Billy West – Woody Woodpecker, Wally Walrus, Smedley, Dr. Doug Nutts, various
B. J. Ward – Winnie Woodpecker, Mother Nature
Elizabeth Daily – Knothead
Nika Futterman – Splinter
Mark Hamill – Buzz Buzzard, Tweaky Da Lackey, Creepy Badger
Andrea Martin – Miss Meany
Lantz would go on to say that the inspiration for the character came during his honeymoon with his new wife, actress Grace Stafford (which would be a neat trick, considering they wouldn’t be married until almost a year after his first appearance). A noisy woodpecker outside their cabin kept them awake at night, and discovered that what it was pecking at was their roof—thanks to the eventual rainfall coming through it. Stafford convinced him he could use it as the inspiration for a new character. Designed by Alex Lovy, Woody was rendered with some artistic license and took heavy inspiration from the pileated woodpecker. When Woody was spun off into his own series of shorts, it marked a directorial style change for the studio as they took an approach similar to Tex Avery’s madcap style (although, interestingly enough, Avery himself never worked on Woody during his time with Lantz).
Woody was depicted as a mischievous screwball character not unlike the early iterations of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, and coincidentally initially shared their voice actor: Mel Blanc. Blanc’s Woody voice was similar to his early Daffy (minus the lisp) and he transferred over Bugs’ predecessor Happy Rabbit’s laugh. Blanc, however, only voiced Woody for his first three shorts before beginning his exclusive contract with Warner Bros. He was replaced by Danny Webb for a short, and then Kent Rogers, Dick Nelson and Ben Hardaway (who was credited as Woody’s co-creator and wrote or co-wrote most of his shorts). A recording of Blanc’s laugh and his “Guess who?” during Woody’s intro were retained throughout, which eventually resulted in legal action by Blanc against Lantz as Woody’s popularity grew. Blanc ultimately lost his case, but Lantz settled with him and stopped using the laugh recording; however, his “Guess who?” remained for the duration of the series.
Woody’s brash attitude helped make him a hit during the days of World War II with his likeness appearing on aircraft nose art, in mess halls overseas, and as audiences watched him deal with familiar problems of the day related to the war effort. The 1943 Woody cartoon The Dizzy Acrobat was the first to be nominated for an Academy Award. In 1944, animator Emery Hawkins and layout artist Art Heinemann gave Woody a slight makeover for the short The Barber of Seville, making him rounder and cuter with a brighter smile and a simplified color scheme. In 1946, Disney veteran Dick Lundy was hired to direct Woody’s shorts and decided to make Woody a more defensive character, flipping out only when given a reason. He also paid closer attention to the animation, making his shorts very Disney-esque (aided by the eventual hiring of fellow Disney animators Fred Moore and Ed Love). The following year, Woody got his own theme song when George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss wrote “The Woody Woodpecker Song”, which made use of his signature laugh. It was the first song from a short to be nominated for an Academy Award, became a hit single when recorded by Kay Kyser with Harry Babbitt interrupting vocalist Gloria Wood with the laugh, and would even end up covered by Blanc. Lantz himself would eventually integrate Woody into his studio’s logo as a knight on horseback with a lance.
|Woody's foes (from top): Wally Walrus, Buzz Buzzard, Dapper Denver Dooley, Gabby Gator and Ms. Meany.|
Woody was given recurring antagonists over the course of his series. The first was Wally Walrus (Jack Mather, using a Swedish accent), who made his debut in 1944’s The Beach Nut. Wally was short-tempered and dim-witted, and was often found humming “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” to himself. 1948’s Wet Blanket Policy brought in Wally’s replacement, Buzz Buzzard (Lionel Stander). Buzz was a vulture that was always looking for ways to swindle Woody out of money or food. In 1955, Buzz ended up being replaced by the human character Dapper Denver Dooley (Dallas McKennon) in Square Shootin’ Square, depicted with a large nose and a scraggly beard. The next one was hat and vest-wearing Gabby Gator (Daws Butler, using a southern accent), who first appeared in 1958’s Everglade Raid (where he was initially named “Al I. Gator”). As the title implied, he lived in Florida’s Okiedokie Swamp (a play on Lake Okeechobee) and found himself constantly needing to lure in food—chiefly, Woody. Finally, there was another human debuting in 1963’s Calling Dr. Woodpecker: Ms. Meany (Stafford), a woman who blamed an unspecified medical condition for her explosive short temper.
