He sits at his drawing board, a benign, grandfatherly figure whose mild manner belies his history as creator of some of the wildest, funniest characters in film history.
You may not have heard of Chuck Jones, but you're certainly familiar with the characters he helped bring to life during the heyday of the Warner Bros. cartoon studio: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, Road Runner, Elmer Fudd, and more.Jones, 77, lives in a spacious, ocean-view house in this Orange County town, and he still turns out drawings in his sunlit studio. He also has done a book, aptly titled "Chuck Amuck" (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $24.95), which has been critically praised for its comic brilliance.
"Chuck Amuck" relates the artist's carefree California youth as a kind of surfing Huck Finn, and his natural drift into cartooning. For most of the book, he writes about those crazy years at Warner Bros. when he, Tex Avery and a band of other inspired animators created cartoons that were far more audacious and funny than those at the Disney studio.
Character was everything at Warner Bros., and the wilder the character the funnier the cartoon. Jones recently talked about the wellspring of his creations.
"All of the characters that I was involved with were characters I found within myself. They were in two general categories," he said. "Most of them fell into the classic area of comedy, going back to (Charlie) Chaplin and (Buster) Keaton and up to Woody Allen - when he wasn't being Ingmar Bergman - and Richard Pryor. All of them are losers, like the rest of us, only more so. That category would cover figures like Daffy duck, Elmer Fudd, the Coyote, etc.
"Once in a while you run into another kind of character like Bugs Bunny. He falls into a special category called `comic hero.' It started with `It Happened One Night,' in which Clark Gable was a comic hero and a hero at the same time. There was nobody standing at the side and giving comic relief. Bugs falls into that category.
"So when you begin a picture with Bugs, because he is so strong and can be a bully and a nuisance, you always start him in a hole or the woods, where you would expect to find a rabbit. He would be reading a classic tome in Sanskrit or something, a quiet-living rabbit. Then someone comes along to do him hurt, such as take his foot off, which is supposed to be good luck, to set him off in a rocket or to eat him.
"Bugs is a natural person leading a normal life until someone aggravates him, then he fights back. In other words, he's a sort of counter-revolutionary."
Like Bugs, Daffy Duck originated in the inspired drawings of the late Tex Avery. Jones converted both into long-lasting heroes.
"Tex did one of the first Daffys, `Porky's Duck Hunt,' but like the original Bugs, the character was just nuts," said Jones. "When I got acquainted with Daffy, I realized he was a person who was very much like me. He was more courageous than I am; he rushes in and fears to tread at the same time, which I would like to do but don't have the guts.
"Daffy could be fawning and overweening and overbearing at the same time. He can do strange things, but within all of us dwells a Daffy Duck. Just as I later did `How the Grinch Stole Christmas' (for television), I realized that all of us hate Christmas a little bit. I had the opportunity to direct someone who hated Christmas completely. That was neat."
Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote were born more or less by accident, the animator recalled. He and his colleagues decided to make a parody on chases and become the Jonathan Swifts of their time. They needed two credible antagonists (all comedy is based on believability), and they came up with a road runner and a coyote. The pair so overwhelmed audiences that a series was born. So much for parody.
"We arbitrarily set down rules after the first cartoon," Jones recalled. "It would always take place on the southwestern American desert, where both characters belong. Road Runner would always stay on the road, unless he was lured off by a detour sign."
Road Runner's trademark came when an artist was carrying a stack of drawings down the hall. Unable to see ahead, he called "beep-beep."
The glory days of Warner Bros. cartoons ended in 1962, because the theatrical market for short subjects had disappeared.