The 'Clifford' creator brings his big red pooch to the small screen

By Bruce Fretts
September 08, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s not hard to find Norman Bridwell’s house on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the one with the truck parked out front (license plate: ”CLIFRD”) and the fire-engine-red doors and shutters. ”The painters said, ‘Do you really want it that red?”’ recalls the 72-year-old author of the Clifford the Big Red Dog children’s book series. ”We’re just about due for another coat — we’re going to have brighter red.”

You can’t blame Bridwell for honoring his oversize creation. The charmingly witty Clifford picture books have sold 80 million copies — dwarfing the heavily hyped Harry Potter novels. ”Gosh, I’d never really compared,” Bridwell mutters modestly over an afternoon snack of cookies and lemonade. ”I don’t keep track.”

With the Sept. 4 premiere of a PBS animated series based on the books, Clifford is poised to grow even bigger. ”They tried to do a TV show some years ago, but the networks felt he was too quiet and gentle,” says Bridwell. ”They wanted a gang of boys chasing an evil enemy.” Clifford‘s publisher, Scholastic (also Harry Potter‘s U.S. publisher), chose instead to develop a cartoon more in keeping with the books’ sweet-tempered spirit.

There are a couple of big differences between the books and the show, though. The TV Clifford can talk (but only to other dogs). And his voice may sound familiar: It’s John Ritter. ”He has four children who all grew up reading Clifford books,” says executive producer Deborah Forte. ”So it didn’t take a lot of explaining.” Another change is the setting, from an unnamed town in the books to the series’ Birdwell Island — yes, Bridwell and Birdwell — an idyllic community inspired by Martha’s Vineyard.

Bridwell and his wife, Norma — yes, Norman and Norma — have lived there since 1969, six years after Clifford was created. The dog’s name came from an imaginary childhood friend of Norma’s. ”He was going to call it Tiny, but that was too obvious,” says Norma. The color was randomly chosen: ”I just happened to have red paint sitting on my desk that day,” says Bridwell, who was working as a commercial artist in New York City at the time of Clifford’s birth.

His then-newborn daughter, Emily Elizabeth (now a ceramics artist living near Boston), provided the name for Clifford’s little-girl owner. Son Tim (now an aspiring screenwriter in Paris) came along later. ”He asked me a long time ago, ‘Why didn’t you put me in the books?”’ says Bridwell. ”So any neighborhood boy I name Tim — sometimes I even write it on their shirts.”

Clifford‘s massive success continues to amaze Bridwell. ”We didn’t think it would ever be published,” he admits. ”But it worked out.” And how: Clifford looms large around the globe, having conquered such foreign countries as France (where he’s called ”Ketchup”), Italy, Germany, Greece, and Red China. ”I really don’t know why he’s appealing to children, but I’m glad he is,” Bridwell says. ”I just write what amuses me and hope they like it.”