From the TCJ Archives

The Gene Deitch Interview

In 1955, of course, you started Terr’ble Thompson. Was it always your ambition to have a comic strip of your own?

Yeah, that was one of my ambitions — from reading The Herald Express and The Examiner in Los Angeles, following the Popeye strip. Popeye was always my example. I’m talking of course about the Segar Popeye. His storytelling, to me, was the example of what I wanted to do in a comic strip sometime: in other words, a comic adventure that had fun with language. The fact that he invented the word “Jeep” and “Goon” and had characters like that, and Wimpy’s “I’ll be happy to pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” and “I yam what I yam.” All these great phrases. Everything about the Popeye strip and the way it was drawn was what I wanted to do.

And, of course, I think Terrible Thompson has a lot of that in it. The whole idea of using twisted language, trying to create funny words and everything, was all inspired by Segar. Not that I ever got close to it, but that was my goal. That’s why it started as an adventure strip with a continuous story, which nowadays would not be possible.

Terr'ble Thompson plays with language

Because animation is such a collaborative medium and because the comic strip is a much more intimate medium, did you find a great satisfaction doing the comic strip?

I loved doing it because it was personal: exactly what you just indicated. This was something I wrote and drew myself. I did bring in an assistant simply because technically I couldn’t get it out unless somebody would help me with lettering and doing some inking in the background. I wrote it and penciled it and I inked the characters. I only let my assistant do the lettering, but I set the lettering style, and he inked some of the background and helped clean up things and so on. And he took all the money, incidentally. To have an assistant at all I had to give him all the money I got from United Features because I was working full-time at UPA. My idea was somehow to get this up to the point where I could quit animation and do the strip. One of the greatest creative losses of my life was that I had to give up the strip. But it was simply tremendous pressure for my then-wife.

You were working full time and doing the strip at the same time.

That’s why I had to have help. I was working night and day. I worked full-time at UPA and then I came home at night and worked till midnight on the strips and I worked on the weekends. I wasn’t paying attention to my kids. I was a rotten daddy. I had convinced myself that I was doing this for their future and if I could make it go, we would buy ourselves a motor home, we would travel all over the United States and I would mail in my strip from wherever we would be, completely overlooking the fact that the kids would have to go to school. But look, this was a passion. That’s all.

1957 CBS publicity photo. From left to right: Kim, Gene, Simon.

This is a good time to talk about your being a father. Kim would have been about 11 years old at this point.

Kim was old enough that he was hanging around me all the time I was drawing Terr’ble Thompson. He was fascinated with it, and he came with me very often to the studio at Terrytoons and I think his whole Fontaine Fables schtick came directly out of Terrytoons. He spent a lot of time at the studio. He got to know many of the animators. I didn’t realize it myself at the time, but he was absorbing a hell of a lot. Kim was that kind of a guy. And later, when he visited here in Prague, he acted all the time like he was bored shitless. He didn’t seem to be seeing anything. But later, he sent me a copy of his diary, his memoirs of this trip to Prague, and he saw everything. He never showed it. Kim is very closed and doesn’t tell you everything about himself. Kim, when he was a little kid, when he was able to write a few words, he made a paper sign that said “Peace,” and he would march around the house with this flag.

It said “Peace?”

“Peace,” yeah. He was absolutely a nonviolent kid, whereas Simon was exactly the opposite. Simon was a firecracker; an uncontrollable kid who would throw tantrums and would get so furious sometimes he would run into a wall and bang his head on the wall. We were of course very modern parents, and we wanted to bring up these kids in the best possible way and introduce them to art and culture. We didn’t buy them any mechanical toys. What we bought our kids were unmarked wooden blocks so that they could be creative with them in their own way. Most kids would take wooden blocks and make a little house out of them. These were big blocks, actually bigger than bricks. You could build a little fort or a house or a tower. But Simon would take these bricks and he would lay them out on the basement floor of our house in Terrytown in the form of a dinosaur skeleton. Who do you know who would take wooden bricks and use them in that way? To make a picture?

I was going down to the garage. We had bought a clothesline rope that Marie had wanted to rig up in some way in the basement. I couldn’t find the clothesline rope, so I went outside and asked the kids if they were playing skip rope or something. Simon had taken that rope and cut it into little lengths and he arranged the rope on a stone to look like a cat. Simon had natural graphic talent. Whereas I could have beaten his brains out or something, I ran for my camera and took a photo of it, and it’s one of my treasures. Simon, I think probably is a greater artist than Kim, a greater creative graphic artist and natural-born artist: can draw much better than Kim, even today. Even Kim says so. But he has his flaws and he cannot succeed. He just seemed to aim for trouble.

As a kid, he was a bit of a hellion?

An absolute hellion. And some of his friends were the worst sort: the kind who taught him to steal, who taught him to smoke, who taught him everything negative and self-destructive.

But you think he was more naturally gifted than Kim?

Definitely. We saw that he had this talent. Marie was big on psychiatry, and we had sent him to a psychiatrist, weekly sessions. We knew he was a troubled kid and tried every way to help him. We took him to the Museum of Modern Art, which at that time was having Saturday morning art opportunities for kids. They taught how to make things out of colored paper and scraps of cloth and scraps of material and so on: artsy-craftsy kind of things. Simon was really wonderful at it. He made great images and constructions.

But nothing seemed to overcome the fact that he was somehow just on fire inside and seemed to gravitate to the worst kinds of company. He got into every trouble in the world. Simon is a guy when he was grown up, that I visited in jail in New York. One of the worst things, I guess, for Marie when I left was leaving her to have to cope with Simon. It was just constant trouble. Sometimes he would just set the couch on fire with his cigarette: all kinds of weird things, make horrible messes. He was a problem kid and a wasted talent.

Whereas Kim never really learned how to draw in an academic way. Today you wouldn’t want to spoil him, of course. Let’s face it, Kim is a naivest. Nothing wrong with that, and Kim is an incredible storyteller, detailist and decorative artist. He’s somebody who makes the absolute maximum out of a minimum amount of academic art ability. Kim cannot draw realistically at all.

Even though he says he tries.

He tries. I have a painting by him, it’s one of the best things he ever did. It’s right above my working place in my little studio and it’s called “Great Holy Ned on a Mountainside.” He tries. That’s the thing about Kim. He exceeds himself.

I asked Kim once how he came to his unique style and he said he came to it by trying to draw realistically.

[Laughs.] He doesn’t know anatomy, but God love him, don’t change him now. He has created his own way and his own style and it’s perfect. Every single page of his comics is just so full of work. He does all this ruling and shading and I said, “what kind of gadget do you have to make all these lines in the background?” and he said, “I just draw them.” [Laughs.] He does. He doesn’t use any Ben Day screens or anything like that. He just draws everything.

