Woody Woodpecker was created by Walter Lantz, who emerged from the ranks of animation's early pioneers to build a multimillion-dollar cartoon empire.
In 1979, four years after the last "Woody Woodpecker" cartoon was produced, Lantz was given a special Academy Award "for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world." It was during Lantz's honeymoon with actress Grace (Gracie) Stafford in 1941 at a lakeside cottage that Lantz found the inspiration for his most famous character.
"We kept hearing this knock, knock, knock on the roof," Lantz told The Times in 1992. "And I said to Gracie, 'What the hell is that?' So I went out and looked, and here's this woodpecker drilling holes in the shingles. And we had asbestos shingles, not wood. So, to show you how smart these woodpeckers are, they'd peck a hole in the asbestos shingles and put in an acorn. A worm would develop in the acorn, and a week later the woodpecker would come back, get the acorn and fly away, letting out this noisy scream as he flew away."
Gracie Lantz suggested adapting the bird as a cartoon character, although her husband later admitted he was skeptical of its potential.
"I was doing Oswald Rabbit at the time and we were working mostly with animals. But I figured I'd give it a try," he once said. "So I made a few drawings, took the idea in to the studio and talked it over with some of the boys. Alex Lovy, one of my best artists, worked on it, and Bugs Hardaway developed a story."
The character, Woody Woodpecker, debuted soon after as a supporting character in an Andy Panda short, "Knock Knock." It would become Lantz's most successful creation, spawning a lucrative source of global licensing royalties and making a multimillionaire of its creator.
After the first three Woody cartoons were completed in the early 1940s, Mel Blanc, who had supplied the character's voice, signed an exclusive contract at Warner Bros. Later, Gracie Lantz took over voicing the character.