In 1960, ABC brought something new to the young medium of television: A full-length (30 minute) animated cartoon TV series. Sure, cartoons had been broadcast since TV's inception, but never an actual primetime cartoon series. The show was "made for adults," but the millions of kids who routinely tuned in didn't know or didn't care about that.
The Flintstones ran for six very successful years (1960-1966). The original pilot for the series was called The Flagstones. This name was changed because of the popular comic strip Hi and Lois, whose last name was Flagstone. Their creators threatened legal action if that surname was appropriated by ABC. (Daws Butler voiced both leads, Fred and Barney, in this original pilot.)
And obvious and openly admitted rip-off of The Honeymooners, the show's cast included four lead characters. Fred Flintstone (the earliest animated precursor to Homer Simpson) was the show's central character. Interestingly, although Seth MacFarlane, the brilliant creator of Family Guy, is often accused of "ripping off" Homer Simpson for his lead character Peter Griffin, Seth always denies this theory and says Fred Flintstone was his "favorite cartoon character as a kid" and was the actual inspiration for Peter.
Much like Jackie Gleason's legendary Honeymooners character Ralph Kramden, Fred was loud, overbearing, blustery, and obnoxious. But underneath, he was a good guy, just an average Stone Age "John Doe" trying to earn a living, get by, and have a few laughs on the side. Fred shared one other quality with Ralph: his unequivocal and undying love of this wife, Wilma.
Wilma, much like Ralph's wife Alice, could more than hold her own against her husband's tirades and dramatizations. In the face of Fred's frequent bluster, Wilma could always be counted on to deliver a wisecrack to bring her husband down to size.
Fred's neighbor and best friend, Barney Rubble, was an easygoing, likable little fellow. He was to be Fred's comrade-in-arms in all of his wacky adventures.
Barney's wife, Betty, was a lead character, but was usually in the background, simply there to give Wilma a female counterpart.
Fred Flintstone was voiced by journeyman character actor Alan Reed. Reed had actually dubbed in Gleason's voice on various projects over the years.
The immortal Mel Blanc took on the role of Barney. Blanc was severely injured in a near-fatal auto accident in 1961 and was unable to do Barney's voice, so veteran cartoon voiceover legend Daws Butler (of The Flagstones fame) briefly took over the role. When Blanc was once again well enough to voice Barney, he recorded the character from his hospital bed, in a full body cast. complete with a microphone hung up over his bed.
Jean Vander did the voice of Wilma and Bea Benedaret did Betty Rubble for the first four seasons, before ceding her role to Gerry Johnson.
The Flintstone's family pet, a dinosaur named Dino, was actually featured as a talking dinosaur in one episode, although he never spoke again during there show's run. Oddly, Dino is blue in the show's opening and closing credits, but is purple during the actual show.
Although today it seems quite unbelievable, for the first few seasons, The Flintstones was sponsored by Winston cigarettes. A hilarious Winston commercial (now banned from TV, but available at YouTube) shows Fred and Barney relaxing and puffing on their Winstons as Wilma and Betty do chores around the house. Another early routinely-shown (at the time) commercial spot has Fred lighting Wilma's Winston. As she puffs away, Fred happily sings the Winston jingle: "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should…"
The original beginning of the show was actually "The Flintstones, brought to you by Winston cigarettes." Welch's grape juice, a more appropriate sponsor, took the helm and sponsored the show for the last several seasons. All references and mentions of Winston cigarettes have been carefully and thoroughly erased and expunged from all Flintstones reruns.
Many heavyweight guest stars voiced episodes of The Flintstones (a precursor to The Simpsons custom), including Ann Margret, Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Montgomery, and even legendary pianist-composer Hoagy Carmichael.
In 1963, a new angle was added to the show with the birth of Pebbles Flintstone, Fred and Wilma's daughter. In anticipation of her birth, a huge nationwide contest was held to "name the Flintstone's baby." The show had several historic television "firsts" involving Pebbles: it was the first show to actually have a pregnant lead character and was also the first cartoon to have an actual story arc -that of Wilma's pregnancy, Pebbles' birth, and the following episodes dealing with Fred adapting to fatherhood. (The Flintstones was also the first animated show to feature a couple sharing the same bed.)
Soon thereafter, not to be outdone, Barney and Betty "wish upon a star" in a poignant episode, and are given their own child, Bamm-Bamm, the world's strongest boy.
Originally, the Flintstone child was to have been a boy, Fred Junior. But this idea was scrapped because little girls preferred buying girl dolls to boy dolls. The Pebbles doll was a huge seller in the mid-sixties.
Although many (mainly women and girls) like the Pebbles angle, I have always preferred the pre-Pebbles episodes and thought the show jumped the shark with the birth of Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm. The pre-Pebbles episodes are quite often hilarious, but after her birth, Fred became more domesticated and toned-down, diluting a once-great character.
The "fat jokes" so often unleashed on Ralph Kramden were equally fired at the overweight Fred. Interestingly, Jackie Gleason once threatened to sue the series over its obvious and blatant ripoff of his classic show The Honeymooners. Fortunately, he was talked out of the notion by friends who warned him that he didn't want to be known as "the man who killed Fred Flintstone."
The series, like almost every TV show before and after, was initially new and fresh, but dwindled and limped through the final seasons. The Gruesomes, a weird family of strange, eccentric creatures obviously ripped off from The Addams Family and The Munsters, came and went in two episodes. The Great Gazoo, an extraterrestrial voiced by the great Harvey Korman, was there during the show's final season to help Fred and Barney out of their usual jams. Another fairly unnecessary character in the show's final years was the Rubble's new pet Hoppy the Hopperoo, a kangaroo-like pet, obviously added to give the Rubbles a Dino counterpart.
Finally, after a then-record (since obliterated by The Simpsons) 166 episodes, The Flintstones finally left the airways in 1966. A few much-lesser spinoffs have appeared over the years, as well as both animated and live-action Flintstones movies. But the original stands head and shoulders above all that have come in it wake.