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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