For years, classic cartoon characters are what came to mind when the name Disney was mentioned.
That might have remained the case had Walt not branched out to live action films in the 1950s.
He was, of course, just hoping to increase the revenue stream for the studio during a tough time and also tinkering with new film making technology. In the process, he inadvertently wound up creating his own star making machine.
Over the years, many actors have used Disney as their launching pad for successful Hollywood careers. Here are ten of the most notable (a few Academy Award winners and nominees among them.)
Note: I purposely didn't include folks like Annette Funicello, Hayley Mills, Tommy Kirk, or Miley Cyrus, whose careers were primarily centered at Disney, and never really broke out into other films. I also omitted people like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Ryan Gosling, who were briefly members of the Mickey Mouse Club but didn't have big starring roles with Disney, or people like Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Martin and Renee Russo, who began their showbiz careers working at DisneyLand. Zac Efron and Lindsay Lohan also just missed the top ten cut.
The daughter of performers in her native England, Dame Julie Andrews started her stage career at an early age. While still in her twenties, she moved to New York City. It was there that Walt Disney saw her in a Broadway performance of “Camelot” and realized that he had found the perfect actress to play the lead role in his upcoming musical version of Mary Poppins.
Not everyone thought Ms. Andrews would do well on film. Producer Jack Warner chose not to cast her as Eliza Dolittle in Warner Brothers' film version of “My Fair Lady”, a role which Andrews had originated on stage.
Warner thought Audrey Hepburn had more potential, so he passed on Andrews and cast Hepburn instead. Disney knew better and was secretly delighted that his dream actress was available.
After initially turning down Mary Poppins because she was pregnant (Walt actually held production up for her until after the birth of her daughter Emma) Andrews began filming her breakthrough role in 1963. The film was a smash hit, and - in a bit of redemption - she won the Academy Award that season over Audrey Hepburn. (She thanked Jack Warner in her speech.)
Ms. Andrews went on to a stellar Hollywood career after Mary Poppins. She starred in one of the biggest box office successes of all time, “The Sound Of Music” (which many people still mistakenly believe is a Disney film) and was nominated for her third Academy Award with 1983’s “Victor/Victoria.”
In recent years, she has returned to the Disney fold, with roles in both “Princess Diaries” movies, the adaptations of the “Eloise’ books, and as the narrator of “Enchanted.” Despite the almost 40 year gap in appearances, she remains one of the biggest names in the Disney galaxy of live action film stars.
Perhaps best known for his Emmy nominated role as Jack Lord's sidekick, Danno, on the 1970’s hit TV show “Hawaii 5-0”, James MacArthur started off as one of Disney’s first heart throbs.
The son of acting legend Helen Hayes (herself a star of several Disney films) MacArthur had some experience on stage and in television, with one film role that earned him a “Best Newcomer” BAFTA Award.
He left show business to attend Harvard University, but used his summer vacation to appear in his first major starring role for Disney, as True Son in 1958’s “The Light In the Forest.”
He took yet another break from Harvard the following year to star in the Swiss set climbing adventure “Third Man On The Mountain” (the film that inspired Walt Disney to build the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.)
MacArthur was so popular in those films that he eventually left college early to do two more Disney movies. “Kidnapped” was a modest success, but “Swiss Family Robinson” was an enormous hit in 1960 and made MacArthur a main stream star.
MacArthur, who passed away in 2010, did some television roles after his time at Disney and as Danno, but pretty much semi-retired from the business. He did, however, continue to appear at conventions where he drew large numbers of fans who fondly recalled his days as a Disney star and wanted to share those happy memories with him.
From 1965 to 1977, there was no more dependable actor for Disney than Dean Jones. Though he had credits in other films and TV shows, Jones’ career took off once he came to work for Disney.
Walt himself used to stop by and chat with Jones on the sets of such films as “That Darn Cat” “The Ugly Daschund” and “Blackbeard’s Ghost” (the final live action film produced under the direct supervision of Mr. Disney.) Jones was one of the last few people to see Walt alive as Disney made his rounds at the studio before checking himself in to the hospital where he died in 1966. Walt went out of his way to find Dean to say goodbye. Jones later said he thought nothing of it, and believed it was just goodbye for the day. If he had known he would never see Walt again, he recalled, then he would have taken that opportunity to tell Mr. Disney how grateful he was for the confidence shown in him.
The biggest success in Jones’ career came in 1969 with his role as Jim Douglas in “The Love Bug.” He subsequently starred in six more Disney films, then went on to roles in 1990s hits like "Beethoven" and "Clear and Present Danger."
