When 17-year-old John Culhane and three friends motored west from Rockford, Illinois, in 1951, it was for much the same reason as legions before them: Someone had a friend who had a friend who knew someone big -- someone really big -- in Hollywood.

In this case, the friend of a friend was Diane Disney, daughter of Culhane's idol, Walt Disney.

To Culhane's amazement, the connection worked. For six hours on an August Sunday, young Culhane rambled the grounds of the Disney estate with Walt himself, who advised the fledgling writer to "work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors -- and just keep widening your circle." Culhane did just that, reporting for the Rockford Register-Republic, the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek and Reader's Digest before writing acclaimed histories of animation, Disney cartoons, special effects and the circus.

Culhane, who took detailed notes on the back of a church bulletin about his meeting with Disney, died July 30 at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York. He was 81.

His death was caused by complications of cardiac failure and Alzheimer's disease, according to an announcement from the Walt Disney Studios.

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Culhane never wrote the Disney biography that he told Walt he wanted to write. But he was so well known around the studios that animators twice created characters by caricaturing him: Flying John in "Fantasia/2000" and, more famously, Mr. Snoops, a weaselly underling of the evil Medusa in "The Rescuers" (1977).

Born Feb. 7, 1934, in Rockford, Illinois, Culhane was the son of a funeral director and a teacher. He attended St. Louis University, picked up a job on his local paper and eventually freelanced for publications including The New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review and American Film.