The late Bill Peet, the veteran Disney storyman turned children’s book author/illustrator, talks to John Province in a no-holds-barred interview.
Bill Peet while working on “Dumbo”
Most artists would consider themselves fortunate to have enjoyed one successful career. Not so in the case of Disney storyman and sketch artist Bill Peet. In the mid-1960s when many of his studio colleagues were savoring the advent of a comfortable retirement, Bill Peet was just getting his second wind. Leaving Disney Studios in 1964 after completing story and character work on The Jungle Book, Peet launched himself into another successful career as a popular author and illustrator of his own line of children’s books. His first book, Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure, appeared in 1959, and today, thirty-five years and thirty-four books later, Bill Peet continues to enjoy an immensely popular following with millions of books in print both in the United States and in several foreign countries. Peet is one-third of the grand triumvirate of American children’s authors that includes his only serious rivals, Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. Born in Grandview, Indiana, in 1915, Bill Peet spent several boyhood years on his grandfather’s farm, where his fascination with animals was born. As a young boy he decided to teach himself how to sketch when his photographs of zoo animals failed to develop properly. A special interest in animals both real and imaginary has remained to this day. Quite often animals have taken center stage as the central characters in a Bill Peet tale, whether for the large screen or the small page. Bill Peet was hired by Walt Disney Studios in 1937. Although mostly remembered for his character and story work on the feature film Song of the South, during his years at Disney Studios Bill Peet provided a
Peet at the time this interview was conducted in the late 1990s.
cavalcade of story sketch and character development work on many of the classic Disney films such as Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword In the Stone. He wrote original stories and provided characterization drawings for some of the featurettes such as Lambert the Sheepish Lion, Victory Through Air Power, Goliath II, Ben and Me, as well as a series of popular Goofy shorts. In addition to drawing and writing, Peet auditioned voice talent and directed the recording of the dialogue for many of the films on which he worked. His twenty-seven-year on-and-off feud with Walt Disney was well known among studio employees. It’s been suggested that the clash between the two talents had its genesis in the fact that they shared so many similarities in both background and personality. Both came from rural farm beginnings. Both were essentially highly creative loners preferring to create in solitude rather than in teams as was the studio method. Disney and Peet were also similar in their immensely strong sense of pride and fierce protection of their work. Walt Disney’s story-telling ability was legendary even during his lifetime. A subsequent rivalry with his top storyman, albeit perhaps unconscious, seemed inevitable. When we met in November 1988, his latest volume, Bill Peet, An Autobiography, had been out for two months and was selling well. As he later indicated, the life history came about in part as a rebuttal to the many Disney histories in which, in his opinion, Bill Peet feels he has either been ignored, misrepresented, or the victim of creative theft. As the interview continued, it became clear that Peet, now an outsider and no longer required to recite the Disney party line, was letting the chips fall where they may in an attempt to set Disney history straight according to his experiences.—John Province
John Province: More than one of your former colleagues at Disney has described you to me as a natural artist. Are you self-taught or did you have formal training? Bill Peet: Not as a kid, no. I started out because I loved it. By the time I got out of high school and got a scholarship to the John Herron Art School I was ready to go. You really can’t teach people how to draw though except to say “Draw better!” You can go through all the routines of telling them how to do it, but if they don’t have a feel for it they will never become what you could call an artist or draftsman. You can point things out to them, but as far as taking them by the hand and carrying them along, there’s no way you can do that. Province: You’re from Indiana and attended the Arsenal Technical High School just as Bill Justice did. Were you classmates or did you know him at the time? Peet: Yes, I knew him, but we were not close friends. He admired my older brother George, who knew him better than I. George was a good artist and a meticulous draftsman but not in a real creative way. He could do beautiful work and ended up as a commercial artist in New York. Province: As did you yourself for a brief while. Peet: Well, not really. I was just with a greeting card company, but I was trying to get anything. I didn’t want to go to Disney particularly [though] I’d seen some of the films. One day while visiting some friends one of them handed me a brochure and asked If I’d be interested. I said, “Well, anything.” I sent the rough sketches out to the studio. This was in 1937 and as I explain in my book, there was really no hope for me to do anything original there other than in-between and I was about ready to kiss it off. It was like telling someone who wanted to be an architect to lay bricks so we can see what you can do. That’s how silly it was to come in as an in-betweener. You can’t prove that you can do anything other than draw like a robot, stay