Jay Ward was married to Ramona "Billie" Ward. He had three children: Ron, Carey, and Tiffany.
Jay Ward was born and raised in Berkeley, California, and earned an undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkeley. He also received an MBA from Harvard University. His first chosen career was real estate. Even when his animation company was at the height of its success, he continued to own his own real estate firm as a "fallback" business.
Ward moved into the infant medium of television with the help of his childhood friend, animator Alex Anderson. Anderson was the nephew of Terrytoons founder Paul Terry, and had unsuccessfully tried to sell Terry a concept for a cartoon series made specifically for the new medium. Together, Ward and Anderson took the character, Crusader Rabbit, to NBC and pioneering TV-program distributor Jerry Fairbanks. They put together a pilot film, The Comic Strips of Television, featuring Crusader; a parody of Sherlock Holmes named "Hamhock Bones"; and a bumbling Mountie named Dudley Do-Right.
NBC and Fairbanks were unimpressed with all but Crusader Rabbit (though Dudley would make his appearance, finally, 10 years later). Crusader Rabbit premiered in 1949 and ended its initial run in 1952. Adopting a serialized, mock-melodrama format, the series followed the adventures of Crusader and his dimwitted sidekick Rags the tiger. It was, in form and content, much like the series that would later gain Ward fame, Rocky and His Friends.
Ward and Anderson, through a series of legal maneuvers against them, lost the rights to the character, and a new color Crusader series under a different producer premiered in 1956. An unsold series idea from his Crusader Rabbit days would eventually earn Ward a permanent place in animation history. Taking place in a TV studio in the North Woods, the series featured a cast of eccentrics such as newsman Oski Bear and two minor characters named Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle, described in the script treatment as a "French-Canadian moose." This was the genesis of what would become Rocky and His Friends and later, The Bullwinkle Show, when NBC gave Rocky's sidekick top billing.
Premiering on ABC in 1959 (and moving to NBC two years later) the series reached a level of sophistication in its humor rarely seen in cartoons before. Thanks to Ward's genial partner Bill Scott (who contributed to the scripts and voiced Bullwinkle and other characters) and a corps of top comedy writers, puns reached new heights (or depths) of shamelessness: in a "Fractured Fairy Tales" featuring Little Jack Horner, upon pulling out the plum, Jack announced, "Lord, what foods these morsels be!" Self-referential humor was another trademark: in one episode, the breathless announcer (played by William Conrad) gave away the villain's plans, prompting the villain to grab the announcer from offscreen, bind and gag him, and deposit him visibly within the scene. It skewered popular culture mercilessly, taking on such subjects as advertising, college sports, the Cold War, and television itself. The hapless duo from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota blundered into unlikely adventures much as Crusader and Rags had before them, pursued by "no-goodnik" spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, perennially under orders to "keel moose and squirrel." The segments were serialized, generally ending with a cliffhanging peril; the announcer would urge the viewer to "tune in next time" for the next adventure, featuring two dreadful puns in the titles, like "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Gory, or Moose's in the Cold, Cold Ground" and "When a Felon Needs a Friend, or Pantomime Quisling," or "Portrait of a Moose, or Bullwinkle Gets Framed."
In a running joke tribute to Jay Ward, many of his cartoon characters had the middle initial "J.", presumably standing for "Jay" (although this was never stated explicitly). One contributor to this entry wrote to Jay Ward in 1961 and asked him what the J stood for in Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose. Ward wrote back that the J stood for George. The cartoonist, Matt Groening, later gave the middle initial "J." to many of his characters as a tribute to Jay Ward.
Ward fought many heated battles over content with the network and sponsor, but had little fear of censorship or lawsuits. In fact, he begged organizations to sue him, quipping, "We need the publicity."
An eccentric and proud of it, Ward was known for pulling an unusual publicity stunt that happened to coincide with a major national crisis. Jay Ward bought an island in the area near his home and dubbed it "Moosylvania," based upon the home of his most famous TV character Bullwinkle. He and publicist Howard Brandy crossed the country in a circus wagon, gathering signatures on a petition for statehood for Moosylvania. They then visited Washington, D.C. and attempted to gain an audience with President John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, they arrived at the White House just at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and were escorted off the grounds at gunpoint.
Early in his career, Ward was involved in two nearly-fatal incidents. He was run over by a car just outside his office, and later received incorrect medical treatment while hyperventilating on an airplane. He subsequently developed agoraphobia. Ironically, friends and family believe his elaborate pranks and costumes were his way of dealing with his fears.
Jay Ward died of kidney cancer in Hollywood, California in 1989. He was buried in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Jay Ward Productions (now managed by members of his family) is still located across the street from the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip. Until it closed in July of 2004, the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, which sold souvenirs based on his many characters and was largely staffed by Ward and his family, was on Sunset Boulevard also.
In 2002, Jay Ward Productions established a partnership with Classic Media called Bullwinkle Studios; the partnership produced DVDs of the first three seasons of Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends in 2003, 2004 and 2005 respectively, and then switched to releasing "best of" DVD collections of segments from the series.