Ollie Johnston, the last surviving member of Disney’s legendary ‘Nine Old Men’ of animation, has passed away at the age of 96. The animator leaves behind a remarkable body of work going back to the 1935 short Mickey’s Garden, on which he served as an in-between artist. In addition to his artistic acumen and ability to create multi-dimensional characters in 2D, he will be remembered for his lifelong friendship fellow Disney animator Frank Thomas. The two met in school at Stanford and remained virtually inseparable until Thomas’ death in 2004.
Thomas once said of his friend, ‘Ollie was the only one of the Studio animators who was sensitive to character relationships and how they affected story. 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.’ And he was right. His warmth made a difference in so many of our characters.’ Memorable relationships animated by Johnston include Baloo and Mowgli (The Jungle Book) Thumper and Bambi and Lady and the Tramp.
Johnston began his career at Disney as an apprentice animator on such Mouse House shorts as Mickey’s Rival, More Kittens and the Academy Award-winning The Tortoise and the Hare. He went on to work as animator and directing animator on more than 24 feature films including such time-honored classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Song of the South, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty.
Even after his retirement in 1978, Johnston remained involved with the studio, lending his talents as supervising animator on 1981’s The Fox and the Hound. He also co-authored four books with Thomas, including Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny For Words,Walt Disney’s Bambi: The Story and the Film and The Disney Villain. The pair was the subject of a 1995 documentary titled Frank and Ollie, and thier wisdom on art and animation is still being shared onliine at www.frankandollie.com.
Johnston’s contributions to the art form didn’t stop at animating. He was caricatured as ‘Rufus the Cat’ in 1977’s The Rescuers, and Oscar-winning director Brad Bird convinced him to lend his voice to characters in his 1999 Warner Bros. feature The Iron Giant and the 2004 Disney/Pixar blockbuster The Incredibles. Johnston had two sons with wife Marie, who passed away in 2005.