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Animator Eric Larson; One of Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men’

Times Staff Writer

Eric Larson, one of a closely knit and creative group of animators whom Walt Disney dubbed his “nine old men,” died Tuesday at his home in La Canada Flintridge after a long illness.

Larson, whose drawing credits date to Disney’s first full-length feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” had retired two years ago after 53 years with the studio.

His death at age 83 brings to four the number of artists remaining from the original nine Disney assembled in the early 1930s. Mickey Mouse was still an infant then, and Donald Duck and Disneyland were just part of Disney’s imagination.

Major Projects

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The group evolved into the key animators on Disney’s major epics in later years, including “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” (Larson did the Pastoral Symphony segment), “Bambi,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “Jungle Book.” Larson’s last credit was for “The Great Mouse Detective” in 1986.

In addition to feature films, he was animator on 18 shorts and six television specials.

Writing of Larson in their book “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life,” two of the original nine, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, said “Eric’s Figaro (in ‘Pinocchio’) is one of the finest examples of pure pantomime ever done at the studio. . . .”

With Thomas and Johnston, Marc Davis and Ward Kimball are the last of the original group. Larson was the last of the original nine to retire from the studio.

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After a 1979 dispute over creativity in which several animators quit Disney, Larson stayed on as a director of training, teaching old skills to aspiring animators.

‘An Emotional Thing’

Interviewed a year after the flap, during which production on the Disney feature “The Fox and the Hound” was temporarily halted, Larson managed to cast a favorable light on the dispute, saying “We’re finding plenty of new talent.” But, he added, he may have been “the wrong person to ask. This studio is an emotional thing for me. I’ve never even asked for a raise.”

One of Larson’s students, Andreas Deja, who was an animator on the current “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” remembered his mentor as “the best animation teacher ever. You can argue that Disney had better animators but no one was more concerned with passing on the legacy than Eric.

“When I got hired at Disney, the new animators had to do a 4- to 8-week test with Eric. It was an incredibly stressful time--you were in the place where they had done ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Fantasia’ and you had to show you could work at that level. Eric was an incredibly gentle and patient teacher who could deal with that stress and bring you back to the basics. I’m sure that I and several others would have freaked out without his guidance.”

Larson was born in Cleveland, Utah, graduated from the University of Utah and came to Los Angeles in 1933, ostensibly to become a journalist. His innate drawing abilities were called to Walt Disney’s attention, and Disney hired him.

It was a relationship that lasted until Disney’s death in 1966.

Key in Curiosity

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Summing up his art in an interview seven years ago, Larson credited curiosity with his success, saying, “You have to know what a thing really is before you can caricature it. . . . Animation is about creating characters with emotions--believable characters with believable emotions.”

Larson is survived by four brothers and two sisters. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Foothill Boulevard in La Canada.

Charles Solomon, a frequent Times contributor, assisted with this article.


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