between the lines and be careful. Actually the poorest artists made the best in-betweeners because it was less creative and they could more or less stay within limits without ever being tempted to do anything better. They could be turned into a machine without it hurting too much. They were glad to do it. The contracts were rotten and it was a one-way street; they could either fire you or keep you. George Drake was the straw-boss of the in-betweeners and he was a real son of a bitch. He could draw a little, but not well enough and had failed. He was Ben Sharpsteen’s brother and Ben was a producer. The better you were the more he hated you. At Christmas some of the guys found out what he liked to drink and brought him a bottle of Four Roses. I didn’t bring him anything. He was a bastard. The studio was a brutal place, really. The sad part was that a lot of good men went out the door on his say-so. Drake’s main motivation was jealousy. I know that I would have been fired if I hadn’t sent my ideas for Pinocchio across the street. Province: That would be the “The Boogie Men” sequence you suggested. Though it didn’t appear in the film, it did get you out of in-betweening. Peet: It proved to them that I had imagination. I drew a lot of crazy creatures doing all sorts of things. It was the first time I had a chance to show them I could do anything other than in-between ducks. If I hadn’t had the chance to go into story I wasn’t going to stay around. I spent almost two years on Pinocchio and received no credit. Province: Obviously not receiving screen credit bothered you a great deal. Peet: Yes, it was a crusher. There was a committee of the older men which was kept secret. These were mostly old dried-up newspaper cartoonists and people Walt felt had experience even though they couldn’t draw as well as the younger men. This was who decided who got screen credit. They hated the younger men who had talent because they were a threat to their jobs. They gave credit to themselves and their friends. We dared not complain since in the long run it would always be Walt Disney’s [name] and that long list of names [below his] like a page in the phone book. The drawing quality had to be improved when we went into features, and that’s when the younger talent began to do more. Walt began to realize that these people were real artists and not just dried-up old newspaper cartoonists. Province: I understand there were art classes at night. Peet: They were sort of training people, but it was silly to think that you could do it in a few weeks. They tried to get me to teach life-drawing after I’d been there a few years, but I couldn’t deal with people who didn’t know how to draw. There’s no time for that. You have to have real talent and there were guys there who were very gifted from the beginning. Province: If you arrived in 1937, Snow White would have been in production. Did you do any work on it? Peet: I worked at night tracing dwarfs for two weeks without pay. There was no [paid] overtime, and everybody was pressed into action to get this thing done in time for the premiere. They were down to the last few weeks in getting it down so prints could be run. It had gotten around to the theaters that there were no prints, and we were all scared to death. There were rumors all over Hollywood that this thing wasn’t going to go over and that Walt Disney had gotten too big for his britches. [They said,] “No one is going to sit through a full-length cartoon; it’s all right for a few laughs.” The big producers, of course, were hoping to see Walt Disney fall flat on his face. They thought it was arrogant for the “Mickey Mouse Man” to rise up and compete. I think it angered them that he wouldn’t stay in his place. He played polo with them you see, and they used to kid him about being a “Mickey Mouse third-rater.” “The Little King” they called him because Walt’s ego was quite large. Province: Is it possible that some of the people who attended the premiere were there to see if Walt Disney had failed? Peet: A lot of the press and people who had worked on it were there. Everyone had been working on pieces and parts. It had not been seen in its entirety. When you see something in a sweatbox, very cramped quarters with just a few people, you really can’t see the film in its proper perspective. It’s like trying to put a car together in the dark. They will never see the finished product until it’s unveiled. When Snow White was shown, neither Walt, or anybody else really knew what they had. Province: Snow White was the big gamble for Disney. Do you think the studio would have survived if it had bombed? Peet: Oh no, and no one would have dared make another full-length feature. Short subjects just weren’t making it. Walt had even borrowed money on it, and a lot of the investors in Hollywood were waiting to buy him out. Giannini promised Walt, “You’ll never be in hock to me and I won’t take your studio.” He had faith in the film. Province: So after all those months of anxiety it was a great success. Peet: You could feel it. I mean right away there was a burst of spontaneous laughter and applause. You could feel the spirit of this film lifting the whole audience. It was also done without pretension and as a simple fairy tale without trying to be a tremendous explosion like they do today. Now whenever they make a new one it has to break box office records. Province: You also worked on Fantasia. Peet: I worked on the Beethoven thing, the “Pastoral Symphony.” I was part of a group, and I was very unhappy with that. There were too many people on it. I really don’t have anything to say about that. Province: Is the story true about Fantasia originally being planned as a short?