Of Disney’s Nine Old Men, Les Clark has the distinction of being the first of the “Nine” and the only one to work on Mickey. When he retired in 1976, he was a director and senior animator and the “longest continuously employed member of the Walt Disney Studios”
Les Clark first met Walt Disney in 1925 when Walt complimented him on lettering he had done on a mirror in the candy store where he worked. Two years later when Les was about to graduate High School, he had a summer job in an eatery near the Disney Brothers Studios; Walt and Roy often ate there. He mustered up the courage to ask Walt for a job. Walt’s reply was to “Bring some of your drawings in and let’s see what they look like” When he brought the drawings in, Les admitted that his drawings were copies of cartoons in “College Humor” but Walt said he liked his “swift, deft” line and hired him, but told him the job might be only temporary. Les graduated on Thursday and came to work for Walt on the following Monday.
Clark joined the Disney Studios at a major turning point in the company. The “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series was taken away by Charles Mintz in early February 1928, and in addition, Mintz hired away all of Walt’s animators’ sans Ub Iwerks. Walt and Roy were desperate for a new character, and Walt vowed never to show anything he did not own. With Ub Iwerks and Walt, they came up with Mickey Mouse. Les was fortunate to be in on the ground floor with Mickey. Les started out in the ink and paint department. Working the lower entry-level positions, he worked as an inker-painter (One who traces animation drawings onto sheets of celluloid in ink and then paints the reverse side with black, white and gray opaque colors), from there he worked the animation camera. Les was a tireless worker who gave everything he did his best, always trying to improve himself. After 6 months, he apprenticed under Ub Iwerks, whom he always admired. Studying under his mentor, Les worked with Ub as he animated Mickey’s first synchronized sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” the cartoon that made Mickey a star. Les assisted Ub as an in-betweener, drawing the images between the start and finish drawings Ub did to give the impression of movement.
Les got his first chance as an animator in a scene from the “Skeleton Dance” the first Silly Symphony. Here he animated a scene of a skeleton playing the ribs of another like a xylophone. Les Clark was very much like Walt Disney himself. He never rested on his laurels but was continually striving to improve his technique, always attending art class and learning. The amazing part of Les’ career is that he had no art background, but got where he did by determination and hard work!
Clark’s long career with the Disney Company spanned 48 years, where he animated or directed almost 20 features, “Saludos Amigos”, “101 Dalmatians”, “Dumbo”, “Fantasia” and much more. After Ub Iwerks left the studio in 1930, he took over as the Mickey specialist. When you see Mickey, you see Les Clark’s work. His directorial debut was the documentary “You, the Human Animal”, hosted by Jiminy Cricket. He also worked on short films and TV specials. Les Clark retired from the Disney Studios in 1976. Sadly, he passed away from cancer on September 12th, 1979. As the first of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, he was posthumously awarded the Disney Legend Award in 1989.