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So many interesting people you only hear of after they die; sad
‘Charlie the Tuna’ creator drowns
Copywriter also worked on Keebler Elves, Morris the Cat
by Joe Holley
The Washington Post
Updated: 4:08 p.m. ET July 8, 2005

Tom Rogers, 87, a retired advertising copywriter whose beret- and sunglasses-wearing hipster tuna became an icon of pop culture, died June 24 in Charlottesville, where he lived with his son's family. He drowned while swimming alone in the family's backyard pool.

Charlie the Tuna was the likably obtuse deep-sea striver who never lived up to the taste standards of Starkist Tuna. ("Sorry, Charlie. Starkist wants tuna that tastes good, not tuna with good taste.") The character was based on an acquaintance of Mr. Rogers's who was an habitue of the beat scene in 1950s New York City, said his son, Lance Rogers. A beat musician and part-time actor who called himself Henry Nemo, the man personified one of Mr. Rogers's favorite aphorisms: "The straightest distance between two points is an angle."

"Everybody knows somebody like that, an appealing character who's totally confident but totally wrong," Lance Rogers said.

Mr. Rogers had a hand in creating other memorable ad mascots of the 1960s and '70s, the cookie-baking Keebler elves and the finicky feline in the 9 Lives cat food ads, Morris the Cat. He didn't originate the characters, his son said, but he infused them with distinctive personalities based on a lifetime of observing human nature as a screenwriter, aspiring novelist and copywriter.

Thomas Russell Rogers was born in Minneapolis and grew up during the Depression in a household run by his single mother. At times, he stayed with his grandparents in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Building the ‘Black Widow’
During Prohibition, he occasionally hung out at speakeasies, where he earned a little spending money cleaning floors and scurrying around town making deliveries for bootleggers, who presumed the police wouldn't suspect a kid. Although he was never a good student, he knew that he wanted to be a writer. When he wasn't observing speakeasy hustlers and small-time hoodlums, he was spending time at the public library. He was still a teenager when he sold his first story to a pulp detective magazine; his mother had to help him cash the twenty-dollar check.

In the early 1930s, he dropped out of high school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, cutting trails and manning fire towers in the forests of northern Minnesota. Mr. Rogers made his way to Hollywood in the late 1930s. He considered himself a writer, although he landed a day job during World War II as a welder in a Northrop aircraft factory in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles. He was always proud of having helped build the P-61, a double-tailed fighter-bomber known as "the Black Widow." It was the nation's first aircraft designed specifically as a night-fighter.

He also found work as a screenwriter and, increasingly, as a script doctor. He had a keen ear for dialogue, and studios began seeking him out to punch up their scripts.

In the late 1940s, he moved to New York City, where he lingered on the fringes of the beat scene, did some writing for the stage and radio and developed comedy sketches for nightclub comedians. He moved back to Minneapolis in 1951, married in 1953 and wangled a job with a local advertising agency.

Moodiness: cold cold

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