Following the huge success of their previous animated series The Flintstones, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were looking to produce another hit animated series for primetime television aimed at the newly-named 'kidult' market.
The Flintstones had been loosely based on comedian Jackie Gleason's hit 1950's sitcom The Honeymooners, in which Gleason played Ralph Kramden a New York bus driver forever inventing get-rich-quick schemes for him and his best friend, Ed Norton, played by Art Carney.
Barbera, in a clever twist which would allow for a host of comic opportunities, transported the central characters back to the Stone Age. It proved to be a master- stroke and remains one of the series' enduring strengths.
Turning once again to television sitcoms for inspiration, and on the back of a sketch for a proposed show called J.B & Company they developed Top Cat, using The Phil Silvers Show and in particular the character of Sgt.Bilko as their main influence.
Joseph Barbera produced two scripts and a host of character sketches. Once again Barbera, realising the comic opportunities it would afford the show, came up with a bizarre twist in which the main characters were of the feline variety. TC and his gang were born, and it was on the strength of these initial ideas and sketches that the ABC Network gave the show the green light.
Transforming the wily Sergeant and his army cronies into a bunch of New York alley cats and their quick thinking leader TC, Hanna-Barbera produced one of their most sophisticated, adult-friendly and character-driven shows which still resonates with both children and adults today.
The Bilko connections continued when former Bilko scriptwriter Barry Blitzer, who had also worked on The Flinstones, was draughted in to provide scripts. Actor Maurice Gosfield, who had achieved world-wide fame for his role as Private Duane Doberman on The Phil Silvers Show, was hired to provide the voice of Benny The Ball - in what was essentially an animated re-working of Pvt.Doberman.
Fleshing out the talented vocal cast were Arnold Stang as Top Cat. Arnold was a seasoned and popular actor and comedian who had worked with the likes of Milton Berle and Steve Allen. Veteran Allen Jenkins (Officer Dibble) was a former Warner Brothers contract player who'd appeared in over 100 films and had worked with performers such as Paul Muni, James Cagney, Abbott & Costello and Lucille Ball. Maurice Gosfield was hired to voice Benny The Ball, in a relationship to Top Cat that was very much akin to that of the one between Private Doberman and Sgt.Bilko.
Rounding out the vocal cast were popular character actor Marvin Kaplan as Choo Choo, Singer and pianist Leo De Lyon, who had already worked for Hanna-Barbera on The Flintstones was hired to provide the voices for both Brains and Spook, and John Stephenson, who had enjoyed a lengthy career in both television and films was cast as Fancy.
Arnold Stang recalled how he became associated with the show. "I started doing cartoons when they were only made for movie theatres. I did Little Lulu, Popeye, Herman The Mouse. I voiced a lot of animals....I played a lot of turtles, mice, once a played a 900lb gorilla. I had a meeting with Joe and Bill and I came up with some voices. I came up with one that had sort of a little bit of a Phil Silvers/Sgt.Bilko quality to it and that was the one we went with."
Fellow cast member Maurice Gosfield remarked "The atmosphere surrounding the group at the Top Cat recording sessions is ideal for a sociable soul like me. It's kind of like the old radio days, from which most us graduated. It's hard work, but it's fun. There's a rare spirit of camaraderie among the group and it reflects in the show."
When I interviewed Arnold Stang in the late 1980's he talked of his memories of working on Top Cat. "There was a company called Hanna-Barbera who I had already done some voices for. They asked me to come in and do some voices for a new show about a gang of alley cats. I pretty much worked for all the major animation studios at that time. It was very clear to me and to most of us on the show, that whoever had put the show together had undoubtedly been influenced by Sgt.Bilko. There were very direct parallels no question about it.".
He also spoke with great warmth about his fellow co-star Maurice Gosfield. "Maurice was a very sweet man. Not what I would call an actor but a great character. Sadly he's dead now...but a lot of people don't realise that. I get a lot of mail about Top Cat and very often people want to know about BENNY..."Where is he now? What is he doing now?...those sort of questions!".
Marvin Kaplan, the voice of Choo Choo, recalled "It was a different kind of cartoon. It was a very intelligent show. Nowadays when they do a cartoon it's full of grunts and people fall off mountains and it's very violent. Top Cat wasn't...it was very good humour, adult humour and we even had an adult slot at night, which was very unusual for a cartoon series!".
Top Cat premiered on the ABC Network on September 27, 1961 at 8.30pm, nestled securely between two of ABC TV's biggest hits, The Steve Allen Show and Hawaiian Eye. It was only the second animated series, following The Flintstones, to be shown in an adult slot on primetime television. It ran for a total of 30 episodes, with the final episode broadcast on April 18, 1962. Interestingly, although filmed in colour, the show was initially broadcast in black and white.
The series proved a modest hit and was eventually sold for broadcast in over 30 countries worldwide. It became particularly popular in South America, particularly Mexico, where it was known as Don Gato Y Su Pandilla (literally translated as Don Cat & His Gang).
When it aired in the UK in 1962 it was renamed Boss Cat shortly after it's premiere because at that time Top Cat was also the name of a popular British brand of cat food.
Between 1961 and 1970 TC and the gang also featured in a series of 31 comics published by Dell. A further 20 comics were issued by Charlton Comics, ending its run in 1973. Three Top Cat Annuals were also published by World Distributors.
In 1985 Arnold Stang reprised the role of TC (minus the old gang) for the new Hanna-Barbera series Yogi's Treasure Hunt, and 1987 saw the return of both TC and his gang in the all-new animated feature Top Cat & The Beverly Hills Cats.
This new production was written by original series writer Barry Blitzer and saw the return of the original voice-cast, with the exception of Maurice Gosfield andAllen Jenkins, who by this time had passed away.
Arnold voiced TC for one final Hanna-Barbera show titled Wake, Rattle and Roll, which featured a mix of both live-action and animated content. One segment of the programme featured a Monster Truck race show (the 90's equivalent of Wacky Races) called Fender Bender 500. Arnold's old friend and fellow Top Cat and Mad World cast member, Marvin Kaplan was also along for the ride, providing the voice of TC's co-driver Choo Choo. Fender Bender 500 ran for a total of 50 episodes.
Our enduring feline hero and his gang of cronies were resurrected once again for a feature-length animated film Top Cat: The Movie (Original title - Don Gato Y Su Pandilla). The film, co-produced by Anima Estudios and Illumination Studios, received a general release in South America on September 16, 2011. TC and his cronies proved to be as popular as ever and the film was both a box-office and critical success.
An English language version of the film was released to the European, US and UK markets in June 2012. To date the film has made almost $16 Million at the box-office. The film also received a general release on both Blu-Ray and DVD format in late 2012.
Whilst proving a success in South America, the film received poor reviews in both the US and UK and was not deemed a success. A sequel called Top Cat Begins from the first film's producer Jose Carlos Garcia was released in 2016 and hits UK cinemas on May 27th. Unlike it's predecessor the new film stepped away from the traditional use of animation and was produced using CGI characters and backgrounds.
Most recently Top Cat resurfaced yet again when it was announced that the character would front the latest advertising campaign for the latest range of Halifax mortgages.
And here is TC in all his glory. In this episode Officer Dibble believes TC has only a week to live.
Top Cat and gang help promote the Halifax mortgage range