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Comic Strips: Milton Caniff- A Remembrance

Milton Caniff

Milton Caniff with Jack Benny

By Harry Grant Guyton

I would like to share some of my special memories about my uncle Milton Arthur Caniff.

Bunny (My aunt Esther) and Milt never had children, so my older sister, brother and I were their kids for years. But they also adopted many, many other children. One is Hesper Anderson, the screenwriter of Children of a Lesser God. They put a number of young adults through school and college, so in this way they were parents to many. Unfortunately, none of us were artistic in the same sense he was, at least not to my knowledge.

I recall that when I was twelve and living in Los Angeles in 1936, Milt gave my sister, brother and I yellow slicker raincoats that he painted large pictures of the characters from Terry And The Pirates on the back of. I believe my sister had a large black drawing of Pat Ryan on her slicker, my brother had Terry and I had Connie. I often wonder what happened to those raincoats.

Milton Caniff

Milton Caniff with Joan Crawford,
the inspiration for the "Dragon Lady"

Milt had narcolepsy and could- and did- fall asleep anywhere and at any time. In the old days when he was smoking, drawing and watching TV, he would fall asleep, drop his cigarette, and burn his drawing. When he burnt a hole in the strip, he always hoped it was in a spot he could cover; if not, he had to redo the whole strip. Speaking of Milt’s smoking, after Milt quit, he always used to light up women’s cigarettes so he could get a few puffs.

Milt had the habit of falling asleep while talking to you. We were in a chauffeured Limo in Panama. The chauffeur, Milt and I were in the front seat with the girls in the back. Milt, talking, fell asleep and awakened about five minutes later, still continuing the conversation. Needless to say, the chauffeur was amazed. Milt had bought Bun a 1959 Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce for her 1958 Christmas present. When Milt drove, he put the back part of the seat down so far, it appeared he was sleeping. Alas, one day en route to the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, he did fall asleep while driving like this. After that incident, Bunny would not let him drive unless he had just awakened from a nap.

Milt and Bunny spent money like it was water. they enjoyed their life and lived it fully. When they lived in Palm Springs, Bun sent their dry cleaning to New York because no one in California could do it right. Bun always had Milt on a diet, such as eating celery and carrots and having just one drink before dinner. In Palm Springs they had a main house and three blocks away they had a duplex. One side of the duplex was Milt’s studio with the other side for guests. Milt would spend half of a 24 hour day or more in the studio. The first time we stayed in the guest part, Bun always had "goodies" such as food and liquor in the kitchen. We had a favorite cookie, so she had four or five packages of these laid out on the kitchen counter. The next morning they were gone. While Milt was working, he wandered over, saw the cookies and devoured them. Needless to say, we always left some goodies out for Milt, and no one ever said "boo" about them.

Milton Caniff

Caniff with Bob Crane of "Hogan’s Heroes"

Milt had the ability to talk to you and remember almost everything you said. He picked the brains of everyone he spoke with and was able to fit almost any conversation into his strip in one form or another. It mattered not if you were a general or a private. He could elicit information from either and use it. When he visited a base and found a military person he liked and wanted to have in the strip, he would use the person’s first name as his last name, such as Sgt. Andy Trone became Sgt. Andy. The character Charlie Vanilla was Charles Russhon, a US Army photographer who was on the first US plane to land in Japan. To my knowledge Milton never put any idea down on paper that went into his files. It mostly came from his head and went into the strip as he drew it. I found no notes or other papers that would give a clue as to what Milt had in mind or what future strips would show.

Of course Milton Caniff was a stickler for accuracy, but his fans were eagle-eyed. I was with him at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He climbed into the cockpit of a fighter plane (an F-104 I believe), and spent maybe five minutes in it. That evening, he used it in Steve Canyon. He had committed the control panel in that cockpit to memory, and months later when the strip was published, he received numerous letters saying that had Steve been flying as high as Milt implied in the strip, one of the gauge readings was wrong.

He loved to get letters of criticism as well as praise because this meant people were reading the strip. One time an editor who was a friend of Milton’s said he had sent back a letter of criticism to the writer. Milt asked him not to do that in the future. He wanted them forwarded to him because maybe he had made a mistake and he wanted to correct it if he had. When he was doing Terry and the Pirates, he had once put Terry’s insignia on wrong, and got hundreds of letters pointing out the error. His eyes would twinkle as he said, "See! They’re following the strip!"

