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Underdog Cartoon Becomes Live Action Movie

Interview with Creator and Illustrator Joe Harris




Classic Media
Dateline: July 23, 2007

Joe Harris is the creator and illustrator of the original Underdog cartoon series that aired on TV in the 1960s. In a typical episode, Polly Purebread would be captured by Simon Barsinister, and Underdog would save her, and usually the world, as well.

An Underdog movie is in theaters, but it is live-action rather than animated. Whether this proves to be a good way to bring the character to the big screen, only box office receipts will tell.

In the meantime, I had the delight of interviewing Joe Harris. He's nearly 80, but keen and busy as all get out, publishing books and coming up with fresh ideas all the time.

Here he discusses his feelings about a live-action Underdog, his excitement about the release of Underdog DVDs and the ideas behind his children's books.

Nancy Basile: Are you in Connecticut?

Joe Harris: No, I'm in Manhattan.

NB: Oh, wonderful! Are you having as gray a day as we are here in Pennsylvania?

Joe Harris: We not only have a gray day, it seems to be weeping.

NB: That's a good way to put it.

Joe Harris: So you're in Pennsylvania?

NB: Yes, I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country.

Joe Harris: Oh, sure, I've been up there. I was up there as a kid. I had some great times up there. I have a feeling it's changed a lot since I was there.

NB: Yeah, it probably has. It's really booming around here. A lot of people here commute to Philadelphia, some even to New York. It's becoming more and more developed. It's not the farm country it used to be.

Joe Harris: Well, I guess it's happening everywhere. I used to live out in the Hamptons, and then all of a sudden there was an explosion of people from New York, and it never stopped.

NB: Anymore, I think you have to go pretty far out west, I think, to Montana or something, to get away from everybody.

Joe Harris: And they're doing it, too. I just saw the other day that several movie stars have opened up a big... houses where their friends built houses, also. And they have little colonies out there.

NB: Little communities.

Joe Harris: Yeah. Hollywood at a distance.

NB: I don't blame them.

Joe Harris: I don't, either!

NB: Speaking of Hollywood at a distance, I'm very curious that you left the television industry, right? When Total Television folded, and you went back into advertising, is that correct?

Joe Harris: Well, after the folding of TTV, I went to J. Walter Thompson, and I got into pharmaceutical advertising, which was like a 180 degree turn from what I was doing before.

NB: What made you leave television animation and get back into advertising?

Joe Harris: The fact that General Mills had stopped production. I mean, Monday we were doing the work, Tuesday we were told, "That's it."

NB: Wow. Did you ever attempt or try to submit concepts or ideas for any other TV shows?

Joe Harris: Oh, yeah. I've got about a dozen of them here. And, you know, it's probably one of the toughest things to do, other than becoming a movie star.

NB: Especially nowadays. There is a giant boom in animation. I imagine the competition is fierce.

Joe Harris: It is. And, of course, so much of it is CGI. It's a whole different world. It's not ink and paint on cels anymore.

NB: Not the art that it used to be. Are you retired now?

Joe Harris: Oh, no. I'm very busy. I'm doing a couple of books for Random House, one of which I'm just finishing and should come out probably in 2008, 2009. One is already out. I just saw an ad for it on television. Oh, it comes out, I believe, in January.

NB: How do you feel about seeing a live-action Underdog?

Joe Harris: Well, I have to be very careful about what I say about that, because my first impression was what you would expect. It boggled me a bit. I went over to Classic Media and I talked with some of the people there, Bob Higgins, in particular, and he told me it was going to be a real dog.

So I immediately, when I got down off the ceiling, I sent him several cartoons, about Polly and Underdog becoming real dogs. One of them was where a rather important-looking businessman came into the dressing room where Polly and Underdog were sitting in front of the mirrors, and he was saying, "I hope you don't mind, kiddies, I just want to take a break for a minute and try on some of your new costumes. And the door is open and out in the hall you can see two trainers holding leashes.

NB: That's a good one!

Joe Harris: He did not appreciate that.

NB: I bet!

Joe Harris: I sent him another one which showed Underdog winning a prize, a row of people with their Oscars, and Underdog got a silver bowl marked "DOG."

NB: Awww! Poor Underdog!

Joe Harris: That's the way I felt. He said, look, you're mired in the past. It was a big hit in the 60s. Get used to it. Things have changed, now with CGI. Give it a chance and see what happens. It's Disney. So I said, all right, I will give it a chance, and I am going to the premiere, and we'll see what happens. I've worked with a lot of Disney animators and I know what wonderful jobs they turn out, so we'll see.

NB: Well, hopefully, you will be happy with it. I imagine it's very difficult. To tell you the truth, I don't see any reason that they could not have an animated Underdog film with so many animated movies coming out. The Simpsons Movie is 2D.

Joe Harris: I even wrote a scenario, and I said, why don't we do the Roger Rabbit route.

NB: Oh, that would have been fun!

Joe Harris: After all, they created one of the funnier characters, and they created one of the sexiest women, both animated. And they were in a live world.

NB: Right.

Joe Harris: Why not?

NB: Well, we'll see how the live-action Underdog does. Everyone I mentioned to that I was interviewing you today got very excited because they all loved the original Underdog series.

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