It was on this day, April 27, 1899 Walter Benjamin Lantz was born. An American cartoonist, animator, film producer, and director, he was best known for founding Walter Lantz Productions and creating Woody Woodpecker.
Lantz was practically born with a pencil in his hand. Interested in art, he completed a mail order drawing class at age twelve. He studied at the Art Students League and started work as a copy boy at the New York American, owned by William Randolph Hearst. While he worked at the newspaper, he attended art school at night.
By the age of 16, Lantz was working in the animation department under director Gregory La Cava. Lantz then worked at the John R. Bray Studios on the Jerry On The Job series. Lantz moved to Hollywood, California after Bray switched to a publicity film studio in 1927, where he worked briefly for director Frank Capra and was a gag writer for Mack Sennett comedies
Lantz inherited many of his initial staff, including animator Tom Palmer and musician Bert Fiske from the Winkler studio, but importantly he decided to select a fellow New York animator, Bill Nolan, to help develop the series. In September 1929, Lantz finally put out his first cartoon, Race Riot.
By 1935, Nolan had parted company with Lantz. Lantz became an independent producer, supplying cartoons to Universal instead of merely overseeing the animation department.
Woody was created in 1940 by Lantz and storyboard artist Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who had previously laid the groundwork for two other screwball characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the Warner Bros. cartoon studio in the late 1930s.
Woody Woodpecker debuted in an Andy Panda short, Knock Knock. The brash woodpecker character was similar to the early Daffy Duck, and Lantz liked the results enough to build a series around it.
Mel Blanc supplied Woody’s voice for his first three cartoons. When Blanc accepted a full-time contract with Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. and left the Lantz studio, gagman Ben Hardaway, who was the main force responsible for Knock Knock, became the bird’s voice. Despite this, Blanc’s distinctive laugh was still used throughout the cartoons.
During 1948, the Lantz studio had a hit Academy Award-nominated tune in “The Woody Woodpecker Song”, featuring Blanc’s laugh. Mel Blanc sued Lantz for half a million dollars, claiming that Lantz had used his voice in various later cartoons without his permission.
In 1950, Lantz held anonymous auditions. Grace, Lantz’s wife offered to do Woody’s voice. However, Lantz turned her down because Woody was a male character. Not knowing whose voice was being heard, Lantz picked Grace’s voice to do Woody Woodpecker. Grace supplied Woody’s voice until the end of production in 1972, and also appeared in other non-Woody cartoons. At first, Grace voiced Woody without screen credit, because she thought that it would disappoint the children to know Woody Woodpecker was voiced by a woman.
Lantz’s harmonious relationship with Universal, the studio releasing his cartoons, was interrupted when new ownership transformed the company into Universal-International and did away with most of Universal’s company policies. The new management insisted on getting licensing and merchandising rights to Lantz’s characters. Lantz refused and withdrew from the parent company by the end of 1947, releasing 12 cartoons independently through United Artists during 1948, into the beginning of 1949. Financial difficulties forced Lantz to shut down his studio in 1949.
Universal-International re-released Lantz’s UA (and several of his earlier) cartoons during the shutdown and finally came to terms with Lantz, who resumed production in 1951. From this point forward Lantz worked quicker and cheaper, no longer using the lush, artistic backgrounds and stylings that distinguished his 1940s work.
The baby boomer generation came to know and love Lantz as the creator of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons. He used his TV appearances on The Woody Woodpecker Show to show how the animation was actually done. Walter Lantz was good friends with movie innovator George Pal. In his retirement, Lantz continued to manage his studio’s properties by licensing them to other media. He also continued to draw and paint, selling his paintings of Woody Woodpecker rapidly.
In 1982, Lantz donated 17 artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, among them a wooden model of Woody Woodpecker from the cartoon character’s debut in 1941.
In 1990 “Woody Woodpecker” was honored with a star on the Hollywood “Walk Of Fame”.
Walter Lantz died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California from heart failure on March 22, 1994, aged 94.
1922 – Jack Klugman (Emmy Award-winning actor: The Defenders: Blacklist [1963-1964], The Odd Couple [1970-1971, 1972-1973]; Quincy, M.E., Twelve Angry Men, Days of Wine and Roses, Goodbye Columbus)
1932 – Anouk Aimee (Fran’oise Sorya Dreyfus) (actress: La Dolce Vita, Lola, A Man and a Woman, Dr. Bethune, Ready to Wear)
1932 – Casey Kasem (Kemal Amin Kasem) (radio DJ/announcer/host: American Top 40; actor: Hawaii Five-O, The Hardy Boys Mysteries, Charlie’s Angels; character voice: Tiny Toon Adventures, Scooby Doo series)
1937 – Sandy Dennis (Academy Award-winning actress: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff ; The Execution, Splendor in the Grass; died Mar 2, 1992)
1939 – Judy Carne (Joyce Betterill) (comedienne, actress: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: “Sock It to Me!”; The Americanization of Emily, Only with Married Men, Love on a Rooftop, Kraft Music Hall Presents Sandler & Young, Fair Exchange, The Baileys of Balboa)
1962 – James LeGros (actor: Big Miracle, Bitter Feast, Skateland, Welcome to Academia, Fragments, Visioneers, Sherman’s Way, Vantage Point, Zodiac, The Last Winter, Trust the Man, Sexual Life)
1965 – Anna Chancellor (actress: Hysteria, Critical Eye, The Best Man, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, The Dreamers, What a Girl Wants, Crush, Heart)
1966 – Matt Reeves (Writer/Producer/Director: (writer) The Yards
The Pallbearer; Under Siege 2: Dark Territory; (executive producer – 60 episodes) Felicity (TV series) ; The Yards (co-producer); Cloverfield; Conviction (TV series); Miracles (TV series); Felicity (TV series); Gideon’s Crossing (TV series) others)
1983 – Ari Graynor (born Ariel Geltman Graynor) (Actress/Producer/Soundtrack: (Actress) For a Good Time, Call…; Celeste and Jesse Forever; The Sitter; Ten Year; What’s Your Number?; Lucky; Conviction; Whip It; Youth in Revolt; Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; (Executive Producer) For a Good Time, Call…; (Soundtrack) The Sopranos)