He introduced and/or developed several of the studio's biggest stars, including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam (to whom he was said to bear more than a passing resemblance), and Speedy Gonzales. The senior director at Warners' Termite Terrace studio, Freleng directed more cartoons than any other director in the studio (a total of 266), and is also the most honored of the Warner directors, having won five Academy Awards and three Emmy Awards. After Warners shut down the animation studio in 1963, Freleng and business partner David H. DePatie founded DePatie–Freleng Enterprises, which produced cartoons (notably those for The Pink Panther Show), feature film title sequences, and Saturday-morning cartoons through the early 1980s.
The nickname "Friz" came from his friend, Hugh Harman, who initially nicknamed him "Congressman Frizby" after a fictional senator who appeared in satirical pieces in the Los Angeles Examiner. Over time, this shortened to "Friz".
Freleng was born to a Jewish family in Kansas City, Missouri, where he began his career in animation at United Film Ad Service. There, he made the acquaintance of fellow animators Hugh Harman and Ub Iwerks. In 1923, Iwerks' friend, Walt Disney, moved to Hollywood and put out a call for his Kansas City colleagues to join him. Freleng, however, held out until 1927, when he finally moved to California and joined the Walt Disney studio. He worked alongside other former Kansas City animators, including Iwerks, Harman, Carmen Maxwell, and Rudolph Ising. While at Disney, Freleng worked on the Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for producers Margaret Winkler and Charles Mintz.
Freleng soon teamed up with Harman and Ising to try to create their own studio. The trio produced a pilot film starring a new Mickey Mouse-like character named Bosko. Looking at unemployment if the cartoon failed to generate interest, Freleng moved to New York City to work on Mintz' Krazy Kat cartoons, all the while still trying to sell the Harman-Ising Bosko picture. Freleng was very unhappy living in New York and made the best of it until another opportunity opened for him. Bosko was finally sold to Leon Schlesinger, who would produce the series for Warner Bros. At first Freleng was reluctant to return to California when Harman-Ising asked him to work on the series. At the insistence of his sister Jean, Freleng soon moved back to California to work on Looney Tunes.
Harman and Ising left Schlesinger's studio over disputes about budgets in 1933. Schlesinger was left with no experienced directors, and therefore lured Freleng away from Harman-Ising to successfully fix cartoons directed by Tom Palmer which Warner rejected. The young animator became Schlesinger's top director, and he introduced the studio's first true post-Bosko star, Porky Pig, in the film, I Haven't Got a Hat (1935). Porky was a distinctive character, unlike Bosko or his replacement, Buddy.
As a director, Freleng gained the reputation of a tough taskmaster. His unit, however, consistently produced high-quality animated shorts under his direction.
In 1937, Freleng left Schlesinger's after accepting an increase in salary to direct for the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio headed by Fred Quimby. To Freleng's chagrin, he found he would be working on The Captain and the Kids, adapted from the popular comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids. The series failed to achieve much success, much as Freleng had predicted. Though skillfully animated, the characters could not compete with the "funny animals" that prevailed at the time.
Freleng happily returned to Warner Bros. when his contract ended in late 1939. One of the first Looney Tunes cartoon shorts directed by Freleng during his second tenure at the studio was You Ought to Be in Pictures, a cartoon short which blended animation with live-action footage of the Warner Bros. studio (and of Schlesinger veterans such as story man Michael Maltese and even "Leon" himself). The plot, which centers around Porky Pig being tricked by Daffy Duck into terminating his contract with Schlesinger to attempt a career in features, echoes Freleng's experience in moving to MGM.
Schlesinger's hands-off attitude toward his animators allowed Freleng and his fellow directors almost complete creative control and room to experiment with cartoon comedy styles, which allowed the studio to keep pace with the Disney studio's technical superiority. Freleng's style quickly matured, and he became a master of comic timing. Often working alongside layout artist Hawley Pratt, he also introduced or redesigned a number of famous Warner characters, including Yosemite Sam in 1945, the cat-and-bird duo, Sylvester and Tweety in 1947, and Speedy Gonzales in 1955.
Freleng and Chuck Jones would dominate the Warner Bros. studio in the years after World War II, Freleng largely concentrating on the above-mentioned characters and Bugs Bunny. Freleng continued also to produce modernized versions of the musical comedies he animated in his early career, such as The Three Little Bops (1957) and Pizzicato Pussycat (1955). Freleng won four Oscars during his time at Warner Bros., for the films, Tweetie Pie (1947), Speedy Gonzales (1955), Knighty Knight Bugs (1958) and Birds Anonymous (1957). And other Freleng cartoons such as Sandy Claws (1955), Mexicali Shmoes (1959), Mouse and Garden (1960) and The Pied Piper of Guadalupe (1961) were Oscar nominees.
