Joseph Barbera

Active - 1940 - 2021  |   Born - Mar 24, 1911 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Dec 18, 2006   |   Genres - Children's/Family

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Biography by Nathan Southern

For over four decades, Joseph Barbera reigned, along with his partner William Hanna, as one of the princes of American animation, second only to Walt Disney. Over the years, Hanna and Barbera created so many inimitable cartoon legends that their resumé reads like a laundry list of American television icons: Tom & Jerry, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, the Jetsons, the Flintstones, Top Cat, Jonny Quest, Huckleberry Hound, the Smurfs, and many, many others.

Born on March 24, 1911, in Manhattan, the son of an Italian immigrant, Joseph Roland Barbera came of age in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he demonstrated an incredible propensity for artistry as a young man. After high school, Barbera studied at the American Institute of Banking, before the sale of one of his illustrations to Collier's magazine turned his head in the direction of work as a full-time cartoonist; deeply inspired, Barbera wrote a letter to Walt Disney, requesting employment. Disney responded, and agreed to contact Barbera and meet with him on his next trip to New York, but never followed through on this promise.


Undiscouraged, Barbera signed on with one of Disney's rivals, Max Fleischer, but the stint lasted less than a week. Barbera then went to work for the Van Beuren Studios from 1932-1936, then the Terrytoon Studios, in New Rochelle, NY. Not one year later, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer's animation department in Culver City, CA, caught a glimpse of Barbera's work and, sensing the depths of his talent, instantly hired the prodigious young man to work in their animation department. At MGM, Barbera's supervisors paired him up with Hanna, a seasoned animator, score composer, and librettist, and the two set to work turning out animated adaptations of Katzenjammer Kids shorts. In the process, they became fast friends as well.

Both men felt dissatisfied with the subjects at hand, however, and convinced the department heads to let them devise, script, illustrate, and animate their own short subjects. This resulted in the 1940 short Puss Gets the Boot, which later received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short. Puss Gets the Boot lost that year to Rudolf Ising's The Milky Way, but the warm public reception to Puss paved the way for a seemingly limitless period of work for Hanna and Barbera at Metro -- their job security further anchored by additional Oscar nominations and wins for shorts. These included -- among others -- Yankee Doodle Mouse in 1943, Mouse Trouble in 1944, Quiet Please! in 1945, The Cat Concerto in 1946. The Oscar nods wrapped with the 1957 short One Droopy Knight; in the interim, the Tom and Jerry series spawned 113 individual episodes.

Meanwhile, significant changes occurred at MGM. Hanna and Barbera were first promoted to heads of the animation department; then, in 1955, the department closed altogether, inspiring the two men to strike out on their own, full-time. They turned to H-B Enterprises and reinvented the outfit as a base for animated television series. One of Hanna-Barbera's key innovations during this period involved a now-standard technique called "limited animation," where the animators reduced the number of drawings per minute from around 1,000 to about 300, making the prospect of a weekly animated series a highly feasible one.

H-B debuted with its first weekly, The Ruff & Reddy Show, in 1957, then produced The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958). The program won an Emmy and yielded a spin-off, The Yogi Bear Show, about a now-notorious bear with a penchant for swiping "pic-a-nic" baskets from unsuspecting tourists in Jellystone Park. If Hanna and Barbera admitted that Honeymooners mainstay Ed Norton inspired Yogi, they took the success of the series as a cue, unofficially revamping the entire Honeymooners series in animated form for their next project. That effort, The Flintstones -- about two Stone Age couples raising their children in the town of Bedrock -- reinvented the sitcom formula within an animated context. Its initial prime-time run lasted six seasons (until early September 1966) and it has appeared in syndication ever since.

Dozens of additional Hanna-Barbera series appeared throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s; even a brief glimpse indicates the depth and breadth of the imaginations responsible. These included Top Cat (1961), a series about a bunch of "hip" alley cats living and noshing off of Broadway in New York; The Jetsons (1962), a kind of temporal flip side of The Flintstones, about a closely knit, middle-class family living and working in the Space Age, with the help of a robotic maid, flying automobiles, and a high-tech home; Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, a "mod" '70s cartoon about a craven Great Dane and his cadre of bell-bottomed teenage friends, who drive around in a psychedelic van and solve mysteries; and, in the early '80s, The Smurfs, adapted from the Belgian comic strip by Peyo -- a fairy tale series about a bunch of white-capped blue dwarves who live in mushroom huts in a European forest during the Middle Ages, and must thwart the fiendish plans of wizard Gargamel and his cat, Azrael.

Hanna and Barbera also attempted, with extremely limited success, to spin hit prime-time American sitcoms off into series cartoons during the late '70s and early '80s, including Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and Happy Days. In 1973, they ventured into feature film production with the enormously successful animated theatrical release Charlotte's Web, adapted from the seminal children's book by E.B. White. Hanna and Barbera pursued a sophomore theatrical outing with the 1979 C.H.O.M.P.S., an ill-advised comic fantasy directed by Benji creator Joe Camp, about a robotic dog; it unequivocally bombed with critics and the pubic. The animated 1982 theatrical feature Heidi's Song, adapted from the novel by Johanna Spyri, fared slightly better than C.H.O.M.P.S., but received less recognition and poorer reviews than Charlotte's Web, and was quickly forgotten. The animators occasionally ventured into live-action entertainment and educational programming for television, as well. In the former category, they produced the quirky Westerns Hardcase (1971), Shootout in a One-Dog Town (1974), and Belle Starr (1980

In the 1990s, the animators continued to turn out new efforts, with such series as Monster Tails, Fender Bender 500, and Wake, Rattle & Roll. During that decade, Hanna and Barbera also opened a chain of retail stores. Incredibly, the duo's animation work continued until the beginning of the new millennium, but when William Hanna died at age 91 on March 22, 2001, in Hollywood, CA, it effectively signaled an end to many of Barbera's project, as well. Nonetheless, the many classic Hanna-Barbera series continued in syndication on many networks, including The Cartoon Network and a channel called Boomerang, exclusively devoted to vintage Hanna-Barbera programming. Despite his own rapidly advancing age (and the eventual loss of his partner), Joseph Barbera served as executive producer on such live-action theatrical releases as The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000), Scooby Doo (2002), and Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004). He also resurrected the Tom and Jerry series with a new short -- the first in 45 years -- circa 2005. Not long after, however, 95-year-old Barbera died of natural causes, on December 18, 2006, at his home in Los Angeles, CA. Barbera was survived by his second wife, Sheila Barbera, and three children.

Movie Highlights

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  • With partner William Hanna, built an animation empire, creating such classic cartoon characters as Tom & Jerry, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, the Jetsons, the Flintstones, Jonny Quest, the Smurfs, and many, many others.
  • After selling an illustration to Collier's magazine, wrote to Walt Disney, asking for a job; when no job offer materialized, he went to work for the Van Beuren Studios, the Terrytoon Studios and, finally, MGM, where he was teamed with Hanna.
  • Earned multiple Oscar awards and nominations, prompting a promotion to head of MGM's animation department; when that department was shuttered in 1957, Barbera and Hanna were free to build their own company, Hanna-Barbera Productions, for animated TV series.
  • Used a production technique called "limited animation" that made cartoons more efficient to produce on a larger scale, thereby facilitating the creation of their weekly series.
  • His Emmy-winning cartoon The Last of the Curlews (1972) became the first ABC Afterschool Special.