Animation historian John Culhane serving as model reference for Mr. Snoops in Disney's "The Rescuers" (1977). Click to enlarge. Animation historian John Culhane serving as model reference for Mr. Snoops in Disney's "The Rescuers" (1977). Click to enlarge.

John Culhane, Animation Historian and Mr. Snoops Inspiration, RIP

Animation historian John Culhane serving as model reference for Mr. Snoops in Disney's "The Rescuers" (1977). Click to enlarge.
Animation historian John Culhane serving as model reference for Mr. Snoops in Disney’s “The Rescuers” (1977). Click to enlarge.

Journalist John Culhane, best known for his trailblazing work as a Disney animation historian, as well as being the inspiration for Mr. Snoops in The Rescuers and Flying John in Fantasia/2000, passed away today at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York. The cause of death was complications from cardiac failure and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81 years old.

Culhane was a writer and journalist by trade, working for major publications such as the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek, and The New York Times, however he is known to the animation world for his work as an animation historian. A cousin of Disney animator Shamus Culhane, John was one of the first entertainment writers to properly acknowledge the work of individual animators in the mainstream media. He also wrote books about Disney animation including Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1983), Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film (1992), and Fantasia/2000: Visions of Hope (1999).

John Culhane served as the model for Mr. Snoops in "The Rescuers." (Click to enlarge.)
John Culhane served as the model for Mr. Snoops in “The Rescuers.” (Click to enlarge.)

He also taught classes on the history of animation at the School of Visual Arts, Fashion Institute of Technology, Mercy College, and NYU. “John Culhane was an extraordinarily communicative teacher,” said Oscar-winning filmmaker John Canemaker. “In 1997, I hired him to teach History of Animation at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. For nearly a dozen years thereafter, John’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject captured not only his students’ attention, but also their imaginations. He dazzled an always-packed classroom with tales of his first-hand journalistic experiences meeting giants of animation (including Walt Disney). He was magical, unorthodox in his teaching methods in bringing animation history to vital life. More than one student each fall semester sent me evaluations saying that John’s warmth, ebullience and supremely positive approach to life, changed their lives.”

John Culhane's seminal 1983 book on the making of Disney's "Fantasia."
John Culhane’s seminal 1983 book on the making of Disney’s “Fantasia.”

Culhane met Walt Disney in 1951 at the age of 17, during a trip to California from his Rockford, Illinois home. Introduced to Disney by Walt’s daughter, Diane, Culhane spoke to Disney for several hours. Walt’s advice to the aspiring writer: “Work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle.” After a Jesuit education at St. Louis University, Culhane became a reporter for his hometown paper the Rockford Register-Republic, later becoming an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News, media editor at Newsweek, and a roving editor at Reader’s Digest.

In the 1970s, Culhane started working with the Walt Disney Company’s publicity department. He moderated a celebration of the Disney Studio’s 50th anniversary at the Lincoln Center, and celebrated Mickey Mouse’s 50th anniversary in 1978 by traveling on a five-day fifty-seven-city whistle-stop train trip with Ward Kimball across the United States.

Disney animator/director Ward Kimball (l.) with John Culhane in 1978. (Photo: Ward Kimball Family collection.)
Disney animator/director Ward Kimball (l.) with John Culhane in 1978. (Photo: Ward Kimball Family collection.)

In the early-1980s, he toured college campuses to promote new Disney projects like Tron and The Black Cauldron, and hosted the 1983 Disney special Backstage at Disney, the first part of which can be seen below:

Culhane, however, may be best remembered for his appearances in Disney features, beginning with his “role” as Mr. Snoops in The Rescuers (1977). He explained in a 1976 in-house Disney publication how he came to be the model for the character:

“While snooping around the Disney Studio on previous assignments, I had gotten to know Milt Kahl, a master animator who also designed many of the characters in the Disney cartoons. In May, 1973, Milt gave a guest lecture to a class I was teaching and agreed to draw a poster to announce the event. In the poster, he caricatured both himself and me. When Milt got back to the Studio, the artists working on The Rescuers were searching for a look for one of the villains. In the script he was described as nervous, indecisive, and domineered by Medusa. The short-legged fellow with Milt in the poster looked to director Woolie Reitherman like that kind of guy, and they named him, after my profession, ‘Mr. Snoops.’ Even before I saw him on the screen, I realized that Snoops did indeed look like me because, wherever I went in the Disney Studio that year, artists passing me in the halls would do a double take, then say to each other, ‘It’s him, all right — it’s Mr. Snoops.'”

Milt Kahl's drawing of John Culhane that inspired the Mr. Snoops character.
Milt Kahl’s drawing of John Culhane that inspired the Mr. Snoops character.

Culhane again became the inspiration for an animated character when director Eric Goldberg turned him into Flying John in the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of Fantasia/2000. Goldberg provided this remembrance of Culhane to Cartoon Brew:

John was joyous, ebullient, tenacious, and so full of life and enthusiasm for the medium of animation that it is almost impossible to imagine him gone. When Susan and I were at Disney doing projects together, he was one of our strongest cheerleaders. At the time, we were trying to get a variety of things off the ground, and John was an avid supporter of all of them. It gave us no end of pleasure to receive letters from him signed “Flying John.” Every time we met at animation events (we even taught animation classes together down at Disney World in Florida!), he and his wife Hind were always gracious and a bunch of fun to be with. Truth be told, John was one of the very first writers one could call an “animation historian,” and practically the first to have his writings about the subject taken seriously. If one looks at the time line of fashionable Disney-bashers in the 70’s (The Disney Version, anyone?), John was one of the first to step forward and say, “No. Appreciate what beautiful, sincere, passionate artistry went into the making of these films.” And for that, we should all be forever grateful.

"Flying John" in "Fantasia/2000" was based on John Culhane. (Click to enlarge.)
“Flying John” in “Fantasia/2000” was based on John Culhane. (Click to enlarge.)

Former Disney animator Andreas Deja, who animated Culhane’s “Flying John” character interacting with a monkey, told Cartoon Brew:

I knew John Culhane as an enthusiastic animation historian and teacher. He was a fountain of knowledge, having met Walt Disney and all of the Nine Old Men. John was immensely proud of having been the inspiration for the character of Snoops in the film The Rescuers. He would frequently offer his autograph with the note “from the model for Milt’s Mr. Snoops.” His passion for the medium was infectious; he will be missed.

Culhane also collaborated with his late cousin, Shamus Culhane, on three animated primetime television specials for NBC: Noah’s Animals, King of the Beasts, and Last of the Red-Hot Dragons (for which he also supplied the dragon’s voice.

Culhane is survived by his wife of nearly 55 years, Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane of Baghdad, Iraq (a former dean of the school of sociology and behavorial sciences at Mercy College), and two sons — Michael Culhane, a Los Angeles-based songwriter, music producer, and performer, and Dr. T. H. Culhane, professor of sustainable development at Mercy College, as well as two brothers (Dick and Mark) and two sisters (Mary Ella Stone and Libby Keating).

  • guest

    Sounds like he was quite the guy. In a way, he got immortalized as any big fan or student of animation would like to be: as a cartoon character. Condolences to his family and friends on their loss.

  • Rest in peace, John “Mr. Snoops” Culhane. You will definitely not be forgotten.

  • Sounds like quite a legend… thank you for providing such thorough information on his life. It’s interesting to know the stories behind the recognizable name.

  • Andrew Kieswetter

    I remember watching Backstage At Disney on The Wonderful World of Disney here in Australia back in 1985.(it’s interesting to see footage of Tim Burton at Disney in it) I remember John Culhane mentioning he was the model for Mr.Snoops in The Rescuers. RIP John.

  • Tom Minton

    One would never suspect how old John was upon talking with him. His noted enthusiasm and love of life eclipsed mere mortal age.

  • John Taylor

    I was lucky to know him well, having grown up with his 2 sons. He was truly a man for the ages.

    • Craig Douglas

      Whoa, really? “Lucky” is the right word because…wow. Never knew the red-haired man from Fantasia 2000 was inspired by someone. Or even had a name. Learn something new every day, eh? But really, it’s always sad when someone passes on, and this is no exception. I wish his family well.

  • James Madison

    Really sad to be losing so many ambassadors.


  • Bruce Richards

    As a past faculty member of Cal Arts animation my move to New York was greatly enhanced by suddenly having John as a neighbor in Dobbs Ferry. He was always so open, friendly and enthusiastic about the Disney products and the artists that created them I always enjoyed learning more and sharing ideas with him. He was a fixture in the Village and he will be greatly missed. I thank him for all he shared with me.

  • Ray Kosarin

    John Culhane was so alive it feels impossible to imagine him gone.

    His deep knowledge and passion for animation, and especially Disney animation, was so great and infectious, in person and in writing, that he swept you immediately in, as if in a tsunami of pure joy. Beloved by legions of students and readers, his passing leaves a massive gap. We will miss him greatly.

  • Sandy Liao

    He was my professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He was one of the most cheery and positive person I have ever met. I still have all my papers that he wrote on because of the funny little jokes and comments. He will be remembered by all of his work, his family, and just for being such a positive figure. He will be greatly missed.