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When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
and frighten all who see or hear
the cry goes up both far and near for
Un-derdog! Un-derdog! Un-derdog! Un-derdog!
SPEED of LIGHTNING, ROAR of THUNDER,
FIGHT-ting ALL who ROB or PLUNDER,
UNDERDOG… Ooo-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh, Underdog. UNDERDOG!
When word came out about the passing of ’60s TV cartoon producer W. Watts “Buck” Biggers at the age of 91, it was all about his most well-known creation: “Underdog”. But why not? The superhero toon had a simple but memorable premise, a short list of memorable characters with memorable catchphrases and a theme song that has remained an earworm to a whole generation for over 40 years.
But Biggers’ story, and the story of his Total TeleVision Productions, had a lot more than that, starting with working his way up the ladder at the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency where he became account manager for their work for General Mills cereals. He wasn’t involved with the deal that resulted in General Mills sponsoring Jay Ward & Bill Scott’s “Rocky & Bullwinkle”, but when the agency was having trouble keeping the ‘mischievously creative’ producers in line and started looking for another cartoon show to sponsor, agency guys Biggers, Chet Stover and Joe Harris decided to get into the cartoon biz and created “King Leonardo and his Short Subjects” (yeah, I’m stealing that ‘Short Subjects’ thing).
It’s Good to Be the King (and Odie)
The primary cartoons featured King Leonardo (a lion king, nothing new about that, and kind of bumbling, nothing new about that either) and Odie Cologne (a skunk with a voice based on Ronald Coleman who was the king’s loyal servant) whose usual adversaries were Leonardo’s flea-bitten brother and pretender-to-the-throne Itchy and obvious criminal mastermind Biggie Rat (complete with an Edward G. Robinson imitation voice).
They ran at the beginning and end of each half hour with other segments inbetween. One was “The Hunter” featuring a Southern-drawling private eye voiced by Kenny Delmar. And if you think the voice is a copy of Mel Blanc’s Foghorn Leghorn, you have it kind of backwards. Delmar had played a character on Fred Allen’s radio show named “Senator Claghorn” which ‘inspired’ Robert McKimson to create Foghorn and have Blanc do an imitation of Delmar. UPDATE: On Jerry Beck’s new Cartoon Reserch blog, Keith Scott (author of “The Moose That Roared: The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a Flying Squirrel, and a Talking Moose”) did a comprehensive rundown of the Foghorn Leghorn story; apparently the first two cartoons with the character were inspired by a different ‘Southern character’ on the radio before Delmar started doing Claghorn, but were not yet released and the character was not formally named until later. But this was still Kenny Delmar’s opportunity to reclaim the character voice as his own and it was an interesting example of Total TeleVision’s voice casting, but that was more the job of Treadwell Covington, who handled all the audio recording.
The other full-length segment was “Tooter Turtle”, a mild-mannered dreamer who had made contact with ‘Mister Wizard the Lizard’ (NOT to be confused with Saturday Morning’s live-action Mr. Wizard), who would grant Tooter’s wish to be or do anything he wanted and, when he inevitably got in over his head, grant his wish to come home.
The same structure as “Rocky and Bullwinkle” meant that “King Leonardo” also had a need for short filler content and TTV did it with “Twinkles the Elephant”, a cute pachyderm with a spinning ‘roto-tail’ that allowed him to fly and a ‘magic trunk’ that could morph into all kinds of tools. Freaky. The 90-second segments were done in a ‘storybook’ style with really minimal animation and a narrator speaking for all the characters. The reason why: Twinkles, unlike the other characters on the show, had his own General Mills cereal, star-shaped and sugar frosted, but its main selling point was a four-page storybook attached to the back of the box.