Hello. I’m Jack Mendelsohn, and I’m 86 years old (although many would swear I don’t look a day over 84 -- or 85, at the most -- depending on the lighting).
And if I may, I’d like to quote the late comedian Joe E. Lewis, who famously said, “If I knew I was gonna live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself.”
Despite numerous decades of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, imbibing vast quantities of martinis, and expending much time and energy pursuing a dissolute life-style, I’m not only still breathing, but I’m constantly astounded by the enormous amount of writing and cartooning I’ve somehow accomplished in that space of time.
In my late teens I discovered, much like Noel Coward, that I had something of “a talent to amuse” (along with a yearning to draw funny pictures), and elbowed my way into the New York cartooning circle by writing – and at times drawing – comic book stories. Such as:
FELIX THE CAT - BEETLE BAILEY - FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE - ARCHIE - TIPPY TEEN - DUDLEY DO-RIGHT - ROCKY & BULLWINKLE - MISS PEACH - JACKY’S DIARY
I’m especially proud of the Miss Peach comic book, not only for having written the entire issue cover-to-cover, but also of having “ghost-drawn" it in Mell Lazarus's unique cartoon style, without a single change, or word of suggestion from him. Now that I rcall, I even hand-lettered all the balloons!
On a more personal note, Mell served as Best Man at my marriage, which has endured for over 35 years – almost as long as our friendship.
I’m doubly proud of the Jacky’s Diary comic book I produced for Dell, which was based on my King Features syndicated Sunday page. Unfortunately, it only ran for a single issue. But on the other hand, that makes it even more valuable on E-Bay … Right?
From there, I eased over into writing and drawing articles and gag cartoons for various magazines, including:
MAD - PANIC - CRACKED - 1000 JOKES -SATURDAY EVENING POST - COLLIERS
It was about this time that I grew tired of writing entire issues of PANIC for $10 a page, and yearning for a less stressful life, I took à lengthy sabbatical and relocated to Mexico, where the mere pittance I earned from writing comic books and selling an occasional gag cartoon, stretched a lot further, allowing me to live a comfortable, almost idyllic life for the next half-dozen years.
Just to prove to any doubters that I can draw in a style other than that of a pre-pubescent kid, these were sketches I did for an aborted Steve Allen project involving various gangland characters. Click Here for Sample Drawings
On returning to the States, my entrée into Animation came about through my writing and storyboarding the majority of the Krazy Kat, Beetle Bailey, and The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon series in 1964.
At Hanna-Barbera, I became a sort of “utility player” -- always available to fill-in with a script for any show that needed one -- and subsquently, writing numerous episodes of the studio’s dozens of animated series… Like:
Yogi Bear - The Flintstones - Laurel & Hardy - Abbott & Costello - Magilla Gorilla - Inch-High, Private Eye - The Jetsons - Precious Pupp - Atom Ant - Dastardly & Muttley - The Addams Family - Frankenstein Jr. - The Impossibles - Great Grape Ape
Working under the tutelage of Joe Barbera (who ran the writing end of the studio) was truly inspiring. He was a sensational story man, who could zero in on what you hoped was a well-hidden script hole -- and then help you cleverly fill it.
He was also an incurable salesman. Early on, I was warned by another staff writer to “Never admire anything Joe is wearing or driving, or he’ll try to sell it to you.” He was the most prolific visual gag man I’d ever been exposed to; and in a network pitch session he would act out, including doing the voices, of every proposed cartoon character -- along with appropriate sound effects.
In those days, you couldn’t work as a Hanna-Barbera writer if you couldn’t also draw. Joe Barbera lacked the patience to read typed-out scripts; he demanded story-boards from all the writers, which he could then edit and re-jigger.
The only one for whom Joe relaxed this iron-clad rule, was Mike Maltese, the legendary Bugs Bunny writer, whom Joe had somehow romanced away from Warner Bros. By special dispensation, Mike was permitted to hand-write his scripts… but thanks to his eager-to-please nature, even those scribbled offerings were accompanied by the most primitive stick-figure drawings imaginable.
When the requirements for those 5 and 7-minute cartoon shorts lengthened into half-hours, and sometimes a full-hour format to fit a TV schedule, it became totally impractical to spend nearly a week story-boarding a half-hour script –- and then another full week re-drawing the changes asked for by the producer or the network.