Freleng's cartoon, Show Biz Bugs (1957), with Daffy Duck vying with Bugs Bunny for theatre audience appreciation, was arguably a template for the enormously successful format to The Bugs Bunny Show that premiered on television in the autumn of 1960. Further, Freleng directed the cartoons with the erudite and ever so polite Goofy Gophers encountering the relentless wheels of human industry, them being I Gopher You (1954) and Lumber Jerks (1955), and he also directed three cartoons (sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) extolling the virtues of free-market capitalism, said cartoons being By Word of Mouse (1954), Heir-Conditioned (1955) and Yankee Dood It (1956), all three of which involved Sylvester. Freleng directed all three of the vintage Warner Brothers cartoons in which a drinking of Dr. Jekyll's potion (of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) induces a series of monstrous transformations, Dr. Jerkyl's Hide (1954), Hyde and Hare (1955) and Hyde and Go Tweet (1960) being those three cartoons. Other Freleng fancies were man at war with the insect world (as in Of Thee I Sting (1946) and Ant Pasted (1953)), an inebriated stork delivering the wrong baby (in A Mouse Divided (1952), Stork Naked (1955) and Apes of Wrath (1959)), and characters marrying for money and finding themselves with a shrewish wife and a troublesome step-son (His Bitter Half (1949) and Honey's Money (1962)).
Freleng was occasionally the subject of in-jokes in Warner cartoons, with billboards in the background of scenes advertising various products called "Friz" in Canary Row (1950), the "Hotel Friz " in Racketeer Rabbit (1946) and "Frizby the Magician" in High Diving Hare (1949) as one of the acts Bugs Bunny is pitching.
Freleng was somewhat of a musical composer and a classically trained violinist who timed his cartoons on musical bar sheets. Freleng would time the gags the best utilized Carl Stalling's, Milt Franklyn's or William Lava's music. He was one of a very few directors at Warner Bros. to have musical knowledge for making cartoons. Every cartoon Freleng directed from the late 1930s to 1963 was made with his creative musical technique. Freleng's directorial style differed from Chuck Jones and Robert McKimson.
Freleng once again left Warner Bros. Cartoons in November 1962, seven months before the studio closed, to take a job at Hanna-Barbera as story supervisor on their first feature Hey There, It's Yogi Bear! After the Warner studio closed in May 1963, Freleng rented the same space from Warners to create cartoons with his now-former boss, producer David DePatie (the final producer hired by Warner Bros. to oversee the cartoon division), forming DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. When Warner decided to reopen their cartoon studio in 1964, they did so in name only; DePatie-Freleng produced the cartoons into 1966.
The DePatie-Freleng studio's signature achievement was The Pink Panther. DePatie-Freleng was commissioned to create the opening titles for the feature film The Pink Panther (1963), for which layout artist and director Hawley Pratt and Freleng created a suave, cool cat character. The Pink Panther cartoon character became so popular that United Artists, distributors of The Pink Panther, had Freleng produce a short cartoon starring the character, The Pink Phink (1964).
After The Pink Phink won the 1965 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons), Freleng and DePatie responded by producing a whole series of Pink Panther cartoons. Other original cartoon series, among them The Inspector, The Ant and the Aardvark, The Dogfather, Roland and Rattfink and Crazylegs Crane, soon followed. In 1969, The Pink Panther Show, a Saturday morning anthology program featuring DePatie-Freleng cartoons, debuted on NBC. The Pink Panther and the other original DePatie-Freleng series would remain in production through 1980, with new cartoons produced for simultaneous Saturday morning broadcast and United Artists theatrical release.
DePatie-Freleng is credited with the creation of Frito-Lay's Chester Cheetah, on the Food Network show "Deep Fried Treats Unwrapped"; as well as creating the colored opening title sequence to I Dream of Jeannie. DePatie-Freleng also contributed special effects to the original version of Star Wars (1977), particularly the animation of the lightsaber blades.
By 1967, DePatie and Freleng had moved their operations to the San Fernando Valley. Their studio was located on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Van Nuys. One of their projects featured Bing Crosby and his family called, Goldilocks, and had songs by the Sherman Brothers. At their new facilities they continued to produce new cartoons until 1980, when they sold DePatie-Freleng to Marvel Comics, which renamed it Marvel Productions.
Freleng later served as an executive producer on three 1980s Looney Tunes compilation features, which linked together several of the classic shorts with new animated sequences. The Freleng-produced compilation features were The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie (1981), Bugs Bunny's 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales (1982), and Daffy Duck's Fantastic Island (1983).
In 1986, Freleng stepped down and gave his position at Warner Bros. to his secretary at the time, Kathleen Helppie-Shipley, who ended up being the second-longest producer of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies franchise, only behind Leon Schlesinger.
In 1994 the International Family Film Festival presented its first Lifetime Achievement of Excellence in Animation award to Freleng, and the award has since been referred to as the "Friz Award" in his honor.
On May 26, 1995, Friz Freleng died of natural causes in Los Angeles, aged 88. The WB animated TV series, The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, and the Looney Tunes cartoon, From Hare to Eternity (which was the last one directed by Chuck Jones), were both dedicated to his memory. After his death, Cartoon Network aired a variation of one of their station idents with the words "Friz Freleng: 1906-1995" appearing and an announcer paying tribute to him and his works. Freleng is interred in Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery.
Freleng is portrayed by Taylor Gray in the film Walt Before Mickey (2015).