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Walt Disney a tyrant but not anti-Jewish, TV critics told

Published 03/08/2015

Walt Disney poses for a photo with an Irish setter in 1965 (AP)
Walt Disney poses for a photo with an Irish setter in 1965 (AP)

Walt Disney was a complex figure, both celebrated and condemned, but claims that he was a rabid anti-Semite are unproven, TV critics have been told.

Talking about PBS' American Experience September documentary on Disney, composer Richard Sherman of Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book dismissed the lingering criticism outright.

It was "absolutely preposterous to call him anti-Semitic", said Sherman, the son of Jewish immigrants. He said he and his brother Robert, his writing partner, were treated like sons by Disney.

Historian and social critic Neal Gabler, author of An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood, said he researched Disney exhaustively for the 2006 book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination.

"I saw no evidence other than the casual anti-Semitism" common to non-Jews during Disney's 20th-century era, Mr Gabler said.

Sarah Colt, producer and director of the four-hour film being shown on September 14 and 15, said a documentary she made about Henry Ford, who she described as a "virulent anti-Semite", gave significant attention to his views.

But there was no evidence that Disney held such attitudes, she said, although the label has been attached to the man who launched a still-expanding film, TV and theme park empire on the back of the Mickey Mouse cartoon character.

The Beverly Hills panellists' agreement on that topic was in contrast with their differing views on other aspects of Disney's life and accomplishments.

"Everyone was terrified" of Disney as a boss, Mr Gabler said, calling him a stern taskmaster who demanded adherence to his creative visions.

And more than one panellist said Disney did not hesitate to sack workers he thought were falling short, labelling them "deadwood".

Sherman, who began working for Disney in 1960, said he never feared him and believed the entertainment titan may have relaxed and mellowed by that point after decades of achievement.

But others said Disney was driven to the end and that on his deathbed in 1966 he was filling in his brother Roy on his plans for the Epcot theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

Disney treated his employees like family, one panellist said, while another dismissed his kindness as a cynical ploy to get the most out of his workforce.

But Sherman was steadfast in his defence of his former boss.

"He was a great soul, he really was. And he had his flaws, of course. Who doesn't? But the main thing is he was driven to do good things," he said.

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