Robert Grossman, Illustrator With a Brash Touch, Dies at 78

Robert Grossman, a prolific and outlandish illustrator who made President Richard M. Nixon into Pinocchio, put President George W. Bush in a dunce cap and tied a jet in a knot for the “Airplane!” movie poster, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.

His son Alex Emanuel Grossman said he was found dead on Friday morning but is believed to have died of heart failure the night before.

On magazine covers and in newspaper pages, Mr. Grossman chronicled and caricatured a half-century’s worth of politicians, pop-culture figures and social issues. He had a knack for causing a stir with his colorful images, whether they be one-shot covers for magazines like Rolling Stone and Time or serial comic strips for The New York Observer or New York magazine.

Although he created plenty of nonpolitical work — like portraits of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and other musicians for Rolling Stone — his most memorable efforts often involved skewering politicians.

A 1972 gatefold cover for National Lampoon depicted Nixon with a very long nose, one that seemed to run off the page; when the foldout was opened, the rest of the nose appeared, and on the end of it was perched a tiny Henry Kissinger, depicted as Jiminy Cricket.

For a 2006 Rolling Stone cover, he put the second President Bush on a stool in a corner wearing a dunce cap; the headline beside him read, “The Worst President in History?”

Mr. Grossman also drew President Ronald Reagan in Mickey Mouse ears and Bill and Hillary Clinton in a Stone Age serial called “The Klintstones.”

In a 2008 interview with The New York Times, he was asked about the complaint that caricatures of presidents and presidential candidates were undignified.

“Undignified?” he said. “Virtually anything has more dignity than lying and blundering before the whole stupefied world, which seems to be the politician’s eternal role.”

Robert Samuel Grossman was born on March 1, 1940, in Brooklyn. His father, Joseph, owned a silk-screen printing shop, Masta Displays, and his mother, the former Ethel Stern, was a homemaker and the shop’s bookkeeper.

As a child, Robert sometimes attended art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. He graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn and received a bachelor of arts degree at Yale in 1961.

While at Yale he edited the humor magazine The Yale Record, creating a parody issue of The New Yorker and drawing its spot-on cover, which had the magazine’s name as The Yew Norker. Apparently the real New Yorker did not take offense, because his first job out of college was as an assistant to the magazine’s art editor.

Mr. Grossman, though, spent virtually all of his career as a freelance illustrator for hire, and he was hired a lot. He drew more than 500 magazine covers. One of his regular customers was The Times, particularly its Sunday book review section.

Steven Heller, a former art director at The Times and now the co-chairman of the M.F.A. design department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, said Mr. Grossman was one of four artists — along with David Levine, Edward Sorel and Jules Feiffer — who found the 1960s and beyond to be fertile ground. Mr. Grossman, he said, gave his work a distinctive look.

“Grossman kind of redefined the genre of caricature by introducing the airbrush as a tool,” Mr. Heller said. “He gave it a kind of sculptural but at the same time comic form. He gave it shades and gradients that the others didn’t do. And at the same time he also captured likenesses with brilliant precision and great wit.”

Mr. Grossman, whose mentors included Harvey Kurtzman of Mad magazine, found a nice niche in the early 1970s when New York magazine gave him a regular space to fill under its weekly politics column.

“It was Watergate time and there was much talk about bugs and bugging,” he recalled in an interview with The Atlantic in 2012. “I drew some insects named Haldebug and Ehrlichbug serving their master, the terrifying Richard M. Nightcrawler.”

Decades later, during the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign, he would reach back to the very beginning of his career for an inspiration. In the early 1960s he had drawn a black superhero named Captain Melanin.

“It was the civil rights era,” he said. “Suddenly in early 2007 there was Barack Obama, whose extraordinary poise and charisma seemed to be inspiring messianic hopes in a portion of the population. So it wasn’t hard to imagine for him a secret identity with the ability to fly and to lead stranded whales to safety by walking on water.”

He created O-Man, who lived in O-Manland and went up against characters like Milt Rhomboid and Rich Gingnewt. O-Man’s adventures appeared in The New York Observer, then in The Nation, then on a website Mr. Grossman created to continue them.

Mr. Grossman was not about to leave the current goings-on in government unremarked upon. He had of late been posting on his website episodes of a strip called “Twump and Pooty,” whose title characters look suspiciously like President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But for all of his politically oriented drawings, his best-known work might well have been the poster he created for “Airplane!,” a 1980 disaster-movie parody that became a box-office hit. It shows an airplane whose bizarrely flexible front end is tied in a knot.

He also drew the occasional book and album cover and made animated commercials.

Mr. Grossman’s first marriage, to Donna Lundvall in 1964, ended in divorce in 1980. His second marriage, to Vicki Anne Morgan, ended in divorce in 1987. In addition to his son Alex, his survivors include his partner of 24 years, Elaine Louie; another son, Michael Jonathan Grossman Rimbaud; two daughters, Leila Suzanna Grossman and Anna Jane Grossman Pedicone; two brothers, James and David; and five grandchildren.

In a 2008 interview with The Tennessean, Mr. Grossman explained why, of the various jobs that fit under the big tent of journalism, he preferred illustrator.

“Reporters labor under the terrible requirement that what they report must be true,” he said. “Opinion writers need to endure the less stringent demand that what they opine be at least plausible. Nobody ever expects what cartoonists do to be either true or even plausible. That’s why we’re all as happy as larks.”