John Culhane, Disney Animation Historian, Dies at 81

Courtesy of The Walt Disney Co.
John Culhane's likeness was used for the character of Mr. Snoops in "The Rescuers."

His likeness appears in 'The Rescuers' and 'Fantasia/2000,' and he assisted on screenplays and TV specials and taught animation for four decades.

John Culhane, a Disney animation historian whose likeness served as the inspiration for characters in the films The Rescuers and Fantasia/2000, has died. He was 81.

Culhane died Friday of complications from cardiac failure and Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Disney announced.

Culhane was caricatured as the cowardly antagonist Mr. Snoops (voiced by Joe Flynn) in the 1977 animated adventure The Rescuers and as Flying John in the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment in 1999’s Fantasia/2000.

A former journalist who began working for Disney in the 1970s as a publicist, Culhane served as an uncredited writer on the Disney live-action feature Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and with two-time Oscar-winning animation director Richard Williams on The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).

In 1983, he wrote and starred in "Backstage at Disney," an episode of Disney Channel’s Studio Showcase, which included a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a young Tim Burton working on his first film, the stop-motion animated short Vincent.

Culhane also collaborated with his late cousin, Shamus Culhane, on three animated primetime specials for NBC starting in the late 1970s.

A native of Rockford, Ill., at age 17 Culhane was introduced to Walt Disney by Walt’s daughter, Diane. During a conversation that lasted several hours, the studio chief told the aspiring writer, "Work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle."

Culhane attended St. Louis University, then became a reporter and daily columnist for the Rockford Register-Republic and an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News.

He went on to become media editor at Newsweek and a roving editor at Reader’s Digest, and he authored more than 20 articles for The New York Times Magazine, including landmark pieces about Disney animation that gave unprecedented recognition to the studio's fabled "Nine Old Men."

Culhane wrote books about Disney animation including Walt Disney’s Fantasia, published in 1983, Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film (1992) and Fantasia/2000: Visions of Hope (1999) as well as 1986’s Special Effects in the Movies: How They Do It: Dazzling Movie Magic and the Artists Who Create It.

For more than four decades, Culhane taught animation at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Mercy College in Westchester County and, for a dozen years, at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

"John’s ceaseless enthusiasm for animation was a natural match for his personality — one of the most animated men ever to stand at the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive," Don Hahn, producer of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Maleficent, said in a statement. "How lucky we are to have known him and been affected by his insights into the art of Disney, and by his witty, charming, loving spirit."

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Hind; sons Michael and Thomas, brothers Dick and Mark and sister Mary Ella. Plans for a life celebration will be announced later.

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