Bullwinkle Speaks! An Interview With Bill Scott
(This interview was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #17.)
Bill Scott was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 2, 1920, and was raised in Trenton, N.J., until he was 15 years old. Scott’s machinist father and waitress mother discovered that their son had tuberculosis, and the family moved to the drier climate of Denver, Colo., a relocation that remedied the malady.
A 1941 graduate of the University of Denver, Scott taught at a parochial high school for a semester before deciding that teaching was not for him. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1942 with the hopes of entering aerial photography. Through an interesting series of events, he found himself assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, Calif., and was given work in an animation unit, where he began by washing cels, inbetweening, and doing layout work. He was eventually assigned to legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas’ unit, where he learned even more about animation.
After his discharge, he became a story man at Warner Bros. in 1946, where he worked for about a year. He went on to work on Bob Clampett’s live-action puppet show, Time for Beany (with Beany and Cecil), and for United Productions of America (UPA), where he co-wrote the Oscar-winning short Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) and worked on the stories for the Oscar nominees Rooty Toot Toot (1951) and The Tell Tale Heart (1953).
Then he worked as a writer for John Sutherland’s educational film company, which turned out a number of propaganda efforts including Meet King Joe, Inside Cackle Corners and The Devil and John Q. He left and did freelance work, including a short return to UPA to help with The Gerald McBoing Boing Show, which premiered on television in December 1956.
In late 1957, Scott met Jay Ward, and the two eventually became partners responsible for Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, Fractured Flickers, cereal commercials featuring Cap’n Crunch and many other projects. Besides serving as a writer, Scott provided many of the voices, including those of Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right. Scott was deeply involved with the Ward Productions live-action projects as well.
In the ’70s, Scott became active in ASIFA—Hollywood, the International Animated Film Society’s Hollywood branch, where he served on the board of directors and as president. He received an Annie Award in 1977.
Scott remained active in community theater work and, during the last year of his life, returned to freelancing, providing the voices of Gruffi Gummi and Sir Tuxford in Disney’s The Gummi Bears (1985) and Moosel in The Wuzzles (1985).
Scott was well respected by his peers and was especially well known for his opinionated views on animation and the people who worked in animation. He was known for his honesty and good humor, two traits he constantly demonstrated during his many years in the business. He genuinely enjoyed animation and the people he worked with over the years. When I interviewed Scott in 1982, he was gracious, articulate and very generous with his time. It was a great gift for me to get several hours of Scott’s memories and insights.
Bill Scott passed away on Nov. 29, 1985, in his sleep at his home in Tujunga, Calif., at the age of 65. He was survived by his wife, two sons and one daughter. The following interview took place at Scott’s home on Sept. 3, 1982, and was one of the last major interviews he gave.
Jim Korkis: How’d you get interested in animation?
Bill Scott: I’ve always been interested in animation and even got a taste of doing some when I was a teenager. My friend Bill Turnbull and I spent a summer animating to the soundtrack of King Kong. We had these great huge 33 1/3 records with movie tracks, and so we listened to King Kong all summer while animating. I would have just turned 19 at the time. The Warner Bros. cartoons were my favorite cartoons at the time, but one of my first cartooning jobs as a kid was thanks to Disney. Fantasia opened in 1940, and I got a job drawing the Disney characters in a downtown store window. I couldn’t draw that well, particularly oversized Disney characters, so I snuck down early and took some non-repro blue and lightly sketched all the characters I was going to draw. Then when I appeared to do the actual painting, it appeared that I was a lightning fast artist because people were too far away to see my light tracings. As long as people stayed about 10 feet away, I looked pretty flashy.
Korkis: How did you get assigned to the animation unit during your time in the military?
Scott: I was originally supposed to be part of a combat camera crew that was in Culver City. Actually, the Culver City unit had been moved to the Hal Roach Studios. I go up the stairs to the second floor in the old Hal Roach production building, and I find myself looking at Rudy Ising, who was part of the animation producing team of Harman-Ising who did the first “Looney Tunes” cartoon and several classic cartoons at MGM. I told him what my background was and that I very much wanted to be in the animation section, and he said he would see what he could do. So he got me transferred from the loading room to being a gofer in the animation department. I started out washing cels because they needed to reuse cels because they were scarce at that time. You really can’t get much lower than washing cels.
