Alex Anderson was born in Berkeley, California on Sept. 5, 1920. He attended both UC Berkeley and the California School of Fine Arts. During WWII, he served in the Navy as an intelligence officer. His start in animation came largely through his uncle, Paul Terry, the creator of Terrytoons and producer of short animation for 20th Century Fox, whose best-known characters include “Mighty Mouse” and “Heckle and Jeckle.” Anderson served as Terry's apprentice for a time before the war.
After his stint in the Navy, Anderson approached his uncle with the idea of doing short animation films specifically intended for television. But Terry declined for fear that his current employers would drop him if they found out he was developing for TV, as the studio saw the new medium as a big threat.
Anderson then took the idea to his boyhood friend and former fraternity brother, Jay Ward, who was working in real-estate. The two founded the company Television Arts Productions and Anderson converted a garage at his parents’ house into an animation studio.
They pitched NBC on the idea of having a full half-hour of animated shorts featuring the characters Crusader Rabbit, Rags the Tiger, Dudley Do-Right, Bullwinkle the Moose and Rocky the Flying Squirrel, but the network passed, believing there wouldn’t be an audience for long-format animation. NBC did, however, buy some Crusader Rabbit cartoons to insert into children’s shows.
In 1950, Crusader Rabbit thus became the first animated show made specifically for TV. Ward and Anderson made 152 episodes of the cartoon during its run.
In 1952, NBC declined to order additional Crusader Rabbit shorts, effectively cancelling the series. Anderson turned to illustrating for advertising, while Ward went back to selling real-estate.
But Ward couldn’t so easily give up on the ideas he and Anderson had been working on, particularly the show Anderson had envisioned centered around a group of cartoon animals producing a show for TV, one that would include parodies of popular films and television shows.
Ward moved to Los Angeles, hired new writers and cartoonists and, in 1959, was able to sell the new show with sponsorship backing by General Mills. However, they would pick it up only if Anderson – creator of the characters – was involved. Problem was, Anderson did not want to move from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. As a compromise, Anderson agreed to become a creative consultant, while Ward and his team took over all writing and production.
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show debuted on ABC on November 19, 1959. As the lead-in for American Bandstand on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it became the highest-rated daytime network program.
While the pun-filled, clever writing received raves, the show’s animation was often criticized as substandard. Done in Mexico as a cost-cutting measure, it was perhaps the first instance of cartoon outsourcing (now a common practice in animation) and Ward later admitted it caused a host of quality control problems.
In 1961, NBC bought the show and moved it to Sunday nights, but if suffered in the ratings by going head-to-head with Lassie. NBC cancelled the show in 1964, though it later appeared in syndication. To date, the show has aired in 100 countries. Recurring segments you may remember include Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, Fractured Fairytales, Peabody’s Improbable History and Aesop & Son.
Characters created by Anderson and developed by Ward have also been featured in films including 1992’s Boris and Natasha, 1999’s Dudley Do-Right, and 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. None performed well critically or commercially.
Prompted by viewing a 1991 documentary on Rocky and Bullwinkle that made no mention of his role in creating the characters, Alex Anderson sued Jay Ward Productions, and an out of court settlement was reached recognizing Anderson as the creator and awarding him an undisclosed financial sum.
The show had a big influence on future entertainment mavens. Director Steven Spielberg told the New York Times that, “It was the first time that I can recall my parents watching a cartoon show over my shoulder and laughing in places I couldn’t comprehend.”
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who cited it as a big influence, said, "From watching that show when I was a kid, it was one of my fantasies to grow up and have my own cartoon show. It was a big influence." The “J” in Homer J. Simpson is a tribute to Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocky J. Squirrel.
Their creator Alex Anderson died from complications related to Alzheimer’s in Carmel, California on October 22, 2010.