Thaves' desire to become a cartoonist began in his childhood. He had no formal training; instead, he practised by studying and drawing the works of other cartoonists. He was so skilled he could identify the cartoonist of a comic strip without looking at the signature.
Robert Lee Thaves was born on October 5, 1924, in Burt, Iowa, where his father, John, published local newspapers. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he received both a bachelor and masters degree in psychology. While still at university, the first of his cartoons were printed in magazines. He continued to be interested in cartooning, and developed the Frank and Ernest strip while working as an industrial psychologist.
Frank and Ernest began appearing in magazines as early as the 1960s. It was first nationally syndicated November 6, 1972 and was eventually carried in 1,300 papers. It was the first single panel strip to appear in the "panel" format, and the first to use block letters for its dialogue.
He also drew the short-lived King Baloo strip, which ran during the 1980s. Its format was identical to Frank and Ernest, but featured the titular King.
His son Tom began collaborating with him on Frank and Ernest in 1997. The elder Thaves had planned on transitioning his son to take over the strip before his death. Bob Thaves died of respiratory failure in Torrance, California at the age of 81.
In a 1982 Frank and Ernest comic strip Thaves wrote about Fred Astaire: "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels." The official Ginger Rogers website credits Thaves and uses his original line. Often the quote is incorrectly attributed to Faith Whittlesey. Sometimes the quote is attributed to Ann Richards, who popularized the line in her 1988 Democratic National Convention speech, paraphrasing it as: "But if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels," though Richards credited television journalist Linda Ellerbee for giving her the line. Ellerbee said she heard the line from a fellow passenger on an airplane.
He won several awards for Frank and Ernest including the National Cartoonist Society Newspaper Panel Cartoon Award for 1983, 1984 and 1986. He won the H.L. Mencken Award for the best cartoon in 1985 and he was selected as "Punster of the Year" in 1990.
The August 14, 2006 edition of the comic strip Candorville, the August 29, 2006 edition of the comic strip Arlo & Janis, and the September 10, 2006 edition of the comic strip Prickly City paid tribute to Thaves.
- "List of Websites That Have Attributed Thaves' Line to Whittlesey". Google. Retrieved 2009-07-25.
- "Ann Richards: Democratic National Convention Keynote Address". American Rhetoric. Retrieved 2009-07-25.
- Keyes, Ralph (2006) The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 77 ISBN 0-312-34004-4