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Disney Classics Animator Ollie Johnston Dies at 95

Ollie Johnston, the last of the "Nine Old Men" who animated "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Fantasia," "Bambi" and other classic Walt Disney films has died. He was 95.

Johnston died of natural causes Monday at a long-term care facility in Sequim, Wash., Walt Disney Studios Vice President Howard E. Green said Tuesday.

"Ollie was part of an amazing generation of artists, one of the real pioneers of our art, one of the major participants in the blossoming of animation into the art form we know today," Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt Disney and director emeritus of the Walt Disney Co., said in a statement.

Walt Disney lightheartedly dubbed his team of crack animators his "Nine Old Men," borrowing the phrase from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's description of the U.S. Supreme Court's members, who had angered the president by quashing many of his Depression-era New Deal programs.

Although most of Disney's men were in their 20s at the time, the name stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps the two most accomplished of the nine were Johnston and his close friend Frank Thomas, who died in 2004 at age 92. The pair, who met as art students at Stanford University in the 1930s, were hired by Disney for $17 a week at a time when he was expanding the studio to produce full-length feature films. Both worked on the first of those features, 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Johnston and Thomas and their families became next-door neighbors in the Los Angeles suburb of Flintridge, and during their 45-minute drive to the Disney Studios each day, they would devise fresh ideas for work.

Johnston worked as an assistant animator on "Snow White," became an animation supervisor on "Fantasia" and "Bambi" and animator on "Pinocchio."

He was especially proud of his work on "Bambi" and its classic scenes, including one depicting the heartbreaking death of Bambi's mother at the hands of a hunter. That scene has brought tears to the eyes of generations of young and old viewers.

"The mother's death showed how convincing we could be at presenting really strong emotion," he remarked in 1999.

Johnston's other credits included "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan" "Lady and the Tramp," "Sleeping Beauty," "101 Dalmatians," "Mary Poppins," "The Jungle Book," "The Aristocats," "Robin Hood" and "The Rescuers."

"(People) know his work. They know his characters. They've seen him act without realizing it," said film historian Leonard Maltin. "He was one of the pillars, one of the key contributors to the golden age of Disney animation."

After Johnston and Thomas retired in 1978, they lectured at schools and film festivals in the United States and Europe and co-authored the books "Bambi; the Story and the Film," "Too Funny for Words," "The Disney Villains" and the epic "Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life." They were also the subjects of the 1995 documentary "Frank and Ollie," produced by Thomas' son Ted.

The pair's guide to animation is considered "the bible" among animators, said John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar animation studios and Johnston's longtime friend.

Oliver Martin Johnston Jr. was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Calif., where his father was a professor at Stanford. He once noted that he and Thomas "were bound to be thrown together" at the university, as they were two of only six students in its art department at the time. When not in class, they painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for meal money.

Johnston had planned on becoming a magazine illustrator but fell in love with animation.

"I wanted to paint pictures full of emotion that would make people want to read the stories," he once said. "But I found that here (in animation) was something that was full of life and movement and action, and it showed all those feelings."

Johnston was honored with a Disney Legends Award in 1989 and, in 2005, he was the first animator honored with the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.

He was also a major train enthusiast. The backyard of his Flintridge home boasted a hand-built miniature railroad, and Johnston restored and ran a full-size antique locomotive at a former vacation home in Julian, Calif.

Johnston's wife of 63 years, Marie Worthey, died in 2005. Johnston is survived by sons Ken and Rick and daughters-in-law Carolyn Johnston and Teya Priest Johnston. The Walt Disney Studios is planning a life celebration for Johnston. Funeral services will be private.