Shel Dorf Interviews Milt Caniff in November 1982: Video

January 26, 2010

In November of 1982, Shel Dorf interviewed comics creator Milton Caniff, who is famed for his work on the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon comic strips. The following video of this interview is from the Shel Dorf Archives and was kindly made available by Charlie Roberts. The interview was originally videotaped by Tom French, who ran the San Diego Comic-Con dealers room for many years. At the time of the interview, Shel was the letterer for Caniff’s comic strip Steve Canyon. The interview is divided into eleven parts and there is a description of the highlights of each part following the video player.

(If you hover your mouse pointer over the video player, you’ll see arrows you can click to move to the next or previous part along with “thumbnail” images at the bottom that you can click on to jump ahead or behind to a particular part. Also, if you are reading this via email or a newsreader, you’ll probably need to visit the site to view the video at http://www.sheldorftribute.com/2010/01/26/shel-dorf-interviews-milt-caniff-in-november-1982-video/.)

Part 1 of 11: Caniff explains why he’s glad to be videotaping the interview. Caniff sees his new life mask done by Jim Fountain. Discuss Steve Canyon characters based on actor Jackie “The Kid” Coogan who lived near Caniff in Palm Springs: a good guy (with his contemporary appearance) and a bad guy (with his “The Kid” appearance plus a beard). Shel recounts a visit to Coogan’s house and how was is like a shrine to his “The Kid” character and how Coogan still had his Uncle Fester coat. Caniff talks about Coogan’s WWII service and how he was praised as being “a good soldier” by his commanding officer.

Part 2 of 11: Shel shows his old Terry and the Pirates scrapbook to Caniff. Caniff talks about doing strips under adverse conditions and how it was hard to find an assistant during WWII as almost everyone in the army or going into it. Caniff was 4F during WWII due to phlebitis. Shel shows Caniff a couple of the Terry comics from Harvey, which were the first place Shel had a chance to read the 1936 and 1937 stories (which were reprinted therein). Shel observes that Caniff remembers everything he’s done.
They discuss the differences between Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. Caniff says it’s easier to do Steve Canyon as he can go anywhere while Terry never got out of China. Why Caniff left Terry and the Pirates. Marshall Field pirating talent to form his Sun Times. Marshall Field approached Chester Gould and Harold Gray. Patterson’s feelings toward Caniff after he went with Marshall Field. Tom French, who operated the video camera, gets in front of it and chats with Caniff for a bit; Shel pays tribute to Tom French for helping grow Comic-Con by his good work running the dealers room.

Part 3 of 11: What Caniff would have done with Terry and the Pirates had he continued with it. Was Steve Canyon a grown-up Terry? How Caniff’s work on The Gay Thirties strip got him the Terry and the Pirates job. Shel tells Caniff about upcoming Steve Canyon publications he’s working on with Denis Kitchen. What Caniff was getting paid in his early comic-strip days, and about moonlighting for $17 a week.

Part 4 of 11: Caniff on a proposed Sherlock Holmes strip that Marshall Field was considering. On Caniff being a storyteller who kept readers in suspense and wondering what would happen next. On his work being fun to him. How Milt invited Shel to join him earlier in the year at Caniff’s 75th birthday celebration at Ohio State University; Bob Harvey was there as well; Caniff recounts that special weekend. Shel and Milt give great praise to Lucy Caswell: Caniff curator at Ohio State University. An archivist locates a rejection slip that James Thurber had written to Caniff in 1932. Why Caniff liked to work at night.

Part 5 of 11: Caniff exhibit put together by Lucy Caswell at Ohio State. Shel quotes Leonard Starr on Caniff. Caniff on Leonard Starr. Caniff on his English classes in middle school and high school. Caniff on why he wouldn’t have been a good teacher. Milt’s personal library. About a lawyer who let Milt read books from his library when he was young.

Part 6 of 11: Caniff’s dad’s boss would let him read from his personal library: Sherlock Holmes, O’Henry. Caniff wanted to be a telegraph operator when young. About his boyhood job delivering telegrams for Western Union (including death notifications during the post-WWI flu epidemic). Caniff 75th-birthday week events and recognition as a noteworthy son of Ohio. On being fired from a newspaper job as a young married right out of college.

Part 7 of 11: Caniff on artist and friend Noel “Bud” Sickles whom he calls an “amazing man” and the “greatest natural artist” he ever knew.

Part 8 of 11: More on Noel “Bud” Sickles: working together in New York; about Sickles revolutionizing the way comic strips were done by his work on Scorchy Smith.

Part 9 of 11: Still more on Noel “Bud” Sickles. Why it’s hard to draw dead people but Sickles could do it well. Sickles’ western paintings. How Sickles died “with his boots on.” More on Caniff’s 75th-birthday Ohio State weekend. On being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Answers question “Are you as good as people say you are?” On having dinner at the White House. On people living vicariously through his strips.

Part 10 of 11: Caniff at celebration for 175th anniversary of his birthplace, Hillsboro, Ohio, where he was asked to join the celebration as grand marshal.

Part 11 of 11: More on Hillsboro, Ohio 175th anniversary celebration. Caniff on artist Dick Rockwell and Dick’s uncle, artist Norman Rockwell. What Dick Rockwell was doing on Steve Canyon and the Steve Canyon production workflow between Caniff, Shel Dorf, and Dick Rockwell.

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