Bil Keane, creator of “Family Circus,” dies at 89

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Bil Keane

Bil Keane

Bil Keane, creator of the enduring — and endearing — one-panel comic strip Family Circus, died Tuesday. He was 89.

A spokeswoman for King Features Syndicate, the comic strip’s distributor, would not say where he died. He had a home in Paradise Valley, near Phoenix, Arizona.

Keane created the NBC cartoon specials A Special Valentine With The Family Circus (1978), A Family Circus Christmas (1979) and A Family Circus Easter (1982), which were produced by Cullen-Kasden Productions and were ratings successes.

Keane began drawing Family Circus in February 1960. Featuring Billy, Jeffy, Dolly, P.J. and their parents, it’s now featured in almost 1,500 newspapers.

The very first Family Circus cartoon showed Mommy surrounded by a roomful of toy clutter. She answered the door to a survey person who asked, “Any children?”

Consistency and simplicity kept the cartoon going, Keane said in a 1995 Associated Press interview.

Keane used references to songs and pop culture movies to keep the strip current, but messages contained in the cartoon never ages. “Not Me” and “Ida Know,” two ghostlike creatures, appeared often in the strip as characters who were blamed for household calamities.

Born William Aloysius Keane in Philadelphia on October 5, 1922, he used the signature “Bill Keane” while drawing comics in high school. Early in his professional career, however, he omitted the second L from his first name “to be distinctive.”

Keane taught himself to draw and began cartooning before entering high school. His first published cartoon appeared on the amateur page of the Philadelphia Daily News on May 21, 1936. While attending Northeast Catholic High School, Keane regularly published cartoons and illustrations in the school’s Good News Magazine.

During the Second World War, Keane served in Australia (where he met his wife, the former Thel Carne) and created publicity art for the Theater Fiscal Office of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East. His illustrations were used to sell life insurance to soldiers and war bonds.

After the war in 1945, Keane started working as a staff artist for the Philadelphia Bulletin where, from 1947 to 1961, he drew the Silly Philly Sunday strip, featuring a young Quaker boy based on William Penn.

In 1954, Keane’s first nationally syndicated strip, Channel Chuckles, was introduced with the Register and Tribune Syndicate. Channel Chuckles appeared for 22 years.

Keane moved near Phoenix in 1959, where he began to work from home. Finding inspiration from his young children and his wife, Keane created another nationally syndicated strip, The Family Circle, in 1960, which was renamed The Family Circus a few months later.

In the early strips, the father was named “Steve,” which was later changed to Bill. Baby PJ was introduced in August 1962.

President of the National Cartoonists Society from 1981 to 1983, he was the emcee of the annual NCS awards banquet (the Ruebens) for 16 years. The NCS awarded The Family Circus with the Newspaper Panel Cartoon award in 1971, 1973 and 1974, and honored Keane with the Elzie Segar Award in 1982.

“To say Bil Keane was only quick-witted is like saying Olympic superstar Usian Bolt is just ‘sort-of fast,'” recalled Tom Richmond, current president of the NCS. “He was one of the funniest guys I’d ever met.

“Bil was one of the true legends of cartooning. It was a true honor and privilege to have been able to meet him and get to know him a bit. He will be sorely missed.”

With his own children grown, Keane began taking inspiration from his grandchildren.

He recently said: “If asked when I will retire, I say, ‘Probably about 11 o’clock tonight. But, hopefully, I’ll be back at the ol’ drawing board in the morning and happy to be there!'”

In 1998, he became the 10th recipient of the Arizona Heritage Award, joining — among others — Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor, Mo Udall and Erma Bombeck.

Bil Keane was predeceased in 2008 by his wife Thelma (“Thel”), the model for the Mommy character in the long-running newspaper comic.

Survivors include son Glen, of Santa Clarita, California, a 2D lead animator for Walt Disney Studios (Glen was the supervising animator for Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin of Aladdin, among others); daughter Gayle, of Napa, California, who was also her father’s administrative assistant; son Jeff, of Laguna Hills, California, who colored and inked Family Circus; sons Neal of Northridge, California and Christopher of Dragor, Denmark; and nine grandchildren.

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