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Walter Lantz and Woody Woodpecker

Wikimedia Commons / WPPilot

Walter Lantz and Woody Woodpecker

Animator Walter Lantz was born 115 years ago, April 27, 1899, 41 years before he created the wacky cartoon bird that would make him famous.

Lantz got his start as an artist as a teenager, studying at the Art Students League in New York while also working as an office boy at William Randolph Hearst's New York American newspaper. There he observed and learned from the comic artists who produced the paper's "funny pages" every day. When Hearst opened an animation studio, Lantz jumped at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. He taught himself animation by tracing the frames of a Charlie Chaplin film, one at a time, until he understood how the medium worked. Within two years, Lantz was promoted to full-fledged animator. He was still a teenager.

The Hearst studio closed in 1918, and Lantz moved on to work on Mutt and Jeff and other animated and live-action shows, according to his obituary in The New York Times. In 1927 he moved to Hollywood where he worked as a writer before Universal Pictures president Carl Laemmle tapped him to set up an animation studio on the Universal lot. He worked on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series with Walt Disney, and in 1935 was able to secure a deal with Universal that allowed him to retain ownership of his cartoons. That agreement proved lucrative for Lantz in 1939, when the donation of a panda to the Chicago Zoo inspired Lantz and his team to create Andy Panda, who became Lantz's first hit character. Andy Panda was soon joined by the hyperactive Woody Woodpecker in the 1940 short Knock Knock. CBS Sunday Morning profiled the jubilant character, including the source of Woody's voice: Lantz's wife, Grace.

The difference between the manic, almost menacing bird from 1940 and the beloved rascal he became is startling, and stands as a testament to Lantz's dedication to making his character a part of our lives. He was recognized with a special Academy Award in 1978 "for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world," including one of the most distinctive laughs in film history.