I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Ryan Larkin, the Self-Destructive Genius

by Eric Magnuson
July 30, 2011

On most days before 2007, you could walk down Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal and find a fragile, bespectacled man working the crowd that often lined up outside of Schwartz’s Hebrew deli. As the smells of smoked meat wafted from the front door, the 50-something man who was known as the “unofficial” doorman at Schwartz’s would perform mime, do a dance, or make impromptu drawings for a Loonie or two. Other times he’d just hold out his hat and ask, “Sp-pare any change?”

Nearly forty years earlier, however, this loveable drunk without a permanent home was a 26-year-old Academy Award nominee for his psychedelic-influenced "Walking", a five-minute-long cartoon that’s been lauded as one of the most influential works in animation history. But that was a long, long time ago.

Throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s, this man, Ryan Larkin, didn’t care that strangers could see him piss out on the street in broad daylight. The people of Montreal either knew him -- “I have people that expect me to be there in front of Schwartz’s restaurant,” Larkin said, “and I don’t want to disappoint them.” -- or they talked behind his back in agitated whispers: “I’ve seen that man scream at people when they refuse to give him money,” a woman said after her friend gave Larkin some change. He said that panhandling was “a job like any other job… You have to be there on time. You have to wear the right clothes. You have to be nice to your clients…” When his daily shift in front of Schwartz’s ended, he’d bury himself in his alcoholism by drinking beer after beer at the “far-from-hip” Copacabana Bar down the street. Then he’d be off to the Old Brewery Mission for the homeless once it was time to go to bed. The Academy Awards were a long time ago, indeed.

Ryan Larkin’s career in animation was brief---he only completed four short cartoons throughout his lifetime. His last was 1972’s "Street Musique", which he finished before turning 30. That incredibly brief oeuvre, however, is regularly described as “genius.” People who know animation still point to Larkin’s "Walking" for “how smoothly it is possible to carry out an extremely difficult human movement.” One how-to book on animation, Timing for Animation, goes on to say how Larkin’s female nude in "Walking" “makes good use of perspective animation through the exaggeration of the character’s arm nearest to the camera,” which, as an animation layman, is amazing to consider because the short is so seamless that I’d never think about the minute details that went into making "Walking" without them being pointed out. Larkin, however, could not sustain the genius that everybody began expecting from him.

His addictions started early in life. As a frail 10-year-old, Larkin’s doctor apparently prescribed him a daily pint of stout in order to improve his health. It wasn’t long before he was drinking far more than his daily prescribed pint, however. And when Larkin was only 12 years old, one of his long-time friends said he was “seeking homosexual encounters, meeting men while hitchhiking” to Montreal. When "Street Musique" premiered in 1972, Larkin was also consumed by a cocaine addiction on top of his alcoholism. "I had difficulty handling my ego when I was famous," Larkin said years later, after he’d quashed his coke habit. "I've made a fool of myself. I chose to deal with whatever psychological problems I had by using cocaine. I had sexual proclivities, too - I was doing coke and getting hard-ons instead of what I should have been doing, which was making interesting, comical, beautiful animation films." In other interviews, however, Larkin depicted himself in far more romantic terms: “The media like to say I have struggled with my addictions,” he once said. “But I am happy. I've never struggled with anything but life."

As the 1970s progressed, Larkin let a very productive relationship with Canada’s National Film Board deteriorate. He began making one film under the board’s finances that drew calls of prejudice---“There was an anti-Muslim thing, and anti-Christian thing,” he said in defense. “I was trying to put down the nationalistic attitude that was happening at the time.” And in 1975, the NFB commissioned him to paint a public mural in Montreal: He gave them a 20- by 15-foot image of an adolescent boy with a boner who, as Larkin’s biographer noted, “may or may not have been ejaculating.” So Larkin’s time with the NFB ended unceremoniously in the late 1970s. From that point on, he never reclaimed his early peaks.

By the 1990s, Larkin’s self-destructive addictions and refusal to play by the film industry’s conventional rules left him panhandling outside of Schwartz’s deli. By the 2000s, he’d essentially fallen off of everybody’s radar until a couple of chance meetings put Larkin in the same room as Chris Landreth, a young animator who was blown away by "Walking" and"Street Musique". Intrigued by the affable drunk, Landreth befriended Larkin and soon made the biographical animated short, "Ryan," about Larkin’s fall from greatness. Repeating the accolades of his mentor, Landreth’s "Ryan" was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for best animated short.

When the big night arrived, Larkin didn’t do anything particularly special---he sat at the Copacabana Bar, drinking his beers and brandies as usual. Friends and admirers gathered around him to watch the awards show on the bar’s television. Then, with the announcement that "Ryan" had won the Oscar, the crowd went absolutely ballistic. Larkin jumped off of his stool and pumped his fist into the air. Friends crowned him with a plastic tiara. The raucous cheers were so loud that Larkin couldn’t hear Landreth tell the awards show audience that he won the Oscar because of "the grace and humility of one guy watching in Montreal. Ryan Larkin, I dedicate this award to you."

The Oscar win brought renewed interest to Larkin’s work. He was commissioned to create a series of animations for MTV in Canada. But Larkin didn’t quit his day job. As an interview with a local newspaper wrapped up the day after the Academy Awards, Larkin asked the reporter the same question he’d been asking for years: "By the way, do you have any spare change?"

Two years later, Larkin passed away after lung cancer had spread to his brain.

Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling StoneThe Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.