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Obituaries

Seymour Reit, 83; Drew Cartoon Ghost Casper

December 18, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seymour V. Reit, an author and illustrator whose most famous creation was the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost, died Nov. 21 in New York City. He was 83.

Reit died suddenly after treatment for a heart ailment, according to his wife, Edmee.

Reit was a prolific writer whose works were primarily aimed at a young market. He wrote more than 80 titles for children, including easy readers about trucks and animals and young adult nonfiction on subjects ranging from the Civil War to life in the White House.

He wrote several books for adults, including "The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa," a 1981 book about the theft of the famous painting from the Louvre in 1911.

His most enduring creation was the anomalous Casper, the half-pint ghost who was averse to haunting houses and terrorizing the living. Over the last six decades, the affable character has been featured in animated cartoons, comic books and a 1995 live action feature film.

Its origin was claimed by Reit and Joe Oriolo, the illustrator known in the 1960s for his work on the "Felix the Cat" cartoon series. Reit said he invented the character in an unpublished story in the early 1940s and Oriolo provided the first drawings of the gentle spook with the plumpish head and body.

Neither man made huge profits on the long-lived character, the rights to which were sold to Paramount's Famous Studios in the early 1940s for about $200. In 1945, the studio released a theatrical short called "The Friendly Ghost." Casper became the studio's biggest draw after Popeye, starring in 55 shorts through the 1950s.

The character made its comic book debut in 1949 in a short-lived series published by St. John Publishing. Harvey Comics took over in 1952, publishing the Casper comics regularly for the next 30 years.

The comic books gave Casper a family, the dysfunctional ghostly trio of uncles: Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso. He also gained a ghost horse, Nightmare; an archenemy, Spooky the Tough Little Ghost; and a friend, Wendy the Good Little Witch.

In 1963, the Casper TV cartoon appeared, featuring most of the characters introduced in the comics. In 1995, Steven Spielberg produced the live action movie, which featured Casper and his spectral uncles, as well as Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci as a father and daughter who inhabit the ghosts' mansion.

Throughout his various incarnations, Casper remained a sensitive and sentimental spirit, hurt by rejection but always managing to win a new friend at the end.

Casper reflected Reit's essential nature, Edmee Reit said.

"Seymour was a very gentle man," she said. "He was only 5-foot-2. Being the underdog made him very much aware of what a small person has to do to make it in a world of big guys and jocks . . . who has to rely on wit and humor to make something of himself."

Reit, a native New Yorker, was encouraged to pursue an art career after winning a drawing contest at age 12. He began drawing cartoons as a student at New York University. After graduating in 1938 at 19, he was hired by Fleischer Studios in Miami where he drew minor animated scenes and wrote for the Popeye and Betty Boop series.

He served in a U.S. Army Air Force camouflage unit during World War II, which inspired him to write "The Amazing Camouflage Deceptions of World War II," published in 1978.

He received favorable notices a few years later on his book about the theft of the Mona Lisa, which was stolen by three Italian workmen in 1911 and was missing for two years. The book prompted a flurry of articles because of Reit's assertion that a painting kept in a bank vault in New Jersey was probably an early version of the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece.

Reit wrote the book while on the staff of New York's Bank Street College of Education, where he worked for 15 years. He also wrote the nonfiction "Sibling Rivalry" and a humor book entitled "Canvas Confidential: A Backward Glance at the World of Art."

His survivors include his wife and a sister.

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