Walter Lantz, who emerged from the ranks of animation's early pioneers to build a multimillion-dollar cartoon empire and a respected worldwide reputation with the creation of an irascible woodpecker named Woody, died Tuesday morning. He was 94.
Lantz, who had worked in his office only a week ago, died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank of heart failure, said his attorney, Ed Landry.
In 1979, four years after the last "Woody Woodpecker" cartoon was produced, Lantz was given a special Academy Award "for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world." It was during Lantz's honeymoon with actress Grace (Gracie) Stafford in 1941 at a lakeside cottage that Lantz found the inspiration for his most famous character.
"We kept hearing this knock, knock, knock on the roof," Lantz told The Times in 1992. "And I said to Gracie, 'What the hell is that?' So I went out and looked, and here's this woodpecker drilling holes in the shingles. And we had asbestos shingles, not wood. So, to show you how smart these woodpeckers are, they'd peck a hole in the asbestos shingles and put in an acorn. A worm would develop in the acorn, and a week later the woodpecker would come back, get the acorn and fly away, letting out this noisy scream as he flew away."
Gracie Lantz suggested adapting the bird as a cartoon character, although her husband later admitted he was skeptical of its potential.
"I was doing Oswald Rabbit at the time and we were working mostly with animals. But I figured I'd give it a try," he once said. "So I made a few drawings, took the idea in to the studio and talked it over with some of the boys. Alex Lovy, one of my best artists, worked on it, and Bugs Hardaway developed a story."
The character, Woody Woodpecker, debuted soon after as a supporting character in an Andy Panda short, "Knock Knock." It would become Lantz's most successful creation, spawning a lucrative source of global licensing royalties and making a multimillionaire of its creator.
After the first three Woody cartoons were completed in the early 1940s, Mel Blanc, who had supplied the character's voice, signed an exclusive contract at Warner Bros.
"I shopped around, trying to find the right replacement," Lantz recalled in 1992. "We actually used the writer, Bugs Hardaway, for quite a while--speeding up his voice to a falsetto."
However, it was Blanc's laugh--preserved on a segment of film from Woody's debut--that continued to be heard in most of the cartoons that followed and in a 1948 novelty tune, "The Woody Woodpecker Song." That year, Blanc sued Lantz for more than half a million dollars, claiming that his original laugh had been used in subsequent cartoons without his permission. Although a judge ruled against Blanc, noting that he had failed to copyright his contribution, Lantz paid Blanc in an out of court settlement.
In 1950, Lantz was preparing another series of Woody Woodpecker cartoons at United Artists and needed a new voice. After being turned down by her husband because Woody was a boy, Gracie Lantz taped her own audition and secretly added it to the other recordings.
"When we had the listening session, I didn't want to see the actors who were doing the voices," the artist said. "So they ran some recordings and I picked one--No. 7, I remember--and I said, 'Who's that?' And it was Gracie. She sneaked it in on me. I thought, 'Oh, God, no! What are people going to think if they find out the producer's wife is doing Woody's voice?' "
Gracie Lantz provided Woody's voice and boisterous laugh in hundreds of cartoons until her death in March, 1992, at age 88. She initially declined screen credit for her contribution, thinking children would be disappointed if they found out the voice was supplied by a woman.
In 1958, Walter Lantz spoke of the character's unique personality. "It's hard to think of Woody in terms of paper and pencil," he said. "He's quite real . . . a likable, mischievous little character. Youngsters often write to ask where he lives and what he eats."
Lantz once estimated that each cartoon--consisting of about 5,000 drawings--took nearly four months to complete. Although he was one of the few animation producers to provide his own financing, he said he had no interest in creating the kind of full-length epics Disney was known for.
"I've never had a desire to make features," he once said. "Very few outside of Disney's have ever been successful and his have come to $3 (million) or $4 million apiece. Even with a one-shot deal, if you miss, you can lose everything you've worked for for the last 40 years."
Lantz stopped production of new cartoons in 1975, though the short films continue to be reissued theatrically and broadcast on television worldwide.
"One reason they don't really date is that we use no puns or popular phrases of the time," he once said. "Also, they are made up of two-thirds physical and sight gags and only one-third dialogue. This is a secret of their success in foreign countries too. Often we don't even translate the dialogue."
The son of Italian immigrants, Lantz was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. He had an early interest in art as a child, completing a mail-order drawing course at age 12.
At 15, he traveled to New York City, where he worked for $7 a week as an office boy at a William Randolph Hearst newspaper. After work, Lantz attended classes at an art school.
In 1916, Morrell Goddard, who had created the nation's first color newspaper comic section, offered the aspiring teen-age artist a job in the animation department of Hearst's International Film Service under the supervision of director Gregory LaCava.
"I started out on the camera when I was 16," Lantz recalled in 1982. "Within three years I was an animator on 'The Katzenjammer Kids,' 'Jerry on the Job,' 'Bringing Up Father' and all the cartoons based on popular newspaper strips.
"We didn't know much about animation in those days--everything was loose and rubbery--but my studies at the Art Students' League had given me a good background in drawing the figure in various positions. I also used to project Charlie Chaplin's silent films, trace them frame by frame, then flip the drawings to study his motions."
Despite the challenges of the new medium, Lantz said he and his colleagues were able to meet the growing demand for cartoon entertainment, developing many of the techniques still in use today.
"We didn't have any animation cameras in those days, just Hearst-type newsreel cameras, and that's what we used," he said. "They were like a big wooden box. No motors, just a chain and a crank. We'd put the animation cel down and hold it down with a piece of glass and a lever. We'd press the lever to smooth the cel out so it didn't have any wrinkles, set the exposure, turn the crank and make a picture."
By 1922, Lantz was working as a producer at the John Randolph Bray studio, supervising such characters as Col. Heeza Liar, Pete the Pup and Dinky Doodle in cartoon shorts that occasionally blended animation with live actors--including Lantz.
"I was a terrible actor," he once said. "I had four expressions."
Four years later, Lantz moved to Hollywood, where he was briefly employed with Frank Capra as a gag writer for silent-film director Mack Sennett. In 1928, after a friend's recommendation, Lantz was hired by Universal Film Co. head Carl Laemmle to oversee the studio's animation department. Lantz arrived just as a young cartoonist named Walt Disney was leaving, taking with him his idea for an animated mouse--which Universal had rejected.
Disney had left behind a character named Oswald the Rabbit, which Lantz quickly redesigned and copyrighted. Beginning in 1928, he created the first of nearly 300 cartoon shorts starring the loose-limbed rabbit.
In 1930, he made animation history by producing the first Technicolor cartoon--the five-minute opening sequence of "The King of Jazz."
Lantz spent more than a decade at Universal producing shorts starring Oswald and later, Andy Panda, before he created Woody Woodpecker.
Among his many awards and tributes, Lantz was honored in 1959 by the Los Angeles City Council as "one of America's most outstanding animated film cartoonists." In 1973, the international animation society, ASIFA/Hollywood, presented him with its Annie award.
During the late 1970s, the New York Museum of Modern Art and Filmex in Los Angeles organized retrospectives of his career.
In 1982, Lantz donated 17 artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, among them a wooden model of Woody Woodpecker and a storyboard from the character's 1941 debut. Museum officials credited Lantz with "a truly profound accomplishment" in producing 400 six-minute Woody shorts. On March 5, 1986, at age 86, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1993, Lantz established an annual $10,000 animation prize and a scholarship in his name at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
"I've been in this since I was 16 and I have done very well," he said at the time. "I'd like to do something for somebody else."
Copyright © 1994 Times Mirror Company