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Pierre Culliford; Created the Widely Popular Smurfs

December 25, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pierre Culliford, the unassuming cartoonist who created a world of paunchy elves with droopy hats, put them in a village of mushroom-shaped huts and called them Smurfs, died Christmas Eve.

"There is a village where Christmas will never be the same again," Belgian radio said Thursday. "The Smurfs will be mourning their father tonight."

Culliford, who called himself Peyo, a diminutive of his first name, died of a heart attack just weeks after his final work, a recording called "The Money Smurfs," was completed. In failing health, he said the album--the 16th in the Smurf series--had given him renewed hope. He was 64 and died at his Brussels home.

At their peak, the Smurfs--eventually favorites around the world--drew young American viewers to their TV sets on Saturday mornings producing Nielsen figures that topped such nighttime favorites as "Dallas" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."

The tiny blue \o7 homunculi \f7 ("three apples high" by their creator's definition) lived a simple life in an enchanted forest, at peace with all the world with the exception of the evil wizard Gargamel and his cat, Azrael.

Culliford fashioned his charming creatures from a cartoon strip he conceived for a Brussels film company. He called it "Johan et Pirlouit" and set it in medieval times.

Known in French as Les Schtroumpfs, the Smurfs began as extras in the "Johan et Pirlouit" adventures, which were then being published in the weekly Spirou magazine.

"Three years from now, no one will talk about them anymore," Culliford said in 1957 in what proved a poor prophecy.

Smurfs now have fans worldwide and are known by such varied names as Smurfies in South Africa, Strunfs in Brazil and Lah-Shin-Lings in China.

They even speak their own language, often using the word "smurf" as an all-purpose verb or noun as in "Let's smurf on over" or "All for smurf and smurf for all."

They have been seen in more than 250 animated cartoons and countless comic strips, and their likeness was licensed to more than 2,000 companies marketing dolls, toys and other goods.

Peyo became a millionaire.

Culliford said he decided to color the Smurfs blue because it is a child's color. He rejected yellow because it reminded him of illness, and red because he thought it too violent.

Although the Smurfs date to 1957, they didn't become popular in the United States until Fred Silverman, then chief of NBC, bought a Schtroumpf doll for his daughter as he was getting on a plane in Honolulu. She was so delighted with the gift that he decided to develop the dolls for TV and turned to Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, whose animation firm dominated the Saturday morning field.

Their writers drew on 20 years of Culliford's strips for ideas, and the shows quickly became a national and then an international success.

At the time the Smurfs were at the peak of their popularity, Barbera said that "the Smurfs is a relief from the steady diet of mystery stories and superheroes" that then dominated kids' TV.

In one of the few Smurf moves that failed, a theme park opened near Metz in northeastern France in 1991 but has since closed.

Culliford is survived by his wife and two children.

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