Toon pioneers gave life to Disney icons

Even those who know nothing about animators have likely heard of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the legendary group of artists who pioneered the art of character animation in the 1930s and kept it going through the 1970s. Given that respect, if not reverence, for the Nine, it is ironic that the designation originally began as a joke.

Sometime in the early 1940s, Walt Disney applied Franklin Roosevelt’s description of his hostile Supreme Court — “Nine old men, all too aged to recognize a new idea” — and applied it to the nine men who then made up the studio’s elite Animation Board: Les Clark, Wolfgang Reithermann, Eric Larsen, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsberry and Marc Davis.

“Walt said, ‘I’m like Roosevelt, you guys haven’t had a new idea in 20 years!’ ” recalls Thomas, who along with Johnston is a surviving member of the Nine. “And we said, ‘But Walt, we’re barely 20 years old!’ “

The “Nine Old Men” moniker went public in the mid-1950s when a book about the studio publicized the name.

“(Walt) did not communicate to us as the ‘Nine Old Men’ all the time,” says Johnston, “but around 1955 he asked for a photo of all us guys sitting up on a bleacher in a theater, and that’s how the thing got started.”

Whether numbered or not, the Nine were recognized as the studio’s finest animators, artists who could not only make characters move beautifully, but also make them live, breathe and think.

“When people list their favorite Disney moments, such as Mickey commanding the broomstick in ‘Fantasia,’ or the spaghetti eating sequence in ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ or the dwarfs crying in ‘Snow White,’ invariably they were created by the Nine Old Men,” says John Canemaker, author of the book “Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation.”

Talent aside, the singling out of those particular nine artists did cause some in-studio jealousies.

“There were guys who wondered about (not being included),” says Johnston, “and they wondered about it the rest of their lives.”

By the 1970s, many of the Nine had moved on to television or theme-park work. Thomas and Johnston remained directing animators until their retirement in 1978, after which they wrote a series of books on the art of animation.

Currently the senior citizens enjoy status as the elder statesmen of Disney animation, and their lifelong close friendship.

“We argue back and forth about who’s going to outlast who,” laughs Thomas.

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