The Terrytoons studio had a very long history in the television medium. Terry was the first major animation studio to effectively put together a big package of cartoons for syndication and network TV, with several compilation shows of their vintage theatrical shorts, including Barker Bill, Farmer Al Falfa and His Terrytoon Pals, and Mighty Mouse Playhouse.
So when it came time to produce original cartoons for the new medium, Terrytoons was ready to take the ball and run with it. Deputy Dawg wasn’t the studio’s first foray into producing original animation for television—that would be Tom Terrific, produced for the children’s show Captain Kangaroo in 1957—but it was larger in scale than any previous effort. The studio had to expand its staff in order to produce the cartoons, while also keeping their theatrical schedule with 20th Century Fox going. Ralph Bakshi and Cosmo Anzilotti, formerly in the cel department, were quickly promoted to animators in order to meet the footage quota. Ultimately over 100 people worked on the series in various capacities, including freelancers; some even coming from the West Coast, a rarity for an East Coast studio like Terrytoons.
The exact story of how Deputy Dawg was developed is incomplete, but early press coverage and related research bring new revelations to light. As per the December 2nd, 1959 edition of Variety, the original incarnation was considered for broadcast as part of Captain Kangaroo; perhaps as a replacement for Tom Terrific. Story man Larz Bourne, billed as “chief writer” in publicity, created the concept and, by most accounts, drew the first boards.
But—boards for what? When studying early press coverage, scholar David Gerstein recently uncovered a curious fact. On May 17th, 1959, The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution published the earliest-known public statements about the show as part of an interview with its voice actor, Dayton Allen. Allen explained that:
“I’m doing the voices for a cartoon series called ‘Possible Possum.’ It’s all hillbilly and”—he lapsed into mountaineer jargon—“Ah’m doin’ all the hillbillys [sic] and it all takes place in a swamp…”
Terrytoons did eventually produce a series of “Possible Possum” cartoons, but that didn’t debut until 1965 — six years after this interview was printed — with Lionel Wilson doing the “Possible” character voice instead of Allen. So what, then, was Allen voicing in 1959? Did Deputy Dawg originate as an earlier incarnation of “Possible Possum”?
As telecast, Deputy Dawg had no recurring opossum characters; several references cite the later Possible Possum as a co-star, but he did not actually appear. The series did, however, have a muskrat character, Muskie, who served as a foil to the Deputy. Based on the production codes, the first cartoon to be put into production was The Yoke’s On You, production #657. The cartoon has a “first episode” feel, with Muskie being introduced as the de facto star, his prowess as a trickster hyped by the animals in the forest. In fact, most of the earliest cartoons have Muskie in the leading role, with Deputy having a more of a secondary presence.
Discussion with 1960s Terry mainstay Ralph Bakshi, and close inspection of the earliest shorts, reveals that this was no accident: Muskie Muskrat was indeed originally going to be “Possible Possum,” and the series was to have focused on him before Bourne made Deputy Dawg the star. This change occurred only after a handful of cartoons were voiced, animated, and filmed.
If one listens to the dialogue whenever Muskie Muskrat’s name is brought up, there’s an audio splice, indicating that it got overdubbed late in production. The first few cartoons have that audio splice; some more egregious than others, such as the case in Shotgun Shambles (Prod. #660, the third in production), when Deputy comes to warn Muskie that muskrat hunting season is about to begin. A rather sloppy splice in the dialogue is evident right away. While the lip animation is crude in these limited-animation shorts, a lip reading does seem to indicate that the characters originally said “possum” instead of “muskrat” for their friend—unlike later on, they finish by pinching their mouths closed in an M. Design-wise, Muskie has a long possum-nose and tail that get shorter after more and more episodes go into production. Vocally speaking, early Muskie’s catchphrase remains “It’s possible, it’s possible,” still suggestive of his original name. Later, the mid-1960s Possible Possum would inherit the catchphrase.
The earliest mention of “Deputy Dawg” as series title in the trade press was on July 14th, 1959 in The Hollywood Reporter, two full months after the above interview with Allen:
Terrytoons’ Theatrical Take Up 10% In 1959
New York.—Terrytoons, CBS Films subsidiary, reports theatrical income for the second quarter this year is up ten percent over the same period of 1958. Sixteen theatrical subjects have been released so far this year, and a new TV half-hour series titled “Deputy DWG” [sic] is in production, according to William M. Weiss, v-p and general manager.
So why go through all this change?
Well, we need to address the elephant in the room first. When one thinks of a possum character and the band of critters in the swamp, one would think of Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, which was at the peak of its popularity when Deputy Dawg entered production. Terrytoons was no stranger to “borrowing” ideas from others, and as Ralph Bakshi confirmed in recent correspondence with Jerry Beck, the Possible Possum version of Deputy Dawg was no exception. “As far as I thought, it was a direct take on Pogo,” Bakshi recollects. It may have been seen as permissible on grounds of parody: “That was very big then… I am not criticizing Larz [Bourne]—Warners was doing takeoffs all the time.”
But an ongoing series like the planned “Possible Possum” arguably moved beyond parody. The early cartoons featured Muskie having a larger circle of friends directly analogous to species featured in Pogo—including a turtle, an owl, and “Mr. Alligator,” reminiscent of Pogo’s pal Albert. The early boards shown to the Captain Kangaroo staff had an even more obvious Pogo feel than the finished films, according to Bakshi.
Bakshi explains that this was why Terrytoons’ original plans for a Captain Kangaroo premiere fell apart. “[The] Kangaroo people were very concerned, and changes [were] made… there was trouble afoot, I’m sure.” But the changes weren’t enough: “Captain Kangaroo backed out.” This lead to CBS and Terrytoons head Bill Weiss switching plans, as they were still committed to getting the new cartoon produced.
Even without Captain Kangaroo, Weiss and Bourne made good on revising the series. This necessitated hastily dubbing over any mention of Muskie’s original name and species. Mr. Alligator appeared less often after the first few cartoons. As an added measure, the team switched to making Deputy Dawg the main star instead, with the show now named after him.
The Deputy Dawg Show, as it was called as a package, debuted in syndication in fall 1960. Production ended in 1964 after making 104 shorts. The later “Possible Possum” series made its proper debut the following year, with Larz Bourne again handling the stories; but the team took great pains to remove any direct Pogo influence, including changing the main setting from the swamp to a country village, as well as featuring no alligator lead in the cast, instead highlighting Billy Bear as the larger, bulkier friend of Poss.
As for Captain Kangaroo, Terrytoons would finally produce a new cartoon series for them with The Adventures of Lariat Sam in 1962. For more info, please see this post.
Was “Possible Possum” really a good enough name to get used twice? It’s possible, it’s possible!
(Special Thanks to David Gerstein, Jerry Beck, Mike Kazaleh and Ralph Bakshi)