In 1947, contract negotiations with Universal fell through so Lantz began distributing cartoons through United Artists. Unfortunately, financial problems reared their ugly head again as United Artists was affected by the Paramount case of 1948, which prevented studios from block booking (or selling shorts and features in packages to theaters). The revenues from United were much lower than Universal, and once he maxed out the amount of loans he could take out, Lantz was forced to shut down the studio in 1949. Over the next year, the continued distribution of Woody shorts allowed Lantz to earn enough money to pay off the studio’s debts and reopen with a smaller staff back under Universal distribution. Stafford took over voicing the character beginning with his appearance in the film Destination Moon, having slipped a recording of herself into a stack of audition tapes Lantz claimed without his knowledge. Animator LaVerne Harding gave Woody another makeover, making him smaller, cuter and flipping the direction of his crest forward. One final design tweak came with making Woody’s eyes a simple black dot rather than the green/hazel iris he originally possessed. The shorts were also given a new intro: rather than Woody pecking onto the screen with his name already being displayed, Woody would peck onto the screen, announce himself, and then peck his name out of the wooden background.
In 1953, Lantz introduced their next popular creation: Chilly Willy. Created by director Paul Smith, Chilly Willy was a tiny cute penguin that wore a knit cap and was often in search of ways to keep warm or sources of food. His efforts to do so were frequently thwarted by a dog named Smedley (Butler, using his Huckleberry Hound voice). Chilly was a nuisance to Smedley, either interrupting something he was doing or showing up at his place of employ under an abusive boss. Sometimes that boss would be Colonel Pot Shot (Butler), a hunter that spoke in a calm voice until he exploded in rage while explaining what would happen to Smedley if he failed to capture Chilly. Chilly would also gain two friends: Maxie the Polar Bear (Butler) and Gooney the “Gooney Bird” Albatross (also Butler, impersonating Joe E. Brown). Originally, Chilly strongly resembled Woody until Avery modified his design and made him rounder and cuter. Sara Berner voiced Chilly in his debut Chilly Willy, but the character remained mute after until Butler assumed the role with 1965’s Half-Baked Alaska in a voice similar to his Elroy Jetson character. Chilly ended up starring in 50 shorts.
By the end of the decade the business of theatrical shorts began to dry up. Lantz realized the only way to keep working was to release some of their product onto television. After striking up a sponsorship deal with Kellogg’s, the Woody shorts were packaged together and edited for television as The Woody Woodpecker Show in 1957 on ABC for the first year, and then in syndication until 1966. Each episode initially contained three shorts plus a newly-filmed live-action segment where Lantz would give some insight into the animation process. These were eventually replaced by Universal newsreels featuring voice-over commentary by Lantz and Woody. Because of Woody’s being on television, new shorts made during the decade had a noticeable change in his personality in order to meet with broadcast standards for their eventual incorporation into the package. Beginning with 1961’s Franken-Stymied, his manic antics were toned down to make him a serious straight man trying to do good. The show returned on NBC in 1970, running until 1972 with four shorts instead of three, then again in 1976 for an additional year. Local stations would continue airing it for the next few years after it left the networks.
