ANIMATION SPIN
November 20, 2021 posted by Greg Ehrbar

The Wondrous Will Ryan 1949-2021

Will Ryan (left), Annette Funicello (center) and Clarence Nash (right)

Many cartoon fans appreciate Jack Benny’s classic feature The Horn Blows at Midnight for its uncredited music by Carl Stalling. Among its other memorable sequences is its vision of a heavenly orchestra where Jack Benny is one of the musicians.

Will Ryan has just arrived there. He’s strumming his ever-present ukulele only a few seats from Jack, looking around with joy at his great location.

Will already knows almost most of the musicians, singers and actors there. He met them years ago in person or learned all he could about them. Rather than drop names, he elevated them. He made people and things out to be more interesting than he was. His life was one of constant delighted discovery since his youth, devouring movies, cartoons, comics and listening to music. His love of learning was second only to his love of sharing the excitement of knowledge. Words were precious jewels to him, to be written and spoken with care.

His unpretentious approach to his spectacular career could be why he goes largely unheralded in the mainstream. Nevertheless, he was a part of numerous box office smashes and gold record-winning recordings, long-running television shows and standing-room-only events. He acted, wrote, created, boosted and encouraged.

But even in an industry that deals in facts and figures, Will Ryan has the facts to back it all up. Some know that he was the voice of the sea horse in Disney’s game-changing box-office hit The Little Mermaid, few know he was at the readings with Jodi Benson (Ariel) and Kenneth Mars (Triton) before most of the others were cast. Will obliged by doing many of the missing voices.

For 38 years, he voiced Willie the Giant and Pete for Disney, since Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983 (Mickey’s first theatrical film since 1952). As the voice of Pete, Will was honored to be heard in the same film with Walt Disney’s archival Mickey Mouse voice in the 2003 3-D cartoon Get a Horse! In various projects, he played Rabbit, Tigger, Gyro Gearloose, The Beagle Boys, Uncle Scrooge and even Goofy. For various records and television shows, Will composed more than 100 original songs. He can even be heard on the Pinocchio’s Daring Journey attraction at Disneyland.

Two of hundreds voiced by Will Ryan: The Seahorse in “The Little Mermaid; Petrie in “The Land Before Time”

In addition to performing voices and writing material for Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss, Fox Animation, Film Roman, Warner Bros., Ruby-Spears and DIC, he performed in top-grossing animated features for Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth including An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

As a generous team partner, Will was part of several perfect matches, shifting effortlessly from being the funny one to the straight one when needed. He was half of Willio and Phillio, a live music and comedy duo with actor/musician/songwriter Phil Baron. In the early seventies, they were the toast of clubs and campuses across the country and the darlings of Chicago and their home base Cleveland, where Will had worked in the creative division of American Greetings.

On the strength of the Willio and Phillio debut album, producer Jymn Magon invited them to record for Disneyland Records. They moved to California and Gold records followed, including Disney’s Children’s Favorites Volumes 1 and 2. For the Disney album Goin’ Quackers, Will was instrumental in bringing Clarence Nash to the studio to voice Donald Duck. One of the duo’s most treasured memories was appearing at Disneyland for an elaborate Donald’s birthday event with Nash. Single records of the song “Goin’ Quackers,” backed with the Dr. Demento favorite “Vacuum Cleaner Hoses” were given to park guests. Also with Nash, their sped-up voices sang “The Chipmunk Song” as Chip ‘n Dale on the album Merry Christmas Carols. Willio and Phillio also guest-starred on the first revival of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1977, where they met Annette Funicello. Good times.

In the words of Bugs Bunny, “Offers poured in.” Phil was the voice of the first home animatronic character toy, Teddy Ruxpin, and Will played his (sold separately) pal “Grubby”. This led to dozens of special cassettes with books and the animated series, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin.

Will served on the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and as president of the animation industry’s premier organization of ASIFA-Hollywood, alongside one of his closest friends June Foray, who founded ASIFA in the U.S.

