A Lifetime of Animation: Disney Legend Burny Mattinson

disney legend burny mattinson

December 19, 2023

Written by: Jim Smith

(A version of this article was shared with Laughing Place and published on January 10, 2024.)

“If these walls could talk…”

Those instantly famous words ushered in Disney’s recently released short Once Upon a Studio, celebrating 100 years of Disney magic. But do you know the gentleman who spoke that poignant phrase? He is none other than Disney Legend and seven-decade Cast Member Burny Mattinson. Come for an animated carpet ride as we explore the inspired career of the longest-serving Disney employee, in this edition of Disney Legends Spotlight.

Learning the Art of Animation

Burnett “Burny” Mattinson was born in San Francisco in May 1935, during the heyday of early Disney Studios animation innovation. Entertainment was in Mattinson’s blood. His father, Bernie, was a jazz drummer who toured with Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights, during the big band music era. Mattinson’s parents even met at a theater in San Jose.

But performance wasn’t Mattinson’s art form of choice. When he was just five years old, his mother took him to see Pinocchio at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Mattinson was bitten by the animation bug. He started drawing Disney characters every chance he could – a practice that remained with him throughout his school years. 

The Mattinsons moved to Los Angeles in 1945, when Burny was ten years old. By the time he was twelve, he had become quite skilled at drawing Disney-style cartoons. His talent and improvement fueled Mattinson’s dream of being a Disney artist.

burny mattinson young
Image: Burny Mattinson

A Shot in the Dark

One fateful day in 1953, after graduating high school, Mattinson’s mother asked her son what he wanted to do with his life. Mattinson replied, “Maybe I will try Disney. I will go over there and see about getting a job.” Performing the ultimate parental support duty, Mattinson’s mother dropped him off at the studio gate, where he handed his portfolio to a security guard.

Impressed by Mattinson’s work, the guard contacted the head of Disney Studios personnel. Mattinson got an interview and a chance to show his skills. At the time, there were no available job positions in the studio’s animation department, but Mattinson took a job as a traffic boy in the studio’s mailroom. Among his duties, Mattinson would hand deliver weekly checks of $300 to Walt Disney, to use as his “walking around” money.

Climbing the Disney Ladder

Mattinson bid his time for about six months, until opportunity knocked. The mail clerk was offered the chance to work as an in-betweener on the 1955 film Lady and the Tramp. Following the film’s release, most of the character animators were laid off, but Mattinson was able to hang on as an assistant animator to Marc Davis – one of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men.” Under Davis, Mattinson on 1959’s Sleeping Beauty and 1961’s 101 Dalmatians

disney maleficent
Image: Disney

Thinking back to his work on Sleeping Beauty, Mattinson fondly remembers the creation and animation of the villain Maleficent. Mattinson stated, “We purposely kept her controlled and quiet and we let her dialogue do her acting for us. The reason for this was that we wanted to use those moments of when she exploded as accents that would frighten the audience. We kept her sweet, nice and controlled and then let her blow up on purpose.” Watching Maleficent through that lens, she does indeed exude an uneasy calm, which underscores her violent temper when she loses her cool.

After his time under Davis, Mattinson spent another twelve years under Eric Larson – another of Walt’s Nine Old Men. Under Larsen, Mattinson brought Professor Ludwig Von Drake to life, for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color

walt disney and ludwig von drake
Image: Disney

Back on the big screen, Mattinson contributed to the animated feature films The Sword in the Stone (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967), and The Aristocats (1970).

Officially a Disney Animator

Looking to be more than an assistant animator, Mattinson completed an eight-week Disney training program, allowing him to become a fully accredited animator. Mattinson was an animator on 1973’s Robin Hood, and a key animator on 1974’s Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too where he worked with yet another of Walt’s Nine Old Men – Disney Legend Ollie Johnston. 

Johnston’s long time friend and colleague (and fellow Disney Legend, and yet another member of Walt’s Nine Old Men) Frank Thomas saw Mattinson’s sketches and asked him to help on storyboards for 1977’s The Rescuers. While working on storyboards, Mattinson got a taste of what it might be like to direct a film. “Storyboards,” stated Mattinson “are as close to direction as you can get.  You’re telling cameras where to go, what’s happening on screen, where to cut, and really making a blueprint for the film.”

