There are a lot of successful people in New York, but it's rare that we watch someone's work for 50 years. NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer.
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In his Upper West Side apartment and studio, Jules Feiffer is testing out some characters. It's a process he likens to auditioning actors for a play.
“When I get a character I say, ÎThank you - we'll be in touch,’ and crumple it up and throw it in the wastebasket until the right character comes along. You pretty much know right away," he says.
Jules Feiffer has been drawing characters professionally for 50 years. He's written plays like “Little Murders” and movies like “Carnal Knowledge,” but Feiffer is known primarily for his cartooning, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986, and now as a children's book author.
He says the work may happen in his studio, but the ideas come while walking in the park.
"I have a notebook with me and stop and make notes and jot things down and things start to happen," he says. “So much is just letting accidents happen and controlling the accident. This room is for when I engage in my craft, than when I sit down and draw it has to be here. When I sit down and actually do the writing it's here, but what makes the writing possible is done elsewhere."
His latest book is called "A Room With a Zoo." It was inspired by his 10-year-old daughter Julie. He and his wife Jenny also have a daughter in college.
So how is it being an older dad at the age of 77?
"Instead of the energy that I thought would be depleting, it was rejuvenating,” he says. “I found that I had energy I didn't know I had before. It became certainly terrific for the aging process because life, it youthened me."
Since his work first appeared in the Village Voice in 1956, Feiffer has been known as a political satirist. He worked for Playboy for many years, and once even did a full-page ad for Rose's Lime Juice in The New Yorker, prompting a chastizing letter.
"They had this cartoon and a big cross against it, over it, and it said, ÎSell out!’ And it enraged me,” he says. “Wasn't I allowed to make a living? The Voice wasn't paying me. And then I decided they were right and I never did another ad.”
The comic strip, and then the plays and screenplays and children's books brought Feiffer respect in New York's literary world and fame across the country. Feiffer says his success changed him, but in a good way, giving him confidence in relationships, and eventually, a family.
“I always felt unfinished as a kid. I think most do,” he says. “I was awkward, I was shy, I was inarticulate, and unlike others I needed to get famous in order to be free, to get what I wanted. So in fact I didn't lose anything - I gained enormously.”
From his early days growing up in the Bronx, Jules Feiffer knew that he wanted to be a cartoonist.
"This is stuff I was doing when I was 8 and 9-years-old, trying to draw my own comic books," he says. “Here's drawings I did as a teenager trying to do serious comic book stuff, adventure. It stinks.”
But Feiffer also knew there was a shadow in his home. His parents were immigrants. They'd escaped anti-Semitism in Europe, and his mother infused in her son a sense of fear of the outside and outsiders.
“I was afraid of my shadow,” he says. “It took years of living and doing things that I thought would kill me to stop feeling fear in every step I took outside the house. I discovered that people were nice. They forgot to kill me; they didn't read my mother's script. Once I felt liberated from that then I could go out and be the bully and beat people up, and that's when I started doing the cartoons.”
Feiffer was in the Army from 1951-1953, serving stateside in a unit called the Signal Corps, ironically spending much of his time making anti-military cartoons, developing the character of Munro, a 4-year-old boy mistakenly drafted into the Army.
"I knew I was going to get killed in Korea,” he says. “If they sent me to the front, there was no way I was going to survive. I wasn't going to shoot at anybody, and I understood that someone might shoot at me."
After the Army, Feiffer went around to several publishing houses trying to get a book deal. He says editors rejected him largely because he wasn't well known.
But he noticed the editors were all reading a new paper, the Village Voice.
“I went to pick up the paper, looked at it, and thought, ÎThese guys want me to be famous. That paper is on their desk - if I can get in that paper they'll think I'm famous and they'll publish my book,’” he says.
Feiffer says the Voice gave him free rein, no small feat in 1956, when political dissent in the press could be a dangerous game.
"I would run into countless numbers of people who rather than tell me how much they liked the work, would tell me instead, ÎHow do you get this into print?’” he says. “None of my contemporaries thought they had first amendment rights."
After establishing himself as a cartoonist, Feiffer ventured into writing plays. “Little Murders” would eventually succeed in London and off-Broadway, and be made into a movie.
But its initial run in New York in 1967 failed, leading to a phone call from then Times theater critic Sam Zolotow.
"He said, ÎOK, Mr. Big Shot Cartoonist, you had your first play on and it failed - what are you going to do now?’ And I said, ÎSam, I'm going to keep bringing it back until you schmucks get it right,’” he says.
And then it was on to screenplays, writing one of the seminal movies of the early 70's, “Carnal Knowledge.” Mike Nichols was the director, and persuaded Feiffer to cast a then relatively unknown actor, Jack Nicholson.
"He suggested Nicholson, who I'd only seen in ÎEasy Rider,’ to play the lead, and he seemed entirely wrong to play the part, and I argued against it,” he says. “And Mike said, ÎTrust me, he's going to be our most important actor since [Marlon] Brando.’ And this is on the basis of that one role. And he was absolutely right, of course.”
Feiffer wrote several more plays and screenplays, and in the 90's started creating a string of well received children's books. But he is still chiefly remembered as a political cartoonist, a man of his time.
“Had I come of age in anything other than the Cold War years I would have had a very different slant on things, and a very different career,” he says.
He is also remembered as a lifelong New Yorker, a man of his city.
“Abrasion is the essence of how we live, and also I think abrasion is essentially the essence of what keeps my life and my work vital," he says.
If Feiffer worked in a bucolic, rural setting, with lots of wide open space, what does he think his work would have looked like?
“I probably would have been a right wing cartoonist with a lot more money," he says.
Feiffer is married to the writer Jenny Allan. Their daughter Halley is a college student and actress who recently appeared in the film "The Squid and the Whale."
They have a younger daughter, and Feiffer has a grown daughter Kate who is also a writer. At 77, it's still a full and busy life, and there are plenty more characters to draw and books to write.
“There's no downside to this other than the fact that you’ve got to get up in the morning and do it,” he says. “And there's never been a time in my life when as much pleasure as it is I'd rather not do it. Then you talk yourself into it and you're having a ball."
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
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