According to Walter Lantz's press agent, the idea for Woody came during the animator's honeymoon with his wife, Gracie in Sherwood Lake, California. A noisy woodpecker outside their cabin kept the couple awake at night, and when the weather turned bad, they learned that the bird had drilled holes in their cabin's roof. Gracie suggested that her huband make a cartoon about the bird, and thus Woody was born. The story is probably just that, however, since the Lantzes weren't married until 1941, a full year after Woody made his screen debut.
Woody Woodpecker first appeared in the 1940 film "Knock Knock". The cartoon ostensibly stars Andy Panda and his father, Papa Panda, but it is Woody who steals the show. The woodpecker constantly pesters the two pandas, apparantly just for the fun of it. Andy, meanwhile, tries to sprinkle salt on Woody's tail in the belief that this will somehow capture the bird. To Woody's surprise, Andy's attempts prevail, and Woody is taken away to the funny farm -- where his captors prove to be crazier than he is.
The Woody of "Knock Knock" is a truly deranged-looking animal. His buggy eyes look in different directions, and his head is all angles and sharp points. However, the familiar color scheme of red head and blue body is already in place, as is the infamous laugh: "Heh-heh-heh-HEH-heh!" Woody is perhaps the best example of the new type of cartoon character that was becoming popular in the early 1940s -- a brash, violent aggressor who pesters innocents not out of self defense, but simply for the fun of it. Ironically, Woody's original voice actor, Mel Blanc, would stop performing the character to work exclusively at Warner Bros, where he had already established the voices of two other famous "screwball" characters who preceded Woody, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Woody's voice was taken over by animator Ben Hardaway after his first four cartoons.
Audiences reacted well to "Knock Knock", and Lantz realized he had finally hit upon a star to replace the waning Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Woody would go on to star in a number of films. With his innate chutzpah and brash demeanor, the character was a natural hit during World War II. His image appeared on US aircraft and mess halls, and audiences on the homefront watched Woody cope with familiar problems such as food shortages. Layout artist Art Heinemann streamlined Woody's appearance in the 1944 film, "The Barber of Seville", directed by Shamus Culhane. The bird became rounder, cuter, less demented, with a brighter smile, much more like his counterparts at Warner Bros and MGM. Nevertheless, Culhane continued to use Woody as an aggresive lunatic, not a domesticated straight man or defensive homebody as other studios' characters had become.
Woody's wild days were numbered, however. In 1946, Lantz hired Disney veteran Dick Lundy to take over the direction chores for Woody's cartoons. Lundy rejected Culhane's take on the series and made Woody more defensive; no longer did the bird go insane without a legitimate reason. Lundy also paid more attention to the animation, making Woody's new flms more Disneylike in their colors and timing.
In 1947, Woody got his own theme song when musicians George Tibbles and Ramey Idriess wrote "The Woody Woodpecker Song", making ample use of the character's famous laugh. Kay Kyser's recording of the song became a hit in 1948, and other artists did covers, including Woody's original voice, Mel Blanc. Lantz soon adopted the song as Woody's theme music, and due to the song's popularity, Woody Woodpecker fan clubs sprang up, theaters held "Woody" matinées, and boys got the "Woody Woodpecker" haircut. The song made extensive use of Woody's famous laugh, upsetting the man who recorded it, Mel Blanc. Blanc sued Lantz and lost, but Lantz settled out of court when Blanc filed an appeal.
The post-war period provided more changes for Woody. In 1950, Lantz began directing Woody Woodpecker shorts again after a brief studio closing. Beginning with the 1950 feature film Destination Moon, which featured a brief segment of Woody explaining rocket propulsion, Woody's voice was taken over by Lantz's wife, Gracie. She had slipped a recording of herself into a stack of audition tapes, and her husband chose her without knowing her identity. Lantz also began having his wife supply Woody's laugh, possibly due to the court case with Mel Blanc. Nevertheless, Gracie Lantz was not credited for her work at her own request until 1952 in the film "Termites from Mars" (she felt fans might reject a woman doing Woody's voice). Gracie did her best to tone down the character through her voicework.
In 1953, Paul J. Smith took over as primary director of Woody's shorts. The bird was redesigned once again, this time by animator LaVerne Harding. This version of the character is still used today as Woody's official look. This era would also introduce several of Woody's recurring costars, including Buzz Buzzard (1949), Wally Walrus (1951), and Gabby Gator (1961). Other films paired Woody with a girlfriend, Winnie Woodpecker, and a niece and nephew, Splinter and Knothead, played by June Foray. The domestication of Woody Woodpecker was complete.
As Lantz was struggling financially, Woody's longevity was secured when he made the jump to television in The Woody Woodpecker Show on ABC. The half-hour program consisted of three theatrical Woody shorts followed by a brief look at cartoon creation hosted by Lantz. It ran from 1957 to 1958 then entered syndication until 1966, only to be revived by NBC in 1970. NBC forced Lantz to edit out much of the violence of the cartoons, which Lantz did reluctantly. Woody continued to appear in new theatrical shorts until 1972, when Lantz closed his studio's doors due to rising production costs. His cartoons returned to syndication in the late 1970s.
Lantz sold his library of Woody shorts to MCA/Universal in 1985. Universal repackaged the cartoons for another syndicated Woody Woodpecker show in 1988. Woody Woodpecker reappared in the Fox series, The New Woody Woodpecker Show which ran from 1999 to 2002. The series featured the first new Woody cartoons to be produced in over 20 years. Woody's voice is now provided by voice actor Billy West. The original Woody Woodpecker Show also continues to run in syndication.