Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery, cartoonist, animator, and director, was born in Taylor, Texas, on February 26, 1908, to George Walton Avery and Mary Augusta “Jessie” (Bean) Avery. He grew up in Dallas and attended North Dallas High School, where he drew cartoons for the school newspaper and yearbook. He graduated from high school in 1926 and then studied at the Chicago Art Institute, where he received instruction from newspaper cartoonists as well as fine artists. After these studies, he returned to Dallas for a brief period and worked odd jobs.
Thinking his ambition to be a newspaper cartoonist would be easier to realize in California, Avery moved to Los Angeles by 1929. Unfortunately, breaking into this already crowded field had become more difficult in the 1920s. The increasing popularity of radio had given Americans an alternate source of news and entertainment, and the number of daily newspapers was on the decline. The animation industry, however, was in its infancy and was receptive to the likes of Avery.
Avery’s first job was with Walter Lantz, best-known as the creator of Woody Woodpecker, at Universal Studios. While employed at Universal, where he was given the nickname “Tex,” Avery worked on the popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. A jack of all trades, he painted backgrounds, wrote gags and stories, drew storyboards (a pre-production task similar to drawing a comic strip) and worked as an “in-betweener.” The latter was a term for an artist responsible for the drawings in between the main, or “key,” drawings, which were handled by the animator. Today in-betweening is largely handled by computers. While at Universal, Avery lost sight in his left eye due to some office horseplay. Also, he met his future wife, Patricia Agnes Johnson, who also worked for the studio. They married in 1935 and later had two children.
After a salary dispute in 1934, Avery applied for work at Warner Brothers. Pretending he had worked as a supervisor (in other words, as a director) while at Universal, he talked his way into a job with producer Leon Schlesinger and auditioned by supervising the 1935 cartoon Gold Diggers of ’49 with Porky Pig. The cartoon was well-received so Avery became a full-time supervisor.
At Warner Brothers, Avery worked at “Termite Terrace,” a ramshackle, termite-infested five-room cottage at 5800 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (in the 2010s the space was occupied by KTLA-TV). While employed there, he worked with a clutch of talented artists, including Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Frank Tashlin, all of whom made their mark in the animation industry.
While at Warner Brothers, Avery introduced and/or developed a number of characters who have remained popular into the twenty-first century. In 1937 he introduced Daffy Duck in Porky’s Duck Hunt. According to Avery, he first conceived of the character while hunting ducks on White Rock Lake in Dallas. This early version of Daffy lived up to his name, but subsequent directors toned him down. Also in 1937 Avery created an Elmer Fudd predecessor named Egghead in Egghead Rides Again. The character was modified over the next few years until the Elmer Fudd familiar to viewers today was introduced in A Wild Hare, a 1940 opus retrospectively credited as the first true Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Although Warner Brothers had employed a rabbit character in earlier cartoons, it had little in common with Avery’s rabbit. Nevertheless, the rabbit became known as Bugs because the supervisor of the previous cartoons (Porky’s Hare Hunt in 1938 and Hare-Um Scare-Um in 1939) was Ben “Bugs” Hardaway. Avery’s rabbit was thus known as “Bugs’ bunny.” Eventually the apostrophe went away, and the character became known as Bugs Bunny, even though Hardaway had moved on to Universal. In contrast to Avery’s zany Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny exhibited self-confident cool composure in a character that animation historian Steve Schneider described as the “brainiest wiseass on the block.” The iconic line “What’s up, Doc?” was first spoken by Bugs Bunny in A Wild Hare. This line may have been new to movie audiences, but in Avery’s youth “doc” was the equivalent of the current “dude.” “Hiya, doc,” “What’s new, doc?” and “What’s up, doc?” were all common teenage greetings, at least at North Dallas High School, during the 1920s.
While at Warner Brothers, Avery supervised sixty-one cartoons. Though he is inextricably linked with Bugs Bunny, he directed just three more cartoons with the wisecracking rabbit (Tortoise Beats Hare , The Heckling Hare , and All This and Rabbit Stew ) before leaving Warner Brothers in 1942.
Avery’s zany, irreverent humor took Warner Brothers cartoons in new directions. In Cross Country Detours (1940), for example, “a close-up of a frog croaking” portrays a frog committing suicide; later in the film, a lizard sheds its skin by performing a striptease routine. In addition to pushing the envelope in acceptable cartoon humor, Avery frequently broke the fourth wall. His onscreen characters might complain about the script or interact with animated audience members; during chase scenes a character might run right out of the frame and do a U-turn around the sprocket holes at the edge of the film.
