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Disney Legend

(Caricature by John Musker)

Words by Mike Gabriel for Heroes of Imagination:
Joe Grant taught me many, many things over the 15 years I worked with him, about life and about cartoons. Probably the greatest lesson was observing the way he lived his life, summed up by a little 4 by 3 calligraphic note he wrote and kept taped to the outside of his office door at Disney. It read simply “Get to work” And boy did he work. Right up until he was about a week away from turning 97 years of age. He really lived that note. Never allow yourself to turn fallow. You are an artist; therefore you must reflect then create. Compensated or not, you must never stop coming up with ideas andconcepts and thoughts that need to be captured in drawings and/or words. Stay in the game. Create. Get on the screen or the art pad, pick up that stylus pen, ink pen, grease pencil, water colors, or charcoal and get that brain working. Reflect in your drawings what you observed in the previous 12 hours of your life. If you can¹t feel the brain working, then keep drawing anyway, abstracts work fine, and eventually you will. Let your mind and pencil wander aimlessly into a state of grace that enables you to scribble out an inkling of an idea, that turns the next image into a genuine thought, then you draw another sketch that makes it clearly viable and worth showing to someone else who, if it¹s a good idea, might even find a way to top it, expand it, or ruin it. But you created it. And now it has life and a hope to live as a film moment with longevity and resonance. And you keep creating. He lived by that and I try to live by that. You keep going. You keep working. Old pains diminish when you do new work. The better the new work, the quicker the pains diminish.Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson would occasionally go to dinner with Joe after Joe¹s return to Disney in the 1990s. He told me Frank and Ollie were confounded on why Joe was still working at Disney. He said he told them the real question is why weren’t they? Get to work! It isn’t easy but it is the only way you will continue to grow and continue to change. Joe believed deeply in evolving. That would probably be the second most important thing I learned from Joe. Evolve. Never stagnate. Never sink into your own silt of success. One of his favorite quotes from Henri Bergson, stressed just that; “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” Joe always forced himself to try new techniques and new media. Every decade another round of redefining. Whether ink caricatures in the thirties, to animated cartoons from the thirties through the forties, toceramics and greeting cards in the fifties and sixties, to a new era at Disney animation with new computer tools and in the eighties and nineties into the new millennia. He forced himself to learn all the new computer tools. Forced is probably the wrong verb because he loved learning the new tools. He simply loved learning. Never arrogant in thinking he didn¹t need to learn more. This incongruous modesty from Walt Disney’s right hand man, his “go to” guy, and the guy who created among other things, what many consider the greatest animated film of all time, Dumbo. If not the greatest it ranks right up there with the most beloved. Walt was busy with other projects during Dumbo’s creation and it was left more than ever to Joe and his partner Dick Huemer to make. The overwhelming success of Dumbo upon its release, it even made the cover of Time magazine, unfortunately made Walt feel sidelined for the first time in his career and he didn¹t like that feeling one little bit. Walt threw the Time magazine down in front of Joe and Dick and half jokingly said, “I guess I’m not needed around here anymore.” You have to be pretty darn good to get Walt Disney to feel a little threatened by your skills. Joe was that good and Walt knew it. It’s why he loved and respected Joe and kept him by his side for so many years.

Joe loved learning from all the new animated T.V. shows. He found things to admire in most everything that others created. He appreciated their efforts and how marvelous of them to have created that work. He greatly admired any creative effort because he knew the people who created it gave a lot of themselves to bring it to completion. He knew the dark passage of blankness to birth of a product. He learned something from each creation. He was familiar with every program on every channel. I wondered if he ever slept. He loved learning from all the new movies released in theaters. Good or bad he absorbed and evaluated, appreciated and learned. He read the main newspapers and The New Yorker magazine regularly. He seemed to know every new musical group, rock, rap or country, and everything in-between. When you continue to work you remain engaged. He stayed engaged to contemporary life. He lived in the present not the past. He added to the present. He looked back only to start there and move the game ahead. Or to grab an idea of his from the past that was duly locked into drawn concept form and bring it out when the time was right for another shot at getting put to final film form. Never give up on an idea. Its time may come. Joe’s style taught me perseverance and patience will get many a good film made.

