There are good interviews and bad interviews. Some interviewees stick to the marketing playbook at all costs while others tell stories they’ve told so many times that they actually believe them. Some people are afraid to talk, and others are afraid not to. I’ve experienced them all. For my money, though, the best interviewee in the animation biz was Jose Cuauhtémoc Melendez, a.k.a. “J. C. Melendez,” but best known as Bill Melendez (1916-2008). Long before he became renowned for the Peanuts franchise of commercials, TV specials, and a couple feature films, Bill worked for Disney and Warner Bros., and was also vitally active in the Motion Picture Cartoonists Union. He had the stories (and a few scars) to prove it all.
Bill’s respect for talent was as great as his disrespect for pretense, which is what made his interviews so entertaining. “If I said it, you can print it!” he’d gleefully declare. But you couldn’t always, at least not without the risk of incurring the wrath of a studio, an icon, an icon’s family member, or a fan.
Back in 1991, Bill related quite a few stories about his days in the Warners/Schlesinger studio in the 1940s. Bill was working in the Bob Clampett unit—which temperamentally and creatively was probably the perfect place for him—but the competition amongst the various units did not escape his attention. “Chuck Jones had all these pretensions about ‘Unit A,’ and stuff like that,” he told me, adding: “I used to play pranks on his unit all the time.” Among his regular pranks, he said, was dropping spiders through a hole in the floor, where they would land on Jones’ desk, one level below. But it was another unit that Bill believed pulled the best gag:
“Friz Freleng’s unit was such a raggle-taggle bunch of nobody-wants-them type of people. One time they pulled a great stunt. Chuck Jones used to go up to the front office and get the public address system and say ,‘Unit A to the projection room; Unit A to the projection room.’ And we’d go, ‘What the hell is this “Unit A to the projection room?”’ There are no [lettered] units.” So one time Chuck stomps up there and says, ‘Unit A to the project room,’ and he walks back. He’d always walk back until ‘Unit A’ was there, and then he’d come in. Well, he walked past the room for Friz’s unit, and they all rushed out and ran into the projection room. Then ‘Unit A’ comes sauntering in, going, ‘What’s this?’ And Chuck came in and he couldn’t believe it! [He said:]‘What are you guys doing here? Unit A was called to the projection room!’ [They said]: ‘We’re Unit A!’ Chuck was incensed! But it stopped him from doing it for a while. I’ll tell you, I used to love those crazy guys from [Freleng’s] crazy unit, because they were the hardest-working, and the longest-suffering, guys of all of us.”
What did Bill think of Friz himself? Well, he said it…but I can’t print it.