1972 also saw the end of the Lantz studio. Rising production costs and Universal’s sales practices made it impossible for him to stay in business as it would be a decade before his new shorts would show any profit. Lantz shut the studio down, throwing a farewell luncheon for his employees and gifting them all Woody watches. Lantz wasn’t done with Woody yet, however, as he’d spend a decade trying to get him a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade; finally succeeding in 1982 and kept flying until age forced its retirement in 1996. In 1984, Lantz sold everything outright to Universal, although he remained active in overseeing how his characters were handled in future productions and merchandising until his death in 1994. In 1987, Universal repackaged the theatrical shorts into a new syndicated Woody Woodpecker Show. Two Woody shorts would bookend another--typically a Chilly Willy--and the show’s intro featured all of Lantz’s best-known creations running around a small town. The new series lasted until 1998 before heading to cable networks for additional airings. Also, Woody would make an appearance in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit and starred in the 1991 PSA short film Let’s All Recycle with Woody Woodpecker.
Around 1997, Universal decided to return Woody to his roots by restoring his pre-1950s design and his more antagonistic personality. It was this Woody that would end up starring in the first exclusively made-for-TV production The New Woody Woodpecker Show (titled without the “New” on screen). The series saw Woody (Billy West) living in a treehouse (although sometimes he was in a normal house or an apartment) on the property of his short-tempered landlady, Ms. Meany (Andrea Martin). Woody was depicted as a lazy moocher who would try to find ways out of doing any real work, however he was always up for playing sports—particularly golf as part of his Scottish heritage. Of course, standards and practices meant that he couldn’t be as violently antagonistic as he was during his theatrical career. Woody had a girlfriend, Winnie (B.J. Ward), who resembled Woody’s 1950s redesign but had blue eyes and a skirt. She could be as mischievously wacky as Woody, but had a more refined personality. She was also very ambitious, constantly looking to go into a different profession or take up an exciting new hobby. Winnie had previously appeared in only one short, but was more prominently featured in Woody comics. Additionally, their niece and nephew, Knothead (Elizabeth Daily) and Splinter (Nika Futterman), would appear to give Woody a headache. They were originally comics-exclusive characters but eventually found their way into the shorts.
Returning were Woody’s chief antagonists. Wally (West, still using the Swedish accent) lived in the house next door (or in the same building) and was often at odds with Woody’s mischievous schemes. Unlike previous iterations of the character that had more walrus-appropriate skin, Wally was depicted with Caucasian skin in the series, and his tusks often seemed part of his mustache rather than coming from his mouth. Buzz Buzzard (Mark Hamill) was a greater foe to Woody, always looking to scam Woody and Winnie and always ended up outsmarted by them. He was given a new reluctant sidekick in the form of canary Tweakey Da Lackey (also Hamill). Additionally, there was a clean-shaven Dapper Denver Dooley (Jim Cummings), an obnoxious bully who always wanted to steal from Woody.
The New Woody Woodpecker Show debuted on FOX as part of the Fox Kids programming block on May 8, 1999. The series was created and developed by animator Bob Jaques, and co-developed by storyboard artist Kelly Armstrong. Jaques also served as one of the voice directors and co-supervising director for the first 13 episodes, leaving Ginny McSwain and Alan Zaslove alone in the respective roles afterwards. Episodes (except for one) were broken up into three segments: two featuring Woody bookending one that alternated featuring Chilly, Winnie or Knothead and Splinter on their own. During the first season, the series aired the 1955 Chilly short The Legend of Rockabye Point written by Michael Maltese and directed by Avery in place of a new Chilly segment. Much like the theatrical shorts it emulates, there was no strict continuity in the series. Aside from Woody, Wally and Meany alternating their living situations between houses and an apartment building, Wally and Meany could possess a variety of occupations which sometimes coincided with their not knowing Woody at all until he encountered them; however, their core personality traits remained intact. The same with Smedley and Chilly. Likewise, Woody never seemed to recognize Buzz regardless of how many times he tried to con him.
