Remembering Walt: 50 Years After His Death

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

December was the 50th anniversary of the passing of Walt Disney at 9:35 a.m. on Dec. 15, 1966 at the age of 65. Actually, he had just turned 65 just 10 days earlier on Dec. 5, but celebrated his birthday in a hospital bed in Room 529 at St. Joseph's Hospital, across the street from the Disney Studios in Burbank.

The cause of death was listed on his death certificate as cardiac arrest (basically his heart stopped beating) due to bronchogenic carcinoma (lung cancer). A small private family-only funeral service was held on Dec. 16 at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

His death certificate shows his remains were cremated on Dec. 17 at Forest Lawn where his ashes were later interred in a wall just outside the Freedom Court mausoleum.

Over the decades, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview many people who knew and worked with Walt Disney. Here are a few selections from my interview archives to help provide a tribute to a man whose impact still influences people and the world.

Bill Evans is perhaps best remembered for his landscaping of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in spring 1985:

"Walt didn't talk things to death. One of the amazing things about Walt was that he knew the tremendous contribution landscaping could make. Walt wanted a lot of green stuff because it adds to the experience.

"Here's a story about how Walt communicated. When we were building Disneyland we used to make a tour of the site every Saturday. Once a week, Walt would hike the whole site. We really thought we had outdone ourselves when we got these big trees for the hub. They were really big trees: eight tons each in six foot boxes.

"Along came Saturday, we had planted them a couple of days earlier so I thought I would really impress both my bosses: Walt and Admiral Fowler. I think Walt liked those trees. Those were good trees. But his way of liking them was to turn to Joe and say, "Where did Bill get the bushes?"

"Walt was not given to extravagant praise. He had the best in terms of artists and technicians and engineers. He had the best. They all performed. They all put out for Walt. And it wasn't because he slapped them on the back and said they were doing a great job. I don't think anybody ever heard him say that. You just wanted to do the best you could. Actually, you ended up doing better than you thought you could. You felt supported so you could experiment and take some chances."

Walt was the kind of man who wanted you to show him what you were thinking, not tell him. He died in December 1966.

Bill Justice started at Disney as an animator but was soon doing special projects and eventually became an Imagineer with an expertise in programming audio-animatronics figures. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in March 1997.

"When people ask me what Walt Disney is like, I say "dead". (Laughs) There was no one else like Walt and there never will be.

"Producer Harry Tytle told me the story that when he and Walt were overseas in Europe a couple of young men approached them on the street and started talking in German. Walt turned to Harry and said, 'Tell them I don't speak German.'

"Harry spoke a little German and tried to tell them and they got very angry and said, 'What do you mean he doesn't speak German? We see him on TV all the time and he speaks perfect German!'

"Walt's time was very valuable so when he was doing the television introductions he couldn't do everything because it would take too much time. So there were inserts of someone else doing mundane tasks like turning pages or pointing to maps. Once in a while, it was me wearing Walt's watch, ring and jacket doing what needed to be done and then it was edited seamlessly into the other scenes.

"Walt was good to me. He was a very critical person and you had to do your very best to please him. He had a great facility to know what you'd like to do. I refer to him as the greatest casting director. He would assign people to what they liked to do and consequently got the best work out of them.

"Walt's casting eye included everyone at the studio, not just the creative people. He tried to know everyone's likes and dislikes. Walt's favorite methods of communication were all indirect...coughing, raising an eyebrow, drumming his fingers on a chair arm...but could be translated pretty accurately."

Jack Hannah started as an animator at Disney, became a storyman with Carl Barks and then a director of some classic animated short cartoons and later the weekly Disney television show. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in July 1978.

"Everybody always asks, 'What did you think about Walt?' I could spend the whole afternoon talking about him. Walt was one of the toughest men to work for. There were times when you might have hated him but you always respected him.

"Walt had a great story mind. He knew what would entertain. He really couldn't draw well. He probably couldn't even draw the Mouse's tail very well for that matter but he was the driving force.

"He loved embellishing stories and having fun at somebody else's expense. But you can't deny that he was a genius. There's no doubt about it. There was an awe about him. You just felt it if he was in the same wing of a building you were in. I know it sounds weird but you never got over that awe of him. He had a tremendous faith in the future of animation.

