PRAGUE (AP) — In the 1950s, Zdenek Miler stumbled over a molehill in woods west of Prague, giving him the idea for an animated cartoon character that has enchanted millions of children around the world and even made it into space on a NASA shuttle.
Miler, creator of the Little Mole character, died Wednesday. He was 90 and spent the last months of his life at a nursing home in Nova Ves pod Plesi, southwest of Prague.
Born Feb 21, 1921 in the town of Kladno, he graduated from the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. He illustrated a number of children books and made several cartoons, but his most famous creation was the mole.
He created the character, which is always cheerful and ready to help those in need, in 1956 after walking in woods near Kladno and tripping over a molehill.
"So, I said to myself: that's it. The mole," Miler said in a 2006 interview with Czech public radio.
The very first episode titled "How the Mole got his Trousers," was an immediate hit, winning the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in Italy. Since then, 50 episodes have been made, attracting a wide audience among children in Eastern Europe and countries such as Germany, Austria, China and India.
A stuffed toy of Little Mole, known as "krtek" in Czech (pronounced KRRR-tech), returned to Earth in July after a voyage to outer space on NASA's shuttle Endeavour. The toy accompanied American astronaut Andrew Feustel on NASA's last shuttle mission. Feustel's wife, Indira, is of Czech origin.
"Krtek spent a lot of time floating around the international space station," Feustel commented during his visit to Prague. Miler said in a letter to Feustel he was honored.
Miler was looking for a new creature for a new film in the 1950s that would not be used by anyone else.
"Walt Disney used for his cartoons almost all animals, but one," Miler said. "That was chosen by me."
The mole doesn't speak and uses just nonverbal exclamations to express his feelings, a strategy that resonates well with an international audience. More than 5 million copies of books with the mole adventures, translated into 20 languages, have been sold worldwide as well as numerous mole toys.
Miller personally signed off on all designs based on the mole until he died.
"He never disappointed me," Miler said about the mole. "He made me happy all my life."