Tina Price writes to tell me that Ollie Johnston has passed away at the age of 95, the last of Disney's "nine old men". This is truly the end of an era and although I can't claim to have known Ollie Johnston well personally, I did get to meet him and Frank Thomas a number of times and chat with them both a bit. He was always affable approachable and modest, willing to let Frank do more of the talking, but when it came to putting pencil to paper, his work spoke volumes more.
Growing up before the age of the internet it was very hard to learn about which animators did what at any studio but by the time I was a teen-ager I knew who Fred Moore, Bill Tytla and Ward Kimball were. I idolized Kimball for his uniquely imaginative comic animation and later I learned to be in awe of the mighty Milt Kahl (who alas I never met in person). I had read John Canemaker profiles of Frank Thomas, sat with Eric Larson as a fledgling student in the late 1970's and even got to be great good friends with Joe Grant. But when I actually began to hit my stride as an animator it was Ollie I most identified with as a kind of role model. His rendering of the bumbling 'Mr. Smee' in PETER PAN has always been a keystone for me and remains the patron saint of all animated sidekicks in my opinion.
Having access to view Ollie's artwork in the Disney archives was a particular treat and the more I learned about him the more I admired and tried to emulate him. When I drew 'Cogsworth' in BEAUTY & THE BEAST I had 'Smee' and Ollie's 'King of Hearts' (from ALICE) in mind. Mind you, I made a point not to copy them, but to draw inspiration from Ollie's command of straightforward animation mastery. His work is deceptively simple in a way, rarely flashy or stylized, but always brilliantly executed and perfectly balanced for the task. Of all the 'nine', Ollie showed the most protean versatility: he could animate side by side with Frank Thomas (the sultan of subtlety) and even go toe-to-toe with Milt Kahl without missing a beat. Watching Ollies work in SONG OF THE SOUTH and 'Johnny Appleseed' are cases in point: it is virtually impossible to tell where Milt leaves off and Ollie begins, a feat few others could match.
Ollie did good guys: 'Dopey', 'Pinocchio', 'Lady' 'Baloo'; bad guys: 'Smee', 'Prince John' & 'Sir Hiss''; gals: 'Shanti' (the girl in JUNGLE BOOK), 'Perdita', the CINDERELLA stepsisters; and he was also a master of pantomime: his animation of the Harpo-esque lackey in CINDERELLA is the highlight of the movie for me. Scenes like 'Merlin' struggling with a bucket at the well or 'Baloo' being overcome by 'the beat' ("You'd better believe it and I'm loaded with BOTH") are wonderful examples of Ollie's ability to enrich the screen with genuine entertainment, even in the simplest of scenes.
I think the last time I saw him was about ten years ago at a Disney Collectables event. I asked him if he ever missed the drawing board and he candidly sighed: "No. You do something like that for forty years and you get to the point where you feel like you've said everything you had to say." Lucky for us he said it so well for so long.