Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars
by John Cawley & Jim Korkis
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Woody Woodpecker

Superstar Summary
THE STAR: Woody Woodpecker
STUDIO OF DEBUT: Walter Lantz (distributed by Universal)
SIGNATURE: "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" (Woody's laugh)

KEY CREW BEHIND THE STAR: Walter Lantz (producer/director), Ben Hardaway (writer), Mel Blanc (voice), Grace Stafford Lantz (voice), Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy & Paul J. Smith (directors)

CAREER HIGH: WET BLANKET POLICY (1948) which introduced the "Woody Woodpecker" song, a phenomenal pop hit and Oscar nomimated tune.

Woody Woodpecker literally exploded from the screen in his first appearance. Some cartoon superstars took several cartoon appearances to develop their personality. Woody immediately established himself as an aggressive, self-confident and wildly funny character. Though he mellowed over the years, his debut showcased the basic elements that made him a star.

That first cartoon (1940's KNOCK KNOCK) introduced probably the greatest distinguishing characteristic of Woody, his maniacal laugh. Its machine-gun like rapidity was unmatched by any other character. It was the key item that propelled the "Woody Woodpecker" song to such heights of popularity. Walter Lantz often pointed out that even though Woody's cartoons had been shown in over 72 countries, the famous laugh was the only part that is not dubbed. The laugh was a cry of triumph as well as a confirmation of an energetic and unrestrained craziness.

Woody's original coloring was a hodgepodge of bright primary and secondary colors making him a vibrant rainbow when compared with other characters. Later, even limiting his design to the familiar white, blue, gold and fire-engine red still made him stand out. The colors matched his brash, raucous character.

There was never any shyness or hesitancy about Woody. He knew what he wanted and nothing nor no one prevented him from trying to get it. He had the supreme self-confidence that he deserved the best simply because he was who he was. The emotional and physical cost to other characters were not even a passing concern to him. If Woody needed gas for his car or food or lodging or the love of a girl, he was unstoppable.

Rarely was Woody the victim who had to retaliate against the machinations of other characters like crooked insurance salesmen or sadistic shopkeepers. Especially in the early cartoons, it was Woody who instigated the problem and then continued to aggravate the situation. In such conflicts, his moods could swing from hysterical joy to explosive anger. There was the implication that he personally enjoyed these often violent conflicts.

Despite model sheets, there never seemed to be a consensus of agreement on the size of Woody. In some cartoons, he might be as small as a real woodpecker and easily held in a hand. In other cartoons, he would be about three or four feet tall, probably comparable to a Donald Duck. There were even times where his size varied within the same cartoon. However, in the majority of cartoons, he was usually the smallest character constantly challenging physically more imposing antagonists like Wally Walrus and Buzz Buzzard.

He seemed more clever than intelligent and often won because his opponents were slower than he was or less persistent. His attitude never allowed him to admit defeat.

In the early cartoons, Woody was extremely violent and hyperactive, almost a blur of constant movement. Seemingly without bones at times, he was a hard bird to contain as his head could pop out from the smallest opening whether it was a radiator cap or a knothole.

Like most of his long-lived cartoon counterparts, including Mickey Mouse, Woody eventually became domesticated in the Fifties. The wild-eyed, ill-proportioned nuisance of the Forties had his top notch moved forward, bill shortened and body made squatter in an attempt to make him cuter and easier to draw.

Again, like other characters, he was cast in the role of surrogate father to young relatives, Knothead and Splinter. Despite his softening, he was still a mischief maker and irritant to his supporting cast. However, his days of wild extremes were over as he became as much a symbol for Lantz's studio as Mickey Mouse was for Disney's studio. In a medium overloaded with animated mice, dogs, cats, bears and ducks, Woody was the only Woodpecker. He overcame poor stories, limited animation and often unimaginative direction to become an instantly recognizable and loved personality.


Before Woody, probably the most popular character developed by Walter Lantz was Andy Panda. Andy was created in 1939 to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the donation of a panda to the Chicago Zoo. In the beginning, Andy was a bright young boy panda bear with a large, gruff, slow father. Andy would have become Lantz's main star if not for a happy accident.

According to legend, while Lantz was on his honeymoon at a cabin at Sherwood Lake, California, his bliss was interrupted repeatedly by an annoying woodpecker. At the worst times, the bird would tap away on the roof.

