Don Lusk, Animator on 'Pinocchio,' 'Fantasia' and Charlie Brown Specials, Dies at 105

Don Lusk  - Obit- Disney Anim Desk -Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Slip Lusk

He served during Disney's 'Golden Age' and later worked on episodes of 'The Smurfs.'

Don Lusk, the prolific animator whose pencil drawings brought to life Pinocchio, Fantasia and 11 other classic films during Disney's Golden Age, has died. He was 105.

Lusk died Sunday at a retirement home in San Clemente, California, his son, Skip Lusk, told The Hollywood Reporter.

From 1933-60, Lusk was one of the many animators employed by Walt Disney to work on shorts and feature films, and his output was staggering. He drew Geppetto's pet goldfish Cleo and pet tuxedo cat Figaro for Pinocchio (1940), the Arabian Fish Dance to the "Nutcracker Suite" for Fantasia (1940), the dog chase for Bambi (1942), the mice for Cinderella (1950) and the title character floating down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland (1951).

After leaving Disney, he joined Bill Melendez Productions and animated such films as A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), Snoopy, Come Home (1972) and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977). He worked on 10 Peanuts primetime specials through the 1970s, including the enduring classic A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

At Hanna-Barbera, Lusk directed 136 episodes of The Smurfs as well as installments of Challenge of the GoBots, Pound Puppies, The Addams Family cartoon series and a Jetsons-Flintstones TV movie before retiring in 1993 at age 80.

In the 1981 book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston — two of Disney's famed "Nine Old Men" crew — wrote about Lusk's work on Fantasia: "The scenes of the glowing white fish in the Arabian Dance section of 'Nutcracker Suite' amazed the whole studio. Never has an object on celluloid looked so diaphanous and delicate … No one had ever seen such a gossamer effect, and very few knew how it had been achieved."

Four decades earlier, Lusk was one of the 334 Disney animators who went on strike, demanding a bump in salary from $87.50 a week.

"I didn't know what people at MGM or Warner Bros. were making, but I know they were making more than we were," Lusk told the Animation Guild in a 2013 interview. "So, I just said to hell with it, I'm going to go out on strike." He went to work at a liquor store until the walkout ended five weeks later.

Lusk then missed another three years at the studio when he served with the U.S. Marines in its newly created Animation Unit. Upon his return, he found his pay had increased to $125 a week.

The strike created friction between Walt and his animators, and Lusk recalled that the studio chief drew up a list of strikers to eventually be blacklisted. He survived at the studio until 1960, when he drew puppies for 101 Dalmatians. "I just barely got credit," he said. "I think I was the next to last name."

Lusk was born in Burbank on Oct. 28, 1913. He began his career in set and costume design. After being laid off, he caught a glimpse of Walt Disney's Hyperion Studio on his drive home to Glendale, California. (He ended up working over a lightbox there for nearly 30 years.)

He began as an "in-betweener" — those who filled in the action between key poses — on Goofy short films. "He wasn't easy. Goofy has too much detail on him," he recalled. Then, as a clean-up artist, he helped Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) make deadline.

Other Disney classics on which he worked included Song of the South (1946), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Late in his career, he directed episodes of Yogi's Treasure Hunt, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry Kids.

His wife, Marge, was a secretary at Disney in the personnel department and later in charge of the move of the studio to Burbank. 

Disney conceptual artist Mike Peraza wrote in a Facebook post Sunday that "as with so many animation veterans, [Lusk] was as talented [and he was] as he was generous to others with his advice and help over the years. He will be missed, but his wonderful work will live on."

In addition to his son, survivors include his daughter Marilyn; grandchildren Jason and Erica; and great-grandchildren Kyler, Catalina, Conner and Kayla.

In 2015, Lusk was the recipient of the Winsor McCay lifetime achievement award at the Annies event. "This is certainly a great honor for me," he said in a taped acceptance speech. "Somebody has to have a peak of their career, and this is it."

Mike Barnes contributed to this report.