And none of the decorative quality of his work impedes the storytelling.

It certainly doesn’t impede it. It helps it. He is so good at it that he creates this fantastic atmosphere. His style evokes the naive animation cartoons of the late 1920s and early 1930s, perfectly. And those guys didn’t know how to draw, either. [Laughs.] That’s when they did the rubber hose animation: Felix the Cat and whatever. He has his own Felix the Cat: Waldo.

He’s able to create this highly stylized but completely believable world.

Exactly. And nobody in his right mind would want to change him. He is such a great observer and storyteller. And I kid him all the time, I said, if you want to believe in channeling or something occult, I said, “Kim, I don’t know how it’s possible, but you are recreating my childhood!” I’m a child of the 1930s. I lived and grew up in the era that he draws and that he now knows better than I remember because he’s done such incredible research. I said, “How come you’re so interested in the 1930s? That was a hellish time, that was The Depression. We were starving. Nobody thought anything was so great in the 1930s in America.” But he said, “Dad, those were the peak years of American culture.”

And in that way he was right. That’s when the WPA was created. That’s when the best painters were painting post office murals and great art and great music was being created; Jazz was being created and developed. It was great but, after all, in those days we were hungry. Yet, to him, these were the ideal years. It’s one of the things that brings us together. Kim and I have a great rapport together. I really like Kim and we communicate very well.

But Kim was not the son you thought would succeed at art.

Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that, because I knew he had this intense interest. He tried to be an animator. One of the great things I managed to get from Terrytoons was Paul Terry’s original animation crane, which was being thrown out in the junkyard at that time and I salvaged it and brought it home and set it up in our basement and I bought a 16mm camera that you could shoot frame-by-frame. And Kim and Tony Eastman, who was his close friend then, were going to make animated cartoons in our basement using this old, original Paul Terry animation stand. But the fact was that Tony was so much better at animating than Kim, that Kim became disillusioned. He saw that that wasn’t what he was going to be able to do. That he wasn’t really good enough as an animator and being able to draw well, whereas Tony was a natural-born animator. But Kim was so interested in cartooning that he then began to just do his own thing in his own way. I didn’t think that what he was doing was so great until he basically became mature and was living in Greenwich Village and started to do things for The Village Voice and so on.

The East Village Other, yeah.

Then the real element of his work began to come out right away. Yet I thought it was awfully crude. The storytelling part of it, of course, developed somewhat later. But he just wanted to do it. That’s what makes any of us do what we’re doing, right?

That’s right. Let me quote something Kim said about you. He said, “My father seemed to go out of his way to convince me that I didn’t have the right talent to draw, I would never make it as an artist.” He goes on to say, “There’s an orthodox way of drawing where you’re supposed to draw with your arm and not just your hand …”

Right. He told me that he could never do that. I guess I might have said that to him at one point or another because the things he was talking about wanting to do I just knew he wasn’t going to be able to do. By some miracle, he found a niche that he could make a living at. But it is a miracle. I knew the commercial-art world and I knew you had to be able to do all kinds of things and I didn’t think Kim could be good enough to do it. I don’t know if I sounded that discouraging to him as that quote sounds. Whether I said that or not, I can’t deny it, but I definitely did feel and probably tried to, I hope, gently indicate to him that, as far as being able to be a classic commercial artist, he didn’t really have the right stuff and I thought he was going to be much better as a writer.

That’s what he says. He said that both you and your wife encouraged him to become a writer.

Exactly, because that’s what he seemed to have the knack at. I don’t think his cartoons would have made it if it wasn’t for the combination of the writing, the fantasy and the incredible imagination and the magic that he was able to bring with his ideas. Ideas are everything. You can get away with a lot if you’ve got the right ideas. That’s what made it for Kim. I had worked in art studios and art departments and I knew what you had to do, and I knew he just was not going to be able to get a job. For example, one of my very first jobs getting out of the Army was for a real third-rate advertising agency called the Tullis Company, run by a guy named Howard Tullis. His main client was something called Franilla Ice Cream. I had to draw 24 sheet posters of ice cream in a dish and learned how to draw and paint ice cream that really looked like ice cream, and it’s not easy. Drawing ice cream was the most difficult thing I ever did.

But I was personally very good at object drawing. In my younger days, I would sit a shoe on the table and draw it. I would draw a can opener to learn how to make it look shiny, and I learned how to do lighting and shading. I could do realistic drawing. I could do portrait drawing. And I knew that Kim was never going to be able to do that. On the other hand, I certainly don’t have the fantasy that he has. I wish I did. So everybody has their own thing and by a great miracle, Kim found what he could do. He just managed to luck into it, or fall into the right area, the right scene, at the right time when this whole new approach to comics was being created. Now, of course, graphic novels … Look what’s happened with Persepolis. Here you’ve got a film that should have won the Oscar, and I have to tell you, and I swear to you, I voted for it because I thought it was really important for that film to win the Oscar.

What won instead?

What won was Ratatouille. A great film.

That was a great film.

But look, that’s a hundred-million-dollar production by a company that wins every single year. But what is the Oscar for? I was writing all my fellow members that I knew in the Academy, saying, “Look, the Oscar is to reward somebody who is bringing something new and fresh to the medium, and here are just a couple of people making an ultra-low-budget animation that is telling a story that nobody has ever done in a feature-length animation film for movie theaters. And Persepolis is fantastic! Nevertheless, they did nominate it. And nevertheless, as you well know, graphic novels are now in. You’re in on it!

Riding the wave to riches, yes.

Well, let me read you something else Kim said. He was talking about the time when you were working at UPA full time and drawing Terr’ble Thompson. He said, “That’s probably when he and I became closest,” referring to you, “because, while he was home moonlighting, doing this comic strip, I was hanging around with him. I used to love to hang around, watch him draw, and talk to him, and he encouraged it. So that was probably a big thing in my development toward becoming a comic-strip artist.”

We talked about that before and it is absolutely true. Not only did he get something from me, but I got something from him and from Simon. The way they spoke and the kind of twisted words that they used were inspirations for me, too. True, he was watching me all the time I was drawing the comic strip and I was always telling him about all the technical problems and how I had to arrange the panels. You know how it was in those days: you had to arrange the panels for different newspaper setups. You had to go for a half-page, third-page, quarter-page, tabloid and make it all work. It’s true that Kim was picking up all of this. Even when I left, we corresponded a lot, and that was always the big subject. So I’m really glad to hear that.

In a way, you must have been the dream dad for a kid who was interested in cartoons.

Sure, if you wanted to be a cartoonist and your dad’s a cartoonist, naturally that’s great. My father was a vacuum-cleaner salesman or a ladies’-hat salesman or a hosiery salesman or electric-fan salesman. He was doing nothing that interested me whatever, and he thought I was on the road to ruin. Only my mother encouraged me as an artist.