"I threw rocks at the bird and he would not go away," remembered Lantz. "I was going to shoot him, but there was a law against it."

The legend continues that upon returning to the studio, Lantz regaled his staff with his misadventures. It was decided to use Lantz's experience as the basis of a new Andy Panda cartoon, KNOCK KNOCK (1940). Some version of this story has often been told, usually by Lantz himself to describe the creation of Woody Woodpecker. While a similar incident may have happened to Lantz, the cartoon was released in 1940 and Lantz got married almost a year later, in 1941. Like many character creation stories, it simplifies for the general audience what might have been a complicated process over a long period of time.

There had been four previous Andy Panda cartoons before KNOCK KNOCK. One of the elements that made this cartoon different was the contributions of storyman Ben "Bugs" Hardaway. Hardaway had recently come from Warners where he had been involved in the development of two wild and crazy characters, the early Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. In fact, Bugs Bunny inherited his first name from Hardaway's nickname.

There are similarities between the unrestrained but generally good natured looniness of the early Warners characters and Woody. One example might be the tendency towards quick, erratic, but almost constant character movement.

Another connection was Woody's voice. It was supplied by Mel Blanc who had done similar work on Bugs and Daffy. Some people have even suggested that a beginning version of Woody's laugh was heard in an early Bugs Bunny laugh. Blanc had been doing a version of the laugh since his high school days. In a broader sense, Woody's voice, a frantic yet self-assured gurgle punctuated by that 'rat-a-tat-tat' laugh, was unique. The visual and the vocal blended immediately to create a memorable character.

KNOCK KNOCK was to be just another typical Andy Panda installment, capitalizing on Papa Panda's mounting frustration to a problem. Supposedly just like Lantz, Papa Panda's work is disturbed by an unknown pounding sound. The source of the disturbance is a grotesque looking woodpecker who apparently has tormented the father previously. The father's escalating attempts at violence continually backfire on him, leaving the bird unharmed. On the other hand, little Andy, in an attempt to discover whether it is possible to capture a bird by putting salt on its tail, ends up trapping the wacky woodpecker. However, the bird still gets the last laugh.

The lovable but hopelessly middle-class Pandas never stood a chance against this insanity. Woody's brightness made him the star of the cartoon, a fact reinforced by early audience reaction and distributors asking for sequels. Lantz had directed this first cartoon himself, as well as the first solo Woody cartoon entitled WOODY WOODPECKER (1941). (It's also known as THE CRACKED NUT). Woody's forest friends, concerned about his sanity, guide him to a psychiatrist who by the end of the cartoon has been driven crazy by Woody.


Director Alex Lovy took over the character for a short while starting in 1942 and his first cartoon was ACE IN THE HOLE. A wartime effort, it had janitor Woody becoming a pilot who takes an airplane on an outrageious joyride and ends up back as a janitor. Despite the possibillities of the premise, it lacked the intensity of some of the earlier cartoons.

That frenetic energy was recaptured in 1944 when Shamus Culhane inherited the directing assignment. Culhane's first outing was BARBER OF SEVILLE, considered by many people to be a cartoon classic. It is filled with a fast paced succession of physical gags as Woody's barber skills are practiced on a pair of unsuspecting patrons. It is with this cartoon that the redesigning of Woody's appearance begins. His color scheme becomes limited and his body modified to be more appealing.

Culhane's work emphasized violent action but the exaggeration of that action reaffirmed the humor in the character. THE BEACH NUT (1944) had Woody destroying Wally Walrus's peace-of-mind and his seaside amusement park. THE RECKLESS DRIVER (1946) finds Woody attempting to renew his driver's license and, after a wild car ride with examiner Wally Walrus, deciding he really wants a pilot's license instead.

In 1946, ex-Disney director Dick Lundy was phased in as Woody's director. Lundy felt that Culhane's work was too wild, even though in retrospect they may have been some of the funniest cartoons of Woody's career. Lundy brought to the series a Disney timing and an almost fanatical concern to lush, soft quality animation.

Lundy still made the woodpecker a bird of action. One of the major differences was there was now a reason behind Woody's behavior. When Woody destroyed an apartment in BATHING BUDDIES (1946), it was because he wanted to retrieve his dime.

