NEW YORK — Arthur Rankin Jr., who created a canon of children’s holiday television using stop-motion puppet animation, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” one of the longest-running annual network specials, died Jan. 30 in Harrington Sound, Bermuda, where he had lived in recent years. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by Maury Laws, former musical director of Rankin/Bass Productions, founded by Mr. Rankin and Jules Bass in 1960.
“Rudolph,” based on the song popularized by Gene Autry in 1949 and narrated by Burl Ives, made its debut on NBC in 1964 and has been seen on network television every year since, most recently on CBS. It was the first of more than a dozen animated holiday specials produced by Rankin/Bass from 1964 to 1985, many of which have remained perennial favorites.
Mr. Rankin, who wrote the scripts and sketched the characters, based his most successful films on holiday songs, casting Hollywood stars in the leading voice roles. Greer Garson narrated “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968) and Jimmy Durante “Frosty the Snowman” (1969). “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (1970) featured the voice of Fred Astaire as a North Pole mailman. Both Danny Kaye and Vincent Price lent their voices to the Easter special “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” (1971). “The Little Drummer Boy Book II” (1976), with Garson and Zero Mostel, was nominated for an Emmy Award as outstanding children’s special.
Mr. Rankin’s stop-motion films were painstakingly handmade. Collaborating with Japanese puppet-makers who fashioned each figure from wood, wire, and wool — Rudolph was about 5 inches tall, Santa about 9 inches — the filmmakers shot thousands of still photos of the incremental movements involved in every gesture each character made. Running them together at 24 frames a second created the whimsical, herky-jerky effect of dolls being moved by invisible hands. Mr. Rankin called it Animagic.
“He was a big fan of ‘King Kong’ as a kid — special-effects animations like that,” Laws said. “He wanted every detail right. Also, he had exquisite taste.”
Arthur Gardner Rankin Jr. was born into a theatrical family in Manhattan. His mother, Marian Mansfield, was a singer and actress in film and on the New York stage in the 1930s and ’40s. His father, also an actor, was the son of Harry Davenport, a well-known character actor in the movies of that era.
Mr. Rankin was an art director at ABC before he and Bass teamed in 1955 to make television commercials, forming the company Videocraft International. They changed its name to Rankin/Bass Productions when they began making animated films for television.
Their first syndicated television series, “The New Adventures of Pinocchio,” made its debut in 1960. Their other television projects included the specials “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear” (1966) and “The Wacky World of Mother Goose” (1967). In the early 1970s, working with Motown, the company co-produced the Jackson Five’s Saturday-morning cartoon series. Their animated version of “The Hobbit” was telecast in 1977.
In 1982, Mr. Rankin and Bass co-directed “The Last Unicorn,” a conventionally animated feature film based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle; its voice cast included Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, and Robert Klein.
The partners went on to produce “ThunderCats,” a cartoon series about a group of catlike humanoid aliens, which was syndicated from 1985 to 1987, and “The Wind in the Willows,” a 1987 made-for-television animated version of the children’s classic. In 2001, Mr. Rankin collaborated with writer Peter Bakalian to produce “Santa, Baby!,” based on the song made popular by Eartha Kitt and featuring the voices of Gregory Hines, Patti LaBelle, and Vanessa Williams. It was his last children’s holiday special.
Mr. Rankin leaves his wife, Olga, and two sons, Todd and Gardner.