Walter Benjamin Lantz (April 27, 1899 – March 22, 1994) was an American cartoonist, animator, film producer, director and actor best known for founding Walter Lantz Productions"> Walter Lantz Productions and creating Woody Woodpecker.
Lantz was born in New Rochelle, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, Francesco Paolo Lantz (formerly Lanza) and Maria Gervasi from Calitri. According to Joe Adamson's biography, The Walter Lantz Story, Lantz's father was given his new surname by an immigration official who anglicized it. Walter Lantz was always interested in art, completing a mail-order drawing class at age 12. He was inspired when he saw Winsor McCay's animated short, "Gertie the Dinosaur".
While working as an auto mechanic, Lantz got his first break. Wealthy customer Fred Kafka liked his drawings on the garage's bulletin board and financed Lantz's studies at the Art Students League of New York. Kafka also helped him land a job as a copy boy at the New York American, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Lantz worked at the newspaper and 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. In 1924, Lantz directed, animated, and even starred in his first cartoon series, "Dinky Doodle", which included the popular fairy tale animated shorts Cinderella (1925) and Little Red Riding Hood (1925). Lantz soon replaced George "Vernon" Stallings as head of production at Bray. (In the 1920s, Bray began to concentrate on competing with Hal Roach, the "king of two-reelers"). Lantz moved to Hollywood, California, after Bray switched to a publicity film studio in 1927, where he attempted to set up his own cartoon studio with Pinto Colvig, but their sound cartoons never got produced. In the meantime, he worked briefly for director Frank Capra and was a gag writer for Mack Sennett comedies. He also resorted to odd jobs, one of them being the chauffeur for one of Hollywood's most important moguls.
In 1928, Lantz was hired by Charles B. Mintz as director on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series for Universal Pictures. Earlier that year, Mintz and his brother-in-law George Winkler had succeeded in snatching Oswald from the character's creator, Walt Disney. Universal president Carl Laemmle grew dissatisfied with the Mintz-Winkler product and fired them, deciding instead to produce the Oswalds on the Universal lot. While schmoozing with Laemmle, Lantz wagered that if he could beat Laemmle in a game of poker, the character would be his. As fate would have it, Lantz won the bet, and Oswald was now his character.
Lantz inherited many of his initial staff, including animator Tom Palmer and musician Bert Fiske from the Winkler studio, but importantly he chose fellow New York animator, Bill Nolan, to help develop the series. Nolan's previous credentials included inventing the panorama background and developing a new, streamlined "Felix the Cat". Nolan was (and still is) best known for perfecting the "rubber hose" style of animation. In September 1929, Lantz released his first cartoon, "Race Riot".
By 1935, he parted company with Nolan. Lantz became an independent producer, supplying cartoons to Universal instead of merely overseeing the animation department. By 1940, he was negotiating ownership for the characters with whom he had been working.
When Oswald had worn out his welcome, Lantz needed a new character. Meany, Miny, and Moe (three ne'er-do-well chimps), Baby-Face Mouse, Snuffy Skunk, Doxie (a comic dachshund), and Jock and Jill (monkeys that resembled Warner Brothers' Bosko) were some personalities Lantz and his staff came up with. However, one character, Andy Panda, stood out and soon became Lantz's headline star for the 1939–1940 production season.
In 1940, Lantz married actress Grace Stafford. During their honeymoon, the couple kept hearing a woodpecker incessantly pecking on their roof. Grace suggested that Walter use the bird for inspiration as a cartoon character. Taking her advice, though a bit skeptical, Lantz debuted Woody Woodpecker 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 the first three cartoons. When Blanc accepted a full-time contract with Warner Bros. Cartoons">Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. and left the Lantz studio, Woody's voice was taken over by Danny Webb and later by Kent Rogers. After Rogers went into the service due to World War II, gagman Ben Hardaway, the man who was the main force behind "Knock Knock", became the bird's voice. Despite this, Blanc's distinctive laugh was used throughout the cartoons.
In 1948, the Lantz studio created a hit Academy Award-nominated song titled "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 later cartoons without permission. The judge, however, ruled for Lantz, saying that Blanc had failed to copyright his voice or his contributions. Though Lantz won the case, he paid Blanc in an out-of-court settlement when Blanc filed an appeal, and Lantz went in search for a new voice for Woody Woodpecker.
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 discouraged in the least, Grace made her own anonymous audition tape, and submitted it to the studio. Not knowing who was behind the voice he heard, Lantz picked Grace's voice for Woody Woodpecker. Grace supplied Woody's voice until the end of production in 1972, and also performed in non-Woody cartoons. At first, Grace voiced Woody without screen credit, thinking that it would disappoint child viewers to know that Woody Woodpecker was voiced by a woman. However, she soon came to enjoy being known as the voice of Woody Woodpecker, and allowed her name to be credited on the screen. Her version of Woody was cuter and friendlier than the manic Woody of the 1940s, and Lantz's artists redesigned the character to suit the new personality.
Lantz's harmonious relationship with Universal, the studio releasing his cartoons, was jarred when new ownership transformed the company into Universal-International and did away with many of Universal's company policies. The new management insisted on owning 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 in 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 earlier) cartoons during the shutdown and eventually came to terms with Lantz, who resumed production in 1951. From this point forward, Lantz worked faster and cheaper, no longer using the lush, artistic backgrounds and stylings that had distinguished his 1940s work.
Lantz used his TV appearances on Woody Woodpecker Show">The Woody Woodpecker Show (which began in 1957) to demonstrate the animation process. Later, Lantz entertained the troops during the Vietnam War and visited hospitalized veterans. Walter Lantz was a good friend of movie innovator George Pal.
By the 1960s, other movie studios had discontinued their animation departments, leaving Walter Lantz as one of two producers still making cartoons for theaters (the other studio was DePatie-Freleng Enterprises). Lantz finally closed up shop in 1972 (by then, he explained, it was economically impossible to continue producing them and stay in business as rising inflation had strained his profits), and Universal serviced the remaining demand with reissues of his older cartoons.
In retirement, Lantz continued to manage his properties by licensing them to media. He continued to draw and paint, selling his paintings of Woody Woodpecker rapidly. On top of that, he worked with Little League and other youth groups in his area. 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. The Lantzes also made time to visit hospitals and other institutions where Walter would draw Woody and Grace would do the Woody laugh for patients.
In 1990, Woody Woodpecker was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1993, Lantz established a $10,000 scholarship and prize for animators in his name at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Walter Lantz died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California from heart failure on March 22, 1994, aged 94.
Some characters in the Lantz universe (both cartoons and comics) are Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (formerly), Andy Panda, Space Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Inspector Willoughby, Homer Pigeon, Chilly Willy, Lil' Eightball, Charlie Chicken, Wally Walrus, and many more.