Will was an internet pioneer, winning an Annie Award from ASIFA for the early online animated series Elmo Aardvark: Space Detective, produced with a “who’s-who” of top animation names including director Darrell Van Citters. Elmo was a “real but fictional” cartoon character who originated in the twenties and starred in numerous animated adventures throughout the 20th century and inspired limited merchandise items and two soundtrack albums, also featuring top voice actors.

In recent years, a similar phenomenon occurred in live-action when writer/director Michael Schlesinger paired him with Broadway musical comedy actor Nick Santa Maria (the first actor to play Aladdin’s Genie live when it debuted on stage at Disney’s California Adventure park). They became “Biffle and Shooster”, a comedy team combining as many vocal inflections, facial tics, gestures and pratfalls from classic teams as possible with their own flair for the ridiculous. Schlesinger developed a detailed history for the team (including a break-up and reunion) and devised short films representing the golden eras of comedy filmmaking. The team made appearances in Southern California when it was possible to contain their madness in one region. Their collection of films plus voluminous bonus features are best enjoyed on this DVD, but the short comedies have also been edited into a feature available on various streaming services (without the extra features). The films are so authentic that some theater audience members believed them to be truly vintage “lost” treasures.

Some of Will’s songs made their way into Biffle and Shooster movies, as well as with fellow musicians and singers, like the Saguaro Sisters. Will formed his own label and released a series of albums as Will Ryan and the Cactus County Cowboys, blending comic whimsy with the romance of good-natured country-western music. One of his favorite performing locations was the Gene Autry Museum.

Will worked with too many veteran actors to fit here, but here are some: Janet Waldo, Hal Smith, Walker Edmiston, Corey Burton, Townsend Coleman, Katie Leigh, Chris Anthony, Dave Madden, Andre Stojka, Pete Renaday, Alan Young, Bill Farmer, Jess Harnell, Earl Boen, Steve Burns, Phil Proctor, Kenneth Mars, Lucille Bliss, Mary Kay Bergman, David Selby, Parley Baer, Robie Lester, Steven Franken, Susan Silo, Tony Jay, Wally Wingert, Wendell Burton, Joan Gerber, Dick Beals, Gregg Berger, Florence Stanley, Howard Morris, Hamilton Camp, Jason Marsden, Mitzi McCall, Michael Rye, Michael Gough, Jennifer Darling and Joe Campanella. All of the above appeared on Adventures in Odyssey, the long-running inspirational comedy/adventure/sci-fi/fantasy/satire program recorded in Hollywood. An animated Odyssey series was also produced with Will as the voice of Eugene.

The loss of Will Ryan takes a specific toll on those involved in that program, and the many listeners who know that he played Eugene Meltsner, a pivotal character during its 34-year history (in addition to hundreds of other roles). He also wrote complete (and usually very funny) musical scores for episodes and recordings including Eugene’s solo album. Here is a Christmas song he did as Eugene with June Foray:

There was a lot of Will in Eugene, just as there is a lot of Katie Leigh in the character of Odyssey’s Connie Kendall. Their recent YouTube series Tell Ya Later demonstrates their warm, easygoing chemistry and the mutual respect underneath the occasional comic bluster. This is an episode from November 15th:

Some of the finest, most giving people seem to leave us before we are ready. Are we ever ready? Or course not. Their time with us is so precious that it seems especially short. But kind souls like Will Ryan leave a lot of themselves behind–through what they have done and who they have known and made better for it. Like that gorgeously bittersweet “reunion party” scene in Coco, they never really leave completely.

As for Will, he’s got lots of great things to tell Jack and the heavenly orchestra. Not great things about himself, but about us.

GROUP PHOTO: L-R: Will Ryan, Bill Cole (of the Mellomen), Greg Ehrbar and Hollywood studio singer Gene Merlino (Peter Pan, Camelot) in 2006.