And indeed you were on the road to ruin.

Uh-huh!

Obviously, your enthusiasm and interest in comics was infectious because all of your kids became interested in comics.

They all picked up one degree or another of it. Seth, who does not really draw, became a good writer. And I’m sorry he hasn’t yet made it, because I think his stuff is great. I love his stories. I have great admiration for Seth. His stories show real craftsmanship, and he has done a tremendous amount of research. He’s very knowledgeable. He’s created his own world. I keep thinking that, sooner or later, he’s going to have to be discovered. I hope so.

Well, we’re working on that, too. One of the things Kim said about you was that you did not like comic books. You considered them trash and you discouraged him from reading them.

Yeah. They were trash. [Laughs.] And I still think so. A lot of the stuff they brought home I didn’t like. Perhaps in retrospect, I would change my mind about a lot of it. I was raised in a much more innocent era. A lot of stuff Fantagraphics puts out I don’t like. But you have a lot of great stuff, too. Everybody has different strokes.

You were particularly opposed to Basil Wolverton’s work.

Yeah. I just don’t really like gratuitous ugliness. His whole reputation was based on that. Look, we’re in this kind of a culture now. We have rap music and rock music and art of all kinds that is gratuitously ugly and I’m still a romanticist. I love the music of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I like music that has melodies. I like traditional jazz.

You had very refined taste in cartooning, wouldn’t you say?

I admire craftsmanship. Even though I could never do it, I really admired Milton Caniff. His work was so fabulous. And Foster’s Prince Valiant. Beautiful work. And the Alex Raymond Flash Gordon strips and the really beautifully drawn strips. And the Cliff Sterritt Polly and Her Pals in another area. Fantastic graphic work. And, of course, Krazy Kat to me it was high art. All of this was really high art. Lots of high art in the comic strips, starting with Winsor McCay. I admire craftsmanship and I am a craftsman in my work, I think.

And you tried to communicate these high standards to your kids.

Yes. Simon was fascinated with dinosaurs from a tiny age before it was a big thing. And he loves the most grotesque kind of monsters and he loves to create monster make-up. Kim’s stuff is not ugly but, as I say, he is a fascinating naivest and a decorative artist.

There’s a primitive quality to Kim’s work.

He’s a primitive as far as art, but he’s highly sophisticated in the way he uses this. He uses his talent to the maximum and works hard. You admire Kim because he puts tremendous work into every page.

Kim said that you “recognized that Simon had a lot of talent and encouraged him to some extent, but Simon was more of a delinquent than I was.”

He was definitely a delinquent. That’s the term they used to use in the ’50s. “Juvenile Delinquent.”

He also said, “Simon had a lot of input in Tom Terrific. He created a few of the characters for Tom Terrific.”

He had a lot of input because of the way he spoke. Simon had his own particular, unusual language. Every time he’d say something I would write it down. For example, in Terr’ble Thompson, the idea of calling the sea serpent a “sea servant.” Straight Simon. Because that’s the way he pronounced it. Not that he was trying to be funny. He just mispronounced everything but in hilarious ways. He would say things like “it’s upside-wrong-down.” Look at Terr’ble Thompson, you’ll find it in there. Kim, of course, was older, but Simon was the great language influence. Not everything in the strip is from him, but he created the pattern. And from his pattern, I made up lots of similar kinds of crazy words. But he was the inspiration.

So you didn’t let Simon work on Tom Terrific?

Oh, no. He was too young. Tom Terrific and Ter’ble Thompson were two different things, but similar. Tom Terrific also used expressions. Like “wowie boom,” also came from Simon. God knows why he said that but he got excited and he said, “Wowie Boom!” Those kinds of things got into the strip. But he was too young to do it. Simon wasn’t the guy who would be drawing something like Tom Terrific or Ter’ible Thompson. Simon tried to be a realistic artist. He liked to draw as realistically as possible. Although he didn’t study enough to be good at it, as he could have been, he is a far better draftsman, as far as the craft of drawing, than Kim is.

Would you say that your interest in art was the lynchpin of your relationship with your kids?

I’m gratified with my kids, as far as that’s concerned. Even though, how much influence could I have had on them? I did leave while a lot of them were still at an early age. I know that I had some influence on them. Of course, they followed my work and I kept in touch with them and they saw the films I was making, etc. But I wasn’t with them as much, personally, as I should have been. But I’m very pleased to have three kids who have such terrific talent, and at least one of them is recognized. The only thing waiting for Kim that needs to be done is a feature movie. And I don’t understand yet why somebody hasn’t picked up the Fontaine Fables saga to make a feature animation out of. That’s something you can work on, Gary.

Yes, right, right. I’ll get on that. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you, as one of Kim’s publishers, Kim is a hard sell. And I don’t know why that is. I think it might be his highly stylized approach.

It’s hard to get used to the style, I guess. But what drawing of cartoon characters is worse than The Simpsons? [Groth laughs.] I’m not kidding. The Simpsons’ drawing is truly schlock stuff, but it’s the most popular, biggest success of anything ever in history; the most successful television show of all time. It’s pointless for me to criticize something so tremendously successful. But why? It’s the ideas, the stories, the truth that’s in it! The drawing is really grammar-school level, but it’s original. But Kim is not as bad as The Simpsons’ drawing, by no means. Maybe it’s not as immediately accessible. You’ve got to be with his story. Just like, somehow, Groening was able to put across his stuff because he got some television breaks in the early days and he was able to run with it.

This is one thing Kim has not been able to do. He hasn’t gotten that kind of a break. His fan-base isn’t broad enough.

You have to be willing to enter into Kim’s world.

Absolutely. But I think the story, the characters, are so crazy and so bizarre that it seems to me it fits into our time, even though it’s supposed to be the ’30s. Everything he does is in the timeframe of the ’30s, yet it relates naturally.

And once you’re in that world, it’s compelling.

Exactly. And I’m always amazed how he’s managed to find things that I’ve forgotten because he reads all the books and looks at all the old pictures and has watched all the old movies.

Did your kids go with you to the UPA studios?

Kim did, but that was earlier and Simon would have been too small. Kim visited us. In those days when I first befriended Allen Swift and Allen Swift was doing the Popeye show on television, Allen invited Kim and Tony [Eastman] to come on the show and show a clip of their animation. So Kim and Tony’s first stuff on television was on Allen Swift’s Popeye show. Allen Swift played a sea captain of some kind — Captain Allen Swift is what he called himself — and he showed Popeye cartoons and did a certain amount of patter in between.

Did you help Kim with his animation projects?

