In 1973, newspapers around the country saw the debut of artist George Gately's Heathcliff, a single-panel comic strip about a mischievous orange tabby who menaces dogs and haunts local fish markets. (And yes, he was named after the character in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.) For nearly half a century, the character has been seen in print, on television, and has spawned a slew of merchandise. Check out some facts about the comics page’s pick of the litter.
1. HE PRE-DATES GARFIELD.
You might assume the enormous success of Garfield, Jim Davis’s long-running strip about a lazy and sardonic orange cat, led to derivative works about sleepy felines. Could be, but Heathcliff isn’t one of them. George Gately’s strip began running in 1973, five years before Davis’s Garfield hit papers.
2. HE WAS BROUGHT BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND.
Though he quickly appeared in 200 papers, Heathcliff’s future was by no means guaranteed early on, and in 1974, the Los Angeles Times decided to drop the strip. More than 900 readers wrote letters of complaint in response, prompting the Times to reinstate the strip just a few weeks later.
3. GATELY WAS INVITED TO CAT CONVENTIONS.
With Heathcliff’s popularity came opportunity for merchandising, animation, and other ancillary ventures. One of the strangest may have been the repeated invitations for Gately to attend cat conventions, where cat owners requested his autograph be addressed to their pet. This sometimes led to questionable solicitations, like when one woman asked for his signature for her cat, Hitler. According to John Gallagher, Gately’s brother, Gately wound up writing “Good luck, Hitler” for the fan.
4. MEL BLANC GAVE HIM A VOICE.
Like Garfield, Heathcliff doesn’t speak in print. But when the character made the move to animation, being a silent hero was off the table. The first Heathcliff series premiered in 1980 and featured the voice of cartoon legend Mel Blanc as the title character. In the second season, he teamed with fellow comic strip star Marmaduke. Another series followed in 1984, as well as an animated feature in 1986.
5. BUNNICULA COST HIM A HALLOWEEN SPECIAL.
The crown jewel of comic strips in animation is the holiday special, with A Charlie Brown Christmas being the gold standard. Done right, the projects can run almost in perpetuity. In the 1980s, Heathcliff very nearly joined the pantheon with a Halloween special that was planned for ABC following an animated adaptation of the vampire-bunny book Bunnicula. During the outline stage, ABC screened the finished Bunnicula special and decided the animation was too rough for primetime. Since Ruby-Spears was handling production for both, Heathcliff got sidelined.
6. GATELY DREW SIMPLE BACKGROUNDS FOR A REASON.
Comic strip artists are constantly under deadline pressure, which is a big reason why you don’t often see elaborate backgrounds. But Gately had a different reason for keeping Heathcliff’s home simple. “I'm very careful to never make the home in my cartoon look too fancy,” he said. “I'm as interested in having the poorest person relate to Heathcliff as I am the richest person."
7. HE MADE GATELY A MILLIONAIRE.
Like Garfield, Heathcliff’s true potential wasn’t relegated to newsprint. By 1982, the cat’s merchandising deals were so profitable that Gately and partners raked in $55 million in licensing revenue.
8. HE ENDORSED KITTY LITTER.
In 1986, Heathcliff broke one of the last remaining taboos of celebrities and opted to endorse a feces-related product. Heathcliff’s Blue Ribbon Cat Litter promised to be “dust-free” and could absorb 1.5 times its weight in liquid. The ad copy got right to the point: “The competition stinks.”
9. ONE NEWSPAPER POLLED READERS ON WHICH COMIC CAT THEY LIKED BETTER. HEATHCLIFF LOST.
In October 1981, New Jersey's Asbury Park Press decided to allot space to one of the leading cat comic strips and asked readers to decide which one it would be. Garfield won, but only by a nose: The lasagna-engorged cat drew 326 votes to Heathcliff’s 324. One reader didn't appear enamored with either choice and opted for a write-in: “Bring us Marmaduke.”
10. HE WAS A NASCAR SPONSOR.
We’re not entirely sure what to make of the association, but beginning in 2004, Heathcliff was a sponsor for NASCAR driver T.J. Bell. Bell wore a Heathcliff character logo on his racing suit; his Ford F-150 car was dubbed the “No. 50 Heathcliff’s Cat Litter Ford.”
11. THE STRIP IS A FAMILY BUSINESS.
When Gately retired from the strip in 1998 (he died in 2001), Heathcliff continued—thanks in large part to the work of Peter Gallagher, Gately’s nephew, who had been working as Gately’s apprentice since 1994. Still appearing in newspapers across the country, Heathcliff is billed as "the original orange cat."