Wolfgang Reitherman, 75 : Disney Animator Dies in Car Crash

Times Staff Writer

Wolfgang (Woolie) Reitherman, one of a handful of Walt Disney’s animators who first breathed life into stilted cartoon characters, transforming them into the full-dimensional figures the world learned to adore as “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty,” has been killed in an automobile accident.

Reitherman, a member of the hand-picked group Disney called “his nine old men,” was 75. He died when his car veered into a tree Wednesday just blocks from his Burbank home.

A one-time art student who originally wanted to be a water colorist, Reitherman, the third of the “old men” to die, joined Disney in 1933 in what he described as “a romance from the start.” His stature at the Disney studios was such that on Disney’s death in 1966, Reitherman became producer of all animated features. In effect he became the first to emerge from Disney’s shadow.


At his retirement in 1981, he had collaborated on 20 feature films, starting with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1938 (planning for which had started four years earlier) and ending with “The Fox and the Hound.” In between he was animator, chief animator, sequence director and or producer/director of all the epic Disney features: “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “The Reluctant Dragon,” “Dumbo,” “Saludos Amigos,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Sword and the Stone” and “The Jungle Book.”

He also animated many of the classic Disney shorts, including “The Band Concert” and “Goofy and Wilbur,” and in 1968 won an Academy Award for his direction of the short subject “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.”

Reitherman, whom Disney hired from Chouinard Art School when one of his teachers showed Disney his work, initially was assigned to animate the comparatively uncomplicated animal characters then shown as brief respites between films featuring human beings.

But, as Reitherman recalled in a 1967 interview with The Times, Disney was already trying to determine how his barnyard characters could become more life-like so that audiences wouldn’t tire of them in 5 or 10 minutes. Reitherman said he and his associates had already attempted to fill out the character of one girl in the short “Goddess of Spring” in 1933. The results displeased Disney, and one of Reitherman’s fellow animators set up lectures on life-drawing and anatomy to expand their skills.

In 1934 Disney secured the $1.5 million it would take to finance the four years and 130,000 drawings necessary to create a full-length animated feature. To the anatomy classes were added actors who donned the costumes of Snow White, Prince Charming and the dwarfs and paraded before the animators. A dancer (Marge Belcher, later to become better known as Marge Champion) was filmed, and her movements closely copied on transparencies.

‘Feeling of Excitement’

“There was a great feeling of excitement in those days,” Reitherman said. “We were actually poking into the unknown.”


Reitherman drew the magic mirror segments in “Snow White” and in subsequent productions became Disney’s specialist in action sequences. He directed the dinosaur fight from the “Rite of Spring” segment of “Fantasia” and the dragon battle sequence in “Sleeping Beauty” (“We took the approach that we were going to kill that damned prince”). He guided Pinocchio into and out of the belly of Monstro the whale.

Reitherman, survived by his wife, Janie, three sons and three grandchildren, once described an animator as “first of all an actor; secondly a story man and thirdly an artist.”

He was one of the highest-grossing directors of all time (“The Rescuers,” a 1977 animated feature, made $100 million). He said his personal satisfaction came not from the box office, however, but from the comments of fellow craftsmen.

He remembered what Magda Gabor had said after a tiger in “Jungle Book” was given the mannerisms of the man who was then her husband, actor George Sanders.

“She said the animal was more like Sanders than Sanders.”