"Which well-known cartoon character is famous for uttering the immortal words, 'Sufferin' succotash'?"
In 1985, Peter Tomarkin asked that question on the game show, Press Your Luck. The contestants all identified a certain cartoon cat. The host told them they were wrong, and attributed the line to Daffy Duck. Later in the show, Mel Blanc himself, for decades the voice of the Looney Tunes, called in, as Sylvester, to correct the error.1 Of course, Daffy has uttered the line on a couple of occasions but, as Sylvester explained to Tomarkin, "Daffy Duck steals from me all the time."
Of course, the cat first stole from the duck. Mel Blanc gave Sylvester a variation of his Daffy voice. Like most Looney Tunes characters, the cat suffers from a significant speech impediment—- in this case, a slobbery "S" lisp-- and he seems strangely drawn to selecting speech he cannot correctly say. These include such things as his own name, and his celebrated saying, which may derive from "suffering savior."
Fritz Freleng introduced the character in "Life with Feathers" (1945), a rather melancholy 'toon wherein a lovesick love bird tries to commit suicide by getting a cat to eat him. The cat is recognizably Sylvester, though he would not be named until the decade's end. Later that year he matched wits with an annoying woodpecker in "Lock Up Your Troubles." Warner producer Edward Selzer suggested developing the woodpecker as the cat's foe, but fate or, at least, Freleng intervened, and the feline was paired with a certain other bird in 1947's "Tweetie Pie." For the first of many times, Freleng's cat would fail miserably in his attempts to eat Tweety Pie. "Tweetie Pie" won the cat and bird team the first of their two Oscars. Sylvester, however, goes by the name "Thomas" in this 'toon. His prospective prey, it should be noted, made his/her debut in 1942's "A Tale of Two Kitties," facing down a pair of cats with Sylvester's distinct tuxedo markings.2
"Scaredy Cat" (1948) gave the cat his official name. He has since been identified as Sylvester J. Cat and Sylvester J. Pussycat. The name plays on Felis sylvestris catus, a one-time scientific name for the domestic cat.3
Sylvester has sometimes appeared as an alley cat, scrounging for food, harassing Tweety, and disturbing Elmer Fudd with his singing ("Back Alley Op-Roar," 1948). At other times he has been depicted as Porky Pig's pet, first in 1946's "Kitty Kornered." The Pig-with-cat 'toons include three memorable horror stories: "Scaredy Cat" (1948), "Claws for Alarm" (1954, and "Jumpin’ Jupiter" (1955). In these outings Sylvester cannot speak, and he's a nervous, shivering coward. Curiously, the first ends with Sylvester overcoming his cowardice and adopting his more familiar attitude, aggressive and proud.4
Most often, however, he has an affiliation with Granny, who typically owns Tweety Pie and, in some cartoons, a bulldog named Hector. Over the course of his career, however, Sylvester has played opposite nearly every major Loony Toon. After Tweety, his favorite potential prey is Speedy Gonzales. He even took on Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who appear as parrots in 1947's "Catch as Cats Can."
In 1950's "Pop 'Im Pop" he was given a son, Sylvester, Jr., and several cartoons have been released wherein father attempts to impress his kitten. Frequently, these 'toons show Sylvester mistaking Hippety Hopper the kangaroo for a giant mouse—a gag first introduced in 1948's "Hop, Look, and Listen." The father/son pairings gave Sylvester new ground to cover, and many of these cartoons were selected for rotation on The Bugs Bunny Show.
Of Sylvester's many and varied roles, perhaps his most bizarre occur in "The Scarlet Pumpernickle" (1950) and "Tom Tom Tomcat"(1953). In the former, Sylvester plays a villainous aristocrat opposite Daffy Duck's titular swashbuckler. The latter features western settlers Granny and Tweety facing off against a band of Native American wildcats who all look like Sylvester.
His final appearance in Warner Brother's original theatrical cartoons was 1966's "A Taste of Catnip." In the 1980s, Warner licensed The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show, in which the Sylvester cartoons figure prominently. In the 1990s, he appeared in Tiny Toon Adventures and The Tweety and Sylvester Mysteries. He has since appeared in longer-running Warner Brothers films, such as Space Jam (1996), and various commercials. Sylvester has also prowled the pages of comic books, produced by Dell and later Gold Key between 1954 and 1972. Perhaps due to his tenacious character, he appears on the badges of the 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and Marine Attack Squadron 311. And, of course, in 1985, he called in to correct an error on a popular talk show.
Sylvester has never achieved the fame of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, but he remains one of Warner Brothers most widely-viewed characters.
1. Actually, the producers of the show recognized the error, and arranged for the Mel Blanc call to be added in post-production.
2.Tweety's first cat-foes were based on comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Tweety himself lacked a name in his first appearance, and had more of a pinkish coloration. However, the character is unmistakably Tweety Pie. Warner Brothers, it should be noted, considers the character male, but many people think of Tweety as female. Strictly speaking, of course, Tweety is a cartoon drawing.
3. The domestic cat is now classified as Felis catus, while the wildcat is Felis sylvestrus.
4. A tongue-in-cheek essay attached to my review of "Jumpin' Jupiter" offers an explanation for his atypical characteristics in these cartoons. Sylvester has also been silent in two other early shorts, "Peck Up Your Troubles"(1945)-- his second screen appearance-- and "Doggone Cats"(1946).
Jerry Beck. Ultimate Looney Tunes. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2003.
Jerry Beck and Will Freidwald. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons. New York: Holt, 1989.
Matthew Hunter. "A History of Sylvester in Warner Brothers Cartoons." Too Looney. http://toolooney.goldenagecartoons.com/sylvester.htm
Brian Sapinski. "Press Your Luck Points of Interest." Sonic Whammy’s Realm of Game Shows. http://sonicwhammy.20fr.com/gameshow/pyl/moments.html
"A Tale of Two Kitties." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_Two_Kitties