On June 2nd at 8am, my friend Willis Pyle died of a heart attack in his New York City apartment. Willie was 101 years old, but was sharp and witty to the end. I was told that he was doing fine up to 2 minutes before his last breath.
Willie joined Disney in early 1938, after the release of Snow White, but still early enough to be invited to the famed wrap party at the Norconian hotel. Here he is dancing “The Big Apple” with Snow White model and Babbitt love, Marge Belcher.
Willie never had to work his way up from shorts. After being a traffic boy in the Hyperion studio annex, he was picked up by Milt Kahl to assist on Pinocchio. There Willie cleaned-up and added breakdown drawings of Kahl’s extreme poses, including the scene in which Jiminey gets dressed while running late.
On Fantasia Willie drew the cupids. On Bambi he was known within the studio as a deer specialist – though he also drew Flower and Thumper. Willie’s shared a room with Vip Partch, one of many assistant rooms in the unit of Kahl and Ollie Johnston.
In 1941, Willie took part in the Disney Strike, mainly, he said, because his friends were striking too. Here’s a page from the list of picket shifts with Willie’s name included.
Willie ended up at Fort Roach, aka the First Motion Picture Unit, a branch of the U.S. Air Force that produced films for the military. Willie worked beside Warner Bros. animator Norm McCabe, Disney strikers Bill Hurtz and John Hubley, and Disney non-striker Frank Thomas. Frank and Willie would carpool every morning to Fort Roach. There Willie worked on shorts starring “Trigger Joe” and designed the main character for 1944’s “Camouflage.”
Willie’s bio is extensive, and his life was fascinating, but this is where I will choose to leave you. Because more than his accomplishments, the Willie I knew was a dear, dear friend. He never bemoaned his age or anticipated his own end, he just constantly reiterated how lucky he was. It was so easy to be with him.
I genuinely loved the man. Without even trying, he taught me how to move through life with good humor and grace, and for that I’ll forever be grateful. So long, Willie.