Lee Capp Biography & Facts
Alfred Gerald Caplin (September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979), better known as Al Capp, was an American cartoonist and humorist best known for the satirical comic strip Li'l Abner, which he created in 1934 and continued writing and (with help from assistants) drawing until 1977. He also wrote the comic strips Abbie an' Slats (in the years 1937–45) and Long Sam (1954). He won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award in 1947 for Cartoonist of the Year, and their 1979 Elzie Segar Award, posthumously for his "unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning". Capp's comic strips dealt with urban experiences in the northern states of the USA until the year he introduced "Li'l Abner". Although Capp was from Connecticut, he spent 43 years teaching the world about Dogpatch, reaching an estimated 60 million readers in more than 900 American newspapers and 100 more papers in 28 countries internationally. M. Thomas Inge says Capp made a large personal fortune through the strip and "had a profound influence on the way the world viewed the American South".
Capp was born in New Haven, Connecticut, of East European Jewish heritage. He was the eldest child of Otto Philip Caplin (1885–1964) and Matilda (Davidson) Caplin (1884–1948). His brothers, Elliot and Jerome, were cartoonists, and his sister, Madeline, was a publicist. Capp's parents were both natives of Latvia whose families had migrated to New Haven in the 1880s. "My mother and father had been brought to this country from Russia when they were infants", wrote Capp in 1978. "Their fathers had found that the great promise of America was true – it was no crime to be a Jew." The Caplins were dirt-poor, and Capp later recalled stories of his mother going out in the night to sift through ash barrels for reusable bits of coal.
In August 1919, at the age of nine, Capp was run down by a trolley car and had his left leg amputated above the knee. According to his father Otto's unpublished autobiography, young Capp was not prepared for the amputation beforehand; having been in a coma for days, he suddenly awoke to discover that his leg had been removed. He was eventually given a prosthetic leg, but only learned to use it by adopting a slow way of walking which became increasingly painful as he grew older. The childhood tragedy of losing a leg likely helped shape Capp's cynical worldview, which was darker and more sardonic than that of the average newspaper cartoonist. "I was indignant as hell about that leg", he revealed in a November 1950 interview in Time magazine.
"The secret of how to live without resentment or embarrassment in a world in which I was different from everyone else", Capp philosophically wrote (in Life magazine on May 23, 1960), "was to be indifferent to that difference." The prevailing opinion among his friends was that Capp's Swiftian satire was, to some degree, a creatively channeled, compensatory response to his disability.
Capp's father, a failed businessman and an amateur cartoonist, introduced him to drawing as a form of therapy. He became quite proficient, advancing mostly on his own. Among his earliest influences were Punch cartoonist–illustrator Phil May and American comic strip cartoonists Tad Dorgan, Cliff Sterrett, Rube Goldberg, Rudolph Dirks, Fred Opper, Billy DeBeck, George McManus, and Milt Gross. At about this same time, Capp became a voracious reader. According to Capp's brother Elliot, Alfred had finished all of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw by the time he turned 13. Among his childhood favorites were Dickens, Smollett, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and later, Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman.
Capp spent five years at Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, without receiving a diploma. He liked to joke about how he failed geometry for nine straight terms. His formal training came from a series of art schools in the New England area. Attending three of them in rapid succession, the impoverished Capp was thrown out of each for nonpayment of tuition—the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Designers Art School in Boston—the last before launching his career. Capp already had decided to become a cartoonist. "I heard that Bud Fisher (creator of Mutt and Jeff) got $3,000 a week and was constantly marrying French countesses", Capp said. "I decided that was for me."
In early 1932, Capp hitchhiked to New York City. He lived in "airless rat holes" in Greenwich Village and turned out advertising strips at $2 each while scouring the city hunting for jobs. He eventually found work at the Associated Press when he was 23 years old. By March 1932, Capp was drawing Colonel Gilfeather, a single-panel, AP-owned property created in 1930 by Dick Dorgan. Capp changed the focus and title to Mister Gilfeather but soon grew to hate the feature. He left the Associated Press in September 1932. Before leaving, he met Milton Caniff and the two became lifelong friends. Capp moved to Boston and married Catherine Wingate Cameron, whom he had met earlier in art class. She died in 2006 at the age of 96.
Leaving his new wife with her parents in Amesbury, Massachusetts, he subsequently returned to New York in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. "I was 23, I carried a mass of drawings, and I had nearly five dollars in my pocket. People were sleeping in alleys then, willing to work at anything." There he met Ham Fisher, who hired him to ghost on Joe Palooka. During one of Fisher's extended vacations, Capp's Joe Palooka story arc introduced a stupid, coarse, oafish mountaineer named "Big Leviticus," a crude prototype. (Leviticus was much closer to Capp's later villains Lem and Luke Scragg than to the much more appealing and innocent Li'l Abner.)
Also during this period, Capp was working at night on samples for the strip that eventually became Li'l Abner. He based his cast of characters on the authentic mountain-dwellers he met while hitchhiking through rural West Virginia and the Cumberland Valley as a teenager. (This was years before the Tennessee Valley Authority Act brought basic utilities such as electricity and running water to the region.) Leaving Joe Palooka, Capp sold Li'l Abner to United Feature Syndicate (later known as United Media). The feature was launched on Monday, August 13, 1934, in eight North American newspapers—including the New York Mirror—and was an immediate success. Alfred G. Caplin eventually became "Al Capp" because the syndicate felt the original would not fit in a cartoon frame. Capp had his name changed legally in 1949.
His younger brother, Elliot Caplin, also became a comic strip writer, best known for co-creating the soap opera strip The Heart of Juliet Jones with artist Stan Drake and conceiving the comic strip character Broom-Hilda with cartoonist Russell Myers. Elliot also authored several off-Broadway plays, including A Nickel for Picasso (1981), which was based on and dedica.... Discover the Lee Capp popular books. Find the top 100 most popular Lee Capp books.