Only because I made it possible for him: I got the camera, I got the stand and had it set up in the basement, bought a stop-motion camera and showed them how to do it, but then I had to let them do their thing. I didn’t want to show off how clever Daddy is. When they asked me, I told them what the principles were: the principles of how to make animation. How to do timing and space character action, but I let them do it.

You said you didn’t spend enough time with your kids, but it sounds like you spent a lot of time with them.

I tried to. The time we’re talking about is after I gave up the strip. When I got the job at Terrytoons, that was the absolute death-knell of the strip, too, besides the birth of Seth. Poor Seth. I don’t want to keep telling him this, but it was the fact that Marie got pregnant with Seth that absolutely made it impossible for me to continue the strip because it required too much domestic time. I realized it was all over.

So Seth killed Terr’ble Thompson.

Yeah, but he was well worth it. He was the most charming and lovable of all my kids.

Gene and Seth in 1958. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

Your next port-of-call was Gene Deitch Associates.

Well, people had been after me almost all the time who wanted to set me up in a studio and I had all kinds of different offers. There was nothing much else left for me to do after leaving Terrytoons except to go into my own studio. By that time I had all the reputation I needed, all the connections I needed and people offering me work, so it started out well. I had gotten a consulting position with the Cunningham and Walsh advertising agency, which gave me a nice annual income, and they had to develop animation characters for their Folgers Coffee account. As soon as I was developing that, the next thing I was trying to convince them is, now that I’ve developed the idea, let me do it. So that led to my opening up my own studio and that was my first big account that gave the studio a basic income.

Of course, I had people who wanted to back me but it turned out I didn’t need it and so, therefore, I didn’t have to give away any stock. And I had Jules Feiffer, of course, who came over from Terrytoons and he made a very elaborate series of promotional drawings for me, which turned out to be a really big hit. We sent them out once a week to all the advertising agencies, and they told me they had put them all on their bulletin boards, and so we got off to a good start with it. That was the time we were doing well, when this unknown person, William L. Snyder, walked into my office and gradually pulled me into the idea of going with him to Prague and that, again, changed my life. That studio hardly was really off the ground before I basically had to abandon it.

This would have been around ’59, correct?

That was 1959 when he came, yes.

Now, William L. Snyder was quite a character.

He was quite a character. He was a guy whom you would have so many mixed feelings about, because Bill Snyder was a fascinating man but, on the other hand, he was impossible to deal with. He had so much charm that you could hardly resist him. And certainly, women couldn’t resist him. Zdenka loves him today in her memory because he was a guy who made it with women. But, on the other hand, he gave me lots of trouble. So I do have these mixed feelings about him because he brought me here [to Prague], he introduced me to Zdenka, he changed my life. So it’s impossible for me to say I hate him by any means, but he did give me an awful lot of trouble.

Nevertheless, he is a key figure in my life and of course, I became also involved with his children. His daughter, Dana, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. writes a weekly column about her life fighting this disease. And his son, Adam Snyder, who looks like him but has a completely different personality, turned out to be a good close friend and we’ve had many projects together.

He [Bill Snyder] struck me as a lovable rogue.

Yes. He’s a lovable rogue. I think that’s Bill Snyder, all right.

Now briefly, he cajoled you into going to his animation studio in Prague for what was going to be a short stint, correct?

Yes. When I finally agreed to go, I said, “I’ve got to have a contract in black and white that says I don’t have to stay more than 10 days.”

What was the specific project you were going to be doing over there?

What he wanted me to do was to help him correct some films that he had in work here with Zdenka. The reason I accepted was because he also agreed, that if I would come, he would back the production of “Munro” and one other project that I had created with my best friend in New York, Allen Swift, called “Samson Scrap and Delilah.”

Jules Feiffer was working for me and he had created the storyboard [for “Munro”]. It was on my studio office wall and was almost getting brown with decay waiting for somebody to come in and back it. So of course, when Snyder said that he would finance “Munro,” that was the offer I couldn’t refuse.

“Munro” had been published as a comic.

As a book. It was one story in a book which was called Passionella and Other Stories. That was the first thing that Jules had been able to get published. So he was working on that story, sort of moonlighting when he was on my staff at Terrytoons, but he managed to do it off-hours so it didn’t fall into the clutches of Terrytoons. Eventually, Jules made the storyboard himself and then Al Kouzel made the production layouts. I was very close to being able to get this into production. All I needed was the money. Getting to the storyboard part didn’t cost very much.

Visually, the animated cartoon hones very much to Jules’ cartooning.

Oh, yeah. Of course, the one thing that I was trained in at UPA is following whatever graphic style was right for each story. If we adapted a children’s book, we wanted to make it look exactly like the book. And I’m doing that ’til this very day. That’s the basis of my work. I’ve learned how to recreate anybody’s drawing style. I keep telling people there’s no such thing anymore as a Gene Deitch style. You saw it in Terr’ble Thompson and The Cat, but nowadays, very, very rarely do I ever get a chance to make a film in my own style because what I’m paid to do 99% of the time is to adapt a children’s picture-book.

Now Gene, let me ask you a question about that. That seems like a serious trade-off.

It is.

You can get some satisfaction by imitating some else’s …

I do. Not many animators feel that way. Everybody wants to do their own thing and I do from time to time. If I have a chance I do. I made a film called “The Giants” which was a definite Oscar contender but wasn’t correctly entered. That was my story, done my way. Occasionally I do have a chance. I’ve done a few films. Of course, the Nudnik character that I did for Rembrandt films, which was distributed by Paramount and also got nominated for an Oscar, was my style and my complete story and my design. Whenever I do get a chance, I go for it.

But, of course, having to make a living, I’m finding myself becoming a specialist and Weston Woods was selling me as the world’s greatest adapter of children’s picture books, so I’ve gotten into that schtick. Authors who give me the opportunity to adapt a book of theirs know that I’m going to be true to their book and that when it’s on the screen it will look like they did it themselves. Look at Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s most famous book: When we brought Maurice here to Prague to approve our first test, Morton Schindel, who was the creator/producer of Weston Woods, after the screening, turned to Maurice and asked him, “Can you tell which of the scenes or which of the drawings in the test were yours and which were theirs?” And Maurice very seriously said, “I’m pretty sure that’s mine, but I’m not sure of the other, but I’m sure this is mine, definitely this one is mine.” And, of course, none of them were. [Groth laughs.] So that was what sold him on letting us make the movie. We did it 100%.

That’s one of the things that also fixed me on Prague when I got here and got into the studio. Even though I had all these trepidations about coming to a Communist country, when I saw what these guys were doing, that they were just animators and without having any of the same experiences of Western ways of working, they’re doing exactly what the UPA philosophy was, and that is adapting the work of the best designers. They also didn’t have a house style, and still don’t. They bring in the best designers, the best illustrators to do films. They don’t have a house style. So this is something I do take pride in. I don’t mind being in the background. Everybody knows that I made the picture. I made four films with Tomi Ungerer, the great Alsatian-French children’s book author-illustrator. He told me, “Look, Gene. I made the book, you make the film!” He had faith in me, and when he saw our result, he slapped his knee and he said, “My God, it looks like I did it myself.” That’s great satisfaction to me.