MUSICAL MOMENTS FROM CHOPIN (1947) was definitely a memorable Lundy effort. This Oscar nominated cartoon had Woody and Andy Panda playing piano duets in a barn for an appreciative barnyard crowd. (Interestingly, MGM's THE CAT CONCERTO and Warners' RHAPSODY RABBIT explored similar themes during this same year.) Andy is a more dignified performer while Woody pounds away on the keys with nearly every part of his body. An accidental fire on stage forces the performers to rush to finish their concert before their pianos are consumed by the flames.

Woody is a softer character in this film, as he is in most of Lundy's episodes. Even WET BLANKET POLICY (1948) softens such extreme violence as Buzz Buzzard chasing Woody with a huge axe and trying to toss the bird into a pit of alligators. In this cartoon, Woody is atypically the victim rather than the perpetrator.


1950 was a year of change for Woody. Lantz closed his studio for a year due to problems with Universal, his distributor. When he reopened, he took over directing chores again. Only Woody cartoons would be released in 1951 and 1952 and would remain the primary releases from the studio for the next two decades.

In 1950, Woody appeared in a short animated segment in the feature film, DESTINATION MOON. It was Woody's function to explain the principles of rocket propulsion, an unfamiliar concept to audiences in those days. This was the first time that Lantz's wife, Grace Stafford, did the famous voice.

She had been doing voices for Lantz's cartoons, primarily the female characters, but wanted to do Woody. When Lantz was auditioning for a new voice actor for the bothersome bird, Grace anonymously slipped in her own taped tryout and an unsuspecting Lantz picked his wife.

Grace's influence on the character was immediately noticeable. She had always felt the character was too extreme and she toned down her vocal interpretation. LaVerne Harding, one of the few female animators at the time, redesigned the character as well. Harding even as early as Alex Lovy's tenure had been assigned the "cute" scenes. In an interview, she confessed she always had more of a feeling for "cuteness than goofiness."

The brash aggressiveness of the Forties was giving way to a calmer, more domesticated attitude in the Fifties and the new Woody reflected this shift. Certainly budget restrictions also contributed to the lessening of non-stop action that had been an important aspect of the character.

By 1953, a new director took over Woody's career. Paul J. Smith would continue directing Woody until Lantz closed his studio in 1972. It is Smith's version of the woodpecker that is perhaps best known to today's audience thanks to their almost continual exposure on TV. At best, Smith was a competent but unexciting director who was always able to complete his cartoons within their small budget. He was not noted for adding character touches to Woody like earlier directors.

Other than brief periods where directors like Jack Hannah (who introduced the character Gabby Gator), Sid Marcus and Alex Lovy did a handful of cartoons, Smith was the primary director of Woody and after 1966, the sole director.

Woody's cartoons of the Fifties spoofed popular topics like westerns (HOT NOON, SLINGSHOT 6-7/8) and science fiction (TERMITES FROM MARS). SCALP TREATMENT (1951) has Woody and Buzz as Indian braves battling for the love of the same Indian princess and Buzz trying to scalp Woody with a lawn mower. WOODPECKER FROM MARS (1956) has Woody mistaken for a Martian when he is scooped up by a flying hubcap from an auto accident while wearing a space helmet to visit a kiddie TV show.


Like many Cartoon Superstars, TV gave Woody a new life reaching a new audience. THE WOODY WOODPECKER SHOW first appeared in 1957. Three of Lantz's theatrical cartoons were surrounded by some new animation and a live action introduction by Lantz, himself. In some ways, it was reminiscent of the format established by Walt Disney with his DISNEYLAND TV series but on a much smaller scale. Jack Hannah directed the live action segments. After a year on ABC, the show's 26 episodes were syndicated for many years.

On September 12, 1970, Woody invaded Saturday morning with an NBC show featuring post-1948 cartoons. Due to network restrictions, these episodes were heavily edited. While Lantz vocally maintained that "there's a difference between violence and slapstick," he made the cuts. "We took out all the pointing guns and some of the whacks on the head," he recalled. The show lasted for two years and was revived again for a year in 1976.

In the late Seventies, MGM's financial success in rereleasing Tom and Jerry to the syndicated market encouraged Universal to package the 185 Lantz cartoons for the same market. These cartoons spanned the entire range of Woody's career.

Woody lasted until 1972, an uncommon feat since most studios stopped producing theatrical shorts in the Fifties. In 1972, the last eight new Woody Woodpecker cartoons were released. They were indistinguishable from the shorts of previous years.

