I was on the phone with Ralph Bakshi when he told me who killed John F. Kennedy. Long story short: It was the mob. “With Johnson’s OK, I guess,” Bakshi said. “That’s my take on it. The fact that Kennedy got shot in the back and the front of the head? Oswald shot three people with one bullet? I mean, come on. I write movies, and I would never write a movie that bad.”
Bakshi was talking to me from his home in Silver City, N.M., where he was working on his latest project, “Last Days of Coney Island.” The first segment of the film, which was financed through a successful Kickstarter campaign, will be released online in the coming months. When we chatted, the 75-year-old animator had just woken up from a nap, but he seemed like his regular combative self. “Kennedy being assassinated and King being assassinated and Malcolm X being assassinated and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated? Basically a coup in America at that point.”
Bakshi is known for making sexually, racially and politically charged films like “Fritz the Cat,” which was X-rated and, with a box office take of over $100 million, the most successful independent animated feature of all time. He is beloved by science fiction and fantasy fans for movies like “Wizards” (1977) and a 1978 adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings.” His movies — despite many controversies — are icons of animation, and his influence can be felt everywhere from The Simpsons to South Park to the entire Adult Swim cartoon network. Bakshi didn’t just make dirty pictures — he helped invent an industry.
There hasn’t been much recent news from Bakshi, however. Since his last big projects — the part-animated, part-live action, “Cool World,” made in 1992 starring a young Brad Pitt, and “Spicy City,” a short-lived 1997 TV show — he has largely retired from the entertainment business. These days he spends his time reading, listening to jazz, and painting in his New Mexico studio. But with “Last Days of Coney Island” he’s making a return to filmmaking, and to subjects that have marked his career since the beginning: crime, corruption, and the grime-ridden streets of New York.
Bakshi knows a thing or two about grime. Born in Haifa in 1938, he left Palestine with his parents at age 1 and settled in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. His father, Eliezer, worked in a sheet metal factory and his mother, Mina, commuted to the garment district on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Bakshi’s world was Jewish, but it was hardly pious. On Yom Kippur, he and his friends would stroll over the Italian neighborhood to get something to eat.