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TV URBAN LEGEND: The last thing Walt Disney wrote before dying was “Kurt Russell.”
As the saying goes, there are only two constants in life, death and taxes. The former is something that society as a whole (and popular culture specifically) has always been fascinated with. Pretty much any hour of the day you can find some programming on television that is either about someone being murdered, someone escaping death or life after death. So it is only natural, then, that the last words of famous people are greatly scrutinized. After all, we have always given greater meaning to the ends of novels and films, so why not something even more important, the end of someone’s actual life? Heck, Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane revolves around the last words of its title subject. Like that film’s mysterious “Rosebud,” the more attention that you give a subject the more likely that false or misleading stories will pop up about the topic. Like whether W.C. Fields’ tombstone really reads, “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia” (I’ve addressed that one before here). Or today’s legend: Was the last thing Walt Disney wrote before he died really “Kurt Russell”?
The origin of this legend comes from a pretty compelling source, Kurt Russell himself. As you may know, Russell was a child actor whose career began in the late 1950s (in 1963, he even starred in a short-lived TV adventure series called The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters). In 1966, he did a Disney film called Follow Me, Boys! alongside Fred MacMurray about a Boy Scout troop. That film was the last Disney production that Walt Disney had direct involvement in before he died from lung cancer in 1966. Disney himself reportedly suggested that Russell be signed to a long-term contract. Whether that is true or not, Russell was, in fact, signed to a long-term deal and he ended up making 10 films for Disney, including the smash-hit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, which spawned two sequels (I am partial to The Barefoot Executive, in which Russell plays a young TV programmer who discovers that a pet chimpanzee can correctly predict what shows people will want to watch).
As the legend goes, right before Disney died, the last thing he wrote was “Kurt Russell,” presumably as Disney was working on movie plans (he kept working as long as he possibly could). The actor confirmed the story on Jimmy Kimmel Live a few years back, noting “It’s true. I don’t know what to make of that. I was taken into his office one time after he died and I was shown that.”
However, in confirming the legend, Russell actually serves to likely disprove it. The brilliant Disney historian Jim Korkis investigated this story a little while back and discovered that while Russell correctly recalls being brought to Disney’s office after his death, the key thing to remember is that Disney’s office has remained, in essence, a shrine. It still looks exactly as it did when he left it in 1966 (it has just been transported from California to a Disney theme park in Florida).
However, he left it more than a month before he actually died. Disney needed surgery performed on his lungs in November 1966. He went to the studio to do some work before then entering the hospital for surgery at the beginning of the month. He was released after two weeks to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Palm Springs, where he collapsed and was brought back to St. Joseph’s Hospital. It’s there he spent the rest of his life, dying on December 15, 1966.
In Disney’s office, there is indeed a piece of paper (I believe they’re all photocopies by now and not the originals) discussing future TV projects and on it, Walt Disney indeed wrote in red some ideas about a TV movie he was working on at the time, and he did write “Kurt Russell” (well, actually, he wrote “Kirt Russell,” but I think you get the idea), likely considering him for a role in the film (or a sequel to the film). Years later, Disney’s son-in-law Ron Miller recalled to Korkis that he did show Russell this memo after Disney’s death. The paper with Disney’s notes is still there on his desk to this day.
So yes, Russell was, in fact, on Disney’s mind the last time he was working at his studio office. There were also other papers (including plans for Disney World, which had yet to be built), so it is hard to say what was the last thing he worked on at the office, but it is certainly possible that the Russell note was the last thing he worked on in his office (well, there is a note below the Russell one, but you know what I mean). However, because all of that work was more than a month before Disney’s death, it is next to impossible that it was actually the last thing he wrote.
The legend is…
Thanks to Jim Korkis, who went into much more depth on the topic in an article here. Do give it a read. Jim’s the best. I’ve relied on him for Disney-related facts for years. Thanks, also, are due to YouTube users friendofvic and holyRONANempire for their video of the documents in question at Disney’s studio, which is where our screen caps came from.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music! worlds of TV, Movies and Music!