A few weeks ago, Mike Scopa wrote to me wanting to know my perspective on the story that the last words that Walt Disney wrote before he passed away were “Kurt Russell.” People often give an inordinate amount of intention to the last words of celebrities, politicians, and others in the hopes of discovering the meaning of life or at least the meaning of life to those particular folks in their last moments. Was Walt 's writing of “Kurt Russell” a cryptic clue like Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud” to revealing something about the innovative genius?
The legend of Walt’s last words has been around for decades and several years ago, they once again were given the spotlight.
In April 2007 on the Jimmy Kimmel Live talk show, actor Kurt Russell, who was promoting his new film Death Proof, confirmed that the last words Walt Disney wrote before he died were “Kurt Russell.”
"It's true. I don't know what to make of that. I was taken into his office one time after he died and I was shown that,” Russell said.
Walt died in in 1966. In 1966, Kurt played a starring role in Disney's feature film Follow Me, Boys! featuring Fred MacMurray as a Boy Scout master who adopts Russell’s character, a troubled youth. Supposedly, after this first film for Disney, at the urging of Walt himself, Russell was put under a 10-year contract with the Disney Studios.
Russell went on to star in several Disney live-action films, including The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, The Barefoot Executive, and as Dexter Riley in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and its two sequels: Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World. He was also loaned out to other productions.
Russell enjoyed his time at the Disney Studio. As the actor told Howard and Amy Green for their excellent and highly recommended book Remembering Walt:
“Sometimes he’d [Walt]) come down to the set and ask, ‘Do you want to see part of a movie that’s being put together?’ So I’d watch a movie or parts of a movie with him and we’d talk about it, and he’d ask me questions.
“What was interesting about Walt, as I look back on it now, is that he was picking the mind of an uninhibited 13-year-old. He would ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ and we’d kick ideas back and forth. I think he was finding out how a young mind worked.
“The script lady pulled me aside one day and said, ‘I think they’re going to offer you a contract. Do you know why Walt likes you? Because you’re not intimidated by him.’ I never could figure out why anybody would be intimidated by him.
“He didn’t blurt things out like a child. He sat and thought. I think he was a realistic dreamer. He was slower and a little more thoughtful and had an awareness about him. You felt like he was taking in the whole room.
“When I was over at Universal working on a Western while under contract at Disney, I was shooting a close-up and noticed there was some hubbub going on off camera. Then everybody went quiet. They were looking at me and I thought, ‘What the hell’s this?’
“This guy came over to me and said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, Kurt, but Walt Disney died.’ They were all very sweet. The director asked me if I was okay to work and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure. Go ahead.’
“His death was a surprise and I was saddened by it. But, I don’t look at death as some sort of finality. It’s sad you won’t be able to spend time you had together. At that moment, I immediately appreciated the time I shared with Walt more than ever.
“What Walt represented to me was someone who was constantly aware of what might be fun to do, not necessarily cutting edge or different or what would blow people away, but what might be fun. I remember he would always say, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun?’”
Walt liked the clean-cut, enthusiastic young actor, but he liked a lot of the other young performers who worked for the studio, as well. There was never any evidence of a special bond between the two that was any different than other interactions Walt had.
So why would the last words that Walt wrote be “Kurt Russell”? The obvious answer was Walt might have been considering the actor for a role in an upcoming Disney production and wanted to make sure he wrote down the name to pass along to others at the studio to follow up.
The challenge with these type of stories is to find a “smoking gun,” where you don’t have to rely on logical assumption, but can refer to some hard fact or quotation to give solid proof. Sometimes the logical answer is not always the correct one.
For more than a decade that “smoking gun” was staring me right in the face and, just like every other Disney historian, I completely ignored it. It wasn’t hidden. It was in plain sight of millions of Disney theme park visitors if they bothered to look closely instead of rushing somewhere else.
Walt Disney had two offices. He had a formal office with the bookcase and the piano to officially greet visitors to the studio. Next door, he also had his working office where he would read scripts, catch up on mail, and hold meetings with Disney Studio personnel. Both offices were closed and locked and undisturbed after Walt’s death with only an occasional maintenance person going inside to dust and vacuum.
One of the first tasks assigned to former Disney archivist Dave Smith was to accurately inventory everything in the offices when the Archives was established in June 1970. Thanks to Smith’s careful documentation, the two offices were re-created in accurate detail from the carpet to the ceiling tiles for The Walt Disney Story attraction in Disneyland’s Main Street Opera House in 1973. The exhibit temporarily replaced Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, which re-opened in 1975 after guests aggressively protested its closure. Walt’s offices remained as part of the pre-show.
For more than two decades I would press my face tightly against the glass to try and see all the details in the hope that just like Alice through the looking glass, I might press hard enough that I would end up on the other side of the glass and Walt would be sitting at his desk wanting to chat.
On October 1, 2001, at what was then the Disney MGM Studios, a new attraction opened titled One Man’s Dream as part of the “100 Years of Magic” celebration. With great care and at great expense, Walt’s working office from the Disneyland exhibit had been installed “temporarily, just for the celebration.” The office remains there a decade later because of the time and expense to transport it back to California much to the chagrin of Disneyland cast members.
The contents on the desk are the same artifacts exactly as Walt left them on his last day in this office, including the paperclips. There were scripts that Walt was working on along with a battered, open briefcase nearby that he would use to take the scripts home to review.
What does this have to do with Walt’s last written words? Well, in the working office I was always fascinated by the physical things, like the bird cage that Walt had purchased in New Orleans that helped give birth to Audio-Animatronics, the portrait photo of Ed Wynn taken by Ub Iwerks’ son who was hoping to convince Walt to sit for a portrait photo shoot, and the gold crown given to Walt by his friend Joyce Hall, founder of Hallmark cards that had a gold crown as its icon.
However, thanks to a friend, I stumbled recently across a video on YouTube of Dave Smith giving a tour of the offices and it reminded me of something I knew but had forgotten: the source of the infamous “Kurt Russell” reference.
On Walt’s desks are copies of the company magazine, The Disney World, along with other papers including a note “to discuss with Card Walker and others” about the “Progress Report on the Disney World Project” (dated September 8, 1966). Nearly forgotten nearby is a typewritten page titled “TV Projects In Production: Ready for Production or Possible for Escalation and Story”. It is a list of possible live-action productions.
At the very bottom of the page, Walt used his famous red grease pencil to make the following notes:
2 Way Down Cellar
2. Kirt (sp) Russell
What does it mean? Ron Miller was Walt’s son-in-law, but was also a producer on some of the live-action films and Walt was giving him more responsibility in that area. A little more than a year later, in January 1968, the weekly Disney television show offered a two-part live action story titled Way Down Cellar, just as Walt indicated. During a friendly football game, three young boys search for their lost ball after a bad pass and discover an entrance to a secret tunnel hidden in the ruins of a burned-out church. They follow it to a supposedly haunted house that has just been rented to a suspicious new tenant. One of the roles was played by Butch Patrick, better known as Eddie Munster from the popular television show The Munsters.
Kurt Russell’s name is misspelled and just below it is a reference to young actor Roger Mobley, who played the lead role in the Gallegher series on Disney’s weekly television show. (That series is long overdue to be released on DVD to Disney fans in my opinion. Disney should also hire Disney Historian Jim Fanning to do a special featurette for the release, as well.)
So it looks like right up to the end, Walt was not just working on the Florida project, but other Disney Studio projects including its upcoming live-action films. He indicated that Way Down Cellar should be a two-parter and that perhaps Russell or Mobley or both would be good for the roles.
So why was Russell shown this piece of paper? Again, Smith shines light on that situation. “These were obviously projects that he [Walt] thought would be good to do. In the early 1970s, when we still had this office up at the Studio, Kurt Russell was on the lot filming Now You See Him, Now You Don’t. I went down to the stage one lunch time and I said, ‘I’ve got something I’d like you to see up in Walt’s office.’ I took him up to Walt’s office and showed him one of the last things that Walt had written was his name. I think he was quite impressed even though Walt misspelled it. He’s got Kurt (as) ‘Kirt.’”
Want to see more of that paper without coming out to Florida? Well, YouTube is an amazing site. For a close up look at Walt’s working office and at approximately the 2:18 mark, you will see the paper (with the red grease pencil notations at bottom) on Walt’s desk.
I wonder how many Disney fans know that Kurt’s brother, Bryan, who was about a year older also acted in Disney films. Both were in their early teens and each stood 5-foot-1 and weighed 95 pounds. They sometimes auditioned for the same projects. Bryan was a Disney contract player appearing in The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, Emil and the Detectives, Babes in Toyland and Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar.
I have no idea what Walt’s last words might have been or even what was the last thing he ever wrote—but it is apparent that “Kurt Russell” is not the answer to that question.