Joe Grant, one of Walt Disneys most creative and trusted artists and storymen, who designed the Queen/Witch character in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, and co-wrote DUMBO, passed away May 6 at his home in Glendale, California. He was 96, just nine days short of his 97th birthday. Grant suffered a heart attack while working at his drawing board at his home studio. Still very active, Grant continued to work at Walt Disney Feature Animation four days a week, including the day before he died.
Earlier this year, Grant attended the Academy Awards, where the humorous short film he had conceived about a narcissistic cat, LORENZO (directed by Mike Gabriel), vied for Best Animated Short. At the time of his death, Grant was developing several feature-length and short animation projects, in collaboration with his friend and Disney colleague, Burny Mattinson. Always the cat enthusiast, Grant even told one Disney employee the day before he died that he began bonding with a new feline friend.
Born in New York on May 15, 1908, Grant moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was two years old. The son of a successful newspaper art editor, he received his art training through frequent visits to the newsroom with his father. His first big professional break came when he was hired to create cartoons and caricatures of famous personalities on a weekly basis for THE LOS ANGELES RECORD. Those whimsical, stylized drawings brought him to the attention of Walt.
Grants legendary career at Disney spanned more than seven decades. He began his association with the studio back in 1933, when Walt personally asked him to caricature celebrities of the day for the animated short, MICKEYS GALA PREMIERE. This led to other freelance assignments, and eventually a fulltime position in 1937.
Among Grants first duties was to design the Queen/Witch. When Walt asked him, What do we do for an encore? while SNOW WHITE (1937) was still in production, Grant was charged with creating the studios Character Model department a think tank for future animated projects that experimented with innovative character design, sculpted three-dimensional models and did early story development. With his vast knowledge of art and literature, Grant was considered Disneys top intellectual and had a profound influence on the films that got made. He played a major role on the next two projects PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA (1940) and worked closely with Disney, Leopold Stokowski and his creative partner Dick Huemer on the latter to select the music and direct the story development for that landmark film. The Character Model department also had a hand in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941), SALUDOS AMIGOS (1942), among others.
Outside of his role in the Model department, Grant made his mark as one of the Studio's top writers and gagmen. Grant and Huemer reteamed to write DUMBO (1941), which was inspired by a children's book in the form of a tiny scroll. In 1939, Grant and his wife, Jenny, came up with a story about a Springer Spaniel named Lady, which later became the genesis of LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955). Grant also had a hand in MAKE MINE MUSIC (1946) as director and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951).
During the war years, Grant and Huemer contributed story, gags and designs for many of the Studio's patriotic-themed shorts, INCLUDING REASON AND EMOTION, EDUCATION FOR DEATH and the Academy Award-winning DER FUEHRER'S FACE.
When the Character Model department disbanded in 1949, Grant left Disney to pursue his own artistic ventures. He started several successful businesses including a ceramics studio (Opechee Designs) and a greeting card company (Castle Ltd.).
Grant continued to have Walts ear and confidence up through his departure in 1949. After a 40- year absence, he was lured back to the studio in 1989 to work on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This led to a second career at Disney that lasted until his death. During that time, Grant contributed an abundance of character designs, story ideas and sketches and gags for such popular films as ALADDIN (92), POCAHONTAS (95), THE LION KING (94), MULAN (98 for which he created the character of Cri-Kee), among others. For FANTASIA/2000, Grant conceived the notion of a yo-yo ballet involving flamingos for the Carnival of the Animals sequence (which was animated and directed by Eric Goldberg). For Pixar Animation Studios MONSTERS, INC. (2001), Grant came up with the films title, and provided inspiration to director Pete Docter, a longtime admirer and protégé.
Grant was named an official Disney Legend at a ceremony in 1992 and received a Ruben Award (from the National Cartoonists Society) in 1996. Additionally, he is the recipient of an Annie Award (from ASIFA) and more than 70 of his caricatures are included in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institute. In May 1998, he was honored at the animation festival in Annecy, France, with a celebration of his life and work. Grant had an exhibition of his work (Joe Grant: 50 Years in the Pen) at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 2003, and was honored by his Disney colleagues this past April with a special tribute at a departmental gathering. He also received a special award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. in January 2002 for his career and lifetime achievements.
Commenting on Grants legacy, animation filmmaker/author John Canemaker (BEFORE THE ANIMATION BEGINS: THE ART AND LIVES OF DISNEY INSPIRATIONAL SKETCH ARTISTS), head of the film animation program at New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts/animation filmmaker/author, noted, Joe was a great artist in several fields, endlessly creative in an amazing variety of media from caricatures to animation story and concepts, to writing, to ceramics, to greeting cards and so on and on and on. He was one of the architects of some of the greatest animated films of all time He was great as a person as well witty, charming and possessed of a keen and ever-youthful intellect. What an inspiration to us all! It was a privilege to have known him and I will miss him.
Film critic/animation historian Leonard Maltin added, Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, Joe never lived in the past. He was always on top of current films and trends, and was the biggest cheerleader for young talent that you could imagine. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know him.
David Stainton, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, added, We were so incredibly fortunate to have had Joe at the studio sharing his creativity and enthusiasm, and inspiring young talent for such a long time. He was an unforgettable presence and a larger-than-life figure, who continued to contribute in so many ways to our films and our artistic sensibilities. Not only was Joe a talented collaborator, but he was so much fun to be around. Were going to miss his famous one-liners, philosophical remarks, constructive comments, and his brilliant talent for stories, characters, and structure. We join the animation community in celebrating the life of a true giant and a great talent.
Pixars Docter observed, Though quick to say he wasnt an animator, Joe had an astounding enthusiasm for animation as a medium, even after being part of it for more than 70 years. You could hear it in his voice. He just loved it. He was a wealth of information and wisdom, although he would insist that in his case it was wisdumb. He inspired everyone with his self-professed compulsion for drawing. The man left stacks of wonderful sketches wherever he went. He was always experimenting with new techniques and media. His drawings were not only incredibly well drawn (even at age 96) but they were just great ideas.
Once when Joe and I were talking over some story concepts, he asked, What are you giving the audience to take home? By that he meant, what part of the story will lodge in the audiences heart and mind that they will continue to think about it for days or even years. Its a concept I think about every day, and something that has definitely affected my work at Pixar. In the end, I feel like Joe gave me himself to take home. I know hes someone Ill be thinking about for a long, long time.
Grant is survived by two daughters, Carol Eve Grubb (the inspiration for Baby Weems from THE RELUCTANT DRAGON) and Jennifer Grant Castrup; a grandson, Michael Joseph Grubb; a granddaughter, Diane Castrup; and a great grandson, Tristan Snyder. Jennie, his wife of 70 years, passed away in 1991.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations can be made to the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA, 361 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena, California, 91105. Funeral services will be held May 14 at 9:00 am at The Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Glendale (1712 S. Glendale Ave.) A life celebration is in the planning stages and will be announced shortly.