BEVERLY HILLS, California — Walt Disney was a complex figure, both celebrated and condemned, but allegations that he was a rabid anti-Semite are unproven, Disney experts said.
Talking to TV critics Sunday about PBS’ “American Experience” September documentary on Disney, composer Richard Sherman (Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” ”The Jungle Book”) dismissed such lingering criticism outright.
It’s “absolutely preposterous to call him anti-Semitic,” said Sherman, the son of Jewish immigrants. He and his brother Robert, his writing partner, were treated like sons by Disney, he said.
Historian and social critic Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” said he exhaustively researched Disney for the 2006 book “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”
“I saw no evidence other than the casual anti-Semitism that” was common to non-Jews during Disney’s 20th-century era, Gabler said.
Sarah Colt, producer and director of the four-hour film airing 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 wasn’t any 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 panelists’ 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, Gabler said, calling him a stern taskmaster who demanded adherence to his creative visions. More than panelist said that Disney didn’t hesitate in firing workers he thought were falling short, labeling 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 that 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 panelist said, while another dismissed his kindness as a cynical ploy to get the most out of his workforce.
Sherman was steadfast in his defense 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.