Animation History
April 26, 2021 posted by Charles Brubaker

The Secret Origin of Deputy Dawg

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…”

Dayton Allen

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)

28 Comments

  • “I got you now, PMuskrat!”

    Thanks for this interesting account of how Deputy Dawg evolved from a rather obvious Pogo knock-off. It explains Muskie’s habit of hanging by his tail in these early cartoons, as well as his predilection for raiding henhouses. Opossums have prehensile tails and eat eggs, but muskrats don’t.

    There’s a later Deputy Dawg cartoon called “Mr. Moose”, in which the dim-witted Southern lawman helps the title character (who speaks in what I assume Dayton Allen intended as an impersonation of Hugh Herbert) as he flees from a hunter. Mr. Moose, of course, was a puppet character on the Captain Kangaroo show who frequently exasperated the host by causing ping pong balls to fall on him from the ceiling. Could that cartoon have been a jibe at the Captain Kangaroo people for their erstwhile skittishness at Terrytoons ripping off copyrighted characters? It’s possible! It’s possible!

    • Somehow it didn’t occur to me that egg-eating, too, was a specifically possum thing. (I think I thought it was just a stereotypical hillbilly thing. Nobody here but us chickens, said the thief in the henhouse…)

  • After the recent chit chattering on FaceBook about this, it’s pretty nice to see this go up on here, this information needs to be known! Deputy Dawg is a pretty fun show with a rich history. It’s also quite evident, after Deputy became the star, that the character designs/layouts needed more to become cuter in order to hold the show. The early “possible pos- er, Musky” cartoons have some pretty fine, but not all too appealing drawings, with Deputy being the most different.

  • Weren’t some Deputy Dawg cartoons released theatrically?

    • Yes, six of them: “Shotgun Shambles”, “Big Chief No Treaty”, “Nobody’s Ghoul”, “Rebel Trouble”, “Where There’s Smoke”, and “Astronut”.

  • For all their relatively low profile, ya gotta give Terrytoons credit for hanging in there all those years.

    I watched Deputy as a kid when it was new. I was enthused at first, but dropped out over time. I don’t remember seeing Possible at all, though the little white mouse suddenly looks familiar. In retrospect, Tom Terrific was high art by comparison.

    Maybe Captain Kangaroo saw what I saw: the theatrical cartoons were considerably more lively. I wonder if the good Captain insisted on seeing more Tyer-animated Heckle & Jeckle shorts.

  • Muskie’s voice is also very evocative of Huckleberry Hound.

  • Well… That explains that, I guess.

    Neither Muskie nor Possible look very much like opossums — though that may be attributed to the Terrytoons character design department at the time — but I daresay that the existence of a syndicated cartoon starring a possum who lives around a swamp (and has an alligator pal given to wearing hats) would likely have raised the hackles of Walt Kelly.

    Muskie was certainly heard to say, “It’s possible… It’s possible.” a lot in the early shorts.

    The Deputy Dawg shorts were passable animated television fare back in the day — although they looked unacceptably cheap and artistically undernourished on the big screen (Fox distributed some of the shorts theatrically). Dayton Allen’s funny voice work was a real plus, and the design of the Deputy (and the Sheriff and some of the animals) was effective. I would argue that at least some of the Dawg shorts look better in black-&-white — which is how I originally saw them — than in color.

    But the later Possible Possum shorts were pretty dreary, arriving at a time when it seemed that the studio could not do anything right. [Luno, anyone? How about the lamentable Sad Cat?] Terrytoons did rally a bit near the end with Bakshi’s The Mighty Heroes, though it failed to catch on.

  • Were the earlier designs for the first ones done by Dave Tendlar? Cause it looks a lot like his model sheet drawings from Famous.

    • Also excellent post, Baker!

  • It’s interesting that “The Yoke’s On You” print embedded in this post has theatrical titles on it. Walt Kelly’s Pogo character started out looking more or less like an opossum in Animal Comics, but he evolved in to a design which looks a lot like a furry Mickey Mouse head without the little black nose on the end of the snout and minus the mouse ears, of course. When drawing Pogo’s head, it’s easier to “get” him if you keep a modified Mickey formula in mind. I really enjoyed this post, Charles!

    • I can’t confirm, but I think Terrytoons created a theatrical main title for every TV cartoon. I also can’t immediately confirm it, but it’s possible THE YOKES ON YOU may have been released theatrically in the 1970s.

      When I compiled the filmography for OF MICE AND MAGIC an executive decision was made to end the filmography in 1968. However, the reality is that 20th Century Fox continued to release a slate TV Terrytoons to theaters at least through 1975. We explain in the introduction to the Terrytoon filmography that we ended the filmography in 1968 because that was the last year cartoons newly made for theaters (mainly Sad Cat) are on the schedule. The production studio itself closed in 1967, Bill Weiss remained a Terrytoon executive till 1972 – and a consultant to Viacom regarding Terrytoons for years thereafter.

      • I think Jerry is right about this. I occasionally saw Deputy Dawg and even Mighty Heroes cartoons in theatres in the mid-1970s, playing along with 20th Century Fox releases.

