Walt Disney: The 1966 death of an American icon

Walt Disney, standing in front of his signature creation, Mickey Mouse, in this 1950 portrait.Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Walt Disney, standing in front of his signature creation, Mickey Mouse, in this 1950 portrait.

(Originally published by the Daily News on Dec. 16, 1966. This story was written by Phil Santora.)

Walt Disney 65, who built a better mouse, died yesterday.

The 20th Century Aesop who took the stuff from which fantasy and dreams are fashioned and wove them into a never-never world populated by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bambi, Dumbo and hundreds of other beloved characters, died of cancer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, Calif.

The man they called the modern Merlin, Father Goose and one of the most creative geniuses in entertainment history, underwent surgery for removal of a lung on Nov. 21, after doctors found a tumor that had resulted in an abscess. He had returned to the hospital for a post-operative checkup only a short time before his death.

Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago. He was stage-struck as a boy and it was inevitable that he should go to Hollywood, where he arrived in 1923 with a mistmatched suit, a sweater, some drawing materials and $ 40 loaned to him by his brother, Ro.

Fame from all over

Walt was a struggling cartoonist – and the struggle was a long one. By the time he was through he had won fame throughout the civilized world. Crowded on the walls of his office, spilling out into adjoining trophy room, were more than 700 awards, honors and citations accorded him from all over the globe.

These included 29 Oscars, four Emmys, the Irving Thalberg Award, the Presidential Freedom Medal and the French Legion Honor.

And these honors failed to change this basically simple man, who dined on hamburgers and chili at the studio commissary – where even the waitresses called him ‘Walt’ – and who would listen politely to dirty stories but not laugh, and who never “went Hollywood.”

Always a family man

He spent most of his free time with his wife, Lillian, and their two married daughters, Mrs. Ron Miller and Mrs. Robert Brown to whom – along with brother Roy – he was devoted.

His first professional love was Mickey Mouse.

“I fathered him when he was called Mortimer Mouse,” he once told THE NEWS, “And he was my first-born and the means by which I ultimately achieved all the other things I ever did – from Snow White to Disneyland.”

Mickey made his debut in October, 1928, and was an immediate success.

Mickey’s first voice was that of his creator. Disney followed up with Donald Duck, simply because Mickey was a sweet, gentle character and Disney couldn’t bear to have him to anything bad. So he invented the foul-tempered, bumpious Donald.

They were created in a tiny studio – rented with the help of Roy Disney, who left a banking business career to help launch the great talent he always knew his brother had.

But Mickey and Donald outgrew the little studio. Soon they were known in every corner of the world. Mickey’s piping voice and Donald’s quacking rasp were translated into scores of languages.

New York Daily News obituary for Walt Disney on Dec. 16, 1966.New York Daily News New York Daily News obituary for Walt Disney on Dec. 16, 1966.

Now that he had money to play with, Disney really let his imagination loose. The first of nearly 100 full-length features – and the most durable – was the enchanting “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Walt Disney once told me “There is never a moment where Snow White isn’t being shown somewhere in the world. She will live on long after I’m done.”

There followed other great classics – “Pinocchio,” “Cinderella,” “Treasure Island,” “Peter Pan,” “Robin Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Kidnapped,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and – his most recent hit, “Mary Poppins.”

In addition to his other accomplishments, Disney created several exhibits for the recent New York World’s Fair. The most impressive of these was the Lincoln figure in the Illinois Pavilion – which moved, talked and so closely resembled a human that fairgoers were silent with awe.

Disney actually lived in this world of lugubrious dragons, frisky chipmunks, soft-eyed deer and dancing mushrooms. The money he made was to him merely the starting point for yet another production. He never asked how much something would cost; he just asked his brother if it could be done. And Roy would sigh and tell him go ahead.

He was not a businessman, but at his death it is almost impossible to estimate how much money he leaves behind.

Disney was a stubborn nonconformist who brought his dreams to reality by sheer will power.

He popularized nature films, such as “The Living Desert”. He expanded into adventure, comedy and musical films and he became a mainstay of TV. His Disneyland, the fun place that Nikita Khrushchev petulantly complained he was deprived of seeing, became a model for amusement parks everywhere.

In the 1965 annual report to shareholders and employees of Walt Disney Productions, he noted:

“We’re interested in doing things that are fun – in bringing pleasure and especially laughter to people.”

And this was what Disney was most interested in – bringing laughter to people through Happy and Grumpy of “Snow White,” the Three Little Pigs, and the rest. Cunningly, he inserted wisdom and culture, too – as in his “Fantasia.”

Disney most often wore rumpled gray slacks and a sweater. He was a well-built man of medium height, with a graying mustache and a furrowed brow. He liked to think he was always an amiable man and sometimes was surprised to find out he had been snapping at an employee – usually because the employee’s efforts were just a shade this side of perfection.

At the time of his death, Disney was involved in his most ambitious project to date – Disney World, at Orlando, Fla.

In his latest film, “Follow Me, Boys,” there is an unwitting good-by to the world who loved him. It starts out with Walt saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry I can’t be with you tonight.”

We’re sorry too.

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