Korkis: How did you get started at Warner’s after your discharge from the military?
Scott: I kicked around for a while. I went to Rudy Ising looking for work. Rudy said he’d try to find something for me, but nothing opened up. Then I got a call from Warner’s. Bob Clampett had left a short time before, and they had promoted an animator named Art Davis to the post of director. They were looking for new story men for this unit, so they hired a fellow named Lloyd Turner and me. Phil Monroe had gone to bat for me. He had talked to Chuck Jones, and Jones was one of the guys who said, “Sure, we ought to try some new people.”
Korkis: Were you and Turner a story team?
Scott: We worked together as a team for a year. We didn’t know it, but we were working in competition with each other. At the end of the year, we found ourselves put off on our own. We each had to write our own story, and whoever had the better story would be kept on and the other guy would be fired. This is what I called the “Fang and Claw System.”
Korkis: That must have made things difficult for the both of you.
Scott: It would have, except that we refused to play the game. We worked on each other’s stories. We just worked double-time, that’s all. Where we would normally do one story in six weeks, we did two stories in six weeks. All the jokes were joint jokes, exactly the way we’d done it before. We tossed a coin to see whose story would be whose. When the two stories were done, they liked Lloyd’s story better than the one I had supposedly written by myself. He was kept on and I was fired.
Korkis: What were some of the shorts you and Turner worked together on at Warner’s?
Scott: “Doggone Cats”  about the cats preventing the dog from delivering the package to Uncle Louie was ours. One I really remember was “What Makes Daffy Duck?” , where Elmer and a fox are both hunting Daffy.
Korkis: Here’s a listing that might help jog your memory a little [hands Scott a printed list].
Scott: “Bone Sweet Bone” . I’d forgotten that completely. “Riff Raff Daffy” , “A Hick, A Slick, and A Chick” , “Two Gophers from Texas” —that was the one with the two Goofy Gophers. I also remember us doing some work on “Catch as Cats Can”  and “Mexican Joyride” .
Korkis: Other than the fact that you suddenly found yourself working in competition with Turner, did you enjoy working at Warner’s?
Scott: Of course. I was working with my heroes. They were all guys I’d heard about for so long. As far as I was concerned, they were the greatest writers in the business: names like Mike Maltese, Tedd Pierce and Warren Foster. They all turned out to be very nice guys, every one of them. Warren Foster was the squarest of them, and he spent half his time playing the horses. I think he was the hardest worker.
Korkis: How did they go about creating a story?
Scott: Those guys could produce really remarkable stuff. It used to be that you’d start each story with a blank piece of Cellotex on your wall. It was four feet by eight feet, I remember. You’d start doing little pieces of story and pin them up. When you got enough pinned up to run seven minutes, you were finished. I think it was Maltese who one time drew a huge mouth on his and it said, “Always Hungry!”
Korkis: And it took about six weeks to do that?
Scott: On one occasion Mike Maltese was working with another story man and got a flash of an idea and wrote this whole bloody story in less than a week. The other story guy was right with him, sketching like mad. They had finished this story in a week but didn’t put it up. All the sketches were shoved in the drawer, and they goofed around and threw push pins and told stories and snuck out to lunch and all that. At the end of each day, they’d pull out a handful of sketches and pin ’em up, and it took exactly six weeks to do this story.
Korkis: I know Maltese was teamed with Tedd Pierce at this time.
Scott: You couldn’t get two funnier people going through a storyboard than Maltese and Pierce. Pierce was a very good-looking man. He really had a patrician look to him when he wasn’t bruised. He used to get in a lot of fights off the lot for a variety of reasons. On Mondays he would sometimes show up looking like death warmed over, or he wouldn’t show up at all. He had a fine New England accent, and he was a tremendous guy, a very funny fellow.
Korkis: Do you think the background you had in animation during the war helped you as a story man?
