I just watched the documentary film “Frank and Ollie” last week for the first time. I knew that these two guys (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston) were legendary Disney animators and two of the “Nine Old Men.” I also had some idea that Frank and Ollie were good friends. I didn’t know just what good friends they were. What a very special friendship they had. A deep understanding of each other’s minds, immense wisdom and patience and love for life. It’s a wonderful story about two friends, really. And two great people. In addition, they created these wonderful works of animation that are and forever will be such huge contributions to our culture. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Bambi, just to name a few examples. That’s big. And yet, their contributions were so often such little things when it came down to it. A slight change in expression. The shape of the eye changing, a lean of the body one way or another, beautifully pushed, yet understated mannerisms. And the feeling behind those movements so wonderfully conveyed so that we really feel there is a living entity there, even if only in our imaginations (which is a lot). All embodied by some lines drawn on a piece of paper.
After watching “Frank and Ollie,” which was produced in 1995, I was saddened to learn that Ollie’s wife and his best friend Frank had both since passed away. Saddened after seeing what beautiful relationships Ollie had with these two, I imagined him then quite elderly and alone, but at least he might still have those friends, the trains. I wondered if maybe he was too elderly to care for his trains anymore. Then I learned that his train, the actual, life-size, restored steam engine, had since been purchased by John Lasseter (a long-time friend of Ollie’s). Where was Ollie now? And was he happy? It seemed to me, or so I hoped, that in spite of the loss of loved ones and the difficulties that come with age, he might still find some solace in his living an exceptionally good life. Which means having dear friendships, making a contribution to humanity… and what I saw in that film was a radiant inner joy, peace, and spirit that Ollie seemed to have. Of course, I think it’s pretty unlikely that he was alone. He was living in a long-term care facility in Sequim, Washington. That’s on the Olympic Peninsula, not far from Seattle (where I lived for 8 years), and it’s a beautiful area. The Olympic mountain range is there, Hoh Rainforest, hot springs nearby, Pugent sound to the north and east, and further west is the Pacific Ocean.
Ollie died of natural causes on Monday, April 14th, 2008, at the age of 95.
We’ll miss you Ollie. Your passing puts a final page on the story of the Nine Old Men, but your work and your legend will live on forever in some of the finest animation that we have ever (and may ever) experience.