It became a lot more economical to write these longer cartoons using a screenplay format rather than submitting a detailed, hand-drawn storyboard. Rewriting a “fix” was infinitely faster on a typewriter… and eventually, faster by far, on a computer.
After proving my worth on any number of series, I was eventually made Story Editor on shows such as:
Scooby-Doo Mysteries - Roman Holidays - Yogi Bear Specials - Penelope Pitstop - Richie Rich - Hong Kong Phooey
It was during that era,and with Joe Barbera’s blessing,that I was granted a 4-week leave-of-absence to write the script for The Beatles feature animated film, "Yellow Submarine"-- which was subsequently rewritten by Erich Segal, the famed author of "Love Story."
On my return, and following a lengthy contract renewal dispute with Hannah-Barbera, I decided to leave the company, and signed on with Filmation Studios, where I developed and wrote:
The Groovie Ghoulies - Sabrina the Teenage Witch - The Archies - Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down!
And co-wrote the pilot for Bill Cosby's Fat Albert series.
Ever the restless gypsy, my next move was to Jay Ward Studios, headed by another good-natured, generous soul -– Jay Ward, himself.
There, smack-dab on Sunset Boulevard, beneath the rotating figure of a 20-foot tall plaster-cast moose proudly holding aloft a silly-looking squirrel, I was kept busy writing many of their Captain Crunch cereal commercials, and soon became Head Writer on two of their cartoon series: George of The Jungle and Super-Chicken.
Frascatti’s, a well-known Hollywood bistro, at that time situated directly across the boulevard, became a regular meeting-place for the dozen or so Jay Ward writers, animators and directors to gather every pay-day Friday for lunch and drinks. Needless to say, none of the staff ever made it back to the studio that afternoon, being far too sloshed to work.
Often, Jay himself would not only join in the drunken merriment, but would also pick up the tab for the entire group’s carousing.
As I said, he was an extremely generous man, who had the greatest respect and admiration for talent.
In 1969, with the help of Jay Ward's agent,Mace Neufeld, I managed to land a job as staff writer on the first full season of the Number One show on TV:
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
It was at the Laugh-In Christmas party, where I was introduced as the newest addition to the staff by the various cast members I’d soon be writing for. And even more warmly welcomed by the show's announcer, Gary Owens, who –- as it turned out –- is a certifiable cartoon buff, rattling off my past credits to whoever would listen, as though he was my publicity agent.
But little did I realize that I was being set up for a stunning come-uppance: When I was introduced to cast-member Judy Carne (the ex-wife of Burt Reynolds) she extended her hand, and in a lady-like British accent said, “How’jdoo?” – and with that same hand suddenly grabbed my crotch in a tenacious death-grip (her customary greeting to any male member of the species) while the other performers doubled over with laughter.
Once established in the arena of prime-time sketch-writing (which, by my reckoning, is only a step removed from writing animation in its uninhibited, unrestrained surrealism), I was then hired as staff-writer on numerous Comedy/Variety shows, like:
The Jim Nabors Show - The Carol Burnett Show - Tony Orlando & Dawn - Dick Van Dyke & Company
When I asked why he’d been so intent on catching the snake, Al explained, “I hate to show up at someone’s house empty-handed.”
Danny protested the charge angrily, saying, “I’ll have you know, that in my home, the words ‘Kike’, ‘Spick’, ‘Chink’, ‘Wop’, ‘Gook’ or ‘Nigger’ have never been used by me, or any member of my family -- except when telling a joke.”
Thinking it was Kate's way of rewarding us for supplying her with such dynamite material, we all rushed to the cart, eager to devour the pastries. But herprissy assistant shooed us away, saying, “These aren’t for you -– they’re for Miss Smith. She has a bit of a sweet tusk, you know.”
The producers of the Tony Orlando & Dawn Show were overjoyed when stand-up comedian George Carlin agreed to appear on the series' premier. But for whatever reason, the idiosyncratic Carlin had insisted on a single contractual demand -- specifically that he and Tony would never appear on stage together-- a stipulation to which Tony Orlando, however reluctantly, agreed.
During dress rehearsal, while Carlin delivered his hilarious monologue, Tony lounged on the 3-step riser leading up to the stage, basking in the moment. Suddenly aware of Tony's presence on the steps, Carlin stopped in mid-joke and glared fiercely at him, waving him away angrily. And Tony quickly scurried off the steps like a scolded puppy.
