My history hero: Walt Disney (1901-66)

Chosen by illustrator Gerald Scarfe

The "brilliant" Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse in 1935. (Getty Images)
Walt Disney created the iconic 20th‑cartoon characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto, and cast them in a series of big-screen shorts. He went on to produce groundbreaking full-length animated features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) among other children’s cinema classics. In 1955, the visionary entertainment entrepreneur opened the Disneyland theme park.

When did you first hear about Walt Disney?

When I was very small, and the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out. I thought it was absolutely fabulous, and couldn’t wait for the next Disney movie to appear. I was so enthralled by his films as a child that I used to draw figures from them, and it was that which really got me started on being a cartoonist.

What kind of person was he?

First and foremost, he was a brilliant animator – and I think he had a real understanding of what fired kids’ imaginations. He was also very driven and overcame all sorts of obstacles before finding success. In addition, he was a good businessman, someone with an eye for the main chance – but, at the same time, one prepared to take risks. Snow White was his first full-length animated film. Everyone said he was crazy, and there was no appetite for a full-length big-screen cartoon, and I think he mortgaged his house to get the film finished. Of course, it turned out to be a huge success.
Disney’s other quality of real value, apart from being an innovator, was that he was able to pull together, like a director or general, a team of animators – and ensure their work reflected his overall vision.

What made Walt Disney your hero?

I was an asthmatic as a child and bedridden for much of the time, in the days before they had sophisticated drugs, so I didn’t have much chance of making it in the academic, let alone the physical world. Discovering that someone – namely Walt Disney – had carved out a career as a cartoonist was a real revelation to me, and opened up a world of possibilities in my mind. He also influenced me greatly as a cartoonist. He was a very cute cartoonist, and I’m anything but; he made the world look rosy and cute, and I don’t. But his baddies scared me out of my wits as a child, and I tried to incorporate those elements of wickedness in my drawings.

What was his finest hour?

For me, it was the period when he made his early feature films – before he went on to make his postwar live-action movies such as Mary Poppins. Despite the fact that it’s over 70 years old, I still think that Pinocchio is one of his best, if not his very best, animated films, for the quality of the drawings. It’s a terrific film.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Later on, I learnt that he was not perhaps as genial as his drawings suggested. Most of his drawings might have been very pretty, but it emerged after he died that he may have had quite controversial views. That said, a lot of these claims were hearsay, so it’s difficult to get at the truth. But I wouldn’t be an admirer of that side of him, if it was the case.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Like him, I’m lucky enough to have an ability to depict things in pictures rather than words. On the other hand, I can think of one very striking difference – he made millions and millions of dollars and I didn’t!

If you could meet Walt Disney, what would you ask him?

Much as I’m a fan of his work, I think I’d have asked him why virtually all his cartoons and characters had to be so damn cute – because it’s his scary characters that have always stuck in my mind.
Gerald Scarfe was talking to York Membery. He is one of Britain’s best-known cartoonists and illustrators, famous for his work with the rock group Pink Floyd.
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