Early years and start in animation
Lantz was born in New Rochelle, New York to Italian immigrant parents, Francesco Paolo Lantz (formerly Lanza) and Maria Gervasi. According to Joe Adamson's biography, The Walter Lantz Story, Lantz's father was given his new surname by an immigration official who Anglicized it. Walter Lantz was always interested in art, completing a mail order drawing class at age twelve. He saw his first animation when he watched Winsor McCay's cartoon short, Gertie the Dinosaur.
While working as an auto mechanic, Lantz got his first break. A wealthy customer named Fred Kafka liked his drawings on the garage's bulletin board and financed Lantz's studies at the Art Students League. Kafka also helped him get a job as a copy boy at the New York American, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Lantz worked at the newspaper and attended art school at night.
By the age of 16, Lantz was working in the animation department under director Gregory La Cava. Lantz then worked at the John R. Bray Studios on the Jerry On The Job series. In 1924, Lantz directed, animated, and even starred in his first cartoon series, Dinky Doodle. He moved to Hollywood, California in 1927, where he worked briefly for director Frank Capra and was a gag writer for Mack Sennett comedies.
The Oswald era
In 1928, Lantz was hired by Charles B. Mintz as a director on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series for Universal. Earlier that year, Mintz and his brother-in-law George Winkler had succeeded in snatching Oswald from the character's original creator, Walt Disney. Universal president Carl Laemmle became dissatisfied with the Mintz-Winkler product and fired them, deciding instead to produce the Oswalds directly on the Universal lot. While schmoozing with Laemmle, Lantz wagered that if he could beat Laemmle in a game of poker, the character would be his. As fate would have it, Lantz won the bet, and Oswald was now his character.
Lantz inherited many of his initial staff, including animator Tom Palmer and musician Bert Fiske from the Winker studio, but importantly he decided to select a fellow New York animator, Bill Nolan, to help develop the series. Nolan's previous credentials included inventing the panorama background and developing a new, streamlined Felix the Cat. Nolan was (and still is) probably best known for perfecting the "rubber hose" style of animation. In September 1929, Lantz finally put out his first cartoon, Race Riot.
By 1935, Nolan had parted company with Lantz. Lantz became an independent producer, supplying cartoons to Universal instead of merely overseeing the animation department. By 1940, he was negotiating ownership for the characters he had been working with.
The Woody Woodpecker era
When Oswald had worn out his welcome, Lantz decided that he needed a new character. Meany, Miny and Moe (three ne'er-do-well chimps), Baby-Face Mouse, Snuffy Skunk, Doxie (a comic dachshund) and Jock and Jill (monkeys that resembled Warner Brothers' Bosko) were some of the personalities Lantz and his staff had come up with. However, one character, Andy Panda, stood out from the rest and soon became Lantz's headline star for the 1939-1940 production season.
In 1940, Lantz had married actress Grace Stafford. During their honeymoon, the couple kept hearing a woodpecker incessantly pecking on their roof. Grace suggested that Walter use the bird for inspiration and make him into a cartoon character. Taking her advice, though a bit skeptical about its success, Lantz debuted Woody Woodpecker in an Andy Panda short, Knock Knock. The brash woodpecker character was similar to the early Daffy Duck, and Lantz liked the results enough to build a series around it.
Mel Blanc supplied Woody's voice for his first three cartoons. When Blanc accepted a full-time contract with Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. and left the Lantz studio, gagman Ben Hardaway, who was the main force responsible for Knock Knock, became the bird's voice. Despite this, Blanc's distinctive laugh was still used throughout the cartoons.
During 1948, the Lantz studio had a hit Academy Award-nominated tune in "The Woody Woodpecker Song", featuring Blanc's laugh. Mel Blanc sued Lantz for half a million dollars, claiming that Lantz had used his voice in various later cartoons without his permission. The judge, however, ruled against Blanc, saying that he had failed to copyright his voice or contributions. Even though Lantz had won the case, he paid Blanc the money in an out-of-court settlement when Blanc filed an appeal, and went off to search for a new voice for Woody Woodpecker.
