design, was encouraged by Phyllis Detiege to go into layout. His mentors on the film were Ernie Nordli, Tony Rivera and Bruce Bushman. When his layout responsibilities ended, Tony Rivera recommended Morgan to Abe Levitow at UPA for the prime-time series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo.

Along with Jacques Rupp, Morgan worked on the clever title sequence for the series. In addition, he did the individual episode titles for and worked on the Moby Dick, Frankenstein and Dick Tracy episodes among others. During this time, he worked freelance on the Magoo GE commercials as well.

When the series ended and the staff was laid off, Abe Levitow went over to Tower 12 Productions at MGM and brought over Morgan to lay out the Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoons under the guidance of Maurice Noble.

Morgan worked on How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) including the sleigh sequence on top of the mountain among other scenes. He laid out The Pogo Special Birthday Special (1969) by brush inking in the style of Walt Kelly.

He spent a lot of time with Kelly over drinks while an increasingly unhappy Kelly complained about what Jones was doing to his characters. At one point Jones and Kelly were not talking directly to each other.

It was that bond that resulted in Morgan being called in to “ghost” the Pogo newspaper strip when Kelly fell ill until Kelly’s wife Selby took over. During this same time he worked with Ralph Bakshi on three features (for instance designing the nymphets in Coonskin) before moving over to Hanna-Barbera as a layout supervisor on shows like The Smurfs.

A POGO strip by Don Morgan. (click to enlarge)

Morgan later worked at other animation studios including Dreamworks on two features before retiring. He passed away on March 31st, 2019. Here are some choice quotes about his career from the conversation I had with him:


Morgan: Longevity is versatility in animation business. If you can draw Flintsones one day and Superfriends the next, then you’ll have no problem. One of my challenges in my new job is really trying to instill the idea that you don’t have to sacrifice quality and inspiration because of lousy deadlines.

I was with Chuck Jones for a total of six years. The whole time of it was when he was with MGM. I had been a layout man for Abe Levitow and he brought me over to MGM. I laid out How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dr. Seuss didn’t care for it as I remember.

I was Production Designer for The Pogo Special Birthday Special (1969). It was done in honor of the strip’s 20th anniversary and got good ratings. Chuck wanted to “Jonesize” the Kelly stuff.

Walt (Kelly) respected Chuck’s expertise and pretty much deferred to him. I had met Kelly when I went to Pratt Institute. He hated to be called “Mr. Kelly”. He couldn’t really handle fan adoration. It’s funny the things you remember.

I remember one of his favorite sayings was “If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to drink”. He thought of himself as a newspaper man NOT a cartoonist. His medium just happened to be a comic strip. Every day, he’d read a couple of things like The New York Times, The Journal, The Christian Science Monitor.

Walt didn’t think his comic strip would work in animation. On the printed page you could see the play on words and you could take your time and discover that what the characters were saying could be taken in many ways. But the special still turned out to be a pretty looking thing. Selby was assigned as his assistant when he was working on it.

I don’t think Kelly was satisfied because afterwards he and Selby singlehandely did their own animated short, We Have Met The Enemy and He is Us (1970). There is a half hour Leica reel but only twelve or thirteen minutes were completely finished and released.

They came up with the idea for the film and then used some of the material in the comic strip I believe. They used colored pencils.

Walt Kelly

I laid out the Jones’ Pogo special. One day when I was at the studio I got a call from Kelly and he said, ‘How would you like to do this strip for me?’ I told Willie Ito and my wife but I didn’t dare tell anyone else. Kelly said he was looking for somebody to help out until he felt better. He would write it and I would draw it. He named a generous money figure.

The next day, the phone rings again and it’s Kelly. I was so flustered that I named the wrong money figure and accidentlly upped the price. He didn’t flinch. He said, ‘I’ll send you a check. Fly out to New York and bring your wife.’ And he did send the check and it bounced. It was an account he had closed out. He sent another check and that cleared.

He lived a few doors down from Gracie Mansion. He stayed up in the top floor of the Kelly house. He showed me some of his drawings and his pencil line looked like a brush line it was that good. He gave me some of the original comic strips he had done so I could use them for reference.

He went over my drawings very closely. I have a drawing he did of me in the Kelly style sweating over a drawing board and the Kelly characters looking on critically.

Morgan was a layout artist on Bakshi’s HEAVY TRAFFIC and COONSKIN.

While I was doing the strip, he got really sick. He and Selby were going to move out to Malibu and he was feeling really good about that and then he suffered complications and went into a coma.

At the same time, I was doing some work for Bakshi. People have told horror stories about Ralph and, of course, they are all true but I want to say something. I was working at Bakshi the same time I was doing the Pogo strip. When it was good, it was very, very good. Ralph always kept you motivated either by putting you down or complimenting you. Whichever worked.

He was a real back alley psychologist. You were pushed far beyond what you thought you were capable of doing. I was doing the strip at night and did the Bakshi stuff during the day. Well, that was quite a strain and Selby eventually took the strip over in 1973.

She did as good as anyone could have done with it but no one could ever write the way Kelly wrote. He never wrote that far ahead either. I guess he felt it was fresher that way. If you look closely at the strip you’ll notice there is very little relation between what the characters were doing and what they were saying.

There was no one like Walt Kelly. I had a great personal fondness for him.

A Don Morgan self portrait – courtesy of Scott Getschmann

8 Comments

  • Do you happen to know when the first Don Morgan strips ran?

    • Don drew the daily and Sunday Pogo strip from October 15, 1973 to November 23, 1974 (with two weeks somewhere in there ghosted by Willie Ito).

  • Don Morgan also did a stint for Sanrio in drawing a comic that appeared in their magazine called “Lyrica”. A friend of mine talked about that here… http://letsanime.blogspot.com/2018/01/looks-like-lyrica.html

  • I use to ride into work with Don Morgan, he was a great artist and good friend. We worked at Bakshi’s and Sanrio together in the early and mid 70’s. Don was really a Mountain Man born 100 years to late. He said to me one day driving into the studio, “…remember Tim, drawing for the studio is one thing. But doing art for yourself is different. There are no good, bad, or indifferent drawings! There’s your art, just do it and enjoy the experience.” ’Good Night Sweet Prince’

    • I first met Don Morgan in 2011.
      I worked as a ranch hand for him for two years.
      He would tell me stories about his career adventures.
      He became my mentor in all things Mountain Men.
      Sadly he passed away March 31st 2019.
      We had just returned from a four day Mountain Men event at La Purisima Mission…
      Now Maggie Morgan and I have the task of filtering through a lifetime of drawings Don has stored in his garage…

  • “If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to drink.”
    I immediately imagined those words illustrated with Albert Alligator daintily sipping from a teacup as Pogo, a tray under one arm, regards a bent penny with annoyance. That would be a meme shared by bartenders and waitstaff around the world.

  • No one likes Walt Kelly… Sigh, I’ve felt that way for decades. A few days ago, a local record store that takes in everything found a plastic Pogo piece, one of the Proctor&Gamble giveaways for the TV special,in the bottom of a box of 45s. I already had two but this one needed cleaning but the colors were in better shape than the ones in my collection. Store owner wanted nothing as he had no idea about anything Pogo. Now I have three..

  • As Walt Kelly passed away three days after Don Morgan’s first strip appearing, it sounds from the interview that Don Morgan and Walt Kelly had worked for some time before those first strips appeared. I wonder how long it took Don Morgan to get his work to that level. What I’ve seen of those strips is a great imitation of Walt Kelly’s art. It is a shame that they couldn’t have worked together longer.

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