      • Something I found is the credits for Terrytoons in the 1960s was all over the place. I found that some of the theatricals actually used “gang credits” that’s common in TV animation, like the final 12 “James Hound” cartoons (the first 5, however, had unique credits for individual shorts).

        Same with “Possible Possum”. I found a handful with gang credits in the end, but also a few with individual directors listed. The reason I linked that “Possum” cartoon is because it was one of the few I found with original end credits.

        Finally, I have a theatrical print of “Nobody’s Ghoul”, and it has a modified version of the “Deputy Dawg” end credits that was shown in the TV package, but with a “Color by Deluxe” and “Distributed by 20th Century Fox” notice edited in.

        On the other hand, a lot of the TV shorts sent to theaters do have unique end credits attached. I found a lot of “Astronut” shorts with credits, aired in TV in the 1960s, but theatrically released in the 1970s.

        My guess to all this is yeah, a lot of their TV shorts did have end credits created, but some resorted to gang credits.

        • I found in my files this 1963 “Crawl Title” for Deputy Dawg which I think is the “gang title” for the TV cartoons… which interestingly omit Bakshi, Anzilotti and Davis as a directors (they are listed simply as animators). Earlier Dawg directors such as Bill Tytla, Tom Golden and Marty Taras are missing as well.

          Deputy Dawg credits

      • Jerry:
        The copy of The Yolks On You that I have, has a end title spliced in from a much older theatrical Terrytoon. It looks or sounds like it might be the end title from a Mighty Mouse or Heckle And Jeckle cartoon. It came from World’s Best Comics And Toys, an seems to be taken from a mid-’90’s USA showing. During that time, the newtwork aired a half hour of Terrytoons om weekends.
        Nice to see this with CORRECT ending titles. Hope to see more Terrytoons lilke Heckle and Jeckle, Mighty Mouse, etc, with restored ful theatrical credits as opposed to the TV titles that are more commonly seen.

      • 1975 Terrytoons releases through 20th Century-Fox, according to Boxoffice magazine, 20 September 1976, page 90:
        The Plastic Blaster (Mighty Heroes)
        Li’l Whooper (Deputy Dawg)
        A Sleepless Night (Heckle and Jeckle)
        Melvin the Magnificent (Luno)
        Friend Fox (Deputy Dawg)
        The Junker (Mighty Heroes)
        Taming the Cat (Heckle and Jeckle)
        Dog Gone Catfish (Deputy Dawg)
        Magpie Madness (Heckle and Jeckle)
        The Monsterizer (Mighty Heroes)
        People’s Choice (Deputy Dawg)
        Free Enterprise (Heckle and Jeckle)

        1976
        A Merry Chase (Heckle and Jeckle)

  • Coming from mid-Louisiana, they were telecast on (Alexandria’s) Ch. 5 that year…..very popular!!

  • Say what you will about the DD cartoons, but they have more action and movement, and more visual gags, than the typical Hanna-Barbera product from the same period.

  • I never got the POGO connection before. How did I miss it? Now I can’t un-see it! As for borrowed celebrity voices- even when I was young- I related the character MOLEY MOLE to Howard McNear- Floyd The Barber on The Andy Griffith Show. Many similar attributes. MH

  • So the question that comes to mind while reading this is: where in this process did CBS/Captain Kangaroo opt out of Possible Possum and the decision to rebrand and sell to syndication as Deputy Dawg happen? That’s a considerable amount of work for an outfit like Terrytoons to engage in without some sort of financial incentive and then to have to go back and fix the soundtracks.

    • I don’t know exactly when the Captain Kangaroo crew opted out – but I don’t think the decision to go to syndication with a cartoon series was a big risk at the time. It was CBS who provided the financial incentive. By the early 60s, animated TV series – prime time and afternoon – were booming. CBS’s syndication business (CBS Films) was growing (particularly with I Love Lucy and the Desilu library) and since they owned Terrytoons, whatever they produced would add value to the catalog.

      • Syndication was certainly an established option by this time in television animation, what is perplexing to me is how far into production Possible Possum (version 1) got before somebody put the brakes on it. Who came up with the misguided Pogo “parody” concept, a Terrytoons person or a CBS exec?

  • One of the plots of those”Deputy Dawg”cartoons “Big Chief No Treaty”was recreated on the “Peter Pan”kids recording.

  • Not necessarily on-topic, but I wonder if any researchers posting here can explain to me why Deputy Dawg posters were sold at head shops so long ago.

    • I don’t know what you mean by “so long ago”, but I started frequenting head shops way back in the 1970s and can assure you that I never saw any Deputy Dawg posters for sale then or in the ensuing decades. I would remember if I had. Felix the Cat? Sure. Betty Boop? Absolutely. R. Crumb characters? You betcha. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers? Oh yeah. I hope your local head shop’s selection of pipes and bongs was as diverse and comprehensive as its cartoon merchandise.

      As for why those posters might have been sold at these establishments, I can only hazard two guesses: either (1) as a way of mocking law enforcement, or (2) because Deputy Dawg cartoons are a lot funnier when you’re stoned.

      • Thanks for replying, Paul. I’ve had this recollection of seeing one at a record shop that sold paraphenalia. IIRC, it was one of those posters with outlines in black velvet and printed in flourescent colors.

        • That sounds very cool, Al!

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