Robert McKimson is one of the most underappreciated cartoon directors in animation history. Robert McKimson directed some of the most memorable cartoons ever to come out of Warner Bros. McKimson started at Warners in 1931 and eventually became the longest continual employee at Warner Bros. I chatted with his son, Robert McKimson Jr., about his dad and growing up in the McKimson family. He recently wrote a book entitled I Say, I Say… Son!”: A Tribute to Legendary Animators Bob, Chuck, and Tom McKimson. I chatted with him about subjects that didn’t make it into the book.KS: Did you have any desire to work in the animation industry growing up?
RM: No. I have absolutely no talent. I’m strictly a business person.
KS: Why do you think that your dad isn’t as remembered and revered as the other directors? I always thought it was because he died so young.
RM: That is absolutely correct because he died in 77 at only 66 years old, whereas some directors lived into their late 70s, 80s or 90s. I think that was the main reason.
KS: When did you first realize that your dad was an animator?
RM: I knew he was a cartoonist as long as I could remember. Probably from day one that I could’ve understood. He called himself a cartoonist in those days. I remember going to the movies on Saturdays and see his name. So I understood very early on and was very much aware of what he did for a living.
KS: Did you ever visit the studio?
RM: Many times. I remember visiting both the old studio which they called “Termite Terrace” and the new one over on the Warner lot.
KS: What was it like there?
RM: The first one was a very old building. When he became a director, he had his office on the second floor. The building was kind of an old wooden building. I remember him showing me around and seeing the inking and painting and coloring and animators. I was there once when they previewed the cartoon to the staff.
KS: What do you think was your dad’s favorite cartoon that he did?
RM: He loved the first Foghorn cartoon he did, Walky Talky Hawky. He really liked Foghorn and that first cartoon. He also liked that offbeat cartoon he did, The Hole Idea. He also enjoyed making the cartoon that he did with Jack Benny, The Mouse that Jack Built. Jack Benny lived not very far from where we did at that time. He enjoyed working with them. Those were some of his favorites. Hillbilly Hare was one of his favorites.
KS: Your dad animated for all of the directors before he became one himself. Who was his favorite to work for?
RM: His favorite directors were Tex Avery and Bob Clampett
KS: I know your dad was an avid polo player. Did he play with the other guys at Warners, and how good at it was he?
RM: He was fair. He played for about ten years from 1932-42 until after the war started. I don’t believe he played with anybody else at the studio. I think his brother Tom played a little bit. I think he played with some Disney people if I recall correctly.
RM: Yeah, he loved bowling, and he did it till the day he died.
KS: Art Leonardi told me that he got into the business thanks to being a replacement bowler for your dad’s team.
RM: Art told me the same story.
KS: I know they did have a studio bowling team for a time. Did he play on that too?
RM: Yes, but he bowled with a masonic team for a number of years. I’m not real sure how long he played with the Warner team.
KS: By the time there were three units, I know every director had to do a number of Daffy, Porky, and of course Bugs.
RM: Yes. They each did 10 cartoons a year. Each one of them had to do so many Bugs and Daffys. Each one of them had their own particular characters. My dads of course were Foghorn Leghorn and the Tasmanian Devil. Chuck of course had the Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew. Friz had Yosemite Sam and Tweety and Sylvester. My father created the original Speedy Gonzales and Friz took over him later.
KS: I know that Tom and Chuck worked for Western Publishing. What made your uncle decide to leave animation and move into comic books?
RM: My Uncle Tom left WB in 47 and went to Western to become Art Director for comic and coloring books and also the WB comic strip. Uncle Chuck left WB in 53 and went to Western as Art Director for comic books. When Tom retired, he started doing the comic book artwork, on the side, for Western.
KS: Did Tom work well in switching from animation into print?
RM: Yes, absolutely. He always wanted to work in comic books and coloring books. He did a lot of different comics, including westerns like Gene Autry. In fact, he was friends with Walt Disney because he did the Disney comics.
KS: Your dad worked at Warner Bros from the near beginning till the very end. Did he work on the Bosko pilot too?
RM: He and Tom went there in 31 so he did not work on the pilot. My father was the longest continual director at Warner Bros. It would’ve been Friz but he left for a couple of years. He was the longest continual employee at Warner Bros. He of course stayed till the bitter bitter end in 69.
KS: What was your dad’s opinion of the cartoons that Bill Hendrix produced in the late 60s.
RM: He did not like what was going on at all in the late 60s. He hated it. Warner’s dictated what he could and could not do. The budgets were bad and the characters developed were bad. He did not like them. He wasn’t allowed to use Bugs Bunny. If he was, he would’ve used him and Foghorn Leghorn again. After Daffy’s Diner, Warner’s must’ve said that you can’t use any of the classic characters anymore. That’s when he was stuck with Cool Cat, Merlin the Mouse, and Bunny and Claude. Alex Lovy left so Bill Hendrix got my dad to go back. I think it was clear to my father that the studio was at its bitter end.
KS: Do you think your dad missed the old Warner studio?
RM: Oh yeah. He missed what it was, and he missed full animation. He did not like what was happening to the animation market at all.
KS: What did your dad do for fun besides bowling and polo?
RM: During the 50s, the studio went into this square dancing thing. I also remember Ken Harris, Benny Washam, and Phil Monroe would come over, and they would play poker with my parents.KS: Do you any stories that you didn’t get into your book that you could share?
RM: One story was that when my father was doing The Mouse that Jack Built. Apparently, they had to do a follow-up recording, and Mary Livingstone refused to go back to the studio, so they had to go up to Jack Benny’s house because apparently, Mary Livingstone was difficult to work with, so they had to go up to their house to finish production.
KS: Do you remember any other projects he enjoyed working on?
RM: I remember him saying he enjoyed working with Jim Backus on A-Lad-In His Lamp. He also enjoyed working on the animation in The Incredible Mr. Limpet. Don Knotts apparently was upset that the animation took twice as long as the making of the actual film.
KS: Do you know anything about any of the other voice actors? I know that Sheldon Leonard did some voice work for your dad.
RM: I’ve got a funny story about that. I went to school with Sheldon Leonard’s daughter, who had a different last name. I never found out who she was until about 20 years ago when at a Beverly Hills high school reunion, she approached me and said: “Oh, my father worked with yours.” I asked who’s your father and she it was Sheldon Leonard and explained to me that Leonard was a stage name.