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Bill Peet, 87; Disney Artist, Storyteller Wrote ‘101 Dalmations,’ Children’s Books

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Peet, a legendary Disney artist and writer who drew such indelible characters as Dumbo, wrote the screenplay for “101 Dalmatians” and went on to create 35 children’s books with curiosity-tweaking titles ranging from “Capyboppy” to “Whingdingdilly,” has died. He was 87.

Peet died Saturday at his home in Studio City, said Howard Green, vice president of communications for Disney Studios.

Peet recently had pneumonia, and suffered for many years from cancer and heart problems, beginning with a heart attack in 1977. He lost one vocal cord and part of his larynx to cancer in 1985.

The multitalented Peet was a revered storyteller, forever admired by fellow artists and children alike.

“Bill Peet was Walt Disney’s greatest story man and considered to be on a par with Walt himself in terms of telling strong stories with vibrant characters,” said animation historian John Canemaker, author of the recently published “Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men” and animation director for the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

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"[He] profoundly influenced some of the studio’s greatest features and created some of its most memorable characters.”

Colleagues from the early Disney decades, in which shorts and feature films began as scenarios, then were developed by artists into a series of storyboards and handed to animators, agreed that Peet as a story man was second only to Disney.

“Bill Peet did the most stimulating story sketches, especially on ‘Song of the South,’ when they take the Rabbit out to find his Laughing Place.... It was just a magnificent piece of story work for animation,” Frank Thomas, one of the fabled “Nine Old Men,” said Monday after learning of Peet’s death.

“Nobody could touch Bill Peet,” said another of the nine, Ollie Johnston. “His drawings were staged beautifully. They suggested attitudes and acting--just a great springboard for the animators.”

Peet the “story man” was Disney’s logical choice to write the studio’s first screenplay, “101 Dalmatians” in 1961.

The artist not only became the screenwriter, but also drew characters and directed actors’ voice performances, and then repeated the same multi-tasking effort for “The Sword in the Stone” two years later.

The features remained among Peet’s favorite creations, along with his drawings for “Dumbo,” the 1941 film that first gained the artist personal attention from Disney.

But the two animated feature films were to be the finale of the 27-year love-hate association between Disney and the individualist Peet.

Theirs had always been a prickly relationship, and Peet conceded in his “Bill Peet: An Autobiography,” published in 1989, that he drew the evil Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” to resemble Disney.

Peet left the studio and its creator in 1964 during the creation of “Jungle Book,” and asked that his name be stripped from the credits because he didn’t like changes that were made after he left the project, a problem he always attributed to group creation.

“You can’t have a collective idea about what is funny,” he told The Times in 1990. “Creative work is a very personal thing. You have to have a single point of view.”

Working on a Disney film, he said, was an “assembly line” process with all the credit floating to the top.

“Walt was very sensitive about credit. He would say, ‘Dammit, we are all in this together,’” Peet said.

“But what he meant was ‘the credit is all mine.’ I knew the we stood for Walter Elias [Disney’s first and middle names]. Everything came out ‘Walt Disney presents’ and the rest of our names might as well have been in the phone book.”

Among the Disney classics featuring Peet’s talents are “Fantasia,” released in 1940, “Song of the South” in 1946, “Cinderella” in 1950, “Alice in Wonderland” in 1951, and “Sleeping Beauty” in 1959.

Four decades after Peet’s exit from filmmaking, copies of his drawings still adorn the offices of artists at Disney and other animation studios as models of how to tell a story visually.

The man who so longed for personal control and credit turned to books as the proper outlet for his storytelling abilities.

He had already published a handful of children’s books--"Goliath II” in 1959, an outgrowth of the story he did for the Disney feature of the same title released in 1960, and such rhyming tales as “Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure,” “Huge Harold,” “Smokey” and “The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg.”

So on his birthday on Jan. 29, 1964, Peet declared himself a full-time children’s author, never to return to an animation studio.