Scott: Of course. A good animation writer needs to have an awareness of the medium, what is capable of being done. It’s also useful to know how to draw. It’s not vital. There are some writers who can’t draw worth a darn but it is easier to sketch out little stick figures than type a page and half of instructions and directions. My background in animation also helped me develop a sense of animation timing, how long a scene should be to work for an audience. I couldn’t draw worth a damn when I was an animator. People like Bill Hurtz and Phil Monroe would cover up my mistakes for me and they would do the work when I couldn’t do it. The one thing that saved me was that when anything happened that was the least bit humorous or notable, I could sketch up a whole series of gags about it. Little panel gags and everyone would laugh. I couldn’t draw worth a pinch but I was good enough to draw these funny ideas about situations and would drop them on people’s desks and they’d just laugh and laugh and pass them around. I think that was why I got recommended to be a story man at Warner’s.
Korkis: Is there one memory about working at Warner’s that sticks out for you?
Scott: The time clock that was at the front of the door. It seemed like a long, long hall in a long, long building. I guess there were a hundred people or more working there at the time, and everybody always wanted to be the first to punch out. Otherwise, you had to stand in this damned line forever waiting to punch out. Well, about 4:45 p.m., the infiltration would start to get to the clock. If you were in the hall, you’d be sent back to your room, or the boss, Eddie Selzer, would call you in and bawl you out or possibly dock your salary.
Korkis: So there was an element of danger?
Scott: Definitely. The infiltration would start from the second floor. We’d go down the steps, then a quick dart across the hall into [director Bob] McKimson’s unit’s room. Then we’d peek out and if there was no one there, we’d work our way to the ink and paint department. So this whole thing looks like a group of commandos trying to get to the time clock. And then when the big bell on the clock went off, the hall was instantly filled. People were racing down to be the first one to punch out. I used to just laugh my fool head off watching these serious people with all these secret strategies. People were afraid that Selzer might come walking down the hall, so you had to be prepared to hide inside rooms. There were people crouching behind desks, inside closets and heaven only knows what else. It was a crazy time.
Korkis: Chuck Jones always seemed to make Selzer the “villain” in his stories about working at Warner’s.
Scott: He was a man who never should have been there, but they couldn’t find anything else for him to do on the main lot so they made him head of cartoons. He was a mean SOB with no sense of humor. I’ve been told that after his retirement, he turned out to be a much nicer fellow. But while I was there, he was the heavy, the bad guy. There was no doubt about it. He’d scare the pants off me all the time.
My favorite Selzer story happened when I was not there. Lloyd and I were working in the same room and had pinned up a little piece of cardboard on our door that said: “Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner: Story.” I was fired on a Friday, and on Monday Selzer came walking down the hall and saw the sign was still there. He poked his head in the doorway and said to Lloyd, “Why don’t you take that sign off the door?” Lloyd asked why, and Selzer replied, “Scott isn’t here any more, and you’re not good enough to have your name on the door!” Now, it was unnecessary to handle the situation in that way. He was just throwing his weight around. He was a mean little man.
Korkis: Was writing at UPA different than at Warner’s?
Scott: To begin with, you never mentioned Warner’s! The kiss of death at UPA was to be considered a Warner Bros. writer. They were considered clothesline gag people with lots of violence. At UPA, you had to be able to justify your humor, which was difficult to do. You couldn’t write a big blow-off for your joke and pay it off with a big animation tag or a pose. They wouldn’t let you do it, even though it was common at Warner’s. You have to remember that when I was working at Warner’s and at UPA, writers were still pretty low on the totem pole. In some ways, I dislike the term “story man.” We’re writers. But I guess being a “story man” is better than being a “gag man,” which was a term that lasted through the ’40s. It’s writers who go about inventing the worlds that never previously existed.
Korkis: But other than Selzer, you enjoyed your time at Warner’s?
Scott: Yes, apart from Selzer, the people were great. I’m glad I had the opportunity to work there. I had fun.
Korkis: Where did you go after Warner’s?
Scott: I became a writer for Jerry Fairbanks’ Speaking of Animals series for a year. This was the short subject series where we animated mouths on footage of real animals to have them talk. A writer named Charlie Shows and I were stuck in a tiny room where we’d string a bunch of animal jokes together for this footage.
Korkis: What did you do next?
