Paul Coker Jr. Dies: Designer Of Rankin/Bass Classic Holiday Characters & Longtime Mad Magazine Illustrator Was 93

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Paul Coker Jr., whose character and production designs for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion and animated holiday specials and his many years as one of Mad magazine’s “Usual Gang Of Idiots” endeared him to generations of fans, died following a brief illness at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on July 23. He was 93.

His death was confirmed to Deadline by his stepdaughter Lee Smithson Burd. “Paul was lucid and had his remarkable sense of humor until the end,” Smithson Burd said.

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Coker’s contributions to the production and character design of the Rankin/Bass specials helped create some of the most indelible holiday images of the last half-century. As either a character designer or production designer, Coker lent his talents to such Christmas and Easter specials as Cricket on the Hearth (1967), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (both 1976), Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey and The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town (both 1977), Jack Frost (1979), Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980), The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold (1981) and Santa, Baby! (2001).

Among the many beloved characters developed under Coker’s supervision are Kris Kringle (voiced by Mickey Rooney), Keenan Wynn’s Winter Warlock, Paul Frees’ Burgermeister Meisterburger and, from The Year Without a Santa Claus, the sinister seasonal brothers Snow Miser ((Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving).

Coker first began his decades-long association with Mad magazine in 1961, and he would go on to illustrate hundreds of articles well into the 21st Century. He was particularly known for the popular panels called “Horrifying Cliches.” Among many other features, he illustrated some of the magazine’s film and TV parodies including articles satirizing Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Twister, Frasier, Sabrina: Teenage Witch and Caroline In The City.

A native of Lawrence, Kansas, Coker studied drawing and painting at the University of Kansas before accepting a job as a designer of Hallmark greeting cards in the 1950s, an association he would maintain for decades. He freelanced for many publications including Esquire, Look, Good Housekeeping and Playboy. For the latter publication, he was especially known for his adults-only parodies of the Peanuts comic strip.

Coker is survived by his wife of 33 years Rosemary Smithson, stepdaughters Lee Smithson Burd and Carol Smithson.

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