Frank Thomas, one of the giants of the animation industry, passed away last night. He went peacefully and surrounded by family according to our sources. One of the last surviving members of Disney’s famous Nine Old Men, Thomas celebrated his 92th birthday on Sunday with family and friends.
Thomas joined Disney in 1934 as an assistant animator and worked on many of the studio’s early shorts, including Mickey’s Circus and Little Hiawatha. Later, he worked on Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and went on to work on 18 other features, all the way through The Fox and the Hound.
Thomas’ remarkable animation included such indelible moments as the first date and spaghetti dinner in Lady and the Tramp, Thumper teaching Bambi how to ice-skate, Baloo the bear telling the man-cub Mowgli that he can’t stay in the jungle in The Jungle Book, Pinocchio trapped in the birdcage by the evil puppeteer Stromboli, the lovesick squirrel whose heart is broken in Sword in the Stone, Captain Hook playing the piano in Peter Pan, the dancing penguins in Mary Poppins, among others. He also animated several of Mickey Mouse’s most impressive scenes in such films as The Pointer and Brave Little Tailor.
After retiring from Disney in 1978, he continued to work prolifically as an author, often in partnership with his longtime friend and last surviving member of the Nine Old Men, Ollie Johnston. Among his books are the widely respected animation classic, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, which is often credited for putting a human face on the studio’s legacy and for shedding light on the creative process behind the beloved classics. He was also the author of Too Funny for Words, The Disney Villain and Bambi: The Story and the Film.
Thomas and Johnston were also the subjects of the acclaimed 1995 documentary, Frank and Ollie, by Frank’s son, Ted Thomas. You can also learn about their invaluable contributions to the world of animation in John Canemaker’s book, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation or simply visit Frank and Ollie’s website at www.frankandollie.com
"It is certainly possible to make strong pictures without much character development, and there are many exciting visual effects that are dazzling and unforgettable," Thomas wrote in a 1976 letter to animation historian Canemaker. "I just feel that they are more dazzling if they are happening to me instead of merely in front of me, and this can only be accomplished if I feel that I am living through this film with the cast of characters. As long as I just sit and watch, I am not involved, and I know of no other way to become involved than through identifying with the characters."
Thomas certainly made us all feel and identify with all his characters. As animator Andreas Deja once noted, "The most important lesson you can learn from Frank and Ollie is how much they loved their work and how involved they were every day. They were able to create characters that were so natural and so genuine that they found a life of their own. They were living and breathing, and you forgot that they were drawings."
Leonard Maltin, animation historian, film critic, and author, observed, "Frank helped to invent animation as an art form and took it to incredible new heights through his work at Disney over four and a half decades. He and his lifelong friend and colleague, Ollie Johnston, had a remarkable gift for explaining and articulating how they did what they did. That’s a rare quality in an artist. Even in his nineties, Frank retained a youthful spirit and indomitable sense of humor."
Thomas is survived by his wife of 58 years, Jeanette; son Theodore and his wife, Kuniko Okubo; son Doug, and his life partner, Dan Poirer; son Gregg and his children, Ukiah and Micah; and daughter, Ann Ayers, her husband, Andy Ayers, and their son, Marshall. No funeral is planned but details regarding a life celebration will be announced shortly. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made in Frank’s name to the Character Animation Program at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in Santa Clarita, California.
We all mourn the loss of this brilliant man and amazing talent and send our condolences to his family and friends, especially Ollie Johnston. You can also share your thoughts on the life and legacy of Frank Thomas here with the rest of the global animation community on our website: