Like so many of the great pioneer hand-drawn animators, Ollie Johnston was athletic. As a boy he loved playing touch football in a wide field of haystacks at Stanford where his father was a professor of romance languages. He enjoyed hiking, fishing and swimming in the lakes of the nearby hills. The ironic thing is how his idyllic childhood and adolescence was riddled with poor health, everything from severe sinus infection to measles and chicken pox to palsy.
His dear friend and animation peer Frank Thomas once said that Ollie is “stuck together with spit and string but will outlast everyone.” That has proven to be true.
Ollie was a survivor, a wonderful combination of inner strength and outer gentleness. He could be practical, thoughtful and tough in making life decisions, such as buying property or cutting down a favorite old tree when it loomed dangerously. But he was also a passionate man, full of emotions that found the perfect outlet in his soft, blue pencil lines that, as Glen Keane said, “coaxed into being” the most sensitive of character relationships. “I seem to have a kind of reservoir of feelings about how people felt in certain situations,” Ollie once explained.
He was also a great believer in the magic that happens when two drawings of characters touch each other. “It’s surprising,” he said, “what an effect touching can have in an animated cartoon.” Mowgli literally bear-hugging Baloo; Pongo giving an encouraging lick to frightened Perdita; old Rufus (Ollie’s self-caricature) brushing against sad orphan Penny; Prince John poking sycophantic Sir Hiss; drunken Mr. Smee rough-housing with Capt. Hook are but a few of the vivid physical interactions that Johnston used to unlock personalities who became messengers of emotion that connected with audiences around the world.
It was my luck and pleasure to have known Ollie Johnston as a friend for many years. He was wonderful, warm and gentle man, a teacher and author (like his father), and one of the great artists of animation. I miss him, but find comfort in that I can always find him when I view his amazing and touching animated performances.