A Tribute To Disney Legend Ollie Johnston

The Last Of Disney's 'Nine Old Men,' Ollie Johnston, died on April 14th, leaving behind him a legacy of the most beloved animated creations in cinema history.
"Ollie Johnston...carried the torch of Disney animation and passed it on to another generation. May his torch continue to be passed on for generations to come." -- Glen Keane, director of Disney's Rapunzel

Monday, April 14th, officially closed the book on the Golden Age of Animation when the legendary Ollie Johnston passed away at the age of 95. According to Walt Disney Studios vice-president Howard Green, Johnston died of natural causes at a long term care facility in Sequim, Washington. He was the final surviving member of the Disney Studios "Nine Old Men," and was, in the words of Oscar-winning director John Canemaker, "one of the greatest animators who ever lived."

"Nine Old Men" was Walt Disney's own jocular name for the key force of (relatively young) animators behind the studio's most famous works between 1934 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and 1978 (The Rescuers).

Oliver Martin Johnston Jr. was born on October 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, California, and attended Stanford University. He joined the staff of the Stanford Chaparral humor magazine, where he met Frank Thomas, the future "Old Man" with whom he would be most closely associated.

After additional schooling, Johnston joined the Disney Studios on January 21, 1935, first working on shorts such as Mickey's Garden and The Tortoise and the Hare before turning to features with Snow White. He cemented his connection to the Mouse House in 1943, when he married ink & paint artist Marie Worthey, with whom he spent the next 62 years.

He went on to work as animator and directing animator on more than 24 feature films, including Fantasia, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, and 101 Dalmations. He created the personalities of such classic characters as Pinocchio, Thumper (Bambi), Mowgli and Baloo (The Jungle Book), Brer Rabbit (Song of the South), Mr. Smee (Peter Pan), Prince John and Sir Hiss (Robin Hood), and Orville the albatross in The Rescuers, the film in which he was affectionately caricatured as Rufus the cat.

"Ollie was the only one of the Studio animators who was sensitive to character relationships and how they affected story," Thomas once recalled. "Back then cartoon characters seldom touched unless they hit each other. But one day Ollie said, 'You know, the act of two people holding hands communicates in a powerful way.'"

Roy E. Disney, director emeritus of The Walt Disney Company, said, "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."

Johnston's creativity extended beyond the drawing board. His lifelong love of trains led to the building of a scaled backyard railroad, which helped stir Walt Disney's own interest in trains and, eventually, the construction of Disneyland's famed locomotive. And he co-authored four books with Thomas, beginning with the seminal animation reference book, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, which is used as an animation textbook in schools around the globe. They followed that with Too Funny for Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags, Walt Disney's Bambi: The Sketchbook Series and The Disney Villain.

"Ollie was a great teacher and mentor to all of us," said longtime friend John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. "His door at the studio was always open to young animators, and 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."

Johnston retired in 1978 after 43 years with the Studio. He was named a Disney Legend in 1989.

His friendship and partnership with Thomas was chronicled warmly in the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie, directed by Frank's son, Theodore Thomas. Also in '95, Disney artists paid homage to their venerable forebearers in the Mickey Mouse featurette Runaway Brain, by creating the villain "Doctor Frankenollie." There were additional cameo tributes in The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

Thomas died in September 2004, and Johnston's beloved Marie followed in May 2005. That same year, he received the National Medal of Arts.

"His work speaks for itself and he was truly a pioneer and giant in the animation world," wrote Cinema Blend's ED PERKIS. "While the death of a 95 year-old man is obviously not unexpected, it is saddening and a good time to watch the countless movies he was a part of over his long career. You have many of them in your DVD collection already, no doubt."

[Thanks to "Disney Legends" at Disney.com.]
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