Dean Jones was named a Disney Legend in 1995. For fans of a certain generation, he is THE face of the Disney live action male star
Disney had the lock on discovering and minting child stars in the 50s and 60s, but many of them faded fast after their teenage years passed.
Not so with Kurt Russell, who went from being just another Disney discovery to a bona fide A-List Hollywood star.
In 1966, Walt himself signed 15 year old Kurt to a ten year contract. Russell made his Disney debut in “Follow Me Boys!” and soon became the studio’s biggest star, surpassing even Dean Jones.
Kurt helped Disney appeal to the high school and college age generation, thanks to his portrayal of the brainy student Dexter Reilly in three popular films, as well as a young boyfriend matched against an overprotective father (Bob Crane) in 1973's “SuperDad.” Russell's own father, Bing, also appeared in a number of Disney films.
Shortly after the conclusion of his Disney contract, Russell took the title role of Elvis Presley in a 1979 made for TV biographical movie - which he starred in alongside Bing - that was a ratings bonanza for ABC.
His launch into superstar status then came in the form of classic 1980s sci-fi/action hero feature films like “Escape From New York” and “The Thing.” He’s since starred in critically praised films like “Silkwood” “The Mean Season” “Backdraft”, and “Tombstone.”
Russell has only good things to say about his time at Disney, and has occasionally returned to the studio, appearing in “The Fox & The Hound” “Sky High” and “Miracle.”
The smoldering eyes, the gravelly yet smooth voice, the Scottish burr, almost no actor is more instantly recognizable throughout the world than Sir Sean Connery.
Most people assume that Connery began his Academy Award winning career in his most iconic role, James Bond. While 1962‘s “Dr. No” did make Connery a superstar, it was not his first leading role. That honor goes to a Disney film.
“Darby O Gill and the Little People”, which was released in 1959, saw Connery playing an Irishman named Michael McBride. It was mainly a special effects film about leprechauns, but Connery got to play the romantic suitor of Janet Munroe. In fact, they even had a duet to sing in the film.
Unfortunately, Connery himself is not heard singing “A Pretty Irish Girl.” The song was recorded by Brendan O’Dowda. Connery simply lip synchs.
Sir Sean was so charismatic in “Darby O’Gill” that Albert Broccoli, who owned the film rights to Ian Fleming's spy novels, saw Connery onscreen in the Disney film, knew he'd found his Bond, and cast him instantly as his 007.
Connery appeared as James Bond in seven films and then spent 40 years crafting a legacy that would lead him to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He never fails to thank Disney for giving him his big break.
One of the biggest child stars of the 1970’s, Jodie Foster was someone who showed maturity and depth in her performances even at an early age.
Foster was nominated for her first Academy Award in 1976 - at age 14! - for her role in the gritty Martin Scorcese picture “Taxi Driver.” That same year, she appeared in her most famous Disney film, “Freaky Friday.”
Foster had actually been under contract with Disney for a while, beginning with 1972's “Napoleon & Samantha” (a film featuring another actor at the dawn of a film career, Michael Douglas.)
In all, Foster made four films for Disney as a child.
According to legend, Foster’s Disney contract cost her a shot at a role in one of the biggest films of all time. Supposedly, George Lucas wanted to cast her as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” but couldn’t get permission from the brass at Disney (she was locked in to making “Candleshoe“) so Foster had to pass.
It didn’t hurt Foster’s career though, as she left Disney in 1977 and went on to one of the most successful careers in Hollywood history, winning two Academy Awards for best actress and acclaim as a director and producer in her own right.
Quick, can you name the only entertainer in American history to have the top rated television series, highest grossing movie and number one New York Times bestselling book all in the same week?
If you guessed Tim Allen (the picture was probably a big hint) you are correct.
Allen accomplished this remarkable triple feat in November 1994 with three Disney properties: Touchstone/ABC‘s “Home Improvement”, Disney Pictures “The Santa Clause” and the Disney/Hyperion book “Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man.”
Allen overcame a troubled past to become a successful stand up comedian. In the early 1990’s, his “tool man” persona on stage attracted the attention of Disney executives. They signed him to a development deal, building a sitcom around the loveable macho character Allen created.
“Home Improvement” had its doubters and critics, but was a smash hit when it debuted in 1991. Tim Allen became a superstar.
One year after his three #1’s accomplishment, Allen starred as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in the first “Toy Story.” In addition to continuing his roles as Buzz and Santa Claus for the studio in subsequent films, Allen also starred in “Jungle 2 Jungle” and a remake of “The Shaggy Dog.”
