Walter Lantz, born April 27, 1900 in New Rochelle, NY, grew up drawing funny pictures. But unlike most later-famous artists, he wasn't hindered by having his family try to steer him into a more practical career path. In fact, his father, Frank Lantz (nee Lanza — it was changed at Ellis Island), was quick to encourage any activity that involved creativity and craftsmanship, and was not averse to a family member making his living in an unconventional way.
Nonetheless, it was while working as an auto mechanic, in his early teens, that Lantz got his first break in the art world. Fred Kafka, a well-to-do customer, liked his drawings on the garage's bulletin board, and bankrolled his studies at New York City's Art Students League. And to reduce Lantz's commuting time, Kafka also helped him get a job in town, as a copy boy at The New York American, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst. There, Lantz got to rub elbows with the likes of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Frederick Burr Opper (Happy Hooligan), George McManus (Bringing Up Father) and other famous cartoonists working for Hearst's King Features Syndicate, and learned a lot about the practical side of cartooning.
Lantz's first brush with animation had been a mail-order course he'd taken so early, he didn't even know what animation was except that it involved drawing pictures. He got his first actual view of the medium when McCay made Gertie the Dinosaur. In 1916, Hearst brought his cartoon properties to the screen by opening an animation studio of his own. Lantz joined its staff early on, as assistant to animator Vernon (George) Stallings. Lantz's associates there included Isadore Klein (creator of Mighty Mouse), Grim Natwick (creator of Betty Boop) and the studio's boss, animation pioneer Gregory La Cava. It was a time of invention and experimentation, and Lantz got to participate in the early development of many basic animation techniques.
By the time he was 18, Lantz was writing, directing and animating cartoons of his own — and since many were made in the manner of the Fleischer studio's Koko the Clown, mixing live action with animation, he put in a fair amount of on-screen time himself. By that time, Hearst had suspended his animation operations, and Lantz was working for another animation pioneer, J.R. Bray. Lantz remained with Bray for years, working on such features as Col. Heeza Liar and, the first animated characters he himself created, Dinky Doodle & Weakheart.
But as moviegoers' tastes grew more sophisticated, the Bray cartoons didn't. There was a slump in the cartoon business in the mid-1920s, and Bray took that as his cue to get out of it. His animation studio closed its doors in 1927. Lantz, not seeing much of a future in New York, took off for Hollywood.
He was a bit premature. At the time, Hollywood's only animation producer was Walt Disney, and Lantz was over-qualified for any job at that studio except Disney's own. Lantz went back to work for Bray, acting in the producer's live-action comedies. But he disliked the working conditions movie actors of the time had to endure (particularly klieg lights), and moved on to other Hollywood jobs. He worked behind the cameras for both Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, sketching out plots as he'd learned while animating for Bray (an early form of storyboarding), and doing occasional incidental animation. But he was always on the lookout for contacts who might be able to get him what he really wanted, and did any number of things to reach them. It was while working as part-time chauffeur for Universal Studios mogul Carl Laemmle that he got his big break.
Like other Hollywood studios, Universal released cartoons on a regular basis. The company owned a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and its regular supplier of Oswald cartoons was a distribution company belonging to M.J. Winkler. Laemmle could see there was some kind of turmoil going on — switching suppliers, raiding staffs, backstabbing … When animators Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising approached him about side-stepping Winkler, he'd had enough. The best thing to do, he decided, was fire everybody and make a cartoon studio of his own. But — who to run it, who to run it …?
Oh yes! The chauffeur knows how to do every job in animation!
At the tender age of 28, Lantz began a relationship with Universal Studios that would last more than four decades (with only one short gap when, following a 1947 contract dispute, he spent a year producing cartoons for United Artists instead). In 1935, bucking industry trends, he negotiated himself into the position of an independent producer supplying cartoons to Universal, rather than head of a Universal department. In 1940, he negotiated ownership of the characters he'd been working with — just before the advent of the most lucrative of all, Woody Woodpecker. Top animation talents he worked with include Shamus Culhane (his assistant back in the Bray days), Jack Hannah (long-time Donald Duck director), Tex Avery (creator of Daffy Duck, Droopy etc.), and a host of others.
By 1952, several people had done Woody's voice, including Mel Blanc, who created the Woodpecker's famous laugh, and Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, who is generally credited with having created Woody himself. The position was unfilled just then, and several actors auditioned. Grace Stafford, Lantz's wife, snuck her own audition in among the tapes, anonymously, and hers was chosen. At first she did Woody without screen credit, but later came to enjoy being known as the voice of Woody Woodpecker. Still later, she reported feeling as though she'd taken on some of the Woodpecker's personality traits.
The Baby Boom generation first knew Lantz as the gentle and genial host of the Woody Woodpecker TV show, which started in 1957. There, he was billed as the "dean" of American animation — i.e., the person who'd been in the industry longer than anybody else. He used his TV appearances to show how animation was done, and for many young viewers it was the first explanation they'd ever seen. Later, that generation knew him, along with Stafford, for their efforts to entertain troops during the Vietnam War, and to visit hospitalized veterans.
Lantz's was the last of the classic-era cartoon studios to close — it kept on making new cartoons until 1972. Finally, the animation market reached a point where it took ten years for a cartoon to make back its cost; and Lantz, 72 years old, wasn't willing to work for rewards that far in the future.
In retirement, Lantz managed his studio's properties, which still had plenty of life in licensing, re-releases and sales to new venues. He also painted — and quickly found that a painting of his with Woody Woodpecker in it generally sold faster than one without. He worked with Little League and other youth groups. He sponsored an award given to promising young sculptors (his brother, Michael, was a world-famous sculptor). He lived to the age of 94, active to the very end.