Producer-director Arthur Rankin, Jr. has died at the age of 89. In 1960, Rankin and his partner, Jules Bass, founded their own production company, Videocraft International, which came to be better known as Rankin/Bass Productions. Specializing in stop-motion animation, the company produced such TV series as The New Adventures Of Pinocchio and Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz, but it found its true niche with its first holiday special, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Inspired by the novelty song written by Johnny Marks—a No. 1 hit for Gene Autry in 1949—and boasting new songs and an orchestral score by Marks, as well as the voice of Burl Ives as the narrator, Sam the Snowman, Rudolph premiered December 6, 1964, and has remained in network broadcast rotation ever since. Its look became the mold for later Rankin/Bass holiday specials such as The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974), and The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ To Town (1977).
Rankin/Bass also applied its style to a few feature films like The Daydreamer (1966), inspired by the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and the quizzically titled Mad Monster Party? (1967), both of which were directed by Jules Bass.
The team’s overflowing credits also included a few traditional-animation TV specials—most notably Frosty The Snowman (1969), whose visual design, by longtime Rankin/Bass employee Paul Coker, Jr., is instantly recognizable for those who’ve seen Coker’s work for Mad magazine.
In 1977 and 1980, Rankin/Bass produced animated adaptations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Return Of The King, drawing on those sections of the Lord Of The Rings saga that had not been covered in the 1978 Ralph Bakshi film.
In 1983, Rankin and Bass co-produced and co-directed a feature-film adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s children’s book, The Last Unicorn.
Rankin/Bass also produced the early-’70s cartoon series The Jackson 5ive and The Osmonds,as well as the mid-’80s series Thundercats. If George Lucas and quit the movie business after American Graffiti and become a Hare Krishna, Robot Chicken would have still been able to go a long way just by working its way through Rankin/Bass’ back catalog.
Rankin and Bass’ last collaboration was the 1987 animated TV film The Wind In The Willows. The company ceased production that same year, and ownership of its properties have since been broken up and passed around to other hands. In 2001, Rankin himself served as executive producer of one last animated holiday special, the African-American-themed Santa, Baby!