Interview with William Stout Part 1

I get the impression that if it wasn’t for William Stout, I might not love pop culture as much as I do.

From being one of the first American contributors to Heavy Metal to working on nearly seventy movies, countless posters, the world of fine art, theme parks, children’s books and so much more, I’ve been following his art before I even realized that one man was behind all of it.

It’s been beyond an honor to get to speak with Mr. Stout and learn even more. His time is more than appreciated. This was a true learning experience. 

B&S About Movies: I’m always interested in how artists got their start. What was yours?

William Stout: I attended the Chouinard Art Institute (California Institute of the Arts or CalArts) on a full California State Scholarship — not because of my art skills but due to my family’s poverty and my making perfect scores on my SATs. I was an illustration major and the school had a great policy which was if you got any real outside work, you could turn that in in lieu of your homework. I started picking up jobs my second year in art school, and by the end of the third year, nearly everything I was doing or submitting was a real job. It made the transition from Academia to the real world absolutely seamless.

First, I was taking any job that came around, like the first advertising for Taco Bell for whom my job was trying to convince people from the Midwest that Mexican food was safe for white people to eat. These jobs really informed me as to what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. I started gravitating toward more stuff that I wanted to do. 

I got a call from an ad agency for whom I had been doing all kinds of miscellaneous ads and they said, “We’ve got something different for you this time. It’s a movie poster.”

“What’s the movie?,” I asked.

“It’s an animated feature called Wizards by Ralph Bakshi.” And I was like, great, show me the movie.

They replied, “It’ll be a better poster if you don’t see the film.”

Doesn’t speak well of the film, but it became the job of jobs. And it also became one of the most iconic images of my entire career. The missing ingredient is always the audience, the public. They’re the ones that determine whether something’s going to be famous or not. 

William Stout’s poster art from Wizards. Posted from Heritage Auctions.

I didn’t really get into doing movie posters until I did the very first commercialization of Star Wars. I created 21 designs for Coca-Cola glasses for Burger King. George Lucas has got a long memory and he always throws work my way. Not long after, he demanded that the agency use me for art for the re-release of American Graffiti. They didn’t want to use me because I was an unknown quantity. They weren’t familiar with my work. They didn’t know if I could make deadlines. But Lucas insisted that I do the poster and I came through like a champ. Because of that, the advertising agency – which was doing about 90% of the movie posters in town – started to hire me on a regular basis. 

At that time, corporate annual reports and movie posters were the best paying jobs for illustrators. So, I was making a ton of dough back then. Then I sort of accidentally fell into the film business.

B&S: How do you go from the ad side to being part of the product?

Stout: Those two sides usually never meet! They’re separate industries. 

I was a big Conan fan. I loved the Robert E Howard books and the Frazetta paintings. A friend of mine, Bob Greenberg, was working as a production assistant on Conan the Barbarian. He told me the film’s production designer was Ron Cobb. 

I was shocked it was Cobb, because I only knew him from his political cartoons in the Los Angeles Free Press, which were distributed all over the world. I knew he created designs for some of the aliens in the Star Wars cantina sequence. I was really intrigued to see what this guy would do with Conan, but I was so busy doing movie posters that there was no way I could get over to their office. 

One day, I finally got a break in my schedule. Instead of going over to the Conan offices, however, I went to the American Booksellers Association, which was an annual event in New York or Los Angeles. Every single publisher and every single editor in the entire country are all in one big room, so it’s the perfect place for an illustrator like me to go booth-to-booth with my portfolio and pick up enough work for the rest of the year. So that was my plan. 

I walked into the ABA and by sheer coincidence, the first person I bumped into was Ron Cobb. He said, “You’re my first choice of who I want to work with in the Conan art department, but I have an agreement with writer-director John Milius. He has veto power over anybody I want to have in the art department. And I have veto power over anybody he wants to put in the art department. So would you mind dropping off your portfolio for John to see?”

That seemed fun, getting a chance to learn how to make movies. So I went in the next day and Milius happened to be there. He remembered a Harlan Ellison story I had drawn for Heavy Metal – “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” in vol. 2 issue 6 – that he really liked. He handed me back my book and as I walked out of the room he said – he’s a bigger than life kinda guy – really dramatically, he shouted, “Hire him!”

Stout’s incredible work on this Harlan Ellison story.

I walked into the line producer’s office – Buzz Feitshans – and when he told me what I’d be making on Conan, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing because it was about 10% of what I was making in advertising. But I was being hired for just for two weeks, so it didn’t bother me. Later, I learned that you’re always hired for two weeks because they want to find out whether or not you’re a jerk.

And if you’re a jerk, after two weeks, your job is over. No hard feelings.

But if you’re good and you deliver, well…

My two weeks on Conan turned into two years and it became my entry into the film business.

When I first got hired, Kathleen Kennedy (future President of Lucasfilm) was our receptionist. And we were sharing offices with Steven Spielberg! So, Cobb and I would work on Conan during the day and then run across the hall to Stephen’s office to kick around ideas for his next project which was Raiders the Lost Ark

I thought working in film would always be like that, but it wasn’t. (laughs) I was just incredibly lucky, a real example of right place, right time.

From William Stout’s site — — and this post has an incredible Ron Cobb story.

B&S: It’s like how so many ad guys start wanting to do comics and then learn how little money they’ll make.

Stout: I worked with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on “Little Anne Fanny”. Some years later, Kurtzman called me up and asked me to take over the strip for Playboy. I turned him down. 

“How can you turn down the best paying job in comics?” he asked.

I said, “Harvey — in comics. I work in the real world. I know how much work goes into “Annie,” because I worked on it with you. Each page takes almost a month. In that time, I could be making a hundred times what you’re paying me just by doing advertising.”

He later told me he was depressed for two months after that.

That’s why I kept trying to get him to come to Hollywood. I said, “You’re really funny. Comedy is gold in this town. You can be financially set up for the rest of your life.”

I helped out Spielberg by doing some of the boards for the sequence where Indy fights the Nazis on the truck. I knew he was trying to get me to leave Conan and work on Raiders but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay loyal to Ron Cobb and John Milius for giving me such a break in my career. So, I recommended my studio mate Dave Stevens to do the boards. 

B&S: What was Dave Stevens like?

Stout: One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet and a really funny guy. Whenever I picture of him in my mind’s eye, he’s either laughing or smiling. He was a very private guy as well, often disappearing without telling anyone. One time, I tried for months to invite him over for dinner and never got a response. Eventually, he called back. 

I said, “Dave, I’ve been trying to get you over here for dinner and you never call me back.”

He said, “Oh. I’ve been living in Paris for the past couple months.”

B&S: The Rocketeer was my introduction to the look of the 30s. And Bettie Page.

Stout: Dave was really obsessed with the 30s. If you walked into his house, it was like stepping into 1936. And watching all this stuff emerge at my studio that he was drawing; it was just amazing to come in each day and see what he had done the previous night.

Has there ever been a better comic?

In the next chapter of our interview, we discuss the Conan follow-ups, Mr. Stout’s introduction to screenwriting and his work for Roger Corman.

Please check out The Worlds of William Stout to learn more about this legendary artist and order his work.

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