Dick Van Dyke was by far the most flexible performer I’d ever witnessed -– in every sense of the word: One day, while working on sketches for Dick's Comedy Hour Special, my partner and I were in the producer’s office, when Dick himself walked in, wnting to discuss some matter.
The producer told him to have a seat –- he’d be with him in a minute. Unable to find a place to sit, Dick proceeded to lower his posterior in mid-air, comfortably seating himself in an “invisble imaginary chair.” Then he crossed one lanky leg over the other, and casually lit a cigarette… all the while balancing his body in that precarious, one-legged position for a full five minutes. Wow!
On a different Variety Show, one whose popularity was hovering at the very bottom of the ratings cellar, the entire writing staff was one day summoned to the producer’s office for what we all anticipated would be a severe dressing-down -- or possibly even worse.
Trudging through a narrow passageway leading to the producer’s office must have dredged up grim images of a Nazi concentration camp for one of the predominately Jewish group of writers, who muttered nervously, “Uh-oh. I smell gas.”
It soon became apparent in the industry that, due to their increasingly high production costs, hour-long Variety Shows were rapidly on their way out -- to be replaced by more economical half-hour game shows and comedies. And so Al Gordon and I made a major switch, becoming Story-Editor/ Producers on various sitcoms. Including:
Three’s Company - Carter Country - Hello Larry
“Hello Larry” was far from a brilliantly-conceived sitcom, but despite the critical disdain the show received, it somehow climbed steadily in viewership. And by the end of the season, it had achieved a more-than-respectable standing in the ratings. At the year-end wrap party, the entire cast, crew, and writing staff were celebrating its certain pick-up -- until Fred Silverman, then the network president, officially announced that he was canceling the show. We couldn’t believe it!
Having already established a previous working relationship with “Freddy,” I felt free to ask him how he had arrived at such a rash and irrevocable decision. He explained, “I just couldn’t renew it. Not with Johnny Carson doing another ‘Hello Larry’ put-down joke every night in his monologue. I’d be the laughing-stock of the industry.”
One day Al and I got an exciting call from our agent. He’d just spoken to Jimmie Komack, the creator (among other major hits) of "Chico & the Man," who was seeking a new Exec Producer, to run the show, following the sudden and tragic suicide of its lead, Freddie Prinze.
Our agent had dutifully sung our praises, both creative and administrative, and Komack had given us the OK.. We were told to report for work the very next day!
That evening, Carole and I, along with Al and his wife, had dinner at an over-priced Hollywood restaurant, where we toasted our good fortune with an equally over-priced decanter of Dom Perignon.
But by the next day, the situation had done a complete 180-degree turn. It seems that one of the show’s Writer/ Producers had worked with Al Gordon previously. And perhaps feeling threatened by Al’s lightning-fast joke-writing abilities, along with his keen story sense, the writer informed Komack that Al was “dangerously psychotic” and a menace to everyone’s well-being.
His final words were, “If Al Gordon sets foot in this building, I’m walking!” Faced with this ultimatum, and aware of an impending mutiny, Komack quickly made his decision. And just as quickly, both Al and I were gone –- much like the bubbles in that unfinished decanter of costly champagne.
And with it, fizzled our partnership. And Al Gordon and I agreed to go our separate ways, career-wise. Me, I survived by taking on freelance script assignments for:
Chico & the Man - Love Boat - The Shari Lewis Show - The Munsters
It was somewhere around the Writers Guild strike in the late 1980s that I became aware of a frightening new term being bandied about in the industry – Ageism. Which translated into an insidious, unspoken agreement on the part of producers and network honchos (and subsequently, the talent agencies) that once a writer has reached middle-age, he or she is no longer productive, creative or talented. And therefore – according to some wacky type of Alice-In-Wonderland logic – must immediately be replaced by someone younger and less experienced.
And frankly, aware of the sneakily-approaching pangs of geezer-hood, I admittedly no longer had the stamina (or even the wish) to spend eleven hours a day hanging around a sound-stage, punching up jokes.
It was the perfect excuse for me to leave the arena of night-time TV and scurry back to the relative ease and security of Animation – an area in which, despite my advanced years, I was still recognized for having helped develop a number of hits.
So then I signed on with Marvel Animation, for whom I wrote:
Meatballs & Spaghetti - Sweet Pickles - Jim Henson's Muppet Babies.