Mattinson’s success in storyboarding The Rescuers landed him similar roles on 1981’s The Fox and the Hound and 1985’s The Black Cauldron, and whet his appetite for his next big venture.

burny mattinson and kurt russell
Image: Disney

Director Burny Mattinson

Having dutifully moved up through the ranks of Disney animation, Burny Mattinson wanted to try his hand at directing a film. Like many success stories within the Disney Studios, Mattinson’s directorial debut came about in an unorthodox way. Inspired by a Disneyland Records Christmas album, Mattinson sent a copy of the record – along with a note for a film idea – to Ron Miller, son-in-law of Walt Disney who was at the time the head of the studio. The next day, Miller called Mattinson into his office. After a short conversation, Miller awarded him with the opportunity to direct and produce Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

mickey's christmas carol
Image: Disney

Mattinson used a who’s who of beloved Disney characters to retell the classic Charles Dickens tale. And in an epic moment in Disney history, the film returned Mickey Mouse to the silver screen for the first time in 30 years. Mickey’s Christmas Carol was released in theaters in December 1983, alongside a reissue of The Rescuers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. After a brief stint in theaters, the Christmas classic found a long life on television, and has remained a holiday staple to this day.

How was Burny Mattinson rewarded for the success of Mickey’s Christmas Carol? By being awarded the role as producer and co-director of the 1986 Disney film The Great Mouse Detective. Add another notch to Mattinson’s storied Disney career.

burny mattinson and vincent price
Image: Disney

Throughout the 1990s, Mattinson took a step back from directing, and continued to work as a storyboard artist on nearly every subsequent Disney theatrical animated film on the “Disney Renaissance,” including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994), among others.

At the turn of the millennium, approaching the age at which most people retire, Burny Mattinson kept on going. He worked as a story consultant on Big Hero 6 (2014) and Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), and most recently contributed to the 2022 film Strange World.

A Longtime Disney Legend

In 2008, Burny Mattinson received the ultimate Disney honor, being named a Disney Legend.

burny mattinson at disney legend ceremony
Image: Disney

Ten years later, on March 5, 2018, Mattinson broke a company record to become the longest-serving Cast Member in Disney history – breaking the previous record of 64 years, eight months, and 29 days, held by Disney Legend John Hench.

Even after spending 64 years with Disney, Mattinson continued to work for the company up until his death on February 27, 2023. He was due to receive his 70th anniversary service award (the first ever) on June 4, 2023.

Despite coming up just shy of a 70-year career, Mattinson proudly holds his status as Disney’s longest-serving employee, and the last full-time Walt Disney Studios employee who worked there during Walt’s time.

In a fitting end to a remarkable career, Mattinson made a brief appearance in the recently released 2023 short film Once Upon a Studio, which is also dedicated in his honor.

mickey and minnie once upon a studio
Image: Disney

Ever the thoughtful animator, Mattinson once said “Animation is 75 percent thinking and 25 percent drawing. Everything must be carefully thought out first. Our animators not only have to think like actors but also figure out how to get that performance across on paper and on the screen. Our characters pause to think and connive. You can see it in their eyes.”

A lifelong animator and cherished Disney Legend, Burny Mattinson’s contributions to the Disney catalog are far reaching and awe inspiring.

Thank you friends for coming along on this seven-decade journey of Disney animation and inspiration. Do you think there will ever be another Disney employee who will serve as long as Burny Mattinson? Offer a comment or share this article with a friend by reaching out on social at: Instagram Facebook X (formerly Twitter)

Check out more Disney Legends in our spotlight collection.


Remembering Disney Legend Burny Mattinson

Disney Wiki – Burny Mattinson

The Walt Disney Company Honors its Longest-Serving Employee, The Walt Disney Company, 6/18/18

Five Fascinating Facts – Disney Legend Burny Mattinson, Steven Vagnini for Disney D23, 2/27/17

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