Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Late Great W. Watts Biggers, Co-Creator of Underdog

W. Watts "Buck" Biggers, the co-creator of Underdog, advertising man, and novelist, died 10 February 2013 at the age of 85.

William Watts Biggers was born on 2 June 1927 in Avondale Estates, Georgia. He was a member of the debate team at Avondale High School. They won the state championship. He left Avondale High before his senior year and attended North Georgia Military College instead, where he edited the school newspaper. He studied at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

Mr. Biggers was 20 years old when he moved to New York City where he tried to pursue a career as a singer, pianist, and songwriter. He took a job at the advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample as trainee in the mail room. He rose through the ranks at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, becoming an account executive and then  Account Supervisor on General Mills and Corn Products/Best Foods accounts. It was in 1959 that W. Watts Biggers, copy supervisor on the General Mills account Chester Stover, and supervisor of animation for the General Mills account Joe Harris were approached by a superior who told them that General Mills wanted to sponsor a television programme for children. To accomplish this Messrs. Biggers, Harris, and Stover then formed Total Television or TTV for short.

TTV entered the production of animated cartoons with King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. Debuting on NBC on 15 October 1960, it was only the network's second Saturday morning cartoon (after Hanna-Barbera's The Ruff & Reddy Show). King Leonardo and His Short Subjects proved fairly successful, running for three years on Saturday morning and many years in syndication since then. It not only paved the way for more cartoons from TTV, but also more Saturday morning cartoons. W. Watts Biggers not only produced the show, but also co-created it with Chet Stover and Joe Harris, and wrote many, perhaps, most of its episodes. He also served as producer, co-creator, and writer on TTV's next cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.  Starring Don Adams as the title character, a somewhat clever penguin, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales proved even more successful than King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. It ran for three years in its first run and many more years in syndicated reruns.

Total Televison's next cartoon would not only prove to be their most successful, but it would also prove to be W. Watts Biggers' most lasting contribution to pop culture. Underdog was co-created by Mr. Biggers, Chester Stover, Treadwell Covington, and Joe Harris. It debuted on NBC on 3 October 1964 and ran for nine years on NBC, then CBS, and then NBC again. Underdog then went into a highly successful syndication run that continues to this day. Underdog proved to be a hit from the beginning. in 1965 a balloon based on the character Underdog made its debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It continued to be a part of the parade until 1984. Underdog would prove to be a merchandising bonanza, producing a lunch box, games, comic books, Little Golden Books, and much more.

W. Watts Biggers would also produce, co-create, and write TTV's final cartoon, The Beagles. Centred on a rock band, The Beagles proved much less successful than TTV's previous efforts. To make matters worse, it appears that the masters have been lost, with only black and white copies of The Beagles' opening and part of an episode surviving. Unfortunately Total Television would not have a chance to produce another series. In 1969 General Mills dropped its sponsorship of TTV. Without the money from General Mills, TTV closed up shop.

While TTV was still running, W. Watts Biggers wrote his first novel, The Man Inside. It was published as an original paperback by Ballantine Books in 1968. After Total Television closed he spent several years as vice president of promotion and creative services at NBC. After his time at NBC Mr. Biggers became a freelance writer, writing for such publications as TV Guide, Family Circle, and Reader's Digest. With Chester Stover he wrote television news column, "TV Tinderbox," which was syndicated in turn by the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News, the Dallas' Tel-Aire Syndicate, and King Features Syndicate. He co-wrote the book Diabetes Without Fear with Dr. Joseph Goodman, which was published in 1979. He also wrote another novel, Hold Back the Tide, published in 2001. In 2004 he and Chester Stover published How Underdog Was Born, a book on the creation of Underdog. His final work was the screenplay for the feature film A Woman Called Job, which he co-wrote with Kurt Burk and appears in one of the roles. It is due to be released 10 March 2013.

There can be no doubt that W. Watts Biggers made a lasting contribution to popular culture with his creation of Underdog. Indeed, not only did he co-create the character and produce the show, but he wrote the scripts for the series as well. In the end Underdog has proven to be one of the most popular cartoon characters to emerge from television. References to Underdog permeate pop culture in a way few other cartoon characters do, in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to TV shows such as Scrubs and Will & Grace. Of course, it must pointed out that Underdog was not Mr. Biggers' only lasting cartoon creation. Tennessee Tuxedo, Tooter Turtle, Commander McBragg, the Go-Go Gophers, and other characters have been referenced in everything from The Matrix to The Simpsons.

While W. Watts Biggers may forever remain best known as the co-creator of Underdog, it is also important to remember that he did much more than his work at TTV. He was an account executive at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample for many years, creating several well remembered advertising campaigns for General Mills. He also wrote two novels, a feature film, articles, and a newspaper column. He was also the founder of Victory over Violence, an organisation "...dedicated to creating a positive force in the media to offset the cynicism and negativity, which create a climate of violence." Mr. Biggers not only created one of the most successful television cartoon characters of all time and founded one of the most successful cartoon television production companies of the Sixties, but he also accomplished a good deal of other things as well.

1 comment:

Andrea Condon said...

This is a beautiful piece on Watts. He would have been thrilled to read the title of your article. He was great.

Thank you,

Andrea Condon
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY