The above photo of Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Roy Disney was taken on November 2, 2002, at the Disney Studio tribute to Ward Kimball, which took place at the Directors Guild. Frank and Ollie were among those giving tribute and it was probably their last public appearance I went to. Frank died at 92 in 2004, and now Ollie passed away on April 14, at 95, the last of Disney’s Nine Old Men.
The Nine Old Men was something of a public relations gimmick created by the Disney organization, as it blithely ignored the talents of people like Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla, who left the studio under uncomfortable circumstances. However, the contributions of Frank and Ollie cannot be ignored. One only has to look at their work on Bambi to see how good they were. In addition, their Illusion of Life: Disney Animation is a landmark text which. along with Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit, have helped define the way animation is taught around the world.
Frank and Ollie were, of course, inseparable companions and speakers. And I first met them when they came to speak to a class at the University of Southern California in the fall of 1979; it occurred just after Don Bluth very publicly left Disney, and I recall getting into a conversation with Frank about it. I had recently returned to USC to finish my PhD after an 11 year hiatus and had finally committed to focus my career on animation. Needless to say, I would encounter them many times before I left Los Angeles in December 2003, as they were a vital part of Hollywood’s animation community, ever eager to share their knowledge and wisdom.