Let me ask you this, though. Is there part of you that regrets not making more pure Gene Deitch work?

Yeah. There always is, of course. As I said, my favorite personally created character was Nudnik. It did get a Paramount release. The first film was nominated for an Oscar. Nudnik could have gone on, but unfortunately, theatrical cartoons died just when it was running. There’s no such thing now as theatrical short cartoons. Short cartoons now are made mainly for film festivals. You have to get a grant or a financial backer or save your money half your life, and you’re lucky, you make one film and it wins a Golden Pussycat at some festival and that’s it. I’ve been lucky that in my career of over 60 years I have never been out of work, even for a day. And one film just blends into the next. And that, of course, is important. You’re trying to make a living. I’ve found the key to how to make what I think is creatively gratifying and also satisfy my clients. What more can I ask for?

“Munro” won the Oscar in 1961. That must have been enormously gratifying.

Of course, it was. And it was a tremendous surprise because I didn’t bother to go to LA for the ceremony. Bill Snyder picked up the Oscar because he was the nominal producer. In those days, and still, the Oscar for a short film goes to just one person. Snyder simply entered “Munro” on his own as if he had made it, and it won. So my Oscar has his name on it. That’s the truth.

Jules Feiffer wrote the short animated film "Munro," directed by Deitch, which won an Oscar in 1961.

In making “Munro,” I believe, you used Seth’s voice.

Yes. Seth was 3 years old at the time and I had an early home tape recorder at the time, as I mentioned before, and I followed him around with a microphone and I said, “Now Seth, say ‘I’m only 4, I’m only 4.’”

And he said, “But Daddy, I’m only 3. I can’t lie.”

So I said, “I know you’re only three, but this is make-believe. Say ‘I’m only 4.’” It took a lot to get him to do that, but he did say it. He could even pronounce the name “Czech-o-slo-vakia” at the age of 3. He was an early speaker and had a charming voice. As far as I’m concerned, he made the film.

In Prague, not to put too fine a point on it you fell in love.

Exactly, that’s not too fine a point: almost immediately. The irony is that every week, when Snyder was coming to my GDA office on West 61st Street and was giving me all kinds of propaganda about how great it was, and I should go there and I was pushing him out the door each time, he said to me because he was a great womanizer and that was one of the great thrills of being, in those days, a European traveler. You could do a lot of things your wife didn’t know about. He told me, “Gene, there’s a little girl there, an animation production manager, who you will love.” So that’s one of the great ironies of my life.

I said, “Bill, that’s a lot of bullshit. Don’t give me that.” [Groth laughs.] But it happened, that’s the amazing part.

At some point, you had to take the big leap and you had to make a decision to leave your wife and to leave your family.

Exactly. This was, of course, wrenching. I’d had a tremendous amount of conflict with my first wife. She was somewhat fearsome-tempered and very aggressive, especially when I was doing the comic strip or trying to do anything I believed in, but that affected our home life. First of all, she was not an artist herself. She was a great reader, a great intellectual, but she didn’t understand my work at all. With Zdenka, we’re colleagues. We work in exactly the same studio and we’re working on the same films together. Whatever conflicts we have, they are all leading towards the same goal. Marie had no real appreciation of it. For example, the fact that I wanted to do a comic strip was something that was a threat to her, that’s all. Who knows if I ever would have divorced her; I don’t know. We did have three kids together, and if I had opted out of Zdenka, perhaps the marriage would have held together at least for a certain amount of time. Dunno, but the real wrenching thing was leaving my kids. I had three interesting boys. Kim was a latent genius and so was Simon and so was Seth, each in their own way, although Seth was still a baby. But, as I said, he had tremendous charisma. He remembered everyone’s name. When he was 3 or 4 years old and the doorbell rang and the door opened he’d say, “Oh, hello Bill! How are you?” He remembered everybody’s name. He was fantastic. That’s why he became a writer, I guess.

As someone with a son, I would think that would have to be a terrible conflicting…

It was. It was really difficult. You did see the photograph I sent of Simon laying there with that rope cat?

Yes.

That was really one of the most fascinating and revealing photographs I was ever able to take, and it shows an awful lot, right in that one shot, about the graphic feelings within him.

When you made this decision, did you sit your kids down and explain to them what was going on?

Oh yes, of course. I had to. The most difficult part was first to tell Marie. She threw a bottle at me. [Groth laughs.] That explains my mental instability.

I guess that sums up her point of view on your decision.

But naturally, I could explain only so much. It wasn’t anything I could explain at all to Seth. He was still a baby — or really much to Simon. But to Kim, yes. And I kept very closely in touch with him. First of all, as I said, I brought the first stereo tape recorder to Prague almost immediately and I developed a sound correspondence with Kim. That was the most fun. I made funny little pseudo-dramatic tapes, ’cause I was big on sound effects and I knew how to do all this as a filmmaker. I know how to edit tape. I put in music and I put in sound effects and I made a tape in which I was supposedly an African explorer and put in all kinds of jungle noises and everything like that. I tried to keep them entertained. I sent them these tapes and Kim would then send back in his own way. Kim got from me the idea of collecting records from the 1930s. That also contributed to his schtick. So he would send me records and I would send him records and so on. So we did keep in touch. We also wrote letters. Kim had terrible handwriting. It took him a long time to learn how to write legibly because he was mainly using drawing. But we did exchange letters and even phone calls, although that was very difficult in those days. And, don’t forget, it isn’t that I just came here and never appeared again. In those days, I was traveling back and forth several times a year because we had to record voices for our films in New York. So every time I went there, I had my visiting rights and I took the kids and we would do something together. And later, when Zdenka was allowed to travel, we also got together with the kids, so they would get used to my being with her. That was difficult. Zdenka will tell you, one of the real funny things is when Seth was 7 or 8, we took him to one outing with us and he went up to Zdenka and he said, “My mother doesn’t like you.” [Groth laughs.] Kids say exactly what’s on their mind straight out. Of course, we thought that was pretty hilarious. But those are the kind of things we had to live with and it took a while.

As the boys got older we don’t have any kind of problems like that. There were many embarrassments, too. There was a demented idea I had at the beginning, that if Marie would come here and see this place and see Zdenka, then she would understand: [laughter] a pretty dumb idea. That was a disaster.

She went? [Incredulous.]

