SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Art Clokey, whose iconic Gumby entertained generations of children, died Friday.
Gumby — the slender, green clay character partly modeled after Clokey’s father — was a fixture on television through the decades, starting with an appearance on the “Howdy Doody” show in 1956. Through the years, the stop-motion star made several comebacks, including a new show in the ‘80s, after a “Saturday Night Live” skit with actor Eddie Murphy made the character popular again. Throughout Gumby’s long run, Gumby toys have been a staple of toy stores everywhere.
Clokey, who lived in Los Osos, Calif., was 89.
Despite Gumby’s positive demeanor, his origins stem from tragedy. When Clokey was 9, his father was killed in a car crash. He lived with his mother for a while, but when her second husband made her choose between him and her son, Clokey was sent to an orphanage. Fortunately, he was adopted by a good family. But Clokey wouldn’t forget his father, whose head shape — characterized by a cowlick hairdo — would later provide the inspiration for Gumby’s trademark lopsided head.
After studying film at the University of Southern California, Clokey tutored the son of Sam Engel, a 20th Century Fox producer. After Engel invited Clokey to the studio, Clokey told Engel about a 3 1/2-minute film he had made called “Gumbasia,” featuring abstract clay objects changing shapes to jazz music.
“He said, ‘Art, we’ve got to go into business,’” Clokey said. “I went back and experimented with clay to make a character, and I took into account the density of clay and figured out how the character would be shaped so it would be easy to animate and easy to duplicate.”
By the late ‘50s, Gumby was off the air, but the Lutheran Church paid Clokey to develop another kid’s show — “Dave and Goliath.” Clokey and his wife used proceeds from that to fund more Gumby episodes, which would air again in the 60s.