The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies director who had the most experience in animation, directed the most cartoons and won the most Academy Awards was Isadore “Friz” Freleng.
Isadore Freleng was born in 1906 in Kansas City, Missouri where he began his animation career at the United Film Ad Service, which is where he first met fellow animators Hugh Harman and Ub Iwerks. Harman was actually the person who gave Freleng the nickname “Congressman Frizby” after a satirical fictional character seen in the Los Angeles Examiner, and the nickname eventually got shortened to “Friz.”
In 1923, Ub Iwerks’ friend and Kansas City native Walt Disney moved to Hollywood and put out a call for his animation colleagues in Kansas City to make animated films for him, which Freleng eventually decided to do in 1927.
While working for Disney, Freleng animated on the Alice comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons alongside Iwerks, Harman and Rudy Ising.
When Harman and Ising left Disney and decided to make it on their own, Freleng joined them and helped animate their own cartoon starring a new character named Bosko, which they sold as a pilot for a Bosko series to WB animation producer Leon Schlesinger.
Harman and Ising eventually left WB for MGM due to money disputes, but Freleng stayed at WB and Schlesinger convinced him to direct since Freleng was the employee with the most animation experience following the departures of Harman and Ising.
Freleng was the director at WB who put out the most high-quality shorts in the 1930s and had a consistently good track record for making entertaining cartoons, and he was even the first to direct WB’s first star Porky Pig in the 1935 short I Haven’t Got a Hat.
Freleng left WB in 1937 for a small stint making Captain and the Kids cartoons for MGM, but he regretted the decision and returned to WB in 1939. After he came back, his cartoons got even better.
In addition to helping develop the definitive personalities for Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Sylvester and Speedy Gonzales, Freleng’s biggest claim to fame was the creation of Bugs Bunny’s rival Yosemite Sam, who is one of the best cartoon characters of any animation studio (and rumored to be a loose caricature of Freleng who was on the shorter side and was known at Termite Terrace to be a short-tempered taskmaster).
Hawley Pratt was Freleng’s longtime right-hand man working as a layout artist and co-director throughout Freleng’s career at WB and beyond.
The cartoons that Freleng directed at WB not only had good comedic timing but he was a classically trained musician who liked to time his cartoons on musical bar sheets, constantly implementing music into the cartoon action which helped distinguish him from the other directors.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Friz Freleng always had a great filmography of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies on his resume, some of which are among my favorite animated shorts. Among his best are You Ought To Be in Pictures (1940), Rhapsody in Rivets (1941), Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943), Pigs in a Polka (1943), Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944), Hare Trigger (1945), Rhapsody Rabbit (1946), Tweety Pie (1947), Slick Hare (1947), Speedy Gonzales (1955), Three Little Bops (1957) and Birds Anonymous (1957).
Four of his WB cartoons won Oscars including the first cartoon to pair Tweety with Sylvester Tweetie Pie (1947), Speedy Gonzales (1955), Birds Anonymous (1957) and Knighty Knight Bugs (1958). Four other WB cartoons directed by Freleng that were nominated for Oscars include Sandy Claws (1955), Mexicali Shmoes (1959), Mouse and Garden (1960) and The Pied Piper of Guadalupe (1961).
In 1962, Freleng left WB to be a supervisor at Hanna-Barbera, but after the WB animation studio closed in 1963, Freleng along with his producer and former boss at The Bugs Bunny Show David H. DePatie rented out the space to make cartoons for their own production company DePatie-Freleng Enterprises and the company produced cartoons for WB from 1964 to 1966.
The biggest success of DePatie-Freleng was not Looney Tunes however. The company was hired to animate the opening titles of the 1963 Blake Edwards comedy The Pink Panther and Freleng and Hawley Pratt created the Pink Panther cartoon character for the animated opening and that panther character became more popular than the film itself.
When the film’s distributor United Artists asked Friz Freleng to produce a cartoon short starring the Pink Panther, DePatie-Freleng created the 1964 short The Pink Phink which won Freleng another Oscar and launched an entire Pink Panther cartoon series and the career of another animated star.
This led to the television series The Pink Panther Show (1969-1980) which aired on NBC and ABC as a showcase for Pink Panther shorts, and other DePatie-Freleng cartoon characters like The Inspector, The Ant and the Aardvark, The Dogfather, Roland and Rattfink and Crazylegs Crane.
Other creations of DePatie-Freleng include the I Dream of Jeannie opening sequence, the light saber blades in Star Wars, the animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975), What’s New, Mr. Magoo? (1977), The Fantastic Four (1978), the television special The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973) and the fantastic Peabody-winning Dr. Seuss television specials made from 1971 to 1982 that include The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss on the Loose, The Hooberbloob Highway, Halloween Is Grinch Night, Pontoffel Pock Where Are You? and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat.
Freleng and DePatie sold off DePatie-Freleng to Marvel Comics in 1980 and Marvel renamed the company Marvel Productions, which would go on to produce the animated series Spider-Man (1981), Dungeons & Dragons (1983-85), G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1983-86), Muppet Babies (1984-91), The Transformers (1984-87) and many other animated series mostly from the eighties.
Freleng meanwhile guided the Looney Tunes characters throughout their television and feature film career directing and producing The Bugs Bunny Show and executive producing the anthology films The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales and Daffy Duck’s Fantastic Island before stepping down in 1986.
In 1995, Friz Freleng died in Los Angeles at the age of 88. He was one of the most prolific filmmakers in the animation industry and one of the most important players in WB’s animation legacy helping animation earn respect for decades with his work and continuing to contribute to the medium long after it was necessary when the Looney Tunes were over and he had already established himself as one of the best directors who made some of the most memorable shorts in cartoon history.