Soon came “Randy’s Dandy Lions” and “Ella,” both in 1964, and “Chester the Worldly Pig” in 1965.

“Chester,” Peet always said, was his favorite book character because they shared the same background--born in the Midwest and determined to see the larger world.

Chester came from the artist’s pen and mind. William Bartlett Peet (originally Peed but later changed) was born in Grandview, Ind., a dot on the map on the Ohio River, and moved to Indianapolis when he was 3.

A year or so later, he started drawing the trains that chugged through the city and the animals that traveled with circuses.

Peet won a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute, now a part of Indiana University, where he said his life “really began.”

He left Herron after three years and worked briefly as an artist for a greeting card company in Dayton, Ohio.

Depressed when he was assigned to illustrate sympathy cards, however, he joined legions of other young men in the Depression who responded to the advertisement “Walt Disney is looking for artists.”

Peet began as an “in-betweener,” helping to draw Disney’s Donald Duck cartoons, until he got so fed up he stormed out screaming, “No more ducks!”

Expecting to join an unemployment line, Peet instead was assigned to work on “Pinocchio,” beginning his ascension in the Disney organization.

Drawing came as easily as breathing to Peet. Writing was hard work, but he quickly learned at Disney that the “story men” had more control, so he wrote and created the memorable storyboards.

When he left Disney to concentrate on books, Peet found that ideas came even harder than writing.

But as a father, he had told bedtime stories and suffered through a long succession of family pets.

He also wanted to make reading fun for children and teach them useful things like how to get along with others.

Starting with those ingredients, Peet cooked up a few ideas and began, as he described it, to “write and draw at the same time ... kind of a hodgepodge.”

Remembering, for example, the exotic South American capybara his son Bill once ordered from an animal importer, Peet created the 1966 book “Capyboppy.” In the book, as in real life, the tailless rodent grew so big and got so spoiled that it had to be given to the zoo.

In the 1975 book “Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent,” Peet taught that kindness is heroic by drawing Cyrus as a serpent out to sink a ship and eat the passengers so he wouldn’t seem like a “sissy,” only to wind up defending the ship against pirates.

Throughout his career, Peet loved meeting with children--and drawing animals for them.

He would start to draw some recognizable animal, he explained in his autobiography, only to switch to several others as fast as his little fans could shout out identifications.

Such a combination of camel, dog, elephant, giraffe, reindeer, rhino and zebra turned into the creature and 1970 book “Whingdingdilly.”

Even after cancer surgery in 1985 forced him to abandon classroom visits, Peet continued to personally answer his fan mail, often sketching animals in the margins of his notes to his little fans.

“My favorite compliment from the kids is, ‘We think your books are funny and make us laugh,’” Peet told The Times in 1990.

“If you are trying to get kids to read, a book should be entertaining. If it isn’t fun, it becomes a chore.”

For more than 25 years, Peet churned out books that his little readers grew up to read to their own children--"Farewell to Shady Glade,” “Buford the Little Bighorn,” “How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head,” “The Ant and the Elephant,” “Merle the High Flying Squirrel,” “The Gnats of Knotty Pine,” “Cowardly Clyde,” “Encore for Eleanor,” “Pamela Camel,” “Jethro and Joel Were a Troll” and “Zella, Zack and Zodiac.”

“Cock-a-Doodle Dudley,” published in 1990, was his final book.

To add to his Annie Award for contributions to animation, Peet received more than a dozen book awards for children’s literature, including the California Reading Assn.'s Significant Author Award in 1983.

His autobiography was a Caldecott honor book in 1989 and earned the Southern California Children’s Book Writer’s Medal.

Peet is survived by his wife of 64 years, Margaret; a son, William B. Jr.; and three grandchildren. Another son, Stephen, died in 1975.

Funeral services will be private.

A public memorial service is scheduled at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Church of the Hills, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the Wilderness Society, 1615 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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Times special correspondent Charles Solomon contributed to this article.


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