Of Walt’s Nine Old Men, perhaps the two that you hear the most about — if you know of the nine old men at all — are Frank and Ollie. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are both Disney Legends, and were born within a month of each other in 1912. Frank’s birthday was September 5, 1912, one day after and one year before my grandpa was born. Ollie was born on Halloween in 1912. The two would meet at Stanford when they were in college, and a lifelong friendship was struck.
Frank and Ollie are so connected in so many ways that it made sense to me to combine them together for this post. They were hired within months of each other at Disney; they worked on such classic movies as Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, and on and on and on. You may not have known who they were, but you certainly knew their work.
Frank, for example, was instrumental in animating the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp; the seven dwarfs crying over Snow White in the movie; and Bambi and Thumper on the ice at the pond. Outside of work, Frank was also the piano player in Ward Kimball’s band Firehouse Five plus Two.
Ollie was involved in these classic characters in Disney lore — Pinocchio, Bambi, Thumper, the Three Caballero’s (Donald, Panchito, and Jose), Mr. Smee, Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Rabbit, and Roo. What I found fascinating in doing my research is that back in the day, it was common practice for the animator to animate every character in the shot. So, it was conceivable that in a scene in the Three Caballero’s, Ollie would have animated the entire scene with all of it’s intricacies and so forth.
Ollie was also an avid railroad fan, as well, along with Ward Kimball, and the two of them were instrumental in encouraging Walt Disney’s love of trains. Ollie worked on his own backyard railroad, helped Walt with his backyard railroad, and later on, purchased and restored a full-sized narrow gauge locomotive. In fact, after it was restored, the train was run during an early morning private event at Disneyland — to this day, the only time that any non-Disney owned equipment has ever been run on Disney property!
Afterwards, Ollie sold the locomotive, named the Marie E., to some guy named John Lasseter, where he owns it to this day.
Frank and Ollie both retired from Disney on the same day, January 31, 1978. Working together, the two produced a book called Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, which has been noted to be one of the best books on animation ever written. In addition, they were featured in a documentary called Frank and Ollie, which was produced by Frank’s son Theodore.
Frank and Ollie were honored with a cameo in the movie The Incredibles.
Frank Thomas died on September 8, 2004, at the age of 92; Ollie Johnston died on April 14, 2008 — the last of Walt’s Nine Old Men to pass away.