Milton Caniff

Japanese newspaper cartoonist
Yoshirou Kato with Milton

Milt told me when he was switching from Terry And The Pirates to Steve Canyon that he had to get William Randolph Hearst’s OK on certain aspects of the strip. Milt said he flew to Los Angeles, took a plane to near San Simeon and was driven up to Hearst’s "castle". He was shown into the dining room where Hearst sat at the opposite end of a long table drinking a cup of coffee. Hearst asked Milt questions such as what he had in mind for Steve and how much money he wanted. Milt said to himself, "You ungracious bastard!" and told Hearst what he had in mind for the strip, asking for double his present salary and all the fringes- plus ownership of the copyrights to his strip. He related how Hearst said, "You’re a high-priced son of a bitch." and got up and left the room. Milt left and two weeks later was informed that Hearst had agreed to the terms.

Milt told me that in the early 30s and 40s, he sent his original strips to the syndicates, instead of sending photostat copies. One day they cleared out the storeroom and sent him back what was left. A lot of Milt’s original Terry art had been taken from that storeroom by a person or persons unknown. So Milton decided to bequeath his alma mater, Ohio State University, his files, art and memorabilia. Ohio State has a great many of Milt’s original pieces that he drew from the beginning of his career. After Milt passed away, when I was going through the file cabinets and belongings in New York, I came across some things that I really wanted to keep but couldn’t. I donated everything Milt had to Lucy Caswell and the Milton Caniff Reading Room at Ohio State University, including the #2 pop-up book of Terry And The Pirates which I loved so much.

One time whoever took his weekly strips to the photo engravers had lost them and he had to do the whole week over. As I was taking the strips to be copied he jokingly told me, "Do not lose these." When I returned, I told him I was going to wash the Rolls Royce and found the lost strips under the passenger seat. He said, "Since you found them, they’re yours." He always gave me strips and items he had done for various organizations, because of the Terry And The Pirates originals that had been taken. He instructed me to not give them away, because someday they may become valuable. So I kept them and forgot I had most of them. Earlier this year John Ellis and I were going through boxes of papers and files and we found them.

Milton Caniff

Dean Fredericks (TV’s Steve Canyon),
Harry Truman and Milton Caniff

During the 1954 National Cartoonist’s Society convention in Washington, D.C., I had been invited to join the group and was to present the Silver T-Square Award to President Eisenhower and Secretary of the Treasury Humphries. However, there was a military officer who belonged to the NCS who said that since I was only a Master Sergeant, he should be the one to present it. In the end, Milton presented it himself. Walt Kelly was trying to fix me up with any and every girl we ran into. I heard that he and Al Capp got into it, but I was not present when they did and I don’t recall what it was about.

Here’s an interesting side note to all of this… I was stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia at the time and had been loaned a Major General’s plane to get to the NCS convention in Washington D.C. When I reported to Bolling AFB for my flight home, a Lieutenant Colonel was waiting to fly me back to Fort Eustis. As we were walking down the ramp to the plane, a paratroop Major from Fort Bragg, NC with his combat boots bloused and his ribbons shining, asked the Colonel for a ride. The Colonel stated, "You’ll have to ask the Sergeant- it’s his plane." The Major finally swallowed his pride and asked me if it was OK, I said yes. The Major tried to get into the co-pilot’s seat, but the Colonel said. "No way. That’s the Sergeant’s seat." As we arrived at Fort Eustis, the Major jumped out and ran into Flight Operations. As I entered they were all trying to figure out how a Master Sergeant in the Army could have a Lt. Colonel type fly him around! Milt tried for years to fit this incident into Steve Canyon but couldn’t come up with a good story that would fit.

Over the years Milton would use my name in the strips, usually on signs or on soldier’s uniforms. I always got a big kick out of that. You can see the name "Guyton" clearly in the last panel of the December 24th, 1961 Steve Canyon Sunday page. My son, Terry Wayne Guyton was named after the comic strip Terry. My sister has two daughters who Milt used in Steve Canyon, Dianne was the model for "Doodly Bixenshoos", and Sandra was the model for "Orbs Corbs" in the mid 60s. I had a wonderful relationship with my uncle and saw him usually six times a year. On each visit he would talk to me for hours while drawing and watching sports on TV. He always said I took care of him. Bunny kept him on that diet and I always left treats in the kitchen. Often, I would find a thank you note on the table. Every day with him was a holiday, and I learned a lot. I miss him.


Milton Caniff Steve Canyon

For info on the Steve Canyon TV show DVD, see…


Milton Caniff BookOrder Steve CanyonOrder Steve CanyonFantagraphics has a great book on Caniff’s career, and Checker has released year by year reprints of the classic Steve Canyon strip. Caniff was a master storyteller, and the first few years of Steve Canyon are examples of his genius at the height of its powers. Click on the pictures for more info.

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources

Newspaper ComicsNewspaper Comics
This posting is part of the online Encyclopedia of Cartooning under the subject heading, Newspaper Comics.

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