Allen has had several hits outside of Disney, and is now back on ABC with the sitcom "Last Man Standing."
Allen was named a Disney Legend in 1999, less than a decade after he started with the company. That, more than anything, is a testament to how much Tim Allen came to embody the face and spirit of Disney at the end of the Twentieth Century.
Just like Jodie Foster before her, Anne Hathaway has made a successful transition from family films to more adult fare and has earned praise as one of the leading actresses of her generation.
A relatively unknown stage performer from Millburn, New Jersey, Hathaway was cast (after just one audition) in the role of Mia Thermopolis in 2001s “The Princess Diaries.” Directed by Garry Marshall, and co-starring none other than Julie Andrews (talk about passing a torch!) the film became a huge hit for Disney. Hathaway reprised the role in the sequel in 2004.
Following up her starring role as Princess Mia, Hathaway took supporting parts in dramatic films like “Brokeback Mountain’ and “The Devil Wears Prada.” The acclaim from those films led her to 1998‘s “Rachel Getting Married”, which earned Hathaway her first Academy Award nomination.
In 2010, she appeared as the White Queen in Disney’s 3-D re-boot of Alice In Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton, another worldwide monster hit. She was also asked to co-host the Academy Awards in 2011, an honor rarely given to someone so young.
Shortly after that, she took home her own Oscar for her role in "Les Miserables", which was released in the same year (2012) that she tackled the iconic role of Batman's paramour, Catwoman, in "The Dark Knight Rises."
No matter how long her career is and no matter how many awards she earns, Anne Hathaway will forever be linked with Disney as one of its favorite princesses.
There was a trend in the 1990’s for studios to give development deals to stand up comedians in the hopes that a well honed and crafted stage act would prove just as pleasing to audiences when translated to the small or big screen.
It didn’t always work.
For every Tim Allen, Drew Carey, George Lopez and Jerry Seinfeld hit TV show, there were dozens of flops that were cancelled quickly.
Ellen DeGeneres had been performing stand up comedy for over ten years before she was approached by Touchstone/Disney to develop her own sitcom, with Ellen playing the owner of a book store/cofee shop. The show (first titled “These Friends of Mine” then changed simply to “Ellen” to avoid confusion with NBC's "Friends") debuted in 1994.
While never a huge hit like “Home Improvement”, the show did well enough to be renewed by ABC, eventually lasting five seasons.
In 1997, the show drew worldwide notice with Ellen’s decision to publicly declare her character (and herself) a lesbian.
Ellen’s biggest film success came at Disney with her role as the voice of Dory in 2003's “Finding Nemo.” She also is one of the few real people to star as themselves (not playing a character) in a Disney attraction.
“Ellen’s Energy Adventure” in EPCOT is a 30 minute ride co-starring Bill Nye which actually features an audio-animatronic version of Ellen (another rarity) guiding guests through a primordial jungle. The Writer's Stop Book Store/Coffee Shop in Disney's Hollwood Studios is also a tribute to the shop in her old TV show.
DeGeneres is currently the host of one of the most popular daytime talk shows. While not syndicated or produced by Disney, she often uses the show as a forum to promote Disney films and products. She is also reprising her role of Dory in the upcoming sequel to "Finding Nemo", called "Finding Dory."
Not too many performers can say they began as stand up comedians at the age of 10. Shia LaBeouf did just that.
His family was struggling, so LaBeouf went onstage to help make ends meet. That proved fortuitous for him as his act got the attention of Disney executives, who cast him as Louis Stevens in the hit Disney Channel show “Even Stevens.”
The show ran from 2000 to 2003 and was spun off into a TV movie of its own. LaBeouf even won an Emmy for his work on the show.
The quirky LaBeouf was so popular with audiences that Disney chose him to star in their adaptation of Louis Sachar’s best selling book “Holes.” The 2003 film did well at the box office and was praised by critics. LaBeouf’s co-star in “Holes”, veteran actor Jon Voight (one of the stars of Disney‘s “National Treasure”) became a sort of a mentor to him, helping to guide Shia's career decisions.
LaBeouf's follow up Disney film was a biographical sports movie, 2005’s “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” That too was a critical and commercial success.
Since LaBeouf left Disney, he has gone on to star in some of the biggest blockbusters of the 21st Century, including three “Transformers” movies and the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series. (Steven Spielberg said that he knew LaBeouf was the right person for the role of Indy’s son after seeing him in all of those Disney projects.) To a generation of fans though, he will always be known as Louis.