I then spent some time with DIC Studios, story-editing the following series; including:
Dennis the Menace - The Beverly Hills Teen Club -Teddy Ruxpin - The New Adventures of He-Man
And then on to Ruby-Spears Studio, to story-edit the Police Academy series.
And from there, to Saban Productions, where I story-edited Camp Candy; a truly delightful experience.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - The Toxic Crusaders - James Bond, Jr. - The New Adventures of Sinbad - Pretty Piggies - Barnyard Commandos
To my mind, Fred Wolf is by far the most creative producer in the entire cartoon industry. His overwhelming talents encompass every conceivable skill required in this demanding field, making him a virtual one-man-band of animation: Writer; layout artist; story-boarder; character designer; animator; film editor; voice director – and most importantly, a truly gracious and generous person whose friendship I value beyond measure.
Despite my seeming successes, it's only fair that you know that my career has by no means been a rocket-ship ride to the moon. In its erratic flight pattern, it encountered its share of detours, flame-outs, implosions and crashes; with any number of projects failing ignominiously, despite my having invested countless hours of creativity, effort, and often hard cash, toward their hoped-for success – any one of which would have vaulted me into that exclusive country-club stratospherre reserved for the super-wealthy.
But, alas! It apparently wasn't meant to be; relegating me, instead, to membership in that vast army of still-striving "99-Percenters."
Among those animation fiascos were:
Topo Gigio - Little Orphan Annie - Broom-Hilda - Don Martin's Captain Klutz - Betty Boop
But probably my biggest professional regret is that of never having met a single member of The Beatles -- although there's still a chance of that happening: Now that Paul McCartney is toying with the notion of converting to Judaism, I'm hoping I might bump into him at a Friday night synagogue service in some "meet-cute" incident –- like, maybe he and I having a comical tug-of-war over the one remaining yarmulke.
Over the years, it's been both my pleasure and privilege to have collaborated, and in some cases formed life-long friendships, with a number of overwhelmingly talented producers, comedy writers, artists, and cartoonists, too many of whom -- sadly -- are now gone. The list includes:
SERGIO ARAGONÉS - RALPH BAKSHI - JOE BARBERA - GEORGE BURDITT - JOHN CANDY - WILL ELDER - MARC EVANIER - AL FELDSTEIN - AL GORDON - AL JAFFEE - LLOYD KAUFMAN - ARNIE KOGEN - WOODY KLING - HARVEY KURTZMAN - MELL LAZARUS - NORMAN LEAR - STAN LEE - DAVID LEVINE - MARGARET LOESCH - CHUCK LORRE - ALAN MANINGS - NORMAN MAURER - CHUCK MCCANN - NICK MEGLIN - CAROLE BRUCE MENDELSOHN - PHIL MENDEZ - DOUG MOLITOR - JIM MULLIGAN - DAVID PANICH - HOWIE POST - JERRY ROBINSON - ARNIE ROSEN - LYNN ROTH - LEW SAYRE SCHWARTZ - ERICH SEGAL - SCOTT SHAW! - JERRY SIEGEL - FRED SILVERMAN - LEONARD STARR - ARNIE SULTAN - ALEX TOTH - MORT WALKER - PAUL WAYNE - ED. WEINBERGER - DAVID WISE - FRED WOLF - WALLY WOOD
As for the future...
Lately, I've primarily focused my energies on creating highly entertaining reading matter, in both hard copy and electronic formats.
I’m currently in the process of completing the close-to-unbelievable life story of the late Pat Morita -– of both stand-up comedy and “The Karate Kid” fame. Click Here For Opening Chapter
There’s also a Jacky’s Diary-style cartoon book, titled “Stuff I'm Lerning in Skool” -– a comical commentary on our currently abysmal system of public education.
Click Here For Sample Pages
And also, “Montezuma’s Revenge” –- an outrageous, 375-page black comedy memoir, recoujnting my six surrealistic years of living in Mexico during the 1950s. Click Here For Opening Chapter
I thought it fitting to end this saga with still another Al Gordon story:
One morning he showed up at the writers’ room complaining of a maddening and relentless"clicking” sound in his ear. On that same day, another writer arrived with the grim news that his doctor discovered he had the beginning stages of often-fatal colon cancer. In a clumsy attempt to console him, Al said, “At least yours isn’t clicking.”