January 11, 2010
Art Clokey, Animator Who Created Gumby, Dies at 88
By MARGALIT FOX
Art Clokey, the animator who half a century ago created Gumby, that most pliant of pop-cultural figures, died on Friday at his home in Los Osos, Calif. He was 88.
His son, Joe Clokey, said he died in his sleep.
Asparagus green and fashioned from clay, Gumby made his television debut in 1956 on “The Howdy Doody Show.” The next year, he became the star of “The Gumby Show,” in which he embarked on a string of gently quixotic adventures with his supple steed, Pokey. The series was one of the first extended uses of stop-motion animation on television.
Though the 1950s show was fairly short-lived, Gumby reappeared in new series in the 1960s and in the 1980s and continued for years in syndication. He also starred in a feature film, “Gumby: The Movie” (1995), directed by Mr. Clokey.
Gumby is now firmly ensconced in popular culture. He dangles from rearview mirrors, appears in video games and crops up ubiquitously in references in film and on television. Millions of Gumby dolls have submitted to their owners’ manipulations. The character has been satirized, notably by Eddie Murphy, who played him as a cigar-chomping vulgarian — “I’m Gumby, dammit!” — on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s.
With his first wife, Ruth, Mr. Clokey also produced “Davey and Goliath,” the adventures of a clay boy and his dog, broadcast in the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Clokey was the subject of a documentary film, “Gumby Dharma,” released in 2006.
Arthur Charles Farrington, as Mr. Clokey was first known, was born in Detroit on Oct. 12, 1921. After his parents divorced when he was about 8, he lived with his father; when Art was 9, his father was killed in an automobile accident. Rejoining his mother in California, the boy was banished by her new husband and placed in a children’s home.
At about 11, Art was adopted by Joseph Waddell Clokey, a well-known composer of sacred and secular music. By Art’s later account, Joseph Clokey was a loving father who opened up a world of books and culture.
Art Clokey earned a bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio and later attended Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, intending to become an Episcopal priest. He left before graduating and settled in California, where he and Ruth planned to make religious films.
Entering the University of Southern California, Mr. Clokey studied with the modernist filmmaker Slavko Vorkapich. In 1955, he made a student film, “Gumbasia” — the title was a nod to “Fantasia” — in which clay shapes dance to a jazz soundtrack. (The film is included on the DVD “Gumby Essentials,” released in 2007 by Classic Media.)
Mr. Clokey created Gumby soon afterward. As he often said, Gumby’s asymmetrical head, resembling a rakish pompadour, was a tribute to his biological father’s prominent cowlick.
“The Gumby Show” had an undercurrent of tender, if slightly surreal, spirituality. (A lifelong seeker of enlightenment, Mr. Clokey tried LSD — but only once, under medical supervision and not till long after he created Gumby, his son said in a telephone interview on Sunday.)
“Davey and Goliath” was spiritual by design. Underwritten by what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the series was meant to teach values like charity and tolerance.
Mr. Clokey’s first marriage, to the former Ruth Parkander, ended in divorce; his second wife, Gloria, died in 1998. In addition to his son, Joe, from his first marriage, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Holly Harman; a sister, Arlene Cline; a half-sister, Patricia Anderson; and three grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Ann, died in 1974.
With the rise of slick, titillatingly violent cartoons in the 1970s, Gumby’s popularity waned. According to many published accounts, Mr. Clokey struggled financially. Then along came Mr. Murphy, and suddenly Gumby was everywhere.
Mr. Clokey adored Mr. Murphy’s performance, his son said. But he was also gratified that it was broadcast late at night, when no child was awake to see it.