In 1979, at the 51st Academy Awards, comedian Robin Williams presented Walter Lantz with an honorary Oscar. An animated Woody, done by Virgil Ross, appeared on the screen to share the honor and thank Lantz. It was an animated event that would later be duplicated by Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny many years later.

During the Eighties, Woody and Lantz parted ways. In 1985, Lantz sold his library to MCA/Universal, the studio that had contracted with him for cartoons since 1927. MCA began to fully exploit their new property. 1988 saw a new syndicated Woody show debut on TV. It featured a new title as well as new animation, graphics and music between the cartoons. Woody got his own "900" number so that children could phone in and enjoy an adventure story. He has also appeared in a number of public service spots. He also joined many other superstars in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988).


Wally Walrus is a big, fat, bald walrus who spoke in a thick Swedish accent. Wally was the authority figure who was the primary target for Woody's wild antics. Originally, he had two tusks, one of which was broken, protruding from beneath his bushy white mustache. Later, when animation became more simplified in the series, these tusks were eliminated. Wally was usually cast in a role where he was a man of property or prominence, like an apartment owner or a sheriff. Woody would then proceed to endanger if not destroy this safe little world. Wally's strictness generally prompted Woody to ever escalating extremes.

Buzz Buzzard was introduced in the late Forties to be the recurring villain. He was obviously meant to be tougher and lower class than Wally. He is best remembered from the Western oriented cartoons where his bad guy image as an outlaw gunslinger stands out. His crooked neck and large beak gave him a naturally foreboding appearance. Even when he was given lighter roles like a sailor or a bellboy, there was never any doubt that he was a nasty character.

Knothead and Splinter were the bland nephew and niece introduced into Woody's life to create a psuedo-family. They were much more interesting in the comic book adventures.


Surprisingly, Woody is one of the most merchandised of the Cartoon Superstars, approaching or matching the Disney characters. Woody appears on games, records, books, toys, masquerade costumes and even his own telephone. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has had a 75 foot Woody balloon for years. Woody also appears in "Happy Art," a series of oil paintings done by Lantz.

Woody began appearing in comic books in 1942 and received his own comic book in 1947 that ran for over 200 issues. Woody has appeared in giveaway comics and special annuals. He was even more popular in Sweden where original comic book stories with Woody rivaled some of the fabled work of Carl Barks on Donald Duck.

He is popular all over the world. Japan even has a small theme park devoted to him. Woody's image was responsible for taking a low selling Mexican popcorn and turning it into a best seller.

There have been many exhibits of Woody including ones at the California Museum of Science and Industry, the Smithsonian in Washington and Universal Studios in California which now has a special store devoted to selling Woody merchandise.

MCA, who now owns the property promised a new wave of merchandise to tie in with Woody's 50th anniversary which took place in 1990. In June of 1990, it was announced that Woody would receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame during the 1990- 1991 season.


Though most of Woody's cartoon career doesn't seem to have the boffo laughs associated with other superstars, his energetic personality has won him millions of fans. His large smiling beak is known around the world. His laugh is perhaps the most infectious of all screen legends. Many a slow afternoon has been brightened by the visual of that knotted piece of wood in which Woody pops his head out to ask, "Guess who?"


"After awhile, these characters become no longer characters to me. They're real." - Walter Lantz

"Color's done a lot to make Woody. They hit a red that I've never seen anywhere else." - Walter Lantz

"[Woody] does things you would like to do, but just don't have the nerve." - Walter Lantz

"[Woody is] precocious, he's fresh, and he likes doing things we'd all like to do but don't have the nerve." - Walter Lantz

"Woody appeals to just about everybody. I've never seen a character work so well in foreign countries; he's a universal character." - Walter Lantz

"Woody was a little wild at the beginning and he was really raucous and loud in all his actions. But he was never as wild as Daffy Duck." - Walter Lantz

"We considered woodpeckers as being really wild, destructive creatures which they aren't if you get right down to it." - Walter Lantz

"Walter once laughed and told me he was one of the luckiest producers in the business. He was always able to pick up top talent who were in-between studios." - Jack Hannah, director on Woody & other Lantz characters

"Paul Smith was a real nice guy. They loved him there. He never gave them any surprises." - Jack Hannah, director

"Walter would come in on all story meetings. He was a pretty good gag man, himself. As long as your animation was entertaining, he would overlook minor flaws because of budget." - Jack Hannah, director

"I directed several Woody Woodpeckers but it was like following in someone else's footsteps." - Jack Hannah, director