Get to Know Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men"
Franklin D. Roosevelt called his Supreme Court Justices his “Nine Old Men,” wondering if the older court was out of touch with the times. Walt Disney lovingly borrowed the term to refer to some of his animators, but they were anything but out of touch. Disney’s Nine Old Men were at the forefront of the industry, developing new techniques and innovations with every film they worked on.
You may not know them by name, but the collective works of these animators probably defined your childhood—and your parents’ childhoods. Meet Disney’s Nine Old Men:
1. LES CLARK
There’s no doubt that Les Clark’s talent landed him a job at Disney Studios, but his courage played a pretty big role as well. As a high school student, Clark worked at a lunch counter where Walt and Roy Disney frequently dined. While he was waiting on them one day, Clark asked Walt for a job; Disney was surprisingly game, asking to see some of his work. “So, I copied some cartoons and showed them to Walt. He said I had a good line, and why don’t I come to work on Monday,” Clark recalled. Clark graduated that Thursday, then went to work for Walt Disney four days later. He helped animator Ub Iwerks on the first Mickey Mouse shorts, Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie.
Characters he worked on: Pinocchio, Snow White’s dwarfs, Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Alice, Peter Pan, Sorcerer Mickey, Cinderella.
You also know him for: The scene in The Skeleton Dance where one skeleton plays another skeleton’s ribs like a xylophone (starts around 3:45):
2. MARC DAVIS
In 1935, Marc Davis was looking for a job as a newspaper cartoonist when he happened to notice that Disney Studios was hiring. Though he had no background in animation, Disney was impressed with his sketches of animal anatomy and movement and hired Davis as an apprentice animator for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Characters he worked on: Snow White, Bambi, Tinker Bell, Princess Aurora, Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Mr. Toad, Brer Rabbit from Song of the South
You also know him for: Animatronic character design from the parks. Davis’ many ride contributions include the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Country Bear Jamboree.
3. OLLIE JOHNSTON
Joining Marc Davis as a Disney Studios newbie in 1935 was Ollie Johnston, who was also hired as an apprentice animator. One of his earliest projects was a Silly Symphonies short called The Tortoise and the Hare, which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject.
Characters he worked on: Sir Hiss and Prince John from Robin Hood, Mr. Smee from Peter Pan, the three good fairies from Sleeping Beauty, Thumper from Bambi.
You also know him for: Getting Walt Disney interested in trains. Disney was well known as a backyard train hobbyist, and he caught the bug thanks to Johnston. Johnston had just begun work on his own backyard steam engine in 1946 when Walt caught wind of the project and asked to see it; several months later, he started building his own.
4. MILT KAHL
Like Marc Davis, Milt Kahl had hoped to find work as a cartoonist. He dropped out of high school to work at the Oakland Post-Enquirer and the San Francisco Bulletin, but after Kahl saw Disney’s Three Little Pigs short at a local movie theater, he decided to try his hand at animation. He was hired at Disney in 1934 as an assistant animator for shorts like Lonesome Ghosts and The Ugly Duckling.
Characters he worked on: Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, the hounds and fox in Mary Poppins, Pongo and Perdita in 101 Dalmatians, Ludwig von Drake, most of the characters in The Jungle Book and Robin Hood, Madame Medusa from The Rescuers.
You also know him for: You’re probably also pretty familiar with the work of Kahl’s protégé, Brad Bird. Bird (who has won Oscars for The Incredibles and Ratatouille) was just 13 years old when he sent his first animated film to Disney for review—it was a remake of The Tortoise and the Hare, with the race culminating in a five-way tie. Bird’s parents advised him to send the film to the biggest name he could find, and that happened to be Milt Kahl. Impressed, Kahl mentored Bird from then on.
5. WARD KIMBALL
Ward Kimball may have been at the same matinee Milt Kahl attended, because he was also inspired to switch from magazine illustration to animation after seeing Disney’s Three Little Pigs short. After graduating from the Santa Barbara School of Art, he found a job with Disney Studios in 1934 and worked on most of their animated films until his retirement in 1972.