"Things he said back in the 1930s, I use in my teaching today. He was a creative man and he took animation about as far as I believe anybody could have in those days. He was always looking for something new.

"Toward the end of his life, I do feel that Walt had cooled in his excitement toward animation somewhat. Maybe today, seeing all the new technology that is available for use in animation would have rekindled his interest. Who knows? I don't think anyone ever really knew Walt or what he was going to do or why he was going to do it. That's what made him Walt."

Ken Anderson worked at the Disney studio in art direction, story, character development, attraction design and more. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in spring 1985.

"He always pretended he wasn't an artist. Walt would always say, 'I am just a cartoonist. I have no pretenses of art.' He was probably the greatest artist I have ever known without being able to draw. He used to carry drawings that his animators had drawn to pass out when he traveled.

"Walt felt he was just an ordinary guy. He actually felt he was. But he wasn't. He was an extraordinary guy who was a fast learner. He was way ahead of you in meetings.

"He loved to shoot craps all the time but he didn't want it known he loved to shoot craps. And he'd win.

"He couldn't stand a dirty joke. The first 60 years I worked there, he wouldn't listen to a dirty joke. He would leave. But then, it got so he liked them. He began telling these old dirty jokes and we all knew 'em. We'd have to laugh even though we had heard these stories years before.

"He wasn't coordinated physically. He couldn't ride horseback and things like that that come naturally to others. But he had the most fantastic coordination of the brain.

"I never met anybody in my whole life who I love that much. I loved this man because he stood for good. He stood for everything I would like to stand for myself. He made them happen. He wasn't afraid to take a chance with anything.

"There are all sorts of stories you can tell about Walt. But basically, some of the guys are soreheads and won't like him. They would be mad because something happened.

"I was too stupid to realize that he was using everything as an experiment. When I'd get something solved, he'd want to do something different. He just wanted to find better and newer ways of doing everything."

"Years later, Walt left the studio as a sick man. I didn't think much of it other than 'I guess he's sick.' He was always coughing anyway. It didn't occur to any of us that it might really be something serious. He went to the hospital for awhile and then was supposed to go home but he showed up at the studio. I happened to be out on the lot and saw him.

"He had shrunk. He looked like a little man. He looked a full head shorter, a tiny little guy. A good foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. But it was good to see him.

"'Sure good to see you,' I said.

"'Sure good to be back, Ken. Damn, it's wonderful,' he said

"He went home and in two weeks he was dead."

Marc Davis worked as an animator, creating many of the most memorable of Disney characters in animated feature films, and then later became an Imagineer contributing to some of the most memorable Disney theme park attractions. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in September 1998.

"He never liked to look back. I don't think he got a big charge out of dragging out some of these old films and looking at them although he had liked them at the time. He was always, 'What are we going to do now?'

"Walt himself was interested primarily in things he could bring alive and you would believe in. If you believed in a film or a character, then he was very happy with that.

"You learned how to approach him. You didn't walk up to him and say 'Hey, I've got a great idea for something' and not have something to show him.

"He wasn't very patient to listen to words about what a great idea you had. He had great ideas of his own. He didn't need to listen to yours. If you showed him something, he preferred that.

"I went down [to Disneyland] with Walt after putting all these elephants in there [in a bathing pool]. I knew there was no way anybody could go through that ride and see all these elephants.

"You know, Walt, nobody is going to be able to see all these things at one time."

"He slapped me on the back, "Hell, that's great, Marc. We do such a repeat business here that each time they come through they'll have something more to see."

"And that philosophy became like a Bible for the park. It's true of the Pirates ride. We have guests saying 'I never saw that before' and it's always been there. That was all Walt."

Peter Ellenshaw started doing matte paintings for the live-action Disney films made in England, and continued doing not only matte paintings for Disney films but also contributing to attractions at Disneyland. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in Spring 1997.

"What was Walt Disney like? That's what we'd all like to know, isn't it? Walt was the only person who was not an artist who could talk to you like an artist.

