Pioneer animator Ollie Johnston, the last surviving member of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” died of natural causes in Sequim, Wash. on Monday. He was 95.
Over more than four decades at Disney, Johnston worked on animation and direction of classics including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Song of the South,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Sword in the Stone,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” “Robin Hood,” “The Rescuers,” and “The Fox and the Hound.”
He created memorable sequences such as Thumper’s recitation (in “Bambi”) about “eating greens”, Pinocchio’s nose growing as he lies to the Blue Fairy, and Mowgli and Baloo singing “The Bear Necessities” in “The Jungle Book.” He also worked on giving character to Brer Rabbit, Mr. Smee, the fairies in “Sleeping Beauty,” the centaurettes in “Fantasia,” Prince John and Sir Hiss (“Robin Hood”), Orville the albatross (“The “Rescuers”) and the “101 Dalmatians.”
Roy E. Disney, director emeritus and consultant for The Walt Disney Company, said, “Ollie was part of an amazing generation of artists, one of the real pioneers of our art, one of the major participants in the blossoming of animation into the art form we know today. One of Ollie’s strongest beliefs was that his characters should think first, then act…and they all did. He brought warmth and wit and sly humor and a wonderful gentleness to every character he animated.”
John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and a longtime friend to Johnston, added, “I can’t imagine what animation would be like today without him passing on all of the knowledge and principles that the ‘nine old men’ and Walt Disney developed. He taught me to always be aware of what a character is thinking, and we continue to make sure that every character we create at Pixar and Disney has a thought process and emotion that makes them come alive.”
Born in Palo Alto, Calif., Johnston majored in art at Stanford U. and during his senior year, he came to Los Angeles to study under Pruett Carter at the Chouinard Art Institute. He was approached by Disney during this time and, after only one week of training, he joined the fledgling studio in 1935.
His first assignment was as an in-betweener on the cartoon short “Mickey’s Garden” and the following year, he was promoted to apprentice animator, where he worked on cartoon “Pluto’s Judgement Day” and “Mickey’s Rival.”
His first feature was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” on which he served as assistant animator. He went on to work on “Pinocchio” and nearly every other Disney animated classic from the 1940s through the 1970s.. He was particularly proud of his work as a supervising animator on the 1942 feature “Bambi,” which brought a new level of animal realism to animation.
For his next feature, “Song of the South,” he became a directing animator and served in that capacity on nearly every film that followed. After completing some early animation and character development on “The Fox and the Hound,” he retired in 1978, to devote his time to writing, lecturing and consulting.
An avid railroad enthusiast, Johsnton was also known for his miniature railroad built in his backyard in Flintridge, Calif., as well as the full-size antique locomotive he ran at his former vacation home in Julian, near San Diego.
Johnston received a Disney Legends Award in 1989 and in 2003, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences held a tribute, “Frank and Ollie: Drawn Together,” in Beverly Hills. In 2005, he became the first animator to receive the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.
Johnston and Thomas were caricatured, and provided voices in two of Brad Bird’s feature toons, “The Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles.”
In collaboration with his colleague Frank Thomas, Johnston wrote the books “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life,” “Too Funny for Words,” “Bambi: The Story and the Film” and “The Disney Villain.” Johnston and Thomas were also the title subjects of a the 1995 feature docu “Frank and Ollie,” written and directed by Frank’s son, Theodore (Ted) Thomas.
He is survived by two sons. His wife of 63 years, Marie, died in May 2005.
Donations may be made to CalArts, the World Wildlife Fund or National Resources Defense Council.