Arthur Rankin Jr., the animator and producer who was quite likely responsible for some of the best TV hours of your childhood, died last week at his home in Bermuda. He was 89.
Rankin, the son of two actors, began his career in television at ABC in the 1940s (the radio network made the jump to TV in 1948), where he worked as an art director and graphic designer on shows like Tales of Tomorrow. Then, in 1960, he partnered with Jules Bass to found Videocraft International, a company whose name later changed to something you likely saw every December as a child: Rankin/Bass.
The duo's first major production was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, a TV series that used a stop-motion animation style they called "Animagic" and that would become the company's hallmark. After another animated series -- Tales of the Wizard of Oz -- and a TV special called Return to Oz, Rankin and Bass took on a project that is still an inescapable part of the holiday season 50 years after its release: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which first aired as an NBC holiday special in 1964 and was still a ratings hit when it aired on CBS in 2013. For more than two decades after Rudolph became a hit, Rankin/Bass continued to produce holiday specials with varying degrees of success, most of which are still being broadcast today. Their other Christmas specials, featuring both Animagic and traditional animation, include Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July and The Little Drummer Boy. They also managed to conquer other holidays with Mad Monster Party for Halloween, Here Comes Peter Cottontail for Easter, and Rudolph's Shiny New Year for New Year's Day.
Rankin and Bass did so much more than conquer holiday broadcasting, though. They were also a major force in fantasy and science fiction animation for decades. In 1977, they produced an animated TV special adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and they followed it up with a loose adaptation of The Lord of the Rings known as The Return of the King. In 1982, they co-directed and produced what was quite possibly a home video staple of your youth, a traditionally animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which remains a classic in the eyes of many. They also fed your cartoon addiction in the 1980s, producing and directing animated series like SilverHawks and, more importantly, ThunderCats. So if you were addicted to Lion-O's adventures, you have Arthur Rankin (among others) to thank.
At the time of his death, Rankin had been largely retired from the TV and film business. His last credit, as a consulting producer, was on the revived ThunderCats series that aired in 2011 and 2012. He kept busy, though, putting on stage productions in Bermuda and teaching at Bermuda College. We might not have heard from him much in the last couple of decades, but his legacy -- a body of work including numerous classics and more than 1,000 productions -- is certainly secure. He is survived by his wife, Olga, and sons Todd and Gardner.