Animator Walter Lantz, who created the conniving Woody Woodpecker cartoon character after a woodpecker disrupted his honeymoon in the 1940s, died Tuesday. He was 93.
Lantz died at 10:15 a.m. at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, said Alicia Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
He was admitted to the hospital March 14. Gonzalez declined to give the cause of death, saying family members had not approved its release.
Lantz was given an honorary Oscar in 1978 “for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world through his unique animated motion pictures.”
“Some men never do learn what they want to do. I knew at 12. I wanted to be an artist,” he once said.
Lantz’s cartoon stable also included Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, Smedley, Sugarfoot, Charley Beary and Oswald Rabbit. In 1930, he made animation history by producing the first Technicolor cartoon — the five-minute opening sequence of “The King of Jazz.”
His wife, Gracie, who helped create Woody Woodpecker and gave the bird its “heh-heh-heh-HEHHHH-heh” laugh, died in March 1992 at age 88.
Woody was inspired by a woodpecker that disturbed the Lantzes’ honeymoon at California’s June Lake in the early 1940s. Gracie Lantz suggested her husband create an animated character based on the bird.
The late Mel Blanc was among a flock of actors who became the bird’s voice over the years. But Lantz was forced to hunt for another Woody voice when Blanc signed an exclusive contract to do the voices of Bugs Bunny and other Warner Bros. characters.
A familiar voice
Lantz’s wife provided the voice for about 200 cartoons during the next quarter century.
Lantz was born April 27, 1900, in New Rochelle, N.Y. He trained with the Art Students League in New York City and got a job at age 16 with William Randolph Hearst’s New York American.
There, he met animation pioneer Winsor McCay, who offered him a job. By age 19, Lantz had worked on “The Katzenjammer Kids,””Mutt and Jeff,””Bringing Up Father” and other cartoons based on comic strips.
He worked briefly as a gag writer for the Mack Sennett studio, famous for its Keystone Kops serials. In 1928, Lantz met Universal chief Carl Laemmle, who hired him to produce “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons.
Universal’s first major musical, “The King of Jazz,” featured the first use of Technicolor’s two-color process for a cartoon. It also marked the film debut of Bing Crosby.
Lantz created Andy Panda in 1939, and in 1941 he married stage actress Grace Stafford. Woody Woodpecker made his first walk-on appearance in the Andy Panda cartoon “Knock Knock,” and quickly became a star in his own right.
Universal closed its animated cartoon department in 1938 but continued to distribute Lantz’s cartoons. Walter Lantz Prods. Inc. went on to make more than 600 animated cartoons for theaters and television.
Lantz stopped production in 1975 but remained active in animation and related fields.
Animator Isadore (Friz) Freleng, 88, who brought to life such cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Pink Panther, said he would miss Lantz. “I thought he would hit the 100 mark, and I think he did, too.”