Yeah, she did come. But, of course, I promised her that I’d take her to Paris, and I did. She liked Prague and she did meet a couple of the people on our staff, a woman film editor I worked with, whom she liked very much and they corresponded for a while. But as far as Zdenka was concerned … But you go through really crazy things when your whole life is being torn apart. We’re just happy that it all worked out. Look, Zdenka and I are getting very close to our 50th anniversary of being together. Marie thought this was a fling: I would get over it and be back.

But the bottom line is that you guys just weren’t getting along.

Well, obviously not. She figured if she got me to a psychiatrist, then I would see the light and be OK. That just wasn’t my thing. Everybody’s got something. Everybody’s got their own hang-ups, but I believe that I can function.

Deitch directed Tom & Jerry shorts 1960-1962.

Getting back to your animation in Prague, you went through a succession of commercial gigs.

Yeah. Once I fell in love with Zdenka, with Prague and with the group of people that I was working with, I was willing to take anything that Snyder could bring in, just to be able to stay here. And, of course, when we won the Oscar that opened the golden doors. The first result from winning the Oscar was that we got the Tom and Jerry series from MGM, so that was really big time. That was the biggest big time I ever got into. And we did the 13 Tom and Jerrys, then we got the offer from King Features Syndicate to do Popeye. I can’t even remember how many Popeyes we did. Then Krazy Kat. Not necessarily the way I would have liked to have done it, however. I did everything I could to do the Popeyes in the Segar style, but you’re up against tremendous pressure there because 99 percent of the public know Popeye from the Fleischer cartoons. So it was compromised. Same thing with Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat is so poetic and there’s so many conundrums in there — like, is Krazy Kat a boy or a girl? And it’s difficult because Herriman always referred to Krazy Kat as he but it was clearly she. So you had to make a decision when you’re making a cartoon film, so I played Krazy Kat as a girl. And I tried to keep it as close as possible to the Herriman style but again, you’ve got a lot of writers writing stories and they have to go for commercial television, so I’m not going to say that my Krazy Kats were anything in the poetic level of Herriman, or the Popeyes were anything like Segar. Nevertheless, I did try.

But look, I was just wanting to stay here. I wanted to keep busy, so we did those things. Then when we got the Paramount release, I was able then to create my own character, which was Nudnik, a character pretty much based on my own clumsiness. He was the ultimate clumsy character and my favorite creation. I still love my Nudnik films. One did get nominated for an Oscar. I feel Nudnik surely could have been successful if the actual cartoons had maintained themselves. But it was too expensive to make for television and so we got off on to other things. There were several attempts to revive it. Adam Snyder managed to get a deal to make something called Gene Deitch Presents the Nudnik Show and we did a series of half-hour shows but each one of them only had one Nudnik in it and the half-hour show was filled out with other things. The woman who was so hot to promote it, who was supposed to be a crackerjack syndicate saleswoman, told us that we were going to create “Nudnik mania” in America, “It’s going to be tremendous!” she promised me. But while we were still in production with it, she was lured away to another job and the person who took over was not able to put it across. That’s show business. That’s the way things often work.

You did 12 Nudnik episodes.

Yes. Twelve or 13, I think.

I haven’t seen them. Was it a slapstick?

No. It’s hard to describe Nudnik. Nudnik was a guy who, if he leaned down and tied his shoelaces, he somehow got his thumbs caught in it, he couldn’t stand up. He also could take a can opener and open a can of food from the top, but all the food would fall out the bottom. Anything that he did turned out wrong. There was a series of gags, all, you could say, developed from basic ideas from Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. Many of my gags were more or less in that style: big mechanical gags. Once Nudnik was putting an antenna up on a roof. He got a ladder that was much too high and when he got up on the ladder, the ladder tipped over and lifted up a stone so that he’s rocking back and forth on this ladder and as he moves forward, the stone flops more towards the middle and if he moves back the stone moves the other way. This is pretty much a Buster Keaton kind of a gag. I loved to create mechanical gags like that.

You did some Tom and Jerry cartoons, but you objected to the violence in the earlier Tom and Jerrys.

Yeah. I’m a UPA man and I always looked down on Tom and Jerry. There were definitely things in Tom and Jerry that I absolutely refused to do. One was using the black woman housekeeper. This was all through the Tom and Jerry cartoons. You never saw her head, but you always saw this black character. That, of course, was a no-no. Naturally, you do have to use violence, but I tried to do it in an intelligent way. I get fan letters today, I got one yesterday, from somebody who says he thinks my Tom and Jerrys are the best. But, on the other hand, if you read any book on animation made by a critic, my Tom and Jerrys are always badmouthed as the worst ever made. They’re not as bad as the ones Chuck Jones made, I swear. [Groth laughs.]

Your Tom and Jerry’s had that elegant UPA design work.

I tried to make it best as I could, but I had to make it look like Tom and Jerry. And I had lots of different writers contributing the basic ideas, although I reworked all of the stories myself and I did all the layouts and all the poses and I got pretty good at drawing Tom and Jerry. It was OK when it ended. That was a great learning experience, but it was not my kind of thing.

One of the things that I think you were most proud of was Giants.

Yeah. The Giants was a film which was a tragedy because this was a film that very likely could have won the 1968 Oscar, We made it in 1968, it was banned in Czechoslovakia but was a co-production and therefore Morton Schindel had the rights to it. But he was strictly making films for schools and he had no experience with an entertainment film and he bolloxed up the Academy entry requirements to qualify for the Oscar.

Now Mort Schindel was also a character…

Morton Schindel is a dedicated man and working with him came about in an amazing way. When I was at my big-ass job, creative director of CBS Terrytoons, we were doing 18 Twentieth Century Fox Cinemascope cartoons a year, we were developing Tom Terrific. I was a big man there, I had a secretary and the secretary says a man named Morton Schindel called and he wants to see you. I’m busy, but he sounded sincere, she said, on the telephone. So I let him come. He came in and in his sweaty palm, he had about six 16-millimeter prints. So I took the time, took him up to the projection room, projected these films. They were just 16-millimeter camera panning over the actual pages of a children’s book, no animation whatever, with nice narration and nice music but simple. So here we are, doing these big Cinemascope cartoons, Twentieth Century Fox, etc.

So all I could do was just feel sorry for this guy. I said, “You’ve got something really that has value, no question about it but, in the commercial world, who is going to put on these films.” In order to make it sound like something, he called his films “iconographic,” which simply meant that a 16-millimeter camera was panning over these illustrations and zooming in on them and dissolving from one to the other. They were really lovely stories, nicely presented, but I felt sorry for this guy. There was absolutely nothing we could do for him.

