A ‘Toon Man for the Ages : Animation: Joe Grant was on Disney’s original talent team. After working on many classics, he quit in ’49. Nearly 40 years later, he returned, making his mark on the latest hits.
Joe Grant made classics. He developed the characters and stories for Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Fantasia” and other legendary films.
Then he vanished. For decades.
After nearly 40 years out of the film business, he came back. He’s worked on “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas” (due out in June). At age 86, he’s the only person to make both the oldest and newest Disney features.
Grant was born in New York City, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 2. He attended Venice High School and Chouinard Art Institute--but his real art education, he says, came at the now-defunct Los Angeles Record newspaper. As a staff illustrator during the early 1930s, he caricatured stars such as Will Rogers and Jimmy Durante.
In 1933, Walt Disney phoned. He asked the artist to design cartoon versions of movie stars who would meet Mickey Mouse in the short “Mickey’s Gala Premiere.” Grant complied.
Disney asked for more.
“I did promotional (drawings) for a new movie magazine using Disney characters . . . all kinds of stuff,” says Grant, recalling the free-lance assignments he took on while continuing to work at the Record. “Finally, (Disney) said, ‘How’d you like to work here full time?’ ”
But the Chicago Daily News was about to print Grant’s caricatures and possibly distribute them to other papers--a newsprint cartoonist’s dream.
“It was quite a decision to make. But when I looked at (animation), I thought, ‘My God--drawing, music, voice--what more could you want?’ ” Grant took the job.
He was creating gags and ideas for shorts when Disney announced that the studio would make a full-length feature called “Snow White.”
“The reaction to it was ‘You must be nuts,’ ” Grant recalls. “The place was geared for shorts. People said, ‘I couldn’t stand to see that much color.’ . . . But none of that in any way deterred (Disney).”
Grant contributed story ideas and character designs, concentrating on the film’s wicked witch. “When it was finished,” Grant remembers, "(Disney) said, ‘Joe, what’re we gonna do for an encore?’ ” Among the staff’s ideas: “The Little Mermaid.” “It was always turned down because it had a sad ending. And they didn’t have the guts to clear it up.”
Of all the proposals, Disney chose “Pinocchio.” He put Grant in charge of character design. In the book “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life,” animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston called Grant “the studio authority on design and appearance of nearly everything that moved on the screen.”
He supervised the studio’s story department on the next film, “Fantasia.” Grant, Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski chose the music. "(Disney) used to drive Stokie crazy. He was listening to a piece of music. Whenever there was a low area, he would turn it up. And whenever it was high, he would turn it down. Stokowski went nuts: ‘Walt, that’s the way the music is written!’ ” The response? “He just went into one of those little Walt Disney laughs.”
“Fantasia,” with its seriousness and precise draftsmanship, made the staff eager for something easier. “ ‘Dumbo’ (originally) was a little book,” Grant says. “It had about eight pictures.” He and story man Dick Huemer fleshed out the simple fable of the floppy-eared elephant. “After ‘Fantasia’ . . . this looked like a breeze.” It was. “The picture was fun to the very end. Everybody liked working on it.”
Grant also contributed to “Bambi,” “The Reluctant Dragon,” “Saludos Amigos,” “Make Mine Music” (where he was production supervisor) and “Alice in Wonderland.” But in 1949, he quit.
He wanted to escape the communal world of animated filmmaking (“I was . . . dying to do something on my own”) and Disney’s financial system (“As there is now, there were no royalties. You had nothing”). But he had more serious reasons to leave. To this day, he refuses to discuss them.
Former Disney executive Charlie Fink blames Grant’s departure on the demanding nature of Walt Disney, whom Grant calls a “good-natured autocrat.” “Working for a guy like Walt . . . is not a job you could do, really, for more than 20 years and live,” says Fink. Animator Marc Davis, who’s known Grant since the 1930s, says, “He and Walt Disney probably had some arguments, and Joe finally said to himself, ‘Hell, I don’t need this,’ and walked out.”
For “two or three years” Grant and his artist wife, Jennie, designed and manufactured decorative tiles and plates. At the request of Jennie’s uncle, who ran a stationery firm called the Castle Company, Grant switched to that business, handling management and design.
Three years later, executives from a company called William House Regency approached Grant. “They said, ‘If you don’t let us buy you out, we’ll take your line over.’ ” Grant explains, “They had a whole cabinet of our stuff, ready to be copied.”
Grant signed up. “They treated me very well and helped me to become (financially) independent.” By the 1970s, Grant had retired, although he kept creating ideas and drawings.
Enter Charlie Fink.
In 1987, Fink--today chief operating officer of the virtual-reality company Virtual World Entertainment--was Disney Feature Animation’s vice president for creative affairs. Among his tasks: find stories to make into movies.
Company vice chairman Roy Disney told him to see retired Disney animation director Jack Kinney, who had batches of notes and drawings. But Kinney, Fink recalls, was ill and “not terribly lucid. And either Jack or Jack’s wife knew this, so they asked their friend Joe Grant to sit in on the meeting because Joe could translate, and he knew what a lot of this stuff was.”
Fink had never heard of Grant. When he learned of Grant’s credits, Fink invited the artist back to Disney. Grant says that he had never yearned to return, but “my wife said, ‘Why don’t you go back? That’s where you belong.’ ”
Despite his 38-year absence, coming back to Disney, Grant says, was “deja vu. . . . Nothing changed. Same people, same gripes.”
Grant provided the “Beauty and the Beast” crew with ideas and designs for characters such as Mrs. Potts, the motherly teapot. For “Aladdin,” Grant offered ideas for Aladdin’s pet monkey, Abu, and expressions and gestures for the flying carpet that befriends Aladdin. On “The Lion King,” Grant worked on the baboon shaman Rafiki, and the relationship between King Mufasa and his hornbill adviser Zazu, among other things.
“Pocahontas,” directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, will see even more of Grant’s work. Gabriel was initially surprised to see that Grant was still active. But when he started working on the film, he recruited the veteran.
“Mike and I worked for--oh, months,” Grant says. “Just in a room across from each other, making drawings and ideas . . . design ideas, story ideas or gag ideas.” Story department head Tom Sito mentions that Grant contributed heavily to that Disney staple, the heroine and her animal friends.
“I wouldn’t ask Joe Grant to look at a script and give me notes about its overall structure,” says senior vice president for animation Tom Schumacher. “I ask Joe for character motivations, entertainment, things to leaven the overall tone, character business, design issues.”
Schumacher remembers that shortly before leaving Disney, “Jeffrey Katzenberg was screaming, ‘C’mon, Joe, we need something here, something funny, something charming!’ ”
Grant’s enjoying his second Disney career. “When I went back there,” he says, “there was sort of a resurgence of ideas I’ve had all along.”
He adds, “I felt just as vital as I ever did. And that’s what counts.”