Walter Benjamin Lantz was an American cartoonist, animator, film producer, and director, best known for founding Walter Lantz Productions and creating Woody Woodpecker. While working as an auto mechanic Lantz got his first break. A wealthy customer named Fred Kafka liked his drawings on the garage's bulletin board and financed Lantz's studies at the Art Students League of New York. Kafka also helped him land a job as a copy boy at the New York American, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Lantz worked at the newspaper and attended art school at night.
By the age of 16, Lantz was working in the animation department under director Gregory La Cava. Lantz then worked at the John R. Bray Studios on the Jerry On The Job series. In 1924, Lantz directed, animated, and even starred in his first cartoon series, Dinky Doodle, and soon replaced George "Vernon" Stallings as head of production (In the 1920s, Bray began to concentrate on competing with Hal Roach, the "king of two-reelers").
In 1928, Lantz was hired by Charles B. Mintz as director on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series for Universal Studios. Earlier that year, Mintz and his brother-in-law George Winkler had succeeded in snatching Oswald from the character's creator, Walt Disney. Universal president Carl Laemmle grew dissatisfied with the Mintz-Winkler product and fired them, deciding instead to produce the Oswalds on the Universal lot. While schmoozing with Laemmle, Lantz wagered that if he could beat Laemmle in a game of poker, the character would be his. As fate would have it, Lantz won the bet, and Oswald was now his character.
Lantz inherited many of his initial staff, including animator Tom Palmer and musician Bert Fiske from the Winkler studio, but importantly he chose fellow New York animator, Bill Nolan, to help develop the series. Nolan's previous credentials included inventing the panorama background and developing a new, streamlined Felix the Cat. Nolan was (and still is) best known for perfecting the "rubber hose" style of animation.
By 1935, Nolan parted company with Lantz. Lantz became an independent producer, supplying cartoons to Universal instead of merely overseeing the animation department. By 1940, he was negotiating ownership for the characters he had been working with.
In 1940, Lantz married actress Grace Stafford. During their honeymoon, the couple kept hearing a woodpecker incessantly pecking on their roof. Grace suggested that Walter use the bird for inspiration as a cartoon character. Taking her advice, though a bit skeptical, Lantz debuted Woody Woodpecker in an Andy Panda short, Knock Knock. The brash woodpecker character was similar to the early Daffy Duck, and Lantz liked the results enough to build a series around it.
In retirement, Lantz continued to manage his properties by licensing them to media. He continued to draw and paint, selling his paintings of Woody Woodpecker rapidly. On top of that, he worked with Little League and other youth groups in his area. In 1982, Lantz donated 17 artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, among them a wooden model of Woody Woodpecker from the cartoon character’s debut in 1941. The Lantzes also made time to visit hospitals and other institutions where Walter would draw Woody and Grace would do the Woody laugh for patients.
In 1990 "Woody Woodpecker" was honored with a star on the Hollywood "Walk Of Fame".