18 Comments

  • Really nice tribute Greg. Will was a special guy. He loved animation, and loved being part of the Toontown family. RIP.

  • I was not aware that Will Ryan guested on The New Mickey Moue Club (1977).

    The only time that Annette Funicello appeared on the show was episode 3 of the 1st season with Tim Considine.
    Clarence Nash also never appeared on The New Mickey Mouse Club.

    I know the first season very well, and cannot place Will.

    The 2nd season sadly never aired in my region, but I have reviewed the episode guide of that season.
    It was mostly reedited from older shows, with the inclusion of newly serialized theatricals (eg Toby Tyler, Third Man On The Mountain) and previews of the latest movies (Candleshoe, Return From Witch Mountain)

    I am wondering whether the photograph was taken during the recording of Mouseketeer Reunion (1980).
    Will and Clarence would have been doing voicework for Mickey’s Christmas Carol around that time.

    It also explains the giant Mickey Mouse Club sign behind Annette, which never appeared on The New Mickey Mouse Club.
    They did however use that giant 1977 sign as a backdrop for the The Mouseketeer Reunion.

  • That’s a lovely and heartfelt tribute to Will Ryan and his remarkable career. My condolences to the many people who are going to miss him. As for “I Like People”, my hat is off to anyone who writes a pop song in 5/4 time — and can get a band to play it!

    Musicians tell a lot of old jokes about orchestras in heaven. “Who’s the conductor? Is it Stokowski?” “No, it’s God, but he thinks he’s Stokowski.”

  • Than you so much for this wonderful and comprehensive tribute-post, Greg. It encapsulates so beautifully not only Will’s terrific vocal range but also his remarkable lifelong creativity at writing, composing and singing. He truly was one of the nicest people I knew in my 45-years of back and forth trips from Sydney to Los Angeles, and I miss his gentle and amusing nature already, and his endless curiosity about all things to do with show biz and animation voice history. Will was gracious enough to always try and see me when I was in town, and we had many enjoyable dinners at Canter’s, The House of Pies and various other locales where we would sometimes be with the old APAtoons group (Jerry, Mark Kausler, Bob Miller, Dan Goldmark, Milt Gray, Harry McCracken and others). He even corralled me into one of his Elmo recording sessions with June Foray, Chuck McCann and Corey Burton, along with director Darrell Van Citters, where Corey and I played duelling Jay Ward-style narrators. What a modest and quadruple-threat talent he was…and always such a nice man. I was so glad he turned up at that brunch with you and me in 2019, and that I was able to enjoy the get together before Covid put a stop to my annual trips. RIP, Will.

  • I remember first hearing his Voice on Several Episodes of HiHi Puffy Ami Yumi and I do own 2 out of 3 of the Elmo Aardvark CDs

    Though I just got up to find out about this

    RIP Will Ryan

  • A few years ago I put up on Ebay sheet music for the movie Stagecoach. It had a picture of young John Wayne on it. Turns out Will was an avid western collector and won the bid!

  • I’ve grown up listening to Will as Eugene Meltsner and Harlow Doyle (among many other characters) on “Adventures in Odyssey.” He always sounded funny when he screamed as Eugene. I’ve also grown up hearing his voice in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore” and “The Story of Santa Claus.” He even did Winnie the Pooh’s voice in “Family Guy: Road to the North Pole!”

    R.I.P, Will Ryan.

  • RIP, Will Ryan, Willie the Giant. I first heard about his passing on Mark Evanier’s NEWS FROM ME site.

  • Marvelous tribute Greg ! Thanks for sharing your intimate insight !!

  • Will Ryan, Voice of Willie the Giant, Petrie, Elmo Aardvark and more, RIP.

  • i first noticed Will Ryan as the voice of Digit the cockroach in An American Tail. Apparently he was cast as Petrie in The Land Before Time because Max Spielberg (Steven’s son) suggested they get ‘Digit’s voice’. (according to John Cawley’s excellent book The Animated Films of Don Bluth).

