It was almost three years ago ---- August 24, 1983 ---- that Ralph Bakshi called to say goodby. The animator who made history in 1971 with "Fritz the Cat," the first X-rated cartoon feature, was burned out, he said. He'd bought a house beside a pond in a village called South Salem in the far exurbs of New York and he was going to paint, opting out of Hollywood.
Bakshi called again a few days ago. He is back in town, refreshed and renewed and ready to have at it again. He has a picture deal with Tri-Star, facilities on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, a team of eager young animators around him, most of them out of CalArts, and work is progressing on the first feature, "Bobby's Girl."
Not even the Disney studio had been so prolific as Bakshi was in his first Hollywood period. He'd done a feature virtually every other year. After "Fritz the Cat," there was "Heavy Traffic" (1973), "Coonskin" (1975), "Wizards" (1977), "Lord of the Rings" (1979), "American Pop" (his superambitious 1981 account of a four-generation Russian-American family), "Hey Good Lookin' " (1982) and "Fire and Ice" in 1983, the year he called it quits.
He had not always pleased audiences, critics or himself, but he had made a revolution in mainstream American animation, bringing anger, social commentary, non-slapstick violence and a graphic adult sexuality (far from aphrodisiac but equally far from "Snow White") into the field.
What a critic of the time called the world of "merry mice and wisequacking ducks" in which "the object of the frolic was joy, and don't charge a hare for me" would never be the same again. (Actually it would; the winsome mice go on, amusingly, except that now the world has been enlarged.)
But the early excitements were eroded by Bakshi's almost obsessive rush to produce. His angers, including a prolonged battle against Nazi Germany, lost their urgency. The light-footed impudence of "Fritz the cat" surrendered to solemnity. Critics quibbled that Bakshi's use of rotoscoping ---- in which live action footage is then altered by artists ---- was not "pure" animation.
At lunch in Studio city last week, Bakshi, said he'd spent the last three years just as he'd vowed he would, painting
"I was tired of animation," he said. "I'd done, what eight or nine films in a dozen years. I wasn't sure there were audiences for animated features anymore. I couldn't compete with George Lucas.
"I had four teen-agers and I wanted to see more of them, watch them grow up. We reduced our standard of living considerably. I made myself get along on five bucks of pocket money a week. I poured out all my anger on the the canvases. I painted very privately. I'd turn the canvases to the wall when the kids came in the room.
"Was it all wonderful? Don't kid yourself. There were very bad days. You'd say 'What're you doing ? What've you done? Nobody cares.' Making marks on canvas isn't romantic. It's hard and it's lonely and you're searching your insides, and I would feel stupid.
"Then there were good days. I played soccer with the kids. The pond froze over in the winter and we played hockey. I discovered there was a sculptor who lived and worked in what had been a church right across the street and we'd sit and drink wine and talk about art. But there were always bad days, too."
What then happened, Bakshi said, was that he began to get calls from young animators just out of CalArts, urging him to get back into the scene. "Nothing's happening in animation,' they told me."
And not much has been, certainly in Bakshi's own taboo-breaking province. Television animation flourishes, although mostly, as Bakshi noted, as an adjunct to toy merchandising. Disney continues to be committed to animation.
Bakshi insisted, despite reports to the contrary, that he has always admired that studio's work tremendously. "The only thing was, I didn't want to follow in his (Walt Disney's) steps. I didn't want to follow in anybody's steps."
"Fritz" and "Heavy Traffic" in particular continue to be shown and admired and have acquired something like cult status. "My kid came home one day and said, 'Dad, you're relevant.' What more can you ask of your 16-year-old? Nothing."
Has Bakshi changed? he is not less energetic than before. he sits still reluctantly and with difficulty. He talks non-stop, pausing occasionally to smite his forehead and cry, "Pompous, Bakshi, pompous!" But he thinks he has left much of the anger on the canvas, although not the satiric and commenting point of view.
"I want to make animation to make people laugh their heads off," said Bakshi. He is working on the script and story-boarding of "Bobby's Girl" with six gag writers and his team of animators. "There average age is 24," said Bakshi, 48. "I'm the oldest guy in my studio; I used to be the youngest. They're quick and good and they don't always agree with me, and they don't mind saying so."
No more rotoscoping, "Bobby's Girl" and films to follow will be "the animation should be done." He'll leave the actual running of the studio to MBAs, as he calls them. "I used to worry about whether there were paper towels in the johns while I was trying to make movies. No more."
"Bobby's Girl" will be a teen-age film, rated R, Bakshi said. "It'll reflect my time, my teenagers, their phone bills." It will take a poke at some of the current teen-age movies, which Bakshi believes have relatively little to do with the way young people really are.
"I've yet to do the movie that satisfies me," he said. "But I haven't been so excited since I started 'Fritz.' Animation hasn't been exploding as it should; that's why I came back to town.
"I feel al little bit like Sinatra: You have to quit before you're appreciated. Now I feel there's life after death."