Walt Disney ‘American Experience’ Documentary Balances Man & Myths

Walt Disney was a dictator who ruled his studio with an iron fist. Walt Disney was a generous soul who loved nothing more than making people happy. Both of those sides of the man who has achieved mythic status were on display Sunday during the TCA panel on PBS’ four-hour “American Experience” docu on Walt Disney, which airs Sept. 14-15.

“The Walt Disney studio operated like a cult and Walt was the head of the cult,” said Neal Gabler, historian and author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.” “Everybody at Disney was terrified of him. He was worshipped at the studio for a certain period of time.”

Gabler’s view of Disney was offset by memories shared by Richard Sherman, songwriter who began working for Disney in the early 1960s. Sherman opened the Television Critics Assn. press tour session at the Beverly Hilton with a piano medley of Disney tunes he wrote with his late brother, Robert, including “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “It’s a Small World.”

“He was wonderful to us,” Sherman recalled. “He called us ‘the boys.’ ” Sherman emphasized that in his experience, Disney was never driven by a desire for wealth or fame. He wanted to be seen as a master storyteller.

“He was a giving person. He didn’t do it to make money or to aggrandize himself,” Sherman said. “He got great joy out of making people happy with his movies.” But Sherman did acknowledge that Disney staffers often trembled a bit when Walt walked down the hall. They’d invoke the memorable line from “Bambi”: “Man is in the forest.”

Sarah Colt, producer-director of “Walt Disney,” said the biggest challenge she faced was capturing the truth of the man who had such outsized influence and notoriety.

“People think they know him but in reality they don’t know him,” Colt said. “He was a human being with many layers of complexity.”

Colt was questioned about the persistent belief that Disney was privately extremely anti-Semitic and a Nazi apologist. The docu doesn’t address the subject because she found there was no credible evidence to indicate that he was biased against Jews. Gabler, whose Disney biography challenges much of the conventional narrative about Disney’s life, also said that he never uncovered anything to substantiate the claim.

“In 1955 the B’nai B’rith chapter in Beverly Hills named him man of the year,” Gabler observed. “I rest my case.”

Colt, who previously produced the well-received “American Experience” doc on Henry Ford, said the Walt Disney Co. offered her “unpredecented” access to their archives. The Disney family also cooperated, although Disney’s lone surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, died in 2013 before she could be interviewed for the doc.

“American Experience” exec producer Mark Samels emphasized that the Disney company had no editorial control over the doc. He admitted that he was surprised at the degree of cooperation they received given Disney’s reputation for tightly controlling the image of the company’s namesake.

Panelists, which also included former Disney animator Don Hahn and University of Virginia professor Carmenita Higginbotham, were pressed on the question of whether Walt Disney would approve of the state of the company today. Gabler noted that in the 1950s, Disney broke away from his own company to start the smaller WED Enterprises venture to develop concepts such as Disneyland and audio animatronics. The larger Disney entity eventually bought out WED.

“He was not a corporatist,” Gabler said.

(Pictured: Mark Samels, Carmenita Higginbotham, Don Hahn, Sarah Colt, Neal Gabler and Richard Sherman)

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