ByKarly Rayner, writer at
Movie Pilot's celebrity savant
Karly Rayner

The Disney universe is so immaculately constructed that it's almost impossible to imagine just how it was created, but even the most talented animators need a little help from the real world.

The most iconic Disney characters were all inspired by a surprisingly diverse selection of real life muses who rarely get their own moment in the spotlight.

So, let's celebrate the actors hiding beneath the animation and dig up some of the bizarre origin stories behind the Disney greats!

Hans Conried - Hook

Voice actor Hans Conried was so taken by the character of Captain Hook that he attended his first reference session for the role already dressed as the pirate from the J.M Barry tale.

The Disney animators were so impressed with his look that Captain Hook's outfit is actually based on the one that Conried wore on that fateful day, instead of the one that the wardrobe department dreamed up!

Conreid became so attached to Captain Hook that he got into the habit of defending the hapless seaman. He is quoted as saying:

He’s a much maligned character. If you read the lines with any sensibility at all, you must have an animus against Peter Pan who could fly, and took outrageous advantage of this one-armed man. Hook was a gentleman. Pan was not. His behavior was very bad form.


Eleanor Audley - Maleficent

Elenor Audley was both the voice and reference model for Maleficent when Sleeping Beauty was created in 1959.

Animators studied Audley in full costume and modeled Maleficent's facial features on her while bringing one of the most iconic Disney villains of all time to life.

Nine years earlier, Audley also played the evil stepmother in Cinderella, so this somewhat harshly voiced lady was already well versed in being bad to the bone when she donned the infamous horns!


Marge Champion - Snow White

Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set the standard for the iconic studios animation methods.

When the concept of the movie was created, the animators had little experience when it came to animated realistic human characters. So Disney hired a young dancer, then named Marjorie Belcher, to embody Snow White.

Marge dressed in her character's costume and pantomimed scenes from the film with props to help produce high quality drawings.

Champion also modeled for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and as one of the dancing hippos in Fantasia!


Margaret Kerry - Tinkerbell

There is an ongoing myth that Tinkerbell was inspired by Marilyn Monroe, but the actual woman behind the magic is Margaret Kelly.

With the help of a collection of oversized props, including enormous scissors, Kelly brought the temperamental fairy to life.

Margaret Kelly also voiced one of the mermaids in Peter Pan.


Sherri Stoner - Ariel

If you have ever thought Beauty and the Beast's Belle looks like Ariel with different hair, you're totally right because Sherri Stoner modeled for both roles!

While providing the reference for Ariel, the actress swam around in a water tank for animators and performed actions to pre-recorded tracks of Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel.

Stoner's connection to animation also stretches to voice acting, while she was working as a writer and producer for Animaniacs, Stoner voiced Slappy Squirrel!


Bela Lugosi as Chernabog

The unholy demon of childhood nightmares that appears in Fantasia was acted out by Dracula himself!

Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who portrayed Dracula in the 1931 movie, was invited into the studio to dramatically waft his cape around as a model for the terrifying Chernabog.

The head animator wasn't so convinced by his performance, though, and Chernabog is actually created with an amalgamation of Lugosi and one of the animator's mannerisms.


Conrad Veidt - Jafar

Conrad Veidt did not actually model for Jafar, but Disney pillaged many of the despicable villain's qualities from the actor's performance in The Thief of Bagdad.

This 1940 movie uses the same source material as Aladdin and Veidt, unsurprisingly, played Jafar!

Contemporary reviews of Veidt's performance at the time sound more than a little similar to the Disney version we know and love. Roger Ebert wrote that:

The most compelling character, as he should be, is the villain Jaffar, played by the German emigre Conrad Veidt with hypnotic eyes and a cruel laugh.


Divine - Ursula

Ursula's divaish ways and over the top makeup make a lot more sense when you realize the sea witch was modeled after a drag queen!

The larger than life Divine was a direct inspiration for the role and animators borrowed many aspects of the performer's personality and style to bring Ursula to life.

Unfortunately, Divine never got to see her animated protege sashaying across cinema screens. The star (real name Harris Glenn Milstead) died less than a year before before The Little Mermaid was released.


Tallulah Bankhead - Cruella DeVille

The flamboyant and forthright Tallulah Bankhead was a perfect fit to inspire the evilly eccentric Cruella De Vil.

Both Cruella and her real life counterpart must have a penchant for chain smoking and exceptionally glamorous clothes, although thankfully Bankhead never kidnapped an army of puppies to make a coat!


Which Disney character do you think looks most like their real life inspiration?

(Source: The FW and Flavorwire)


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