Association Internationale du Film d’Animation
International Animated Film Association

In Memoriam - Gene Dietch

Author: Pencho Kunchev | Date: 4/20/20, 8:28 PM

(L) Deitch with the comic Tom Terrific, (R) Dietch as creative director at UPA (1955)


1924 - 2020

During these anxious days of world coronavirus pandemic, when every person on the earth is concerned about his own health and life, we learned with sadness that on April 16th that Gene Deitch, one of the last legendary representatives of the golden pioneering years of animation cinema, passed away in Prague at the age of 95.

Born in 1924 in Chicago, Dietch began his career in the 1950’s with an apprenticeship at United Production of America (UPA). The modern, unprecedented styles pioneered by UPA influenced Deitch throughout his career. Deitch soon became a creative director at Terrytoons, where he created such characters as Sidney the Elephant, Gaston le Crayon, Clint Clobber and also the TV serial Tom Terrific - an adaptation from his earlier newspaper comic strip. During this time, he received two Golden Medals from the New York Art Directors Club for the Best TV commercials. His advertising animations are the first presented at MOMA in New York.

In 1958, Deitch started his own studio called Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. producing television commercials and shorts. His film, Sydney’s Family Tree was nominated for an Oscar in 1958. In 1959, Deitch travelled to Prague to direct the short film Munro. After meeting his future spouse Zdena, who became his true companion in life and film making, Deitch settled in Czechoslovakia permanently. Later in life, he observed that he has been “the only free American living and working in Prague during 30 years of the Communist Party dictatorship”. In 1961 Munro won an Academy Award for Animated Short Film.

Working from behind the iron curtain, Deitch directed some films featuring Popeye the Sailor for King Features. Together with Vaclav Bedrich, he directed 13 Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM. At that time, he also directed several films with his animation character, Nudnik, gathering more Oscar nominations for Here is Nudnik and How to Avoid Friendship. In 1966, partnering with colleague and friend Jiri Trnka, Deitch began work on the first ever film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with drawings by Adolf Born. He continued to be a liaison between American and Czech studios from 1969 till 1993. The partnership between Weston Woods Studios in Conneticut and Bratri v Triku Studios in Prague resulted in 37 animated adaptations of famous children’s books, such as Where the Wild Things Are (1973), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, The Beast of Monsieur Racine (1974), and Moon Man (1981), illustrated by Tomi Ungerer. The 1969 film The Giants was made as a Czech production, and awarded the golden Shell at San Sebastian, but could not be shown in Czechslovakia for 20 years because of ideological reasons. Deitch is also author of several Czech animated films for children, such as The Stupid Frog (1971), based on a folk song of Peet Seeger. In 2004 Gene Deitch received Annie Windsor McCay Award by ASIFA Hollywood for his remarkable lifetime contribution to the art of animation.

Animators, like children, are eager to draw pictures that directly reflect their attitude to the world around them. Тhus, they seem to remain forever in the wonderful world of childhood. Gene Dеitch said that when he came to Prague for the first time, he felt as if he had fallen into some other ancient time, as if he was going back to the bygone days of his childhood. And so today, 60 years later, after making a number of remarkable films mainly intended for children’s audiences, he seems to be leaving the world of childhood just now, to convey himself in the world of memories and history, where his name will remain forever as one of the great masters of world animation.

Pencho Kunchev

ASIFA Bulgaria

Gene Deitch with his character Nudnik

Gene Dietch - Tribute by Nancy Denny Phelps of ASIFA- San Francisco

Gene used to say he was the first successful animator not trained in the Disney style of animation.  He won an Oscar in 1960 for his cartoon Monro, about a boy who is drafted into the Army and the generals refuse to hear him when he says he is only a boy.  He was also nominated for the same award twice in 1964 for Here’s Nudnik and How to Avoid Friendship.

He created the Tom Terrific series, while Sidney’s Family Tree, which he co-produced, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1958.

Born Aug. 8, 1924, in Chicago, his family moved to California, where he attended Los Angeles High School. He worked in animation first in Detroit at Jam Handy, then in Nya PPH and later headed CBS’s Terrytoons.  Deitch arrived in Prague in 1959 intending to stay for 10 days, but fell in love with his future wife, Zdenka, and stayed in the Czechoslovakian capital.

Working from behind the Iron Curtain, he directed 13 episodes of Tom and Jerry for MGM and also some of the Popeye the Sailor series. He animated several films based on award winning children’s book for Weston Woods including Where the Wild Things Are. He captured life in communist Czechoslovakia and later in the Czech Republic after the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution in his memoirs For the Love of Prague.

In 2004, he received the Winsor McCay Award from ASIFA Hollywood for his lifelong contribution to animation. He also did events for ASIF-SF.

Links to many of his films are available on Cartoon Brew and here are a selection of Dietch's ads and Tom Terrific cartoons.

Deitch is survived by his wife and by three sons from his first marriage, all of whom are cartoonists and illustrators.

SF Film in 2008 invited Gene to meet about 100 kids at the public library on Page St. and talk about his career. 

Deitch with students in San Francisco, 2008

He later wroteMy visit with the local elementary school was the highlight of my San Francisco days this November. It is a rare occasion for me to be present at screenings of my films in the actual venues for which they are intended—in schools, and with child student audiences. It was a genuine thrill for me to see and hear how the children reacted, and the sharply focused questions they had for me. Occasions like this are what make the hard work we put into our children's films so worthwhile.” —Gene Deitch, animator/filmmaker

Dr.  Noureddin Karrinkelk, former president on ASIFA, with Gene and his wife