Gumby and Pokey Article

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (AP) - He's loyal, brave and always ready to extend himself to help a friend.

And he's really, really green.

Now, Gumby - the elastic-limbed fellow with the lopsided head who charmed a generation of children with his animated antics - is trying to make his biggest career stretch ever. A comeback.

He's back on TV, this time on Nickelodeon, which is interspersing new episodes with reruns of the old series that started in 1956. There are Gumby pizza parlors in college towns, capitalizing on a new student following. There's even a motion picture, ''Gumby 1.''

But don't look for Gumby to start trashing hotel rooms anytime soon. He isn't letting renewed success go to his bumpy little head.

''There's none of this wisecracking and cynicism that you see in ... some of the other cartoons,'' says creator Art Clokey. ''He's supposed to be a role model for kids. He cares about other people. He will be loyal to his friends and respects his parents.''

In many ways Clokey has proven as resilient as his creation, keeping his balance through fortune and fiasco.

His film career began in the early 1950s when he was a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Working in a garage, he made a four-minute film called ''Gumbasia,'' that showed abstract clay forms moving to jazz music.

The name was a childhood memory of visiting his grandfather's farm and remembering his father coming into the house and saying he'd ''got stuck in the gumbo,'' local coinage for the region's sticky, clay soil.

''Gumbasia'' was made using a technique called stop-motion, in which figures are filmed, moved slightly and filmed again, a painstaking, but according to Clokey, uniquely satisfying, process.

Clokey's big break came via his paying job at Harvard Military Academy (now Harvard School) in Studio City near Los Angeles. There, he tutored the son of Sam Engel, then-president of the Motion Pictures Producers Association.

Invited over one night to look at previews, Clokey mentioned he'd made a film of his own and was told ''bring it over.''

What followed next was every young film student's dream. Engel didn't just like ''Gumbasia,'' he loved it.

For a moment, Clokey envisioned himself a Hollywood player.

''I could just see myself being his assistant and mingling with the stars,'' he recalls. But Engel's next sentence shattered his silver screen fantasy. What he wanted, it turned out, was better children's television: Could Clokey develop some clay figures to create a TV show?

The result was Gumby, his little pony Pokey and a host of other clay mates.

From the beginning, Clokey, who once studied to be an Episcopal minister, had a clear vision of Gumby. He would be a hero, but not obnoxiously so.

''He has some characteristics of a superman. ... He also has characteristics of a human being. He's not super powerful; he will need the help of his friends.''

Clokey's father, Arthur Farrington, lent more than the inspiration for the character's name. His amazing cowlick - captured in a sepia photograph that hangs on the wall of Clokey's San Rafael office - was the model for Gumby's asymmetrical head.

As a clay boy, Gumby could assume any shape, squashing flat as a paint slick or splitting into a handful of gum balls to escape - naturally - a gumball machine.

Children were enthralled as he and his friends embarked on fantastic adventures, leaping through time and space to hook up with fictional and historical characters.

But by the late 1970s, Gumby was yesterday's star and Clokey was facing foreclosure on his house. A second toy he designed had failed spectacularly after something went wrong in the manufacturing process.

His wife and business partner, Gloria, traces the resurgence of their fortunes to a visit to spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba in India about 15 years ago. They gave him Gumby to bless with sacred ash and ''after that things started happening,'' she said.

Back in California, Clokey was asked to give a Gumby show and lecture at the Beverly Hills Library.

It was standing room only.

Next came a tour of movie theaters and bookings on the lecture circuit.

In the early 1980s, the Clokey's got a boost from an unexpected source when comedian Eddie Murphy brought Gumby to TV's ''Saturday Night Live.'' Murphy would swagger around, bullying his cohorts and declaiming, ''I'm Gumby, dammit.''

That wasn't exactly in line with Clokey's vision. After all, he took legal action to stop the manufacture of ''Scumby'' T-shirts that showed Gumby as a beer-bellied reprobate. But Murphy's Gumby had the saving grace of being funny. It also came on way past the bedtimes of Gumby's more innocent fans.

''We called him the anti-Gumby,'' joked Clokey, who has a sign in his office that quietly points out ''I'M Gumby, Dammit.''

Still, although they can laugh at the renegade Gumby, the Clokey's took no chances on corrupting influences in ''Gumby 1.'' They used their savings from the new TV episodes to produce the $2.8 million film themselves after studio executives wanted to make changes in the script.

The 90-minute feature premiered in Dallas in May, hits San Francisco this month and is expected to play in Los Angeles and New York later this fall.

Once again, the Clokeys' are betting everything on Gumby - a risk they believe will pay off.

''We had to be true to ourselves,'' Clokey says. ''You see, being true to Gumby was being true to ourselves.''

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