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Barbera, Josephfree

(24 March 1911–18 December 2006)
  • Dennis Wepman

Joseph Barbera

[left to right] Joseph Barbera and William Hanna, with some of their cartoon characters at their office in Los Angeles, 1988. Photograph by Douglas Pizac.

Associated Press

Barbera, Joseph (24 March 1911–18 December 2006), film animator and producer, was born in the neighborhood called Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the son of Sicilian immigrants Vincente Barbera, a barber, and Francesca Calvacca. His family (which pronounced the name bar-BERR-a) moved to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn when he was an infant, and he attended school there, graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1928. He adopted the middle name Roland at his confirmation ceremony at the age of thirteen. In his last year in high school he studied boxing and fought seven bouts, winning the lightweight championship of the school, and he briefly considered becoming a professional prizefighter. A love of the theater led him also to try his hand at playwriting, but as neither career seemed likely to earn him a living, he accepted a banking job arranged by his father with a customer in his barbershop. He worked as a clerk in the tax department of the Irving Trust Company on Wall Street from 1930 to 1932 and studied at the American Banking Institute but soon gave it up. He also briefly attended New York University, but had neither the money nor the inclination to continue.

The discovery of a taste and a gift for drawing led Barbera to take classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, at fifty cents a lesson, and an evening course at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He diligently copied magazine cartoons and illustrations and submitted his own, selling a total of four cartoons, at $25 each, to Collier's. In 1935 he married his high school sweetheart Dorothy Earl, with whom he had three children. They were divorced in 1963, and soon afterward he married Sheila Holden.

Eager to get away from banking and aware, as he reported, “that a handful of cartoons were not going to put beans on the table” (My Life in 'toons, p. 37), he searched for a way to make a living in art. In 1934 he found a job in film animation at the Fleischer Studios in New York City, but the tedium of coloring and inking other people's drawings—at a salary of $25 a week—led him to quit in four days. Soon afterward he got a better job at the Van Beuren animation studio, and there he learned the trade. When Van Beuren went out of business in 1936, Barbera had no trouble finding work as an animator and storyboard editor with Paul Terry, whose Terrytoons studio in New Rochelle, New York, paid him $55 a week. The next year, the climate of California and the offer of $87.50 a week enticed him to accept a job with the new cartoon unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in Culver City, California.

At MGM he was assigned to a desk across from that of the animator and composer William Hanna, and although they were of different temperaments the two established an immediate rapport. As the media critic Leonard Maltin wrote, “Hanna and Barbera saw something in each other and fused into a tremendous working team” (Of Mice and Magic, p. 282). Their first collaboration was the cartoon short “Puss Gets the Boot,” released 10 February 1940 and featuring a malicious cat named Jasper and his nemesis, a nameless mouse. Later christened Tom and Jerry, the animated characters went on to star in 114 action-packed cartoons and to occupy the team's time exclusively for the next seventeen years. Tom and Jerry cartoons won seven Academy Awards and fourteen other nominations for the studio, and its stars were the first to join humans in live-action feature films, Jerry dancing with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945) and both swimming with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet (1953).

Successful as he was with animation, Barbera pursued other interests as well, including a return to his childhood dream of writing for the theater. In 1952 his farce The Maid and the Martian got as far as a local stage production, and earned enthusiastic reviews, but the demands of his burgeoning film career were too great for him to persist in that endeavor. He and Hanna were put in charge of MGM's animation division in 1955 and retained control until the studio closed its cartoon department in 1957. That year they founded their own studio, H-B Enterprises, which quickly became Hanna-Barbera Productions, the order of the names decided by flipping a coin. As the theatrical market for cartoons fell off, the studio focused increasingly on the emerging television market and soon dominated it, grossing $9 million in 1961.

Hanna-Barbera created many popular cartoon characters: Huckleberry Hound, featuring a talking dog with a southern drawl, was the first cartoon series on television to win an Emmy. The show ran from 1958 to 1961, and Huckleberry's pal Scooby-Doo, an equally articulate canine, filled Saturday morning television screens from 1969 to 1976. The insatiable ursine Yogi Bear pilfered picnic baskets from 1961 to 1962. The studio's biggest hit was The Flintstones, set in the Stone Age but patterned on Jackie Gleason's famous television show The Honeymooners. Described by Jeff Lenburg (Animated Cartoons, p. 336) as “the most heralded situation-comedy cartoon series and the first ‘adult’ cartoon show for television,” it was also the first made-for-television cartoon series to air in prime time, running on ABC at 7:30 Fridays from 1960 to 1966. In 1962 Hanna-Barbera produced a futuristic space-age equivalent, The Jetsons, with similar characters and sitcom formula. It was a one-season show but returned for new series in 1984–1985 and 1987–1988.

Together with William Hanna, Joseph Barbera produced some 3,000 animated half-hour television shows, creating more than 100 series, as well as full-length animated features and several live-action television films, beginning with the Emmy Award–winning The Gathering (1977). The partners were the most productive creators of television cartoons in the history of the medium. As Barbera reported, “60 Minutes would one day call Hanna-Barbera Productions the ‘General Motors of animation’ (and me the ‘Sultan of Saturday Morning,’ no less) … [A]t one point we were responsible for something like 70 percent of all the cartoons on television” (My Life in 'toons, pp. 54–55). The studio won every award in the film industry and Barbera was elected to the Television Hall of Fame. His abundant output during nearly seven decades had a profound influence on the cartoon industry and an enduring impact on popular culture worldwide. Even after Turner Broadcasting acquired Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1990, and the death of William Hanna in 2001, Barbera remained fully engaged as a writer, director, producer, and storyboard artist until his death at his home in Studio City, Los Angeles.

Bibliography

The primary source on Barbera's personal life is his memoir, written with Alan Axelrod, My Life in 'toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century (1994), and much information about his career is in the memoir of his partner, Bill Hanna, written with Tom Ito and with a foreword by Barbera, A Cast of Friends (1996). The work of the Hanna-Barbera studio is examined in detail in Ted Sennett, The Art of Hanna-Barbera: Fifty Years of Creativity (1989), and Michael Mallory, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons (1998), which includes interviews with both partners and summaries of each of their films. Barbera's life is discussed in the many articles about and obituaries of his partner Bill Hanna, as well as in all histories of film animation. See Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (1980); Something about the Author, Volume 51 (1988); Jeff Lenburg, The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons (1991); Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999); and Hal Erickson, Television Cartoon Shows: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1949 through 2003 (2005). An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 Dec. 2006.