The Unexpected Art and Design of Famous Actors

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Talent doesn’t necessarily restrict itself to a single area. In earlier articles we have looked at the visual work of authors, the design and cartooning of fine artists, and the musical talents of designers and illustrators. Well-known actors are no exception, and many began their careers in our field.

First case in point is 20th-century mega-star Gary Cooper (1901–1961) of High Noon fame. Over the course of nearly four decades he appeared in a total of eighty-four feature films, garnering two Oscars for best actor. He began his film career as an extra and stunt rider in Westerns, but that was his not his original career path. Cooper set out to be a cartoonist—and indeed, his editorial cartoons were published in his local Helena, Montana newspaper, the Daily Independent. Apparently self-taught, Cooper would continue to create art throughout his life, turning to painting, as evidenced as early as 1939 in his “Mars Confections Famous Film Stars Trading Card.”

Cartoon by Gary Cooper, 1924

Trading card, 1939

Another Academy Award winner, Martin Landau (1928–2017) also began his working life at age 17 as a cartoonist in the 1940s, at the New York Daily News. Unlike Cooper, Landau studied art at Pratt Institute, and was hired as a staff artist assisting cartoonists Horace Knight and Gus Edson. Indeed, he was being groomed to replace Knight as the paper’s theater artist. However, his interest in the theater extended beyond drawing, and he quit his job at the ripe old age of 22 to act. Like Cooper he continued to create art throughout his life.

A young Landau at work

Two strips ghosted by Landau

Canadian comedic actor Phil Hartman (1948–1998) had a solid career as a graphic designer and illustrator before hitting it big on both the large and small screen. He graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a degree in graphic arts, and began designing album covers, many iconic.

Designed by Phil Hartman

Perhaps no actor has had a more varied career than Martin Mull (b. 1943). He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating with a BFA and a MFA in painting, but first came to the public’s attention as a singer/songwriter in the 1970s. While best known as a fine artist, with work shown at the Boston Museum of Art and in the Maslow Collection at Marywood University, his work has also appeared on book and album covers.

Art by Martin Mull

Jonathan Winters (1925–2013) began his career as a comedian in the 1950s, and his big break was later that decade on the CBS Sunday morning show Omnibus and also NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. He went on to appear in several feature films, notably It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Untrained, he painted and created silkscreens throughout his life and exhibited in galleries. In 1965 his book of cartoons, Mouse Breath, Conformity, and Other Social Ills was published.

One cartooning career that was not to be was that of Orson Welles. As a youngster, Welles’ original desire was to become a musician or artist, but his father ruled against it. “He was bitterly opposed to my interest in music and painting and everything like that. As far as he was concerned, if I was going to be an artist, it’d be better to be a cartoonist, like his friend George McManis, who drew ‘Jiggs and Maggie,’ otherwise known as ‘Bringing up Father’—that’s where the money was.” Welles rebelled, and the rest as they say, is history.


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