Kendall O’Connor, a legendary Disney layout artist and art director who helped to pioneer the art of animation with his contributions to 13 animated features and nearly 100 shorts, died May 27 of natural causes at his home in Burbank. He was 90.
Regarded as one of animation’s top creative talents, O’Connor was born in Perth, Western Australia, and studied fine art and photography before launching his career as a newspaper reporter/artist at age 16.
He arrived in the U.S. in 1930 and joined the Disney Studios five years later as a layout artist and went on to break new ground for the art form.
His dramatic staging of the evil witch’s demise atop the precipice in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and stylized work on the “Dance of the Hours” segment for “Fantasia” were among the highlights of his early career at Disney.
He went on to design such memorable Disney icons as the coach for “Cinderella,” the marching cards for “Alice in Wonderland” and Skull Rock for “Peter Pan.”
During World War II, O’Connor worked at the Disney studio on a variety of training pics and teamed up with Frank Capra on films for the Army Motion Picture Dept. His contribution to the military effort included a post-war film describing the Marshall Plan for Demobilization.
During the 1950s, O’Connor served as art director on Disney’s trio of landmark “space factuals” for TV — “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond.”
Those imaginative efforts are credited with sparking the public interest in space exploration and leading to an acceleration of the government’s space program. O’Connor also lent his talents to the educational short “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom,” which went on to win an Oscar in 1953.
O’Connor officially retired from Disney in 1974, but continued to work with the company on a variety of projects including the “World of Motion” and “Universe of Energy” attractions for Epcot Center.
Additionally, he taught at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he helped to influence future filmmakers.
Among his professional accomplishments, O’Connor received an Annie Award, a Golden Award from the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists in 1985 and a Disney Legends Award in 1992 for his numerous contributions to the studio.
O’Connor is survived by his wife of 54 years, Mary Alice; his son, John A. O’Connor, who is also a filmmaker, his daughter, Joan-Patricia O’Connor;three grandchildren; a brother and sister; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews.
The family has established the Ken O’Connor Animation Scholarship Fund.
Donations to The Ken O’Connor Animation Scholarship Fund can be sent to P.O. Box 3535, Burbank, CA 91508. For more information, call (213) 849-1728.