But just as he left, I suddenly got something into my mind. We were right in the middle of producing Tom Terrific. We were at least six months away from completion and I was getting calls every day from the Captain Kangaroo office saying, “When are we going to get Tom Terrific?” So I said to Mort, “They’re desperate for something to put on. Go there.” And I called Keeshan and told them Schindel was coming. I said, “Here’s something.” The only place in the world I could think of where these might go would be on The Captain Kangaroo Show. And they bought all of his films that he had made at that time, which was about 12 and they were showing them every day. And when we finally got Tom Terrific done, they didn’t take his off.

So this put Morton Schindel in business, and then, by chance, and I forget exactly how he got the idea or he got the suggestion to try to sell his films to schools, and that led to his creation of Weston Woods and that became a tremendous success and he became the first person to successfully produce audio-visual material for schools and libraries. And Weston Woods became a successful company. So successful that he began to get requests for real animation. His iconographic films were no longer sufficient for the schools and libraries.

And he remembered me: that I gave him his first chance, and he looked me up — and I’m still working for Weston Woods. In the meantime, Mort, about five years ago, finally sold Weston Woods to Scholastic. So, in fact, I’m working for Scholastic, Weston Woods-Scholastic now, as it’s called.

You made many, many children’s book adaptations for Weston Woods over the years.

Yes. By this time about 40 for Weston Woods.

Including books by William Steig and Crockett Johnson.

Yes, that’s it. Every major book illustrator, writer you could name, we did. Sendak, as you said. Tomi Ungerer and Crockett Johnson, Dave Johnson, Tomi de Paola, Doreen Cronis, Jules Feiffer and now with Rosemary Wells, who is one of the most successful book illustrators of all time. She’s published 170 books if you can believe it. So many.

Would Mort Schindel approach the author or their agent and then cut a deal and then talk to you?

Yeah. In the beginning, the authors and the book publishers were so eager to have their books adapted as films, which they saw as great publicity, that they would give him rights for something like 50 bucks, you know? It was easy because it was a great thing to have your book made into a film at no cost to them and something that would publicize the book. And, of course, the thing was that he was able to convince them, and it was true, that we would be true to the book. So, on this basis, he was able to become the king of this market and for a long time Weston Woods was practically the only company making films for schools and libraries in this way, and they still are the leading one. Now with the Scholastic connection, of course, more than ever, they’re the most powerful distributor and producer of audio/visual materials for schools and libraries.

You were also involved in animating a version of Charlotte’s Web.

Yeah. Charlotte’s Web, of course, was one of the great experiences and of course a greater disappointment. I have to start right out by saying that the recent film of Charlotte’s Web is perfect, and that’s the way it should have been done at the beginning, but it wasn’t possible to do that in those days. It wasn’t possible. The special effects weren’t that well developed.

I know that Andy White, E.B .White would have loved that film because it was true to his story. But I wanted to do my very best, and the great thing in my life was meeting him and working with him. He was a fantastic guy. Without question, one of the great writers and creators in American literature. It was a great honor for me to be working with him and we got along really greatly. We had a wonderful correspondence. We understood each other.

But we were caught in a real typical Hollywood tiger production company. They were ruthless, absolutely ruthless people who had no respect whatever for his work. They wanted to bastardize it. What they ultimately did, when they took the project away from me, was give it to Hanna-Barbera: and if you’ve seen that, that was a disaster, and I would say that that basically killed Andy White. He just didn’t know what hit him.

He was a brilliant satirist and a writer, but he was absolutely naïve in the ways of the film business. And you know when he made the contract with Sagittarius Productions, these are the Darth Vaders, he insisted on only one thing: That he would have the right to approve the model of Charlotte. I mean, can you imagine? He didn’t have approval of the story, he didn’t have approval of the adaptation, he didn’t have approval of the music, who would do the acting, who would animate it, anything. He only had the approval of this one thing. The model of what Charlotte would look like: the spider.

He was just raped. It was terrible. It got to the point where Sagittarius did not allow me to show him anything of the script we were writing or anything we were doing. It was devastating.

It was such a great thing to be in touch with him. His wife was also a great person. He was “Mr. New Yorker” basically, in those days. He lived in Maine, you know: in Brooklin, Me. He just was completely isolated from the real world. He had a big barn and he loved working in the barn, the animals. I think he did talk to the spiders: a fascinating man.

Throughout your time in Prague, from 1960 to today, how did you interact with your kids and what was your relationship with the three of them like?

I think I mentioned before that I did correspond, especially with Kim and then later with Simon and Seth, as they grew up. And, as I said, I went to America at least three times a year, sometimes more. I only wish I could have been physically more with them. Kim did come to visit Prague. He was the only one I was able to get here.

And how old would he have been, and when was that?

I think he was 17 when he came here, something like that.

Did you follow your kids’ creative efforts from Prague?

Oh yes. Of course, Kim started getting his stuff published, and he was sending them to me. He always sent everything to me. I loved what he was doing from the beginning, although he had, at least up to a certain time, the really nonstarter idea that he was going to make it in the world of commercial art. Look, he makes the comic strips for the books. And that is his work. Then he’ll make the same kind of drawings on order for somebody who asked him to make a special drawing for him. And it’s still exactly the same thing he does in the cartoons, and that he calls his “fine art.” I don’t [laughs] laugh at him, I don’t want to say anything, but —

You’re saying that they’re the same thing.

It’s the same thing. [Groth laughs.] But it’s just that it’s for a different purpose. And so when he does that kind of thing it’s “fine art,” when he does the other thing, it’s work. But look, still, it’s him. He is a genius. I mean, he’s a genius that has overcome any limitations he’s had. He is brilliant. And I never wanted to discourage him from that point of view, but as you quoted yourself, in normal commercial art, he couldn’t make it. He found his niche and that’s what he should stick to and nobody can do what he does now. No one can imitate him. Kim Deitch is a brand.

Now, you may say that it’s a difficult sell, but one of these days … He’s got a real great story saga. Story is what’s most important. And I think Kim has that.

Now, when Kim would send you his comics, would you send him critiques? What would be your — ?

Well, sometimes, but mainly I just told him I liked them. And I did. You can ask him about that, because I don’t want to say something that’s not true, but I don’t remember that I made any criticisms of his drawings or his stories. I recognized that they are not my kind of thing, but nevertheless, they reflected my childhood, so that fascinated me.

Kim’s had a very peripatetic life. He’s lived all over the place, and he’s moved around a lot. How did you guys stay in touch?

He’s made lots of mistakes. He’s got weird, crude tattoos on his body. [Groth laughs.] Not even the kind that they do today. He’s got the kind of tattoos that someone puts on with a pen while they’re drunk. [Groth laughs.] Yeah, Kim’s had his ups and downs. He’s had his drugs and everything. But he pulled himself out of it. It’s amazing. And he’s very athletic. He regularly exercises and takes care of himself now. He realizes now that he’s somebody, and he’s got to take care of himself. [Listens to his wife.] He has a good wife. Zdenka comes in always with the key lines. I have a good wife, Kim has a good wife. That’s the key to our success. [Laughs.]