The series was written by Eric Vesbit, Travis Clark, Robbie Thompson, Richard Pursel, Bill Wray, Drew Daywalt, David Schneider, Sherri Schrader, Jim Gomez, Eddie Fitzgerald, Len Janson, Sean Roche, Kelly Ward, Glen Leopold, Eleanor Burian-Mohr, Reed Shelly, Bruce Shelly, Rodney Gibbs, Laren Bright, Bill Matheny, Nick DuBois, Ken Solomon, Jack Bornoff, Hank Saroyan, Mary Ann Gallo, Diane A. Crea, Don Gillies, Charlie Cohen, Mark Hoffmeier, Michael Merton, Marlowe Weisman, Mark Zaslove, Julie Prendiville Roux, Christine Coyle, Bill Burnett, David Ehrman, Chuck Tately, Frank Santopadre, Christine Abad, Steve Bransfield, Adam Kosloff, Alex Funk, Chris Tsougas, Jeff Nimoy, Bob Buchholz, Earl Kress, Peter Sheridan and Cade Chilcoat. Gomez and Roche served as story editors. The characters were designed by Tom Owens, Darrel Bowen and Frank Molieri, and animation duties were handled by Sunwoo Entertainment and Big Star Enterprise, Inc., with additional animation by Funbag Animation Studios, Inc. The series’ theme was composed by Jim Latham, making use of a remix of the classic Woody theme, and played over an intro directed by Sam Cornell and animated by Duck Soup Studios, Inc. (now Noble). There were two variations on the show’s title card: the first had Woody carving his name into a tree, the second as part of a totem pole. The rest of the series’ music was composed by Tom Chase.
The New Woody Woodpecker Show ran for 3 seasons, skipping the 2001-02 season. Universal released 2 VHS collections in the United Kingdom in 2000. The episodes “A Very Woody Christmas” and “Twelve Lies of Christmas” were included in the 2014 holiday compilation DVD Woody Woodpecker and Friends: Holiday Favorites. Two more episodes were included on the Halloween Favorites collection. For a time, the first 13 episodes were available to view on Hulu and Yahoo View, and the entire series was made available on Netflix. It found a new home on NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock (as of this writing, some of the episodes are mislabeled and in the wrong order). Segments were also made available in various configurations on the official Woody Woodpecker YouTube channel.
Woody appeared in a number of console and mobile video games before he returned to theaters in his first solo feature film after a number of starts and stops. 2017’s Woody Woodpecker: The Movie was a live-action/CGI musical comedy written by William Robertson and Alex Zamm and directed by Zamm. Eric Bauza provided Woody’s voice, and he returned to his 1950s makeover look while retaining his signature green eyes. Made with primarily a Brazilian audience in mind as the Woody cartoons had been broadcasting continually there for decades, it opened in Brazil on October 5 and managed to pull in $15 million against a $10 million budget. Outside of Latin America, the film was released directly to video and generally received negative reviews. Zamm would continue on with the franchise in 2018, developing a Flash animated web series for the official Woody Woodpecker YouTube channel and directing the first season. Bauza continued as the voice of Woody, with Tara Strong playing Winnie and Splinter, Richardson as Buzz, Tom Kenny as Wally and various characters, Brad Norman and Dee Bradley Baker providing vocal effects for Chilly Willy and Scott Weil as Andy Panda. Futterman was also involved, taking over the role of Knothead.
“Wiener Wars / Electric Chilly / Woody and the Termite” (5/8/99) – When Woody takes over his favorite hot dog cart, Wally looks to get rid of the competition. / Chilly Willy needs to choose between plugging in his electric blanket or his TV…or does he? / When Mother Nature chastises Woody for being behind on his pecking, he hires a termite to do his job.
“Automatic Woody / Zoom-a to Montezooma / Chicken Woody” (9/2/00) – Woody has trouble getting his hands on his favorite snack for a late-night craving. / Headhunter Smedley looks to capture Chilly for placement in a tropical zoo. / Infiltrating Meany’s chicken farm for free lodging and food ends up with Woody trying to keep the chickens from becoming dinner.
“Woodsy Woody / Chilly Solar Wars / Cue the Pool Shark” (5/4/02) – Wally takes over Woody and his friends’ favorite campground and proves an annoyance. / Chilly wants to get his flippers on one of the army base’s new solar panels to power his igloo. / Buzz attempts to hustle Woody at pool.