Despite his unique talents, Avery was not rewarded financially at Warner Brothers, so he moved on to MGM, where producer Fred Quimby gave him a great deal of autonomy. At MGM Tom and Jerry cartoons were the exclusive province of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, but Avery was in charge of all other cartoons. Billed as Tex (rather than Fred) Avery, at MGM he introduced the lethargic Droopy Dog in Dumb-Hounded (1943). Perhaps the least animated of all animated cartoon characters, Droopy provided a stark contrast to the manic antagonists in his films. Avery supervised sixteen Droopy cartoons while at MGM. A more conventionally-nutty cartoon character was Screwy Squirrel who debuted in Screwball Squirrel (1944). He subsequently introduced George and Junior in Henpecked Hoboes (1946).
During his MGM period, Avery’s most unusual contribution to cartooning was sexuality, which had never been attempted before (at least not in films intended for theatrical distribution), likely because of the infamous Hays Office which policed morals in movies. One of the recurring characters in these cartoons was Avery’s unnamed wolf, who was highly aroused by realistically-drawn female characters, drawn by Preston Blair, in a series of cartoons. Animator Preston Blair, a Disney veteran who had worked on Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), and Pinocchio (1940), specialized in realistic animation of human female characters, in sharp contrast to the more plastic “cartoony” characters in Avery’s films. The very titles of some of these shorts (e.g., Red Hot Riding Hood in 1943 and Swing Shift Cinderella in 1945) indicated that these fairy tales were a long way from the Brothers Grimm and Mother Goose. The humor was cleverly handled, however. While children might find the cartoons funny, they did not necessarily “get” the jokes.
After a lengthy tenure at MGM (1942–53), Avery returned to Walter Lantz and Universal, where he worked on the Chilly Willy character in its early stages. His tenure with Lantz was brief (only four cartoons), and once again a financial dispute led to his departure. The golden age of cartoons was drawing to a close anyway; one by one, studios were getting away from theatrical cartoons and moving into television.
Although he was only forty-five years old, Avery’s best years were behind him. After Universal, he worked for Cascade Studios, a Hollywood outfit that produced television commercials for blue chip advertising agencies that represented a number of familiar brand names. One of Avery’s better-known creations was, for Dallas-based Frito-Lay, the Frito Bandito, which was heavily criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of Mexican Americans and eventually pulled from advertising. Avery also created the animated cockroaches for Raid bug spray commercials.
After Cascade folded in 1978, Avery finished out his career at Hanna-Barbera as a writer and gag man. There is some irony in this career move as Hanna and Barbera had pioneered corner-cutting, low-cost animation techniques for television (Ruff and Reddy, Huckleberry Hound, and Yogi Bear, among others) and were viewed as heretics by many animation buffs.
Avery was nominated for six Academy Awards but never took home the prize. At Warner Brothers he was nominated for Detouring America (1939) and A Wild Hare (1940); at MGM for The Blitz Wolf (1942) and Little Johnny Jet (1953); and at Universal for Crazy Mixed Up Pup (1954) and The Legend of Rockabye Point (1955).
Avery was renowned as someone who could do it all (even voices) in animation; something of a perfectionist, he often spent long hours refining gags and fine-tuning the timing. In his personal life, however, he suffered tragedy. One of his two children died of a drug overdose in 1972, the same year his marriage ended. Divorced and living alone, at the age of seventy-two Avery died of cancer on August 26, 1980, in Burbank, California. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles.
Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery was widely admired by his peers. The words “legend,” “master,” and “genius” crop up regularly in reminiscences by his colleagues. “I was as ignorant of his genius as I suppose Michelangelo’s apprentices were oblivious to the fact that they, too, were working with a genius,” noted Chuck Jones, his Warner Brothers colleague. As was the case with many of the feature films Americans took for granted, the French lauded the artists who propelled the golden age of animation. Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng were awarded an Annie at the annual ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d’Animation) awards on November 21, 1974. In 2008 the French government issued three stamps featuring Avery’s characters.
“I don’t know where animators go when they die,” Avery said towards the end of his life, “but I guess there must be a lot of them. They could probably use a good director though.”