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Obituaries

George Gallagher, 72; Cartoonist Created Feisty Cat Heathcliff

October 04, 2001|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Gallagher, the cartoonist who developed Heathcliff, the rotund cat with a feisty personality, has died. He was 72.

Gallagher died Sunday of cardiopulmonary disease at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J. A resident of Upper Saddle River, N.J., Gallagher had been hospitalized in declining health for several months.

The "Heathcliff" strip, which Gallagher started drawing in 1973 using George Gately, his first and middle names as a signature, caught on immediately and was eventually syndicated in about 200 newspapers around the country. Now in its 28th year, the strip is being drawn by Gallagher's nephew Peter.

Born in Queens Village, Long Island, N.Y., Gallagher was the second of three boys. His older brother, John Gallagher, also became a noted cartoonist. As children, they were encouraged by their parents to draw and experiment with art.

After following his brother John to Pratt Institute, an art school in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gallagher tried the advertising business but found the atmosphere stifling and uncreative. He turned to gag cartooning, in which his brother John found success, his work appearing in such magazines as the Post, Colliers and True. Gallagher also started using the name George Gately to avoid confusion with his brother.

Gallagher's first strip was called "Hapless Harry," which was about a little man who was always thwarted by chance. Somewhat autobiographical, it did not receive much of an audience, so Gallagher decided to try something else.

"He was toying around with something based on a household pet," John Gallagher recalled Wednesday in an interview with The Times. "There were enough dogs around that he thought a cat would be successful."

Heathcliff, named after the major character in the classic Emily Bronte novel "Wuthering Heights," was indeed a success. The strip, offering the adventures of the smug fat cat, predated by several years "Garfield," another strip with a feline star.

"Heathcliff" developed an extremely loyal following. When The Times pulled the strip in 1974, the decision drew the wrath of readers. It was reinstated a few weeks later after the paper got 900 letters in protest.

John Gallagher, who later worked with his brother on the strip, said the longer they drew the panels, the more the character took on a life of his own.

"[Heathcliff] had this great idea of himself, his importance," John Gallagher said. "He would go to get his family tree traced but was also a hellion who had his own bookie."

Gallagher said his brother was astonished by the level of support he--and the strip--received from cat fanciers around the country.

"He would go to cat shows around the country and people would come seeking autographs, not for themselves but for their cats," John Gallagher said. "So he would sign his name [and] 'Good Luck, Tabby,' or 'Best Wishes, Spike.' "

Gallagher recalled that one woman asked for a particularly odd inscription.

"Her cat was named Hitler, so somewhere there is an autograph from George Gately reading: 'Good Luck, Hitler,' " Gallagher said.

In an interview some years ago, George Gallagher said that although cartooning was hard duty--he generally tried to work six weeks ahead on the daily strip and 10 weeks ahead on the Sunday page--there were some keys that helped assure success. One was making the characters accessible.

"When you look at the features that have been successful, you notice that they're usually very simple, and deal with things that people of every circumstance can relate to. . . . I'm very careful to never make the home in my cartoon look too fancy. I'm as interested in having the poorest person relate to Heathcliff as I am the richest person."

John Gallagher recalled his brother as a fun-loving man who loved to entertain. He was also fond of singing and playing the piano in bars around his home in New Jersey and in Rockland County, N.Y.

George Gallagher, who had consistently battled emphysema and a severe weight problem, turned over the strip to his nephew Peter several years ago. Peter is the son of Gallagher's late brother Jerry, a lawyer who couldn't draw.

George Gallagher is survived by his brother and several nieces and nephews.

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