In 1950, Lantz held anonymous auditions. Grace, Lantz's wife, had offered to do Woody's voice; however, Lantz turned her down because Woody was a male character. Not discouraged in the least, Grace went about secretly making her own anonymous audition tape, and submitted it with the others for the studio to listen to. Not knowing whose voice was being heard, Lantz picked Grace's voice to do Woody Woodpecker. Grace supplied Woody's voice until the end of production in 1972, and also appeared in other non-Woody cartoons. At first, Grace voiced Woody without screen credit, because she thought that it would disappoint the children to know Woody Woodpecker was voiced by a woman. However, she soon came to enjoy being known as the voice of Woody Woodpecker, and allowed her name to be credited on the screen. Her version of Woody was cuter and friendlier than the manic Woody of the 1940s, and Lantz's artists redesigned the character to suit the new voice personality.
Lantz's harmonious relationship with Universal, the studio releasing his cartoons, was interrupted when new ownership transformed the company into Universal-International and did away with most of Universal's company policies. The new management insisted on getting licensing and merchandising rights to Lantz's characters. Lantz refused and withdrew from the parent company by the end of 1947, releasing 12 cartoons independently through United Artists during 1948, into the beginning of 1949. Financial difficulties forced Lantz to shut down his studio in 1949. Universal-International re-released Lantz's UA (and several of his earlier) cartoons during the shutdown and finally came to terms with Lantz, who resumed production in 1951. From this point forward Lantz worked quicker and cheaper, no longer using the lush, artistic backgrounds and stylings that distinguished his 1940s work.
The baby boomer generation came to know and love Lantz as the creator of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons. He used his TV appearances on The Woody Woodpecker Show to show how the animation was actually done. For many of those young viewers, it was the first time they had seen an explanation of the process. That same generation later knew him for entertaining the troops during the Vietnam War and visiting hospitalized veterans. Walter Lantz was good friends with movie innovator George Pál. Because of this, Woody Woodpecker makes a cameo appearance in every feature film in which Pál was involved.
By the 1960s other movie studios had discontinued their animation departments, leaving Walter Lantz as one of the only two producers still making cartoons for theaters (the other was Friz Freleng). Lantz finally closed up shop in 1972 (by then, he later explained, it was economically impossible to continue producing them and stay in business), and Universal serviced the remaining demand with reissues of his older cartoons.
In his retirement, Lantz continued to manage his studio’s properties by licensing them to other media. He also continued to draw and paint, selling his paintings of Woody Woodpecker rapidly. On top of that, he worked with Little League and other youth groups around his area. In 1982, Lantz donated 17 artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, among them a wooden model of Woody Woodpecker from the cartoon character’s debut in 1941.
In 1993, Lantz established a ten thousand dollar scholarship and prize for animators in his name at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Walter Lantz died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California from heart failure on March 22, 1994, aged 94. Walter Lantz's ashes are located at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.
Some of the characters in the Lantz universe (both cartoons and comics) are Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Space Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Homer Pigeon, Chilly Willy, Andy Panda, Charlie Chicken and many more.
Walter Lantz "Cartunes"
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1929–1938, 1943)
Cartune Classics (1934–1942, 1953–1957) (miscellaneous characters, seen in the-new Technicolor)
Andy Panda (1939–1949) (usually voiced by radio and film actor Walter Tetley)
Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat
Woody Woodpecker (1941–1949, 1951–1972)
Swing Symphonies (1941–1945) (musical cartoons, often featuring top boogie-woogie musicians)
Musical Miniatures (1946–1948) (offshoot of the Swing Symphonies, featuring classical melodies)
Chilly Willy (1953–1972) (a penguin character, inspired by mystery novelist Stuart Palmer)
The Beary Family (1962–1972) (situation-comedy series with Mom, Pop, and Junior Bear)
Inspector Willoughby(1960-1965) (it's a human mustached like to kidnap bandits, similar to Tex Avery's "Droopy")
1959 Lantz was honored by the Los Angeles City Council as "one of America's most outstanding animated film cartoonists."
1973 the international animation society, ASIFA/Hollywood, presented him with its Annie Award.
1979 he was given a special Academy Award, "for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world through his unique animated motion pictures."
1986 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.