Scott: My wife and I decided we would try to crack New York as actors. We tried it for six months. I figured it would probably take us three years to make it, and even then we’d only be making about $50 a week. So we came back to California and opened a doughnut shop. By working 12 hours a day, six days a week, we managed to lose only about a thousand dollars a month [laughter].
Korkis: So that’s when you went to work writing for the popular television puppet show Time for Beany?
Scott: Yes, it was about 1948. I got a call from Charlie Shows, who had been writing for the program. He asked if I’d be interested in working with him. We did one 15-minute episode a day. It was very exciting. Bob Clampett, the producer of the show, gave us complete freedom. Again, I was working with splendid talents like Stan Freberg and Daws Butler. On a good day, we’d be finished with a script by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Daws and Stan would come and read it over and get the jokes down, and then we’d do a run-through of it and then it’d go on the air at 6:15 p.m. That was on good days. Sometimes we didn’t have a script finished at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and then it was really pressure time. There was one occasion where we had not done the last page when the show started. In the middle of the show, I had to sneak back and pin up the last page of the script for Daws and Stan to read for the first time that they’d ever seen it to finish the show.
Korkis: Why did you leave?
Scott: I asked for more money, especially since Bob was developing another show, which was to be called Buffalo Billy, about a boy and his horse. I was writing one of the most successful shows on television, and I couldn’t afford a television set. My wife used to drive down to Hawthorne Boulevard., where there was a store that sold television sets, and she would hold my little kid on her shoulders and they would watch Time for Beany. Through the store window!
Our big demand was nobody on the show should make less than $100. We got all these demands written up. I was the rabble-rouser of the crowd and didn’t care, so I gave them to Clampett on a Friday night. Saturday morning I get a call from Clampett’s attorney and he said, “Bob asked me to call you. He is going to be taking a more personal interest in the writing and the production of the show and is going to be taking over a lot of the duties himself, and therefore you needn’t report back in on Monday.” That was the end of that.
Korkis: Next you worked at UPA.
Scott: I had worked with some of these people before. I guess the first thing I worked on was the second Mr. Magoo short [“Spellbound Hound,” 1950]. I had to help develop the character with more premises and so forth. Then I worked on the adaptation of Gerald McBoing Boing , which was based on a story by Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. We changed a lot of the lines that were in there. Some of them were very much like Geisel, and you couldn’t tell where Geisel leaves off and we started. It was a very successful picture, and of course it was fun to do.
Korkis: Do you have a particular favorite among your UPA efforts?
Scott: I guess if I were limited to one to look at over and over again, it would be The Tell Tale Heart . I worked with Fred Gable on that one. It was my job to adapt the Edgar Allan Poe story. I’d pick a phrase here and there and write Poe-like stuff to bridge the gaps. Ted Parmelee [an animation director who later worked for Jay Ward] and [designer] Paul Julian really did a superb job. Paul was into this Dali-esque thing. We were fortunate enough to get James Mason to narrate the story, and I got to direct him. I told him where I thought this could be different and that could be different, and he’d hit it perfectly. It was a thrill to sit there and listen to this stuff.
Korkis: Wasn’t The Tell Tale Heart originally planned for 3-D?
Scott: We first shot it in 3-D; however, it was never released in this format. The design and the technique of the constant multiple fade, fade, fade, so that the lights and shapes change and move without any real motion, have never been approached since. Nobody’s taken the time and trouble to fool with it.
Korkis: Where did you go after UPA?
Scott: I worked freelance for a bit, then went to work with John Sutherland. [Editor’s note: See this post for our article about Sutherland.] Sutherland had an educational film company and made a niche in animation with major corporations. I had to write things like animated cartoons on why fishing laws are vital to us or about DuPont employee benefits, which was designed primarily to steal the thunder from any kind of union organization. Everybody at DuPont saw this great, cute picture about how well they’re going to be protected by the company. I wasn’t particularly proud of it. After about four years, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I tried to quit three times, but John would stuff my mouth with money so I wouldn’t make any noise. I left on fairly good terms. When I quit I was making over $700 a week.
Korkis: Then you came back briefly to UPA.
