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UA alum gets animated

Crossword creator Merl Reagle to appear as a character on 'The Simpsons' this Sunday

By: Nickolas Seibel

Issue date: 11/14/08 Section: News
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Illustration courtesy 20th Century Fox
Illustration courtesy 20th Century Fox

Media Credit: Sheldon Smith

When UA alumnus and former Daily Wildcat copy editor Merl Reagle sits down to watch "The Simpsons" this Sunday, it will be like a dream come true.

"Actually, I never even dreamed of being in a cartoon," Reagle said Thursday. "For me, to be such a total nut for animation since I was a kid, I never even dreamed … it's like a dream I never had coming true."

Reagle's path to animated stardom began with his day job as a crossword puzzle creator, or "constructor." Beginning with his first puzzle in first grade using a sheet of graph paper and his classmate's names, Reagle has earned a reputation as one of the nation's premier crossword constructors, published in such newspapers as Tucson's Arizona Daily Star and the Sunday edition of New York Times.

In Sunday's "Simpsons" episode, Reagle plays himself in a cameo appearance with New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. The entire episode, titled "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words," revolves around Lisa Simpson's newfound interest in crossword puzzles.

"You don't see them for very long," Reagle said, "but like (episode writer) Tim Long said, when crossword fans watch this show … we want them to think that we got it right."

Reagle designed every puzzle that appears in the the episode, including one that appears in a hopscotch court in Lisa's daydream.

"There were certain lines in the script that had to be incorporated into the puzzles I made, including one really screwy one in the final," Reagle said. "(A character) says, 'I think I'll warm up with a bunch of Q's,' and he just throws a bunch of Q's onto the grid - as if that were remotely real - but I had to put the Q's in there where they threw them."

Reagle's "Simpsons" appearance had its roots in the 2006 crossword documentary film "Wordplay," in which Reagle and Shortz both got extensive screen time. The film resulted in a burst of celebrity for Reagle, including an appearance on Oprah, and ultimately, Sunday's "Simpsons" episode.

"Tim Long, who wrote the episode, called and said, 'We're doing an episode (on crosswords), and we'd like to have you do the puzzles for it,'" Reagle explained. "It was actually (Simpsons producer) James L. Brooks who had the idea, based on 'Wordplay,' because 'Wordplay' involves a bunch of people going to a crossword tournament, so he thought that maybe the episode should be Lisa going to a tournament."

Although Reagle will have achieved what is arguably one of the greatest achievements in modern popular culture Sunday, his career path was not always clear.

"I walked into the Daily Wildcat during my first year at the UA (in 1968) and applied for a job as a copy editor," Reagle remembers. "The Wildcat published many of my puzzles, but always under a made-up name.

"I always (created) puzzles when I should have been doing real work. I was an English major, and I thought maybe I wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to make puzzles for a living, though. … I remember thinking, 'Who wants to be 58 years old and look back and say, 'I made crossword puzzles my whole life.'"

After leaving the UA in 1972, Reagle worked as a copy editor for the Arizona Daily Star and helped with the original Invisible Theater troupe in Tucson. He moved to California in 1976, where he supported himself with jobs ranging from a film inspector to a movie theater employee. In 1979, he decided it was time to try his hand at crossword constructing full-time.

"I always felt that it's what he was meant to do," said Scott Carter, Reagle's friend since their days together at the Daily Wildcat. "It's what he liked to do and Merle was never someone with very expensive tastes, so if crossword puzzles were only going to pay at a certain level, then I remember thinking at one point, 'That's all you need. Why don't you just try this and see where it goes?'"

Where it went was early syndication of Reagle's strips in a number of newspapers, leading to his first big break as the regular weekly constructor for the San Francisco Examiner. The arrangement allowed Reagle to retain ownership of his puzzles, and he began offering them to other newspapers across the nation.

Today, Reagle's weekly puzzle appears in 60 newspapers nationwide.

Reagle's animated experience this Sunday has also spilled over into real life, where his regular syndicated puzzle this week featured a "Simpsons" theme.

"I've been waiting to do this one clue for like a year, hoping that no one else would do it… 'Homer's Imp Son,' for Bart - which is Homer Simpson, just broken up differently. … We have small dreams in the crossword world."

Sunday's New York Times puzzle, however, has much more subtle connections.

"You can't tell just by looking at the puzzle," Reagle said. "If you open your Sunday New York Times Magazine and you turn to the puzzle at the back … if you solve it, there seems not to be any connection at all, not even a mention of "The Simpsons." But if you watch the show, everyone's going to be like, 'Really? That's in there?' And then you'll see the hidden stuff I got in there. It's supposed to be as if it exists in the real world for the purposes of the episode."

Meanwhile, Reagle, Carter and countless puzzle fans across the nation wait in anticipation for Sunday night.

"I saw the early pencil (version) of the show, but they just added titles this week. … They can change it right up to the last minute," Reagle said. "In a lot of ways, I'll be seeing it for the first time right along with everyone else."



Reagle's most recent syndicated crossword can be found online at http://media.lawrence.com/img/deadwood/crosswords/2008/11/puzzle081111.pdf. "The Simpsons" airs locally at 7 p.m. Sunday on KMSB-TV channel 11.
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