He’s won an Annie award. He’s been nominated for Hugos and Emmys. His films have been consistently named as some of the most revolutionary in the animation space. He was the first person to bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. He’s one of the most profitable animation directors of all time. And yet, he’s not exactly a household name. People today are more likely to recognize the names of Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter or Brad Bird than that of Ralph Bakshi. On today’s Track Down Tuesday we ask the question, “Who is Ralph Bakshi and where is he now?”

RALPH BAKSHI – A SHORT BIO

Ralph Bakshi was born in Palestine, but his parents relocated to Brooklyn shortly thereafter. He grew up in a primarily African-American neighborhood and, in a time of intense segregation, was often the only white child at an all-black school. At the age of 15, Bakshi discovered Gene Byrnes’ Complete Guide to Cartooning at the public library. He promptly stole that copy and learned every lesson in it. After a pretty rebellious period in his teenage years, Bakshi was sent to Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art, graduating with an award in cartooning in June of 1956. Bakshi then spent roughly twelve years working on animated TV shows like Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse. Eventually, he was hired to run the animation division at Paramount Studios, where he brought some of the top comic book artists and writers of the time to work with him. People like Harvey Kurtzman, Lin Carter, Gray Morrow, Archie Goodwin, Wally Wood and Jim Steranko were given their first shots at animation through Bakshi.

RALPH BAKSHI’S FILM CAREER

A mere eight months after Bakshi started at Paramount, the studio dissolved its animation department, inspiring him to strike out on his own. In 1968, he founded Bakshi Productions, taking on many of the same comic book artists and writers he had worked with at Paramount. He paid his animators higher wages than other studios and expanded employment opportunities for minorities and women. Shockingly, Bakshi paid EVERYONE at his company equal wages for their respective positions, a strange concept at the time. Shortly thereafter, in 1969, he was introduced to a book called Fritz The Cat by an eccentric artist and writer named Robert Crumb. After a long courtship with Crumb, Bakshi was finally granted the rights to produce an animated feature about the character. But his feature pitch was turned down by every studio until Warner Bros offered him a relatively modest $850,000 budget.

Check out the NSFW trailer of Fritz The Cat:

The film premiered two years later, grossing over $90M worldwide.

After the wild success of Fritz, Bakshi released three incredibly politically- and racially-charged animated films: Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Hey, Good Lookin’. They, together with Fritz, practically invented the genre of adult animation. All three turned a profit (despite mixed critical reviews on Hey, Good Lookin’), and Bakshi became the first animator since Disney to have such a string of big-screen successes.

BAKSHI SHIFTS TO FANTASY

Ralph Bakshi - LOTR

Bakshi released his next film, Wizards, in 1977. It was a moderate success, grossing $9M on a budget of $1.2M. In late 1976, while still working on Wizards, Bakshi learned that John Boorman was contracted to write and direct an adaptation of all three books in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (as a SINGLE film). When Bakshi heard this, he arranged a meeting with Mike Medavoy, United Artists’ head of production. Medavoy agreed to let Bakshi take over the project, but only if Bakshi could come up with the $3M fee for Boorman’s script. Down the hall, MGM president Dan Melnick actually ran out of a meeting (with a surprised Peter Bogdanovich) when he learned that Bakshi was trying to acquire the rights to The Lord of the Rings. Melnick burst into the Bakshi/Medavoy discussion and agreed to pay United Artists the $3M script fee for a piece of the film. Unfortunately, Melnick was fired from MGM soon thereafter, and Bakshi found himself back on the hook for the $3M. Bakshi contacted Saul Zaentz (producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who wrote a check to cover the debt and agreed to fund the first film of the trilogy. The MASSIVE production budget for all three films combined? A whopping $8M [sarcasm font]. Such a stretched budget would necessitate a healthy return. But in spite of this, and with no contractual obligation to do so, Bakshi insisted on giving residuals to the Tolkien estate.

To make the animation as realistic as possible, Bakshi shot the entire film using live actors and rotoscoped over the footage. Check out Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi for some amazing stories about the production and the innovative technology needed to accomplish it. Bakshi spent $4M on that first film… but even though it grossed over $30M, the second and third parts were cancelled due to audience backlash over some terrible marketing decisions by the distribution company. Sadly, this was just the beginning of Bakshi’s battle with (and eventual defeat by) the studio system. You can see some of the beautiful and unique animation from Bakshi’s LOTR in this trailer:

COOL WORLD

Several other successful animated films followed (Fire and Ice, American Pop), and Bakshi temporarily retired in the mid-1980s. Then, in 1990, he pitched a partially-animated horror film about a cartoon/human hybrid child who journeys from an animated land to reality in order to murder his father. The live-action footage was meant to be as odd and visually striking as the animation; in his pitch, Bakshi said he wanted it to look like a “living, walk-through painting.” He called his concept Cool World  and Paramount agreed to fund the project for him.

Unbeknownst to Bakshi, as he was overseeing pre-production, producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. (son of then-Paramount president Frank Mancuso, Sr.) hired Michael Grais and Mark Victor to rewrite the script, then fired lead actress Drew Barrymore and hired Kim Basinger to replace her. The actors, animators and Bakshi himself were given the new script IN PIECES – often one page at a time and on the day they were shooting those scenes. Bakshi actually never received a full copy of the completely re-written script. Cool World was released in 1992 and was a major box office flop. Critics gave high marks to the animation but thought the story was incoherent. On top of that, Mancuso sued Bakshi for publicly badmouthing the process… and for punching him in the nose during one of their production meetings. To date, Cool World is Bakshi’s only movie to not turn a profit and his last theatrical release.

LAST TELEVISION WORK

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/7/72/SpicyCityX.jpg/220px-SpicyCityX.jpg

In 1995, some executives at HBO saw Jesus vs. Santa, the animated short by South Park creators Trey Park and Matt Stone. They approached Bakshi and asked him to create a series for them in the same style and tone. Spicy City premiered on HBO in July of 1997, one month before South Park debuted on Comedy Central. The show received great ratings and critical acclaim and was approved for a second season. HBO, however, demanded that Bakshi fire all his writers from the first season and hire local LA talent instead, primarily from the HBO writers program. Bakshi refused and Spicy City was cancelled. HBO quickly buried the series, which is unavailable anywhere as of this writing.

RALPH BAKSHI TODAY

Bakshi retired in 2000, happily turning his focus to painting and teaching. Still, it seems the film bug has not left Mr. Bakshi entirely. In 2013, he launched a Kickstarter campaign for a film called Last Days of Coney Island. He had apparently pitched it around town and received several 9-figure offers to produce it, providing he could turn in a PG film that could be marketed to kids. But that isn’t Bakshi’s style. On March 3 of 2013, the film was successfully funded and Bakshi confirmed production of the R-rated version had begun. The film is set to star Matthen Modine and several alum from Coonskin and American Pop. Here’s some behind the scenes footage:

The release date is undetermined at this time, but we’re certainly happy to hear Mr. Bakshi is making his return to the big screen and we can’t wait to see the finished film, as well as watch an entirely new generation experience his completely uninhibited and unique vision.

Mr. Bakshi, to quote Fritz the Cat, “as a writer and poet it is your duty to get out there and dig the world… to swing with the whole friggin’ scene while there’s still time!”

Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi in 2015

Check back here next week for more Track Down Tuesday and hit us up over on Twitter if you have any requests for future TDT!

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