Scott: I was doing a lot of freelancing, including Quartet Films and storyboarding for commercials. I had been called back to UPA in 1956 to do some troubleshooting on the television show Gerald McBoing Boing. It was very nice to be called back. I did not come in for a long period of time. I was supposed to look at every story in the place and try to figure out how to make it funny or how to make it better or how to add stuff to it. I couldn’t help it out very much. I met a lot of resistance from people who said my stuff was not funny and they weren’t going to use it. I think I was looked at like a great pain in the ass by most people who I was supposed to be helping.
Korkis: In 1959, the financially troubled UPA was sold to producer Henry Saperstein, and you came back there for a brief time.
Scott: I worked on 1,001 Nights [UPA’s first full-length animated feature, released in 1959] with Mr. Magoo. They wanted somebody who had worked with actors. It was a pretty good track, but it was a dull picture. Again, it was done fairly straight, with very few animation jokes in it. By that time, Magoo had softened up considerably. Pete Burness in later years said he was very sorry he did that. He listened to some people who told him that he should make Magoo more lovable and cuddly or audiences wouldn’t like him. I was doing fairly well but I don’t have the mentality for freelancing. I was always worried about last week or next week.
Korkis: And this was about the time you got together with Jay Ward?
Scott: Yes, sometime in 1957. Well, actually, Charlie Shows comes into it again. Jay Ward and Alex Anderson [nephew of cartoon producer Paul Terry] had produced Crusader Rabbit [considered by many to be the first limited-animation series made for television]. It did not get sensational ratings, but it did have a cult following. Seamus Culhane [a veteran animator-producer-director for Disney, Fleischer, Lantz and Warner Bros.] wanted to open up a studio on the West Coast and wanted Jay to head it up. Shamus would pick the projects and raise the money. Jay would produce them Crusader Rabbit-style.
At this time, Alex had opened his own advertising agency and was doing quite well, so he wasn’t anxious to go back to writing cartoons. So Jay asked Jerry Fairbanks if he knew any good cartoon writers. Jerry touted him on Charlie Shows, who touted Jay on me. The three of us worked on a series to be called Phineas Phox, about a fox and a bear who operate a detective agency. All the characters were animals and it was pretty cute. It was done in a tongue-in-cheek style about an inept Sam Spade-type of detective and his bumbling assistant. We worked on a couple of scripts, then Jay and Shamus had a falling out and the project never came to pass. Shamus asked me if I’d do a few more all by myself, so I did a half-dozen scripts and storyboarded them myself. Then they just disappeared into the great maw.
About six months after that, I got a call from Jay asking if I’d be interested in writing another series, an adventure script with a moose and a squirrel. I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know if I could write an adventure with a moose and a squirrel, but I never turned down a job.
Korkis: So the two of you developed Rocky and Bullwinkle?
Scott: Yes, Jay had an apartment at the Andalusia, a great old place dating back to the 1920s. We worked in his apartment and did the pilot script, which was called Rocky and His Friends. Jay loved to hear me read the jokes out loud. I’d do all the voices. I’d never done this kind of thing, but I went through radio training when I was going to school in Denver.
Jay and Alex Anderson had developed a concept for a series called the Frostbite Falls Follies Revue, about animals in the North Woods running a television station. The proposal never went anywhere, but Jay really liked two of the characters, a moose and squirrel. So we developed those characters more fully.
So we got to the point where we’re going to record the pilot. We got Paul Frees to do the narration for the pilot. [Editor’s note: William Conrad would narrate the later episodes.] He provided some of the other voices, including Boris Badenov. We heard a voice actress named June Foray and thought that she’d be perfect for the voice of Rocky. We got her smashed—just absolutely drunk—at lunch and she said, “Sure, I’ll do it. What the hell!” [Editor’s note: Foray also provided the voice for Natasha Fatale.] I asked who was going to be the moose and Jay said, “I thought you were going to do Bullwinkle.” So I agreed. I thought, “Gee, that’s great. I’ll get $50 for doing this.” That was the session fee for voice artists.
We recorded the pilot at the old Universal Studios, which later became the Lee Strasberg Drama School. Just the three of us—Paul, June and me. I’m not completely sure as to whether Daws Butler was part of the recording session at that point. After that, we didn’t hear anything for a while.
Korkis: What did you do while you were waiting?