Joe stayed in remarkable physical shape all his life. He exercised daily, walked his dogs and took hikes up his backyard hills with his dogs almost every day. Life is better if you are fit. You stay in the game more easily. You feel strong enough to compete with the younger creative muscles out there. Defy old age. Hate it. Have contempt for it. Laugh at it. If he would start to bend a little bit as he and his posture did start to wilt a bit, he would stop, say out loud to himself, “Think tree, Joe” and stand right back up straight as a redwood. He never stopped fighting that murderous clock.

When life served him grief and mourning he leaned into work to get him out. Can you imagine the number of funerals he had to attend and friends Joe had to say good-bye to in his 96 plus years? His greatest blow was the loss of his beloved wife, Jenny. She was the one who encouraged Joe into returning to Disney because she more than anyone knew her Joe and how much Joe needed work. Creating was his oxygen.

Joe challenged himself to do good work in spite of inept leadership or inept directors. That was not in his control. But doing good work was and so he continued to work. I believe he was a happy man. A million other emotions and musings and philosophies but overall I would describe him as happy. How many happy 96-year-old men do you know? He was happy because he continued to care about work and the new generation of people he worked with. He cared. He wasn¹t just going through the motions. Even when I knew he was extremelyfrustrated with certain elements of his return to Disney, he continued to care about his work and helping others with their work. He soldiered on. He got his old body out of bed, did his exercises, ate his bowl of Irish oats, patted his dog, Parky (found him in a park—his other dog Marina he found in a marina), on the head, and drove into work. There is salvation in creating. There is joy in creating.

Another great lesson I learned from Joe was that a strong sense of humor is the secret weapon to solving every problem, in your story work and in your personal life. Start every story idea with,”Wouldn’t it be funny if” and you can’t go wrong. The funniest idea always wins. Never stop finding humor in life and the human condition. I absolutely loved Joe’s sense of humor.

One small example, as Joe, Burny Mattinson and I lunched in a booth at our daily haunt Genio¹s, now gone, Joe was in the middle of a great anecdote but a big guy with a loud booming voice drowned out Joe¹s story to the point that Joe finally just stopped talking and looked down. Burny and I didn¹t know if he was getting mad at this loud lout or what. Joe then raised his head and quietly said to us, “It¹s not that he¹s so loud that bothers me, it¹s that his story is better than mine.” That tells you about a million things about Joe, about how to deal with everyday stressful situations in life, and about humility and grace overcoming coarseness along life’s journey.

Left to Right: Burny Mattison, Suzanne Wilson, Rowland Wilson,
Joe Grant, Mike Gabriel at Genio’s restaurant.

Joe gave my career and me a tremendous gift with the idea for my 2004 animated short film for Disney called Lorenzo. Many years ago, Joe had conceived of a fat, fuzzy, lazy, vain, cat that happens to cross paths with a mystical black cat with magical powers. The mysterious black cat puts a hex on the fat cat’s tail and brings it to life to torment the exasperated owner of the tail. A cat that can’t get away from his own tail. Perfect example of Joe¹s ability to see real life/ He was watching one of his pet cats resting quietly and how the cat¹s tail seemed to move on its own without any connection to the cat who was moving it—and turn it into a fanciful mad reverie of imagination taken to the hilt.I was blessed to be able to make Lorenzo with Joe and we went to the Academy Awards together a few months before his death with our little nominee giving the eventual winner, “Ryan” a run for its money. Joe looked great in his wheelchair being pushed by his prized granddaughter Diane. Instead of being depressed that Lorenzo didn’t win, Joe said he had a terrific time from his wheelchair perspective, “A night full of cumber buns and cleavage.” He came in the next morning and said, “Now Mike, for our next short here’s an idea I think we should play with Heaven. ”Get to work!” is a privilege. You “get” to work. Joe knew that better than anyone. ~By Director Mike Gabriel

Words by Roger Allers for Heroes of Imagination:
Though I loved to listen to Joe’s stories of his days with Walt, Joe was always more interested in what was going on NOW. I think that was a great key to his vitality. He was rooted in the Present. With his inquisitive mind and his sense of humor, he stayed a creative force till his last day. He was an amazing role-model and a dear friend. Thank you, Joe!

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