Arthur Rankin Jr. of Rankin-Bass animations dies at 90

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Broadcasting legend Arthur Rankin Jr — the animator, producer and director behind some of television’s most enduring holiday specials — has died in his 90th year following a bout of illness.

Bermuda’s own movie mogul, who cornered the market for Christmas specials with his US partner Jules Bass, passed away yesterday morning at his home by Harrington Sound.

Starting in the early 1960s, Mr Rankin won the hearts of TV audiences with whimsical stop-motion animation.

His company, Rankin/Bass Productions, created perennial classics such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that made broadcast history.

He is survived by his wife Olga, a Greek-born actress who in 2010 became the oldest newly graduated lawyer called to the Bermuda Bar — as well as sons Todd and Gardner.

“A great man of innate curiosity who gave so willingly of his time — I was blessed to be in his circle of friends,” said Masterworks Foundation head Tom Butterfield, who recalled Mr Rankin as a man of “wry humour and humanity who liked people that marched to a slightly different drum”.

Born in New York City in 1924 to actors Arthur Rankin and Marian Manfield, Mr Rankin was a self-made filmmaker whose career spanned the history of the medium — starting as art director at ABC in the late 1940s.

“These were days when no one knew anything about television,” he told The Mid-Ocean News in 1996. “I painted sets and did graphic design.”

Mr Butterfield described Mr Rankin as someone “born at the time of silent film, who finished life in 3-D”.

Acting ran in the family: his grandfather, Harry Davenport, played Dr Meade in 1939’s ‘Gone with the Wind’.

“Arthur started with a flashlight in movie theatres to show people to their seats at the age of nine, and ended up a director.

“One of his greatest aspects was that he’d only ask of others what he would expect of himself — and he expected perfection,” Mr Butterfield said.

Mr Rankin and Mr Bass set out in 1960 with Videocraft International, which later became their eponymous business.

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Stop-motion was a painstaking and obscure technique when “Rudolph” burst onto the scene, followed by “Frosty the Snowman”, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “The Little Drummer Boy”, “A Year Without a Santa Claus” and a slew of other specials.

“Christmas has been good to me,” Mr Rankin would remark in 1996.

He wrote, produced or directed more than a dozen feature films, including two of just three feature-length films shot in Bermuda: the 1978 cult classic “The Bermuda Depths” and 1980s “The Ivory Ape” — as well as the animated TV series “ThunderCats” and “SilverHawks”, on top of more than 1,000 TV programmes.

In 1999, with “Rudolph” and others still going strong and a huge market growing for Rankin/Bass memorabilia, the US weekly TV Guide declared him the “Santa Claus of holiday programming”.

“He loved the world of fantasy and make-believe, of better places that would take people away from the drudgeries of the everyday,” Mr Butterfield said.

A quiet philanthropist, Mr Rankin helped Mr Butterfield bring the Masterworks Museum to reality — and avoided publicity in his support of many other local causes.

His lectures on film at the Bermuda College, launched in 1996, proved wildly popular.

“It’s hard to be good at anything,” Mr Rankin reflected at the time. “If you’re passionate, the chances are that you will find a job that will make you happy.”

Mr Butterfield described Mr Rankin as a keen listener who was generous with his counsel.

“He was never perfunctory — it was always done with a sense of real commitment,” he said.

Such openness could explain Mr Rankin’s pioneering use of celebrities to voice his animation, well before the practice was popularised by recently blockbusters.

He managed to persuade such luminaries as Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire and Boris Karloff to lend their voices and images to Rankin/Bass creations.

Others included Tallulah Bankhead, Jeff Bridges, George Burns, Mia Farrow, Joel Gray, John Huston, Burl Ives, James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, Walter Matthau, Hayley Mills, Zero Mostel, Vincent Price and Flip Wilson.

Mr Karloff’s voice role in the 1967 spoof “Mad Monster Party” was one of his last performances.

Mr Rankin also managed to persuade dancer and actor James Cagney to come out of retirement to narrate 1966’s “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear”.

Other much-loved productions were the Rankin and Bass version of JRR Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in 1977, followed by “The Return of the King” — and adaptations “The Last Unicorn” and “The Flight of Dragons”.

In 1999 Mr Rankin produced an animated version of “The King and I”. Last year he tried to produce the Christmas play “Santa Baby”, but it was called off due to technical difficulties. According to Mr Butterfield, health difficulties were by then taking their toll.

Good friend Gary Phillips, chairman of the Bermuda National Gallery, last night gave condolences to Mr Rankin’s family, as well as “his housekeeper and friend, Francelina, and his caregiver, Winifred”.

“John Huston once said that many filmmakers of a certain longevity fade slowly to silence or fizzle out in mediocrity,” Mr Phillips said. “Arthur wanted nothing like that.

“He never wanted to reach the land of the ‘done’. It was always ‘What’s next? Will we have fun doing it?’

“I was perhaps Arthur’s newest friend — but we had a bond that transcended our age difference.

“I enjoyed his teaching, his love of his craft, his genuine love for Bermuda and his spirit of genuine love.

“Today, I celebrate every moment we shared. I celebrate his triumphal long and successful career. Yes, I shall miss him — but for now, I celebrate, as I know he would want it that way.”

I always loved their work, both for nostalgia and as an animation geek. Rip.

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