Characters he worked on: Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, Jiminy Cricket, the Three Caballeros. He also helped write the story and script for Babes in Toyland.
You also know him for: Kimball was famous for his sense of humor—for example, he gave himself extra fingers during his Disney Legend handprint ceremony. He also got a kick out of perpetuating the rumor that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen: “I always tell people that if anyone was going to be cryogenically frozen, doesn’t it seem like something Walt would be interested in? Knowing Walt, he was always interested in experiments, always interested in science. He was always interested in the 'new' thing. He was that type of personality. Was he frozen? I wouldn’t put it past him and that’s my answer. I like to keep it floating out there."
CBS Radio via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Kimball also had a second career as the trombonist in a Dixieland jazz band called The Firehouse Five Plus Two, which included several other Disney Studios employees. They recorded 13 albums and occasionally performed with big names such as Bing Crosby and Teresa Brewer.
6. WOLFGANG REITHERMAN
Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman had been intent on a career as an aircraft engineer when he suddenly became enthralled with watercolors. He switched from Pasadena Junior College to the Chouinard Art Institute in L.A., and met an instructor who also happened to teach classes at the Walt Disney Studio. Reitherman got a job there in 1933.
Characters he worked on: The crocodile in Peter Pan, the dinosaurs in Fantasia, the Headless Horseman, the Magic Mirror in Snow White, the whale chase scene in Pinocchio.
You also know him for: Reitherman earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for serving in the Air Force during WWII, flying missions in India, China, Africa, and the South Pacific.
7. FRANK THOMAS
When Frank Thomas was just nine years old, he asked his father how he could make money drawing pictures. Whether he was career-oriented at a young age, or just strangely prophetic, Thomas graduated from Stanford and then went on to study at Chouinard. A fellow student told Thomas that Disney was hiring, and on September 24, 1934, he started work on a short called Mickey’s Elephant.
Characters he worked on: Cinderella’s stepmother, scenes in Brave Little Tailor, the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp, King Louie from The Jungle Book, the dancing penguins in Mary Poppins, and Captain Hook.
You also know him for: Co-authoring, along with Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, which is widely regarded as “the bible” for character animators. You can see cameos by Thomas and Johnston in Bird’s movie The Incredibles:
8. ERIC LARSON
Eric Larson attended the University of Utah for journalism, and as he became more involved in the campus magazine, he found himself interested in sketching as well. After freelancing for a year post-graduation, Larson decided to send some of his sketches to Disney on the advice of a friend. When he retired in 1986, he had one of the longest tenures in the company's history under his belt—52 years.
Characters he worked on: Lady, Tramp, Wart and Merlin from The Sword in the Stone, Roquefort and Scat Cat from The Aristocats, Pegasus and Centaurs from Fantasia, Kanga and Roo from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
You also know him for: His recruitment training program. His Disney recruits include John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Don Bluth, Tim Burton, Glen Keane, Henry Selick, Andreas Deja, and Ron Clements, among many, many others.
9. JOHN LOUNSBERY
John Lounsbery’s story is a lot like his fellow Old Men: he graduated from an art institute (Denver) and then headed to L.A. to seek work. While he was attending some illustration courses at the Art Center School of Design, an instructor there thought he would be well-suited to Disney and pointed him toward the hiring studio. Lounsbery joined in 1935, specializing in Pluto shorts.
Characters he worked on: Willie the Giant, Jasper and Horace from 101 Dalmatians, the hippos and the alligator from Fantasia, Dumbo and Timothy Mouse from Dumbo, the flowers from Alice in Wonderland, King Leonidas and the soccer players from Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
You also know him for: You probably don’t. Lounsbery was the quietest of the Old Men and kept a very low profile. “I wasn’t very articulate in story meetings,” he once said. “Walt and I had an agreement: He judged me on what I produced and didn’t expect me to be a talker.”