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Obituaries

Frank Thomas, 92; One of Disney's 'Nine Old Men'

September 10, 2004|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

Frank Thomas, one of the celebrated "Nine Old Men" of Disney animation whose work set the standards by which all character animation is judged, died quietly at his home in La Canada Flintridge on Wednesday, three days after his 92nd birthday.

Thomas had been in declining health after a cerebral hemorrhage earlier this year, according to Walt Disney Studios' announcement of his death.

Thomas' animation included the Seven Dwarfs weeping at the heroine's bier in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), Captain Hook dueling with Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and Tramp falling in love over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs (1955).

Animation historian John Canemaker said Wednesday that Thomas would "go down as one of the greatest animators of all time."

"Although one of the most intelligent of animators, Thomas' work never smacks of dry intellectualism," Canemaker said. "Rather, his ideas about what a character should think or feel are always in the service of high drama and sincere emotionalism."

Born in Santa Monica on Sept. 5. 1912, Thomas studied art at Stanford, where he met Ollie Johnston, who would become another of the Nine Old Men. The group got its name from Walt Disney as a play on the term President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to describe the Supreme Court. At the time, the veteran group of animators had barely reached middle age.

Thomas and Johnston became lifelong friends and shared numerous professional assignments. Johnston, who at 91 is the only remaining one of the group, was not available for comment.

Thomas moved to Los Angeles in 1934 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute, but a few months later joined the Disney studio, where he quickly rose through the artistic ranks.

He did his first animation for the short "Mickey's Elephant" in 1936, but Thomas later remarked with customary humor that his first successful animation was in another Mickey Mouse short, "The Brave Little Tailor," two years later.

Although he did noteworthy animation in various shorts, Thomas is primarily known for his work on the Disney features, beginning with his animation of the Seven Dwarfs in "Snow White."

He shared the animation of the title characters in "Pinocchio" (1940) and "Bambi" (1942) with Johnston and Milt Kahl, another of the Nine Old Men.

Thomas was responsible for some of the high points in both films: Pinocchio singing "I've Got No Strings" and Bambi wobbling his way across the ice with Thumper.

Thomas was a member of "El Groupo," the cadre of artists who accompanied Walt Disney to South America in 1941 to gather material for the films that would become "Saludos Amigos" (1942) and "The Three Caballeros" (1944). But in 1942, Thomas joined the 18th Air Force Base Unit, also known as the First Motion Picture Unit, and spent most of the war making military training films.

In 1946, he returned to Disney, where he helped to create such memorable characters as the wicked stepmother in "Cinderella" (1950), the Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland" (1951), Captain Hook in "Peter Pan," the title characters in "Lady and the Tramp" and the Three Good Fairies in "Sleeping Beauty" (1959).

His later work included Pongo and Perdita in "101 Dalmatians" (1961), Baloo, Mowgli and Kaa in "The Jungle Book" (1967), King John and Sir Hiss in "Robin Hood" (1973), and Bernard and Bianca in "The Rescuers" (1977).

Thomas handled some of the most emotionally complex scenes in the Disney features. When Grumpy, the self-styled "woman hater" among the dwarfs, buried his face in his hands at Snow White's bier, audiences wept, perhaps for the first time, at the pain of an animated character.

Every parent could recognize Baloo's awkward body language as he tried to explain why Mowgli couldn't remain in the jungle. Thomas also conveyed Pinocchio's wonder when the audience cheered his clumsy song and dance.

"I was looking for anything that showed he was only born last night," Thomas recalled in a 1998 interview. "He had no experience to draw on, so he had to be very wide-eyed and innocent looking."

"To me, Frank's characters always had the most believable feeling of life on the screen -- to the point where it became hard to imagine someone actually creating them from drawings," said Disney animator Andreas Deja, whose work includes Lilo in "Lilo and Stitch." "When you look at Frank's work, you see characters who appear to be alive, which is the ultimate goal for any animator."

Brad Bird, one of the new generation of artists that Thomas helped train, paid homage to Thomas and Johnston by including caricatures of them -- for which they supplied their own voices -- in Warner Bros.' "The Iron Giant" (1999) and the upcoming "The Incredibles" from Pixar.

"The sheer [vastness] of his contribution to the art form is staggering," Bird said after hearing of Thomas' death. "He was among the last of his rare breed, and in terms of great animation, the bar remains where the Nine Old Men set it."

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