Now, how about Simon and Seth? Did you keep in touch with all —

Simon was harder to keep in touch with. He faded out of the picture at different times. Of course, he always gravitated toward the weird. Kim is weird, but weird in a rich, productive way, which Simon was never quite able to do. I think I mentioned that Simon missed his calling: He could have been one of the great, successful makeup men and special-effects men. This is the thing that interested him. If only he just hadn’t sunk into such bad social habits. This is difficult. I don’t know what I can say about that. It’s one of the real tragedies, you know?

When you have three kids, they’re always completely different, you can’t expect they’re all going to be the same. And each one is an individual. There’s something about Simon that turned out immediately from the beginning; the way they laid in their cribs was different. Kim would lie on his stomach and sleep peacefully. Simon was lying on his back and screaming [Groth laughs].

And there’s a sense of powerlessness as a father.

Probably. I don’t know why. I don’t know if there’s any jealously with he and Kim. They work together sometimes, but sometimes not. There have been times when Kim says he simply cannot work with Simon anymore, he’s just not reliable. I think you had better get all this out of Kim. Have you done your interview with Kim yet?

I’ve done two of them, and I have a third one coming up.

Well, what do you think?

Reading all of your interviews is going to be a great Rashômon-like experience.

That is exactly it. Everybody can go through the same forest and see three different things. This is normal. I’d be very interested to hear what Kim has to say. I’m trying to be truthful as I can, but I don’t want to be negative or devastating. I don’t think what I’m saying is really bad. These are just facts that are difficult, yet I know that all three of my kids really, in their own way, have a genius. And I’m very proud of what they can do. And I’m just sad that Simon was not able to realize his full potential and I’m also sad that Seth hasn’t been recognized.

Seth was 3 years old I think when you went to Prague. How did your relationship with Seth develop?

That took time, because naturally, he was definitely being raised by Marie, and I was not her hero. It took a while with Seth until he got into puberty. At that time, I think, our relationship warmed up and developed and now I have a wonderful relationship with him. Ask him, don’t ask me. I think we have a great relationship.

Now Seth didn’t have the drawing skill that Simon and Kim did. He became a writer.

No. He liked to draw, I think. Seth does have a certain graphic skill, but that’s not his forte. He’s mainly a writer and a very imaginative writer. And he also had a musical group. And he made rockets. He was a rocket fan: He was making amateur rockets and shooting them up at one time.

So he was a rocket scientist? [Half joking.]

Yeah. [Groth laughs.] He made these big amateur rockets. He had a group of people who would go into a field and shoot off rockets. He’s done a lot of things.

Do you enjoy his writing?

Yes, I do. He’s a terrific fantasy writer. Not exactly science fiction, but he’s in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition of fantasy. He will tell you himself his influences. He’s created a parallel world. He created a world in which California breaks away from the United States and becomes an independent country, and he has a parallel history to our history. Very, very interesting, I think.

Well, this whole issue of the Journal is going to be Deitchworld.

Deitchworld. OK, well, that’s good. [Groth laughter.] We all have our own worlds. Rashômon is the right phrase there because all three of us have overlaps. We have lots of interests in common, but we also diverge — why not? We’re different people. Kim and I are both interested in 1930s culture, we both are jazz-record collectors: Seth too. Look, I’m 84 and when I tell somebody I have a 64-year-old son, they look at me as if I’m kidding [Groth laughs]. Some who see us say they think we are brothers, but those are generally people whom I pay to say that. Though Kim is bearded and, when we were up on the stage together in New York, some who were near-sighted and in the back thought that Kim was older than I. The fact is that I am just 19 years older than Kim. And at our age, that doesn’t seem like such a big difference. If he’s 1 year old, and I’m 19 years old, that’s a big difference. But if he’s 64 and I’m 84 … we’re both old men. [Laughs.]

You could be brothers, biologically speaking.

Yeah. We could be. I like Kim very much: I have a good relationship with him. Simon is very difficult to communicate with. There were issues between us, but I think that’s all over and we’re now fine, but he is sensitive to any perceived slight. I want to have good relations with him, and I try for that.

Is Simon prickly?

Prickly? Yes, I guess he is. He’s sometimes on the defensive. He has in the past seemed to feel I was either giving up on him or against him or be bad-mouthing him or something. I don’t want to do that.

So he did not get your sweet-natured disposition.

Not like Seth, no. Seth is a sweet-natured guy. Simon is much deeper and he has inner fires. He has inner torments. He’s somebody I cannot say I know well enough. He seems to be a recovering delinquent right now. He’s doing good work. He’s working with children. He’s doing good things.

Well, some people are able to corral those demons and use them —

Yes, exactly.

and some can’t.

Well, that’s it. Kim has done that. Kim has had his demons. He managed to pull himself out of it. Kim got into lots of troubles and bad angles, and he did get into drugs and so on. But he pulled out of it and look, he does have a great wife.

Gene, do you have demons?

Demons? I don’t think so. I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself: I’m a very [laughs] practical person. I have my faults, I have all kinds of nervous twitches, but I don’t think I have any demons, No, no, Zdenka says I have no demons [laughs].

Just the average neuroses?

Well, I may have, but I don’t think I have anything that keeps me from functioning. I sleep nights, I eat well. I have my things I’m proud of. I don’t want to brag. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life: I’ve never taken a single puff, never had any mistresses or outside affairs. On the other hand, I tend to be nervous. I’m tapping on the table all the time and drumming. But I keep telling people that I’m not tapping because I’m nervous, I’m tapping in rhythm. I hear rhythm all the time. I’m a great music lover, I know music, but I cannot sing, and I cannot play any musical instrument, but I can play hand drums.

Aha. Zdenka says that the demon I have is that I tend to be pessimistic. Zdenka is a world-class optimist. No matter what I tell her. If I say, “Look, the American dollar is crashing, and we’re going to be poor” [laughs], Zdenka says, “It’s not so bad.” Zdenka will see the bright side of everything. I cannot depress her. There’s no way that I can say anything to Zdenka that will depress her. [Groth laughs.] I do get depressed from time to time, but I don’t think I ever suffer from depression, as an illness.

Gene Deitch in his studio, February 18, 2008. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

But sometimes I do feel down. I am very sensitive to the news. I mean, I see what’s happening to America with George Bush and with Iraq and Mugabe and with impossible people in the world. I get depressed with humanity. But I don’t let it slow me down, I mean, I do my work. I’ve never been in a situation where I can’t work or that I go to the studio and I can’t — no matter how I’m feeling, or how down I’m feeling, I can still do my job.

This interview was transcribed by Sam Schultz.