    RIP Will.

  • Thanks for mentioning Biffle & Shooster, Greg. We did make them a bit cartoonish at times, and a lot of those zany sound effects were lifted straight from the soundtracks of classic cartoons. I also made it a point to use several classical music cues specifically for their association with animation; when Tim Lucas saw an early version of “Imitation of Wife,” he turned to me at one point and said, “What’s Opera, Doc?” And yes, it was the Tannhouser Overture. Will was a joy to work with and I’m devastated that there won’t be any more.

  • My goodness, I don’t think I really learned who Mr. Ryan was until ‘Biffle and Shooster’ came into being but reading now about his long and varied career has been fascinating. Truly his was a talent in a league of its own.

    Rest in peace.

  • Great talent. Sorry that he’s no longer with us. His voice over work as Petrie was histerical. It’s sad to see when a talent such as this leaves this world but, his work will live on for decades to come. R.I.P. Mr. Ryan. Envious that you get to see the true mysteries of the universe now.

  • I used to think Will Ryan was one of those voice actors who would end up being typecast in the type of roles that would suggest a “country bumpkin” type, or an insecure young man in the halcyon days of his life, or, say, a meek creature who wandered far from the confines of his natural habitat, as a result of his being well-known for his role in Adventures In Odyssey.Little did I know of the sheer breadth of this man’s talent until this article suddenly appeared. I was somewhat aware of his connections to Disney, but only after recognizing him playing Rabbit on “The New Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh”. I just wouldn’t have guessed he was an accomplished musician as well. I also wouldn’t have guessed that he voiced two classic characters from the Golden Age of animation that were both previously played by the incomparable Billy Bletcher. Even more impressive is what this man has achieved outside of his “day job”, directing and performing as half of the comedy team of Biffle and Shooster(whom I discovered recently courtesy of one of this site’s contributors, Mike Kazaleh, who illustrated a comic book based on the duo’s misadventures) , as well as fronting a country-western band AND running a YouTube webcast. A true juggernaut of talent. And it’s obvious how much he meant to the voice actor community and to the world of entertainment in general. RIP

  • Greg — Very nice tribute, bit one correction: There is an organization called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — It gives out an annual Academy Award, which is nicknamed the “Oscar” — So far as I know, there is no organization called “the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences — ” Also, I know of no way to “serve on” the Academy — Will was a member and may have served on the Board of Governors —

  • Greg,
    Will once introduced me to The Sherman Brothers at a BMI Awards dinner…and he was thrilled at that location back then in the late 1980’s. I must also add that one other great role that Will Ryan played was BERTRAM THE GANDER in THE MOTHER GOOSE VIDEO TREASURY. Will and I had been friends since my comedy team was the opening act for WILLIO AND PHILLIO when they came to a comedy club in Chicago in February of 1979. Anyway, a photo of Mother Goose flying on Bertram The Goose is on Will’s IMDB page. I would attach a photo here. But of all his great characters, to me he will always be Bertram constantly looking for Mother Goose’s Glasses! But you are right, Will is thrilled to be with so many of his old friends like June Foray and Daws Butler and heaven needed an angel with a ukulele! He was a great guy and a great talent and he shall be sorely missed by us all. And sadly Mother Goose will have to learn how to hang on to her glasses without Bertram. Thanks again for a wonderful tribute to Will with your article! Best regards, Cheryl Felicia Rhoads AKA Mother Goose

  • Say, Jerry, I was wondering why we didn’t see an obit article for Joe Siracusa on this site or on Animation Spin. Siracusa passed only just days before Will Ryan, and lent significant contributions to the animation business as a film editor for a good number of West Coast animation studios. It’s unjust that he’s been overlooked, even if his greater claim to fame was being the last surviving member of Spike Jones’ backup band. Please rectify this oversight at once!

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