Constable: How a rescue cat from Hinsdale became one of TV's biggest stars
Taking a back seat to the Apollo 11 moon landing in our coverage of things celebrating a 50th anniversary this year leaves Morris the cat in uncharted territory.
"He was a TV star," says Tom Van Winkle, executive director of the Hinsdale Humane Society, where the advertising feline was discovered. Morris became a household name in 1969 by strutting his stuff in the first of 58 commercials for 9Lives. "It's pretty amazing how it still resonates with people," Van Winkle says.
It's likely that Morris was surrendered by his owner or possibly rescued off the street in 1968. But the orange-striped Tabby won over animal trainer and handler Bob Martwick of Lombard, who stopped by the shelter in Hinsdale looking for a cat to appear in commercials for 9Lives cat food. Martwick brought the calm, some would say aloof, stray cat to a meeting with the creative team at the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, and Morris made an unforgettable impression.
"He jumped on the table … and he walked right up to the art director, the big cheese, and bumped him in the head. And then Morris just sat back," Martwick said during his many media interviews about the cat. "The art director said, 'This is the Clark Gable of cats.'"
Voiced by actor John Erwin, who also provided the voice for the popular He-Man cartoon character in the 1980s, Morris was the wisecracking, sardonic, finicky cat, who had little tolerance for anything except 9Lives cat food.
"Oh, I remember the Morris commercials. He definitely had a special personality that most cats don't have," says Van Winkle, who now has enough Morris goodies at the Hinsdale Humane Society for a Morris shrine.
"This is a portrait from 1974," Van Winkle says of a large framed photograph of Morris that was taken in the photo studio at the L.S. Ayres department store in Indianapolis during one of the cat's celebrity appearances.
"This was made by the company that makes the Emmy," he says, showing off a golden trophy in the image of Morris.
That trophy was given to one of nine cats from around the nation competing to be the 9Lives cat of the year in a lavish competition held in the famed Beverly Hills Hotel. Celebrity judges included Betty White and Ed Asner, remembers Jennifer Petterson, who started her public relations career in the 1980s with the third generation of Morris the Cat as part of her work with the Edelman communications firm of Chicago. Petterson and her staff flew in coach and carried the director's chair with "Morris" written across the back, while Martwick and Morris, in a carrier tucked under the seat, flew first-class.
"You could see tufts of his fur through the carrier," remembers Petterson, who now lives in La Grange. "You didn't dare say who he was because people would go gaga."
Petterson, who now runs her pettersonpr.com consulting firm, was one of a select few who got to hold Morris, aside from Martwick. A no-nonsense guy who still kept the crew cut he wore as a Navy pilot during World War II, Martwick also helped discover Spuds MacKenzie, the beer-selling dog of Anheuser-Busch.
"He was a lovely man, but was quiet and looked stern," says Petterson, who also worked with dog stars such as Beethoven, Lassie and the dog on "Frasier."
The original Morris died in July 1978 at the age of 17, and his obituary in The New York Times noted Morris was "laid to rest near Mr. Martwick's home," apparently in a backyard ceremony befitting his unpretentious roots. Martwick died in 2001 at age 75.
All subsequent replacement look-alike Morrises have been rescue cats, and the current Morris can be found on Twitter at @MorrisApproved, on Facebook, and on YouTube with his "Cat's Eye View" on the 9Lives Cat Food channel, which notes that "America's choosiest cat gives back" in an effort to "Live Well & Prospurr."
In 2015, Morris was one of 10 brand mascots alongside the Green Giant, Ronald McDonald, Mr. Clean and others to be honored with "A Salute to Advertising's Greatest Icons" at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
During his half-century career, Morris has received thousands of fan letters, and included his paw print on his responses. He endured countless puns about his purrfect life and his catapulting to stardom. He traveled the nation, promoting feline health and animal shelters, and visiting hospitals and schools. A later Morris launched his "Morris for President" campaign in 1988 by stumping with Eleanor Mondale, took a second shot at the White House in 2012, and might actually win if he joins the 2020 race.
The original Morris had a part in Robert Altman's 1973 film, "The Long Goodbye," and appeared alongside Burt Reynolds and Dyan Cannon in "Shamus." Morris also is listed as the author of three books.
In addition to selling cat food, later versions of Morris worked with the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg in establishing February as Cat Health Month, and led the Morris Million Cat Rescue adoption campaign in 2006.
That activism for less fortunate cats helps explain why Morris is so fondly remembered today.
"It's still a sense of pride for the shelter and the community that this famous cat came from us," Van Winkle says. "It's pride for the whole community because a rescue animal made it big."