David Hilberman, whose union activities at Walt Disney Studios and brief membership in the Communist Party led to his blacklisting and shadowed a long career that included founding the innovative United Productions of America studio, has died. He was 95.
Hilberman died of natural causes July 5 at Stanford University Medical Center, according to his family.
"David Hilberman was inadvertently, almost accidentally, a pivotal figure in animation history," said industry historian John Canemaker. "Because of his politics in organizing the Disney strike and his artistic vision in co-founding UPA, he became a major factor in changing forever how the Hollywood cartoon was made and what it looked like."
A native of Cleveland, Hilberman came to Los Angeles to work at Disney in July 1936 as one of 40 young artists who had been recruited in a national talent search. Within 18 months, he advanced from trainee to layout artist. He worked on numerous animated shorts, including "Farmyard Symphony" (1938) and "Ugly Duckling" (1939), as well as the features "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) and "Bambi" (1942).
Hilberman said he had "no complaints" about Disney until the 1940s, when the studio was dealing with rising production costs and the wartime loss of the European market that had provided nearly 45% of its income. He became one of the leaders of the union movement, which climaxed in the bitterly fought animators' strike of 1941.
After the strike, Hilberman joined with fellow ex-Disney artists Zachary Schwartz and Stephen Bosustow to found Industrial Film and Poster Service, a small studio that produced films, film strips and graphic materials for defense contractors and the Army and Navy.
The fledgling studio received its first big break in 1944, when the United Auto Workers commissioned "Hell-Bent for Election," an animated cartoon short supporting President Roosevelt's campaign for a fourth term.
In late 1945, the rapidly expanding studio was reorganized as United Productions of America.
Bill Melendez, the Emmy-winning director of the animated "Peanuts" television specials, worked with Hilberman at United Productions. He recalled in a 1986 interview, "Dave was a stolid bear of a guy. He was like a bricklayer, and that was the way he operated the studio: He build it solid, and every film he did was solidly made. Dave was a great filmmaker and a great teacher — so calm. We were all young and kind of scatterbrained and didn't know what to do: Dave was always oil on troubled waters. I can still hear him, 'Let's think about it, let's discuss it: This is what it is, this is what it isn't.' "
Hilberman sold his share in United Productions to Bosustow shortly after the reorganization because he had been invited to the Soviet Union to help establish animation studios there. Those plans ended with the postwar political changes in the Soviet Union, however, so Hilberman instead moved to New York and partnered with Schwartz and William Pomerance to form Tempo Productions, which quickly became one of the top commercial studios in the country.
In 1947, film producer Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the 1941 strike, which he believed was communist-led. Disney said one artist was "the real brains of this, and I believe he is a communist. His name is David Hilberman…. I looked into his record and I found that, No. 1, he has no religion and, No. 2, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theatre studying art direction, or something."
Disney's testimony and a comment by gossip columnist Walter Winchell that Hilberman was a communist forced the closure of Tempo Productions.
Although Hilberman had spent six months working at the Leningrad State People's Theater and attending the Leningrad Academy of Fine Art in 1932, he frequently denied ever having been a communist.
But in 1979 he told Canemaker, "Up to the war, for about three years, I was a communist. Once the war came along, everybody plunged into the war effort, everybody's on the same side…. The strike itself was not communist-led. I was floored when some obviously communist-inspired material was put up on the bulletin board."