"The only problem you would have had with Walt was if you were not as enthusiastic about a project as he was. I would remember him coming by and talking to me about something and would get me all stirred up with enthusiasm and I would start work on the project

"Then about three weeks or later I might get discouraged and think 'Why did I get involved with this? It won't work!' and then Walt would come by and talk and get me all enthusiastic again. It wasn't a false enthusiasm. He really believed it could be done and he was able to make you believe it.

"Great man. Wonderful man. Loved him. Missed him. Miss him terribly still. Missed him so much that I'd wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why I was weeping. It was because I'd lost him. It was wonderful knowing him.

"He had a way of raising his voice and it just terrorized you. He frightened me to death when he raised his voice. He did it to me twice. I'm kind of a little wimp anyway and I am thinking, 'He's ruined my life! I'm going to be fired!' But I wasn't. He was just very passionate about things and so sure of what he wanted. He really was a wonderful man. I can't say that often enough.

"He protected you from anybody else but made sure you did it right. He wanted it done right. I remember one time when I was criticizing something, he said, "Peter, you are too sophisticated. We are making these for ordinary people. We are not trying to do art. We are not painting art. We are painting something to amuse and entertain. It might be corn but it's going to be good corn."

"I was just one of the people who knew Walt just from live action. I'm not boasting about that. I'm very humble about that. I used to sit around with these men who had worked with him in animation and we'd ask, 'What makes this ordinary man so extraordinary?'

"Because he seems so normal. He seems so common in his thinking. He has no taste. Suddenly, you realize he has exquisite taste. He had a certain way of thinking and looking at problems from over there. We were all looking at it the same way from the common view and he'd say something and we thought he hadn't been listening to what we were saying at all. Actually, he had seen it from another view."

Bill "Sully" Sullivan started working at Disneyland in July 1955 and became an executive at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in a variety of different positions in addition to working on special projects like the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and the 1960 Winter Olympics in California. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in September 2007.

"The thing that everybody always asks is 'What was Walt Disney like?'

"Sadly, there are just a few of us left who actually got to meet and interact with him. It is hard to describe what it was like when he was around. You truly felt his presence. It was that powerful.

"He didn't try to push himself or put on airs. He was just Walt. He was a genuinely decent human being. He was a grandfather. Yet, when you were around him, you knew he was special.

"Was he like he was on his television show?" people wonder. Yes, he was very much like that but he was also so much more. He was an extraordinary boss. I have never met anyone else like him or who inspired me so much. He still continues to inspire me even though he has been gone a half a century.

"It was one night on the Jungle Cruise in 1955 at Disneyland. We were sitting down there on a very foggy, quiet night and he was walking around the park. He loved walking around the park. He loved talking with people both guests and employees.

"He came down and sat down and started shooting the breeze. We all sat there and smoked and talked.

"But he was just Walt. He wasn't trying to be the boss or the guy who had all the answers. He was Walt. He was a very amiable guy, a very quiet guy, a very nice guy. He'd always ask us questions: 'How are things going? Can we make it better?' and all that good stuff. He always wanted things to be better. He trusted us.

"He was very receptive to our thoughts and ideas. He liked new ideas all the time, because, let's face it, we were there seven days a week and he was only there a couple days a week. He really listened and then we would find that the next day he would do something to fix things.

"You could tell his moods, though. If he was working, he'd be walking through the park and he had his old gray pants on. He wore a leather jacket that looked like he got it out of the Goodwill and a straw hat.

"But if he was just out there meeting the guests he'd wear his blue serge suit and his Smoke Tree tie and he'd be out there walking the park. Always wanted to be just 'Walt' not 'Mr. Disney.' He would say the only misters in the park were Mr. Toad and Mr. Lincoln.

"He was very hands on, even at the studio. Walt was involved. He was right in the middle of everything all the time.

"Walt was very mild-mannered, except if the show wasn't working. If it wasn't working the way he designed it, he wanted to make damn sure it was, because we were concerned with giving the guests what they paid for.

"He was very calm and very straightforward. He said this is the way it's going to be and that's the way it was. Walt was a really warm individual. He had a great sense of humor and he loved people. He was an executive, but not what you perceive as an 'executive'. He was a real team guy.

"Walt was a very interesting guy. He was not a snob. He was just a regular guy. He loved to watch people and he'd talk to people